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St Thomas, St John, and St Croix are the biggest and most visited of the 60 islands that make up the US Virigin Islands. Their appeal lies in the amalgamation of the exotic and the recognisable, an island paradise with modern comforts and a balance between Caribbean culture and American practicality.
The energetic capital of Charlotte Amalie and its attractive harbour lies on St Thomas. It is the most Americanised of the chain and is famous for its world-class duty free shopping. Nearby St John is an unspoilt nature lover's paradise, with most of its forests, pristine beaches, and reefs part of a protected national park.
St Croix is the largest of the islands and is fairly remote from the others. Historic remnants are scattered about the landscape, as are the pretty Danish-influenced towns of Frederiksted and Christiansted. Additionally, snorkelling at Buck Island is also an attraction.
Surrounded by the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, these islands boast some of the most splendid coastlines in the world, with white sandy beaches, astonishing coral reefs, plentiful marine life, secluded coves, and untouched rainforests rising up above the sea-swept landscape.
Caribbean colour touches every aspect of the islands, blending with the strong Danish influence in the towns. White sails glide effortlessly across the emerald waters; local craftsmen display their unique island art along cobblestone alleyways; tiled villa roofs provide a splash of red against the verdant hillside; busy markets supply the essentials for a delicious cuisine; and the sounds of folk songs and calypso bands fill the air.
The Virgin Islands are among the most popular cruise ship destinations in the Caribbean and the port towns of Charlotte Amalie, Christiansted, and Frederiksted are often swamped with newly arrived passengers in a frenzy of shopping and dining. The most popular beaches are seldom deserted, and the key reef areas are often a flurry of flippers and snorkels.
Luxury resorts and fine hotels share the streets with old colonial architecture. Yet it is still possible to escape the crowds and find that bit of elusive paradise, to relax away from the divers and sailors, the sightseers, the ecological tour groups, and the shoppers.
A few miles off the northeastern shore of St Croix lies the tiny paradise of Buck Island, one of the best excursions in the Virgin Islands. The entire island and its surrounding coral reef is a protected nature reserve and includes a beautiful beach, an incredible coral marine garden, and two major underwater snorkelling trails with signs that introduce snorkellers to the types of coral and sea life.
Turtle Bay Trail and East End Trail together have become one of the most popular attractions in the US Virgin Islands, while there are also some excellent scuba diving sites off Buck Island Reef. Those wanting to visit Buck Island should take a taxi or drive to Christiansted or Green Cay, on St Croix, and then find a boat trip going to the island. There is no regular ferry service, but it is generally easy to find and join a boat tour.
One of the prettiest towns in the Caribbean, Christiansted has a perfect harbour setting and is the capital of St Croix. Dominating the waterfront is the large yellow building, Fort Christiansvaern, built in the late 1700s to protect the town's harbour against pirates during its days as capital of the Danish colony. It served as an important trading centre for sugar and rum.
Much of the original Danish colonial architecture remains, including the Old Custom House, government buildings, and the atmospheric wharf area lined with pastel-coloured warehouses. Original Danish streets signs survive among modern enterprises like tourist shops, courtyard restaurants, and a spirited bar scene on the waterfront. There are plenty of beach activities nearby and a popular excursion is a trip to Buck Island, which offers superb beaches and coral reefs.
Charlotte Amalie, named in honour of the wife of King Christian V, is the Danish-flavoured capital of the US Virgin Islands, a busy port and important merchant centre since the 18th century. The beautiful harbour is ringed with whitewashed houses and painted villas, their red roofs a splash of colour against the green hillside. Cobbled, Danish-signposted streets and alleyways lead down to the waterfront lined with shops, boutiques and colonial architecture.
The old Danish merchant warehouses form a world-famous shopping district, selling imported goods from around the globe. The harbour is usually filled with cruise ships, ferries, yachts and fishing vessels, and is one of the most visited ports in the Caribbean, creating a tourist hub that is vibrant and multinational, but often overcrowded.
For those weary of duty-free shopping, Charlotte Amalie offers numerous other attractions, as well as elegant restaurants and an exciting nightlife. Blackbeard's Castle on top of Government Hill offers superb views over the harbour, and is said to have been the lookout tower for the legendary pirate, Captain Blackbeard.
The red brick Fort Christian is the oldest standing building on the island, where Danish soldiers stood guard against pirates and invaders. The fort has served as a jail, church, government house and community hall in its long history and today houses the Virgin Islands Museum.
The best way to appreciate the stunning beauty of Charlotte Amalie and the St Thomas Harbour is from above. The idea for the tramway, which carries visitors over Flag Hill to Paradise Point, 700 feet (213m) up, began in the 1980s, when two ambitious businessmen bought more than 30 acres of Flag Hill from the Queen of Denmark.
After a few setbacks, including Hurricane Hugo, the tramway opened in 1994 and has been a favourite tourist activity ever since. If visitors are fortunate enough to catch one of the last trams of the day, they will witness a magical vista of twinkling lights against the soft Caribbean twilight.
At the top, there is a collection of unique shops as well as a casual restaurant perfect for watching sunsets while sipping a cocktail and listening to a local band. Paradise Point has been voted the best live entertainment venue and the best tourist attraction multiple times.
Coral World Ocean Park is arguably the island of St Thomas' premier tourist attraction and has been enormously popular for years with visitors of all ages. The marine park is built on two levels: an over-water floor with interesting exhibitions, a touch pool, restaurants, and a gift shop; and an underwater observatory where visitors can gape at exotic marine life in its natural surrounds.
Coral World also boasts Sea Trek technology - that is, 'helmet diving technology' - allowing you to walk along the ocean floor for up to half an hour with no need for an oxygen tank or a snorkel. This technology was successfully used to stage the island's first-ever underwater wedding, which took place at Coral World in January 2001.
St Croix Ultimate Bluewater Adventures has been called 'the friendliest dive shop on earth' and offers a fantastic opportunity to anyone who wishes to become a fully-certified diver while on holiday in the Virgin Islands.
While experienced divers will find their every need catered for (try the night dives!), the real beauty of the operation is the ease with which complete novices can obtain their PADI Open Water Diver certification, under the expert guidance of highly-qualified dive staff.
Over and above experiencing the beautiful underwater sights of the Caribbean, doing a diving course in the US Virgin Islands allows visitors to the islands to leave with a skill that they'll cherish for the rest of their lives.
The islands are hot and humid throughout the year, with most rain falling between August and October. The busiest tourist season is from December to May, during the northern hemisphere winter, and outside of these months rooms are cheaper and the islands less crowded. Between April and August, the waters are calmer and underwater visibility is best for diving and snorkelling. Most travellers prefer to avoid the rainy season in the US Virgin Islands, but this Caribbean gem can be enjoyed at any time of year.
The official currency is the US Dollar (USD) divided into 100 cents. Most credit cards are accepted, including American Express, Diners Club, Mastercard, and Visa, and are useful for withdrawing cash at ATMs. Foreign exchange bureaux are available to exchange other currencies, but it is best to arrive with US Dollars as many banks and hotels will not exchange foreign currency.
English is the official language. Spanish, Creole and some French are also spoken.
120 volts, 60Hz. Two-flat-pin plugs are standard.
US nationals: A valid US passport is required. A visa is not required.
UK nationals: UK passport holders require a valid passport for travel to the US Virgin Islands. British Citizens require a passport valid for duration of stay. Passports with other endorsements must be valid for six months beyond period of intended stay. Under the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP), most British citizens do not require a visa for holiday, transit, or business purposes provided that their passports are machine-readable, the stay does not exceed 90 days, a return or onward ticket is held, and they check into the US government ESTA website prior to departure to register.
CA nationals: Canadians require a passport valid for duration of stay but a visa is not required. Visitors should hold tickets and documents required for return or onward destination.
AU nationals: Australian nationals require a passport valid for duration of stay but do not require a visa for tourist stays of up to 90 days. Passports need to be machine-readable, a return or onward ticket is required, and Australians must check into the US government ESTA website prior to departure.
ZA nationals: South Africans must hold a passport valid for duration of stay, and a visa is required. Visitors must have return or onward tickets and the necessary documents for further travel.
IR nationals: Irish nationals require a passport valid for duration of stay, but as Ireland qualifies for the US Visa Waiver Programme, visas are not required for tourists or business stays of up to 90 days. Visitors must have machine-readable passports, return or onward tickets, and they must register on the ESTA site before departure.
NZ nationals: New Zealand nationals require a passport valid for duration of stay but do not need visas for stays of up to 90 days. New Zealanders require machine-readable passports and return or onward tickets, and must register on the US government ESTA website before departure.
Entry requirements are the same as for the United States of America. It is highly recommended that passports have at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. There is no immigration control for visitors arriving from mainland USA. Visitors from countries that qualify for the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) must have a machine-readable passport (MRP) that has a bar code on the photo page. Eligible travellers under the VWP must include biometrics in their machine-readable passports if they wish to enter the country without a visa; this means that unique personal data, such as fingerprints or iris details, must be included in passports. All passports must contain a digital photo image in order to travel visa-free. Those travelling under the VWP must also register on the US government ESTA website three days before departure, which allows the US to screen visitors before travel. All visitors to the USA will have a photograph and two fingerprints taken by an inkless scanner on arrival, including those travelling visa-free under the Visa Waiver Programme. All travellers arriving or departing by air, land or sea between the USA and Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Central and South America are required to present a valid passport. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
There are no significant health risks. However, only bottled water should be drunk outside the major towns. Medical facilities are of a high standard, but health insurance is vital as medical care is very expensive.
Tipping of 15 to 20 percent is customary for good service. Some hotels and restaurants automatically add a service charge and room tax.
The US Virgin Islands are generally safe for travellers and the vast majority of visits are trouble-free; however, normal precautions against petty crime should be taken, especially in the back streets of towns at night. Don't leave valuables lying on the beach when snorkelling or swimming.
In the US Virgin Islands, politeness is important. Greet people before asking questions or requesting assistance. Greetings depend on the time of day, with good morning, good afternoon, and good evening being common. You may hear locals thanking 'jumbi' (spirits) for good luck, or blaming them for misfortune.
The economy in the US Virgin Islands revolves primarily around tourism, though petroleum refining takes place off St. Croix. Like many other Caribbean countries things are pretty relaxed, and formal business attire is generally not considered necessary as the climate makes this quite uncomfortable. The people are friendly and polite and shaking hands is common upon introductions for men and women; business cards are handed out upon introduction. Business hours are typically 8am to 5pm Monday to Friday, with lunch breaks around 12pm.
The international country code for the US Virgin Islands is +1 340 and the code for dialling out internationally is 011 (followed by the relevant country code, for example 01144 for the United Kingdom). City/area codes are not required. The AT & T Wireless GSM mobile network covers the islands. Internet cafes are available in the main resorts.
Travellers to the Virgin Islands who are residents of the USA and are over 21 years are allowed to return the the US with 4 litres of alcoholic beverages; 100 cigars or 1,000 cigarettes, tax free, granted they have been purchased in the Virgin Islands.
US Virgin Islands Tourist Office, St Thomas: +1 340 774 8784 or www.usvitourism.vi
United States Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7499 9000.
United States Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 238 5335.
United States Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 (0)2 6214 5600.
United States Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 431 4000.
United States Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +354 (0)1 668 8777.
United States Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 462 6000.
British Embassy, Washington DC, USA: +1 202 588 6500.
Canadian Embassy, Washington DC, USA: +1 202 682 1740.
Australian Embassy, Washington DC, USA: +1 202 797 3000.
South African Embassy, Washington DC, USA: +1 202 232 4400.
Irish Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 462 3939
New Zealand Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 328 4800.
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