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The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI; also called the Virgin Islands or the American Virgin Islands), officially the Virgin Islands of the United States, are a group of islands in the Caribbean that are an insular area of the United States. The islands are geographically part of the Virgin Islands archipelago and are located in the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles.
The U.S. Virgin Islands are in the Atlantic Ocean, about 40 miles east of Puerto Rico and immediately west of the British Virgin Islands. They share the Virgin Islands Archipelago with the Puerto Rican Virgin Islands of Vieques and Culebra, (administered by Puerto Rico) and the British Virgin Islands.
The U.S. Virgin Islands consist of the main islands of Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas, and many other surrounding minor islands. The total land area of the territory is 133.73 square miles. The territory's capital is Charlotte Amalie on the island of Saint Thomas.
The U.S. Virgin Islands are known for their white sand beaches, including Magens Bay and Trunk Bay, and strategic harbors, including Charlotte Amalie and Christiansted. Most of the islands, including Saint Thomas, are volcanic in origin and hilly. The highest point is Crown Mountain, Saint Thomas (1,555 ft or 474 m).
Saint Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, lies to the south and has a flatter terrain. The National Park Service owns more than half of Saint John, nearly all of Hassel Island, and many acres of coral reef.
The National Park Service (NPS) is an agency of the United States federal government that manages all U.S. national parks, many American national monuments, and other conservation and historical properties with various title designations.
The U.S. Virgin Islands lie on the boundary of the North American plate and the Caribbean Plate. Natural hazards include earthquakes and tropical cyclones including hurricanes.
The United States Virgin Islands enjoy a tropical climate, with little seasonal change throughout the year. Rainfall is concentrated in the high sun period (May through October), while in the winter the northeast trade winds prevail. Summer and winter high temperatures differ by 5 °F or less on average.
The Henry E. Rohlsen International Airport serves St. Croix and the Cyril E. King International Airport serves St. Thomas and St. John.
The U.S. Virgin Islands is the only U.S. jurisdiction which drives on the left. This was inherited from what was then-current practice on the islands at the time of the 1917 transfer to limit losses of livestock. As most cars being imported from the mainland United States are left-hand drive, the driver sits to the outside of the road, raising traffic safety issues.
Saint Thomas has many regular taxis from compact size to large vans, as well as open-air, covered trucks called "safaris" with bench seats. The latter usually operate only between high-traffic points, e.g., cruise-ship terminals at Havensight and Crown Bay and downtown Charlotte Amalie.
Tourism in the United States Virgin Island
The Tourism industry is the main industry, generating 80% of GDP and employment. The majority of tourists are from the USA and the most common way to get there is by sea. The tourism industry mostly employs those who have migrated to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument
The Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument is a U.S. National Monument located off Saint John, Virgin Islands. The clear waters surrounding Saint John support a diverse and complex system of coral reefs. The health of these reefs is closely tied to its component plants and animals as well as adjacent non-coral marine environments such as sandy bottoms, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests.
Seeking to provide greater protection to the sensitive coral reef resources, President Clinton established the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument on January 17, 2001. The monument includes 12,708 acres (51 km2) of federal submerged lands within the 3 mile (5 km) belt off Saint John, including Hurricane Hole and areas north and south of Saint John.
Christiansted National Historic Site
Christiansted National Historic Site commemorates urban colonial development of the Virgin Islands. It features 18th and 19th century structures in the heart of Christiansted, the capital of the former Danish West Indies on St. Croix Island.
On the grounds are five historic structures: Fort Christiansværn (1738), the Danish West India & Guinea Company Warehouse, where Alexander Hamilton worked as a young man before emigrating to the American colonies (1749), the Steeple Building (1753), Danish Custom House (1844), and the Scale House (1856). This is also the site where African slaves were brought by ship from Africa and sold to local planters to work on the sugar plantations.
Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve
Salt River Bay National Historic Park and Ecological Preserve is a unit of the National Park Service on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It preserves upland watersheds, mangrove forests, and estuarine and marine environments that support threatened and endangered species. It also contains the Columbus Landing Site, a National Historic Landmark that is the only known site where members of a Columbus expedition set foot on what is now United States territory. The site is marked by Fort Salé, a remaining earthworks fortification from the French period of occupation, about 1617. The park also preserves prehistoric and colonial-era archeological sites including the only existing example of a ball court in the US Virgin Islands.
Saint Thomas Island
Saint Thomas is divided into the following subdistricts: Charlotte Amalie, Charlotte Amalie, East End, Northside, Southside, Tutu, Water Island and West End.
Passenger and limited car-ferry services to neighboring islands such as Water Island, St. John, St. Croix, and the British Virgin Islands run regularly out of the Red Hook Terminal, Charlotte Amalie, and Crown Bay Marina.
The island has many regular taxis from compact size to large vans, as well as open-air, covered trucks called "safaris" with bench seats. The latter usually operate only between high-traffic points, e.g., cruise-ship terminals at Havensight and Crown Bay and downtown Charlotte Amalie.
Places of Interest in Saint Thomas
Among the main Tourists Attractions in Saint Thomas Island are: Blackbeard's Castle, Buck Island National Wildlife Refuge, Cathedral Church of All Saints, Fort Christian, Magens Bay Arboretum, Magens Bay, Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, St. Thomas Reformed Church, St. Thomas Synagogue, Coral World Ocean Park, St. Johns Bay Rum Factory.
Saint John Island
Saint John is divided into the following subdistricts: Central, Coral, Cruz Bay and East End.
The economy of Saint John is now almost entirely founded on tourism and tourism-related industries, real estate development, guest houses, and hotels.
While St. John does not have an airport, there is a seaplane base in the town of Cruz Bay although there is no scheduled airline service. Antilles Airboats provided regular service until it was sold by Maureen O'Hara. The Virgin Islands Seaplane Shuttle used to offer services to that seaplane base using Grumman Mallard air boats prior to Hurricane Hugo.
A ferry service runs hourly from St. Thomas and daily from Tortola; regular ferries also operate from Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke and Anegada.
Places of Interest in Saint John
Cruz Bay is home to numerous shops and restaurants which are frequented by tourists and locals alike. The Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center, the Elaine Sprauve Library, a post office, and a bank are also located in Cruz Bay.
Cruz Bay has become the principal town on the island as it has the landing for the ferry service from St. Thomas, which became the main route of entry to the island. Previously, Coral Bay was the hub of economic activity on the island.
Its natural port offered protection to the sailing ships of the day. In addition, it was an easy sail by smaller boats, with minimal tacking, to the nearby British Virgin Islands.
The waters surrounding the US Virgin Islands are patrolled by United States Coast Guard cutters out of Miami, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Virgin Islands National Park
In 1956, Laurance Rockefeller donated his extensive lands on the island to the United States' National Park Service, under the condition that the lands had to be protected from future development. The remaining portion, the Caneel Bay Resort, operates on a lease arrangement with the NPS, which owns the underlying land.
The boundaries of the Virgin Islands National Park include 75% of the Saint John island, but various in-holdings within the park boundary (e.g., Peter Bay, Maho Bay) reduce the park lands to 60% of the island acreage. Much of the island's waters, coral reefs, and shoreline have been protected by being included in the national park. This protection was expanded in 2001, when the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument was created.
Caneel Bay Set on a 170-acre peninsula in the Virgin Islands National Park, near seven picturesque beaches, the Resort is one of the vacation destinations in the Caribbean. It is located on the northwest side of St. John, one of the US Virgin Islands. The resort is within Virgin Islands National Park on property once owned by Laurance Rockefeller. The hotel was one of the early members of Rockefeller's hotel chain, Rockresorts.
Caneel Bay, is open 10 months a year (annual closure in September & October), provides a variety of activities such as snorkeling and scuba diving. A diversity of marine life can be found in the waters surrounding the resort. Parrotfish, angelfish, and damselfish can be seen swimming around coral, bright sea fans or spiny sea urchins. Viewers may also spot a barracuda, sea turtle or reef squid.
Visitors to Caneel Bay can also scuba dive, windsurf, sea kayak, sail, play tennis or get a massage. Many national park trails can be accessed from the resort and are available for hiking.
Saint Croix Island
With its 84 square miles, St. Croix is the largest of the islands in the territory. However, the territory's capital, Charlotte Amalie, is located on Saint Thomas. Its highest point is Mount Eagle, at 1,165 ft. St. Croix's nickname is "Twin City", for its two towns on opposite ends of the island, Frederiksted on the western end and Christiansted on the east.
Places of Interest in Saint Croix
Frederiksted maintains its Victorian era architecture and original seven street by seven street city design and is host to several historic structures. Among them are St. Patrick's Catholic Church built in the 1840s and its primary school, the Customs House, the 19th Century Apothecary, and many other buildings; some which due to hurricanes past have fallen into very scenic ruins. Frederiksted operates at a more relaxed pace than most of the island, and is more lively during Carnival in January and whenever visiting cruise ships are in port.
Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve contains the only known site where members of a Columbus expedition set foot on what is now United States territory. It also preserves upland watersheds, mangrove forests, and estuarine and marine environments that support threatened and endangered species. The site is marked by Fort Salé, a remaining earthworks fortification from the French period of occupation, about 1617. The park also preserves prehistoric and colonial-era archeological sites including the only existent example of a ball court in the Caribbean. This is one of two sites on the island for bioluminescent bays (the other being Altona Lagoon).
Fort Christiansværn built in 1749 and other buildings are maintained by the National Park Service as the Christiansted National Historic Site.
Buck Island Reef National Monument preserves a 176 acres (71 ha) island just north of St. Croix and the surrounding reefs. This is a popular destination for snorkelers. Buck Island maintains a U.S. Coast Guard weather station and is also home to a student monitored lemon shark breeding ground. Green Cay (pronounced green key) is a small island located southwest of Buck Island; it is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It hosts a nearby reef popular among scuba divers and snorkelists—Tamarind Reef.
Scuba Diving, Snorkeling, and Watersports in Saint Croix
The waters surrounding St. Croix are warm year-round, with temperatures ranging from 25 °C (77 °F) – 30 °C (86 °F), making it a popular destination for watersports including scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding, surfing, kite surfing, parasailing, jet skiing, fishing, and sailing.
Two of the island's most popular underwater sites for scuba divers are the Frederiksted Pier and the drop-off into deep water at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve.
Frederiksted is known for reef diving and access to wreck diving. The western side of the island has calm waters that allow snorkeling with easy access from the beach. Paddleboarding is popular near Frederiksted for the same reason.
The Frederiksted Pier attracts scuba divers and snorkellers, as well as those who simply jump off it repeatedly. The shallow water and sandy bottom around the pier are ideal for recreational diving by novice scuba divers in PADI Discover Scuba Diving programs (also called resort diving), for extended shore diving, night diving, and for underwater photography, especially of its abundant seahorse population.
A few hundred meters off the northern coast of the island, from Salt River to Cane Bay, the bottom drops suddenly into a deep trench, where coral reefs, abundant tropical fish, and migrant sea turtles may be observed. Kayaking is popular in the Salt River area as well.
The town of Christiansted, a short distance from Buck Island and Green Cay, is a former capital of the Danish West Indies. It lies just east of the northern underwater drop-off and is protected by a reef.
There are two Bioluminescent Bays or bio bays on St Croix. The most widely known and visited is located at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve. A second bio bay can be found at Altona Lagoon. Bio bays are extremely rare with "only seven year-round lagoons known to exist in the Caribbean".
Protected Areas in Saint Croix
- Buck Island Reef National Monument, managed by the National Park Service (a federal agency)
- Christiansted National Historic Site, managed by the National Park Service (a federal agency)
- Green Cay National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (a federal agency)
- Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, co-managed by the Territory of the Virgin Islands and the National Park Service (a federal agency)
- Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (a federal agency)
- Point Udall
- St. Croix East End Marine Park: managed by the Government of the Virgin Islands through the Department of Planning and Natural Resources' Division of Coastal Zone Management
Buck Island Reef National Monument, or just Buck Island is a small, uninhabited, 176 acre (712,000 m²) island about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) north of the northeast coast of Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. It was first established as a protected area by the U.S. Government in 1948, with the intention of preserving “one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean Sea.” The U.S. National Monument was created in 1961 by John F. Kennedy and greatly expanded in 2001 by Bill Clinton, over the bitter opposition of local fishermen. Buck Island National Monument is one of few places in the Virgin Islands where endangered brown pelicans and threatened lest terns nest.
Map of US Virgin Islands