Beginner’s Guide to Island Hopping in the Virgin Islands

Beginner's Guide to Island Hopping in the Virgin Islands
Beginner's Guide to Island Hopping in the Virgin Islands
Beginner's Guide to Island Hopping in the Virgin Islands

Our trip to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands in December 2016 was hardly just a trip to St. Thomas. We also explored the neighboring islands of St. John, Tortola, and Virgin Gorda, three islands close in proximity to St. Thomas but far in similarity. We found intimate, hidden beaches in St. John, beautiful coastlines in Tortola, and the most fun and picturesque caves and baths in Virgin Gorda.  Each island had its own unique personality and was worth visiting. If it’s your first time in the Virgin Islands and you’re not sure where to start, this beginner’s guide to island hopping in the Virgin Islands is for you.

Beginner's Guide to Island Hopping in the Virgin Islands

What are the Virgin Islands?

The Virgin Islands are a cluster of 112 islands that form the border between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Of those 112 islands, 82 belong to the U.S. and 30 belong to Britain. Although the majority of these islands remain uninhabited, there are four inhabited islands in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI): St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John, and Water Island, and four inhabited islands in the British Virgin Islands (BVI): Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, and Anegada, that are bustling with tourists, beaches, cocktails, and fun. The close proximity of many of the islands makes it easy for visitors to hop on a ferry and take a day trip to a completely different landscape, culture, and country. When it comes to transportation, you have a few options in the Virgin Islands: boat charter, ferry, or fly. Ferry is typically the cheapest option and sometimes the most convenient as well, so this guide focuses on traveling by ferry. Since we stayed in St. Thomas during our trip, we highlight the different trips you can take from St. Thomas to neighboring islands, but the resources and guidelines are roughly the same regardless of which island you stay on.

St. Thomas, USVI

If you’re staying in St. Thomas and interested in taking a day trip to a neighboring island, I would recommend staying in or near Red Hook. Red Hook is located on the easternmost part of St. Thomas and is home to the main ferry port. From there, you can reach the neighboring island of St. John via ferry in only 20 minutes. You can also find direct ferry service to Tortola, Jost Van Dyke, and even Virgin Gorda, but these ferries do not run every day. In case you are not able to catch a direct ferry from St. Thomas to one of these islands, you can always take an indirect route to St. John and then onward to your destination island. Click here to download a full schedule or view online here.

Beginner's Guide to Island Hopping in the Virgin Islands

The below routes begin and end in St. Thomas, but you can use the resources listed below to find routes connecting different islands in case you’d like to forego St. Thomas.

St. Thomas to St. John

St. John is the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands and also the most peaceful and tranquil. Over 60% of St. John is made up of a national park. We had no trouble finding secluded beaches with beautiful white sand beaches and clear blue water on this island. Some popular beaches on St. John include Cinnamon Bay, Hawsknest Beach, Honeymoon Beach, Maho Bay, and Trunk Bay. We decided to spend our afternoon in St. John at Hawksnest beach as it is one of the smaller, quieter, and more secluded beaches.

It is easy to take a day trip, or even half day trip, from St. Thomas to St. John. You can find ferries leaving from Red Hook and Charlotte Amalie (the capital), to Cruz Bay, St. John, although the ferry from Red Hook will be much closer. From Red Hook, the ferry to Cruz Bay takes only 20 minutes, and there are multiple ferry companies running this route. There is also restaurant/bar inside the ferry terminal, which provides for good entertainment while you wait for your ferry to arrive. However, I would recommend checking the ferry schedules online in advance so you’re not stuck waiting in a ferry terminal when you could be out exploring.

Beginner's Guide to Island Hopping in the Virgin Islands

Where is our ferry??

When we arrived in Cruz Bay, we were given free shots of Cruzan Rum upon disembarking from the ferry. The Cruzan distillery was founded in 1760 on St. Croix, where it is located to this day. Cruzan claims the distinction of “the most honored rum distillery in the world” and is probably the most popular and affordable rum in the Virgin Islands. I would recommend trying the Painkiller and the Bushwacker, two of the Virgin Island’s most popular cocktails, both made with – you guessed it – rum.

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St. Thomas to St. Croix

St. Croix has a unique history, as it has been influenced by Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, Malta, Denmark, and the United States. Although the island is only 22 miles long and 8 miles wide, its landscape offers just as much diversity as its history. Popular attractions include Buck Island, Point Udall, and the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute (VISFI).

There is currently no ferry service between St. Thomas (or any of the abovementioned islands) and St. Croix. However, a ferry service connecting the two islands may be available in the upcoming years. For now, if you wish to travel to St. Croix from St. Thomas, you’ll have to take the short (25 minutes) but pricey flight between the islands. Our recommendation is to forego the flight and stick with the variety of other island hopping options at your disposal.

St. Thomas to Tortola

Tortola is the largest of the British Virgin Islands and also where Road Town, the capital of the BVI, is located. Like St. Thomas, the island is covered in beautiful coastlines, pristine white sand beaches, and an interesting mix of ruins alongside luxury resorts. Popular sights on Tortola include the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum, Fort Burt, Mount Healthy Windmill, Callwood’s Rum Distillery, J.R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens, Old Government House Museum, and VI Folk Museum.

Beginner's Guide to Island Hopping in the Virgin Islands

Traveling from St. Thomas to Tortola is much more involved as you’ll need to clear customs to enter into this British Virgin Island. Just like in St. Thomas, there are two ports in Tortola: West End and Road Town. There are daily ferries to both West End and Road Town (via West End), however, the ferry we took did not end up continuing on to Road Town. Thus, we got off at West End, Tortola and took a taxi to Road Town, where we continued on to Virgin Gorda. If the same happens to you, it’s not a big deal. The taxi ride only takes about 20 minutes and will cost around $12 per person, depending on the number of people you have traveling with you. You can view the ferry schedules from Red Hook to Tortola here, and from Charlotte Amalie to Tortola here.

The key thing to remember is that if you are planning on taking the last ferry from Tortola back to St. Thomas, you cannot miss that ferry! Do not assume the ferry is running on island time and will be delayed. Get to the ferry terminal with time to spare – it is better to have to sit around for a bit and wait for the ferry to arrive than miss the ferry and be stranded in a foreign country for a night without your belongings and without plans for accommodations. You will need to clear customs at the first USVI port you stop at, which could be St. John or St. Thomas, depending on which route your ferry is taking.

St. Thomas to Virgin Gorda

Virgin Gorda is the third largest British Virgin Island (after Tortola and Anegada). Its name comes from its dramatic shape, which reminded Christopher Columbus of a reclining woman, or literally, “Fat Woman.” The island is particularly known for The Baths, a beach area with scenic caves and “baths” – small pools of pristine water hidden between the caves. Although the caves do require a bit of climbing up and down, we saw young kids successfully making it through, so I would say it’s an appropriate excursion for most ages.

Beginner's Guide to Island Hopping in the Virgin Islands

Beginner's Guide to Island Hopping in the Virgin Islands

There are nonstop ferries between St. Thomas and Virgin Gorda, but these ferries do not run every day. You can refer to this schedule for up to date times on direct routes.

If you are unable to make one of the times listed in the link above, you can simply take the ferry from St. Thomas to Tortola and transfer to a ferry from Road Town to Virgin Gorda. As mentioned above under the section on Tortola, if you are unable to catch a ferry going directly to Road Town, you can simply take the ferry to West End and then take a taxi to Road Town. The ferry from Road Town to Virgin Gorda will take around 30 minutes. Try to go with a company that will shuttle you from the ferry port in Virgin Gorda to The Baths, if that is your end destination.

St. Thomas to Jost Van Dyke

Aptly named for an early Dutch settler and former pirate, Jost Van Dyke is the smallest British Virgin Island but has the most food and fun. Jost Van Dyke is known for its world famous Soggy Dollar Bar and is a mecca for those looking to party and enjoy some strong cocktails on the beach.

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Ferries from St. Thomas to Jost Van Dyke run almost daily out of Red Hook. As is true with the other British Virgin Islands, you will need to clear customs and pay a border tax when you go to and from Jost Van Dyke, so keep in mind that traveling here will be a bit more expensive. To get your money’s worth, I would recommend staying for an entire day (or drinking enough Painkillers to forget how expensive your trip is!).

Beginner's Guide to Island Hopping in the Virgin Islands

St. Thomas to Anegada

Anegada is the second largest British Virgin Island and the farthest north and east geographically. Anegada is unique from the other Virgin Islands in that it is nearly flat and is characterized by striking coral reefs, secluded sandy beaches, and clear springs bubbling from the coral beds. This island is a snorkeler and scuba diver’s heaven as there are endless underwater mazes, tunnels, and wildlife hidden in the coral reefs.

There are no direct ferries that run from St. Thomas to Anegada. In order to arrive by ferry, you would need to take the ferry from St. Thomas to Tortola, and transfer to another ferry in Tortola or Virgin Gorda to arrive in Anegada. Since Anegada does not have its own customs office, visitors need to clear customs in another British Virgin Island prior to arriving in Anegada. You can find the Tortola to Anegada ferry schedule here.

Beginner's Guide to Island Hopping in the Virgin Islands

General Tips

  • Decide which islands you want to visit, and which island it makes most sense for you to stay on. The ferry ride from St. Thomas to St. John is only a few dollars and a mere 20 minutes, but if you want to travel to the British Virgin Islands, you’ll need to be prepared for at least a one hour ferry ride, time to clear customs, and much more expensive ferry fares and border taxes. Thus, if you’re primarily interested in the British Virgin Islands, you may not wish to stay on a U.S. Virgin Island and pay the heavy fees each time you visit a new island.
  • Check flight prices to each of the Virgin Islands. The one caveat to the first tip is to check flight prices to all the islands. If it’s going to cost you $500 more to fly into a BVI than a USVI, then you’re better off flying into the USVI and paying for the ferries and border taxes to go to the BVIs, which will not cost you anywhere near $500.
  • St. Croix is the only island that is not hoppable by ferry, so be prepared to not be able to visit St. Croix on your trip. Or, if you are only interested in St. Croix, just fly into St. Croix but don’t plan on island hopping while you’re there.
  • Ferries typically run on time, so do not assume you can stroll into the ferry terminal 10 minutes late and walk on without issue. The one exception to this rule is when we took the ferry from St. Thomas to Tortola, the line in front of the ticket counter was extremely long, and the ferry company ended up holding the ferry until everyone in line to buy a ticket got a ticket and boarded the ferry. We ended up leaving at least half an hour behind schedule because of this. Islanders know how to look out for one another and will make sure you get where you need to be; however, this may be at the expense of slowing others down.
  • Relax and enjoy yourself! Coming from a big city, it always takes me a half day to a day to get accustomed to the slower pace and more relaxed attitude that characterizes island life. Leave your big city hustle behind and enjoy the warm ocean breeze, friendly inhabitants, and delicious cocktails, and you won’t mind as much when you face a delayed ferry or slower service at the bar.

Bonus Tip

The U.S. Virgin Islands are celebrating their 100th year of being a territory of the United States in 2017 and are giving away $300 in Virgin Islands spending credits for historical and cultural tours/activities to any traveler who books a 3 night minimum stay through the Visit USVI website. You can see full details here.

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    • Diana Chen

      Thanks, Shevy! We had a blast. 🙂

    • Diana Chen

      Hi Siddharth & Shruti! We were there for 5 nights and were able to visit St. John, Tortola, and Virgin Gorda. We were really trying to take it easy and slow, so you could easily pack more into that time frame if you were determined to see all the islands. The only day we felt a bit rushed was the day we went to Virgin Gorda, mainly because it was the farthest from St. Thomas and we wanted to make sure we got back on the last ferry and go through customs so we weren’t stuck in Virgin Gorda for the night. You would be fine with just a few days, or if you have more time, I’d say you can see all the islands in one week. Hope that helps. 🙂

  • Shona

    It looks like a beautiful part of the world!

    • Diana Chen

      It really is, Shona! Would highly recommend a visit. 🙂

  • Paul and Carole

    Really informative post. We have just booked a cruise to the caribbean so looking forward to exploring some of the islands. #feetdotravel

    • Diana Chen

      Thanks, Paul and Carole! That sounds like fun. Which islands will you be visiting on your Caribbean cruise?

  • Midori

    It really looks amazing! I didn’t know about these islands before, but sound like a cool destination! Very nice pictures! Specially the one having a beer in bikini 😀

    • Diana Chen

      Haha thanks, Midori – Poor Man’s Bar was a great find, and I thought it was pretty fitting to drink a Coors light at a bar called Poor Man’s Bar. It was also after we trekked through some caves, so it was a nice reward. You should go sometime if you get the chance 🙂

  • The Travel Realist

    Great info and advice here – as well as some beautiful photos!

  • Sandra

    Great post! Although the Virgin Islands aren’t in any of my plans yet, they might have to be added soon…

    • Diana Chen

      I can’t recommend it more highly! I’ve been to close to 10 Caribbean islands, and the Virgin Islands are some of my favorites by far. 🙂

  • Garth

    I’ve heard of the US Virgin Islands, but didn’t know much about them until now, thanks for all the tips and advice.

    • Diana Chen

      Thanks for reading, Garth! I’m glad you found it to be informative. Hope you get a chance to travel there soon. 🙂

  • Simona

    Such a funny name “Virgin Gorda”, I guess Columbus also had a sense of humour. Great tips! I didn’t know so many things about the Virgin Islands, and it was an interesting read.

    • Diana Chen

      Haha I thought that was a funny name too. I really didn’t know what to expect before my trip either, but the islands far exceeded my expectations! Hope you get to travel there one day, Simona. 🙂

  • ThriftyTrails

    I want to go island hopping so bad but haven’t gotten around to reading much about it yet. Thanks for the information!

    • Diana Chen

      Thanks for reading & glad you found it to be informative! I didn’t know much about the Virgin Islands before my trip either and was very pleasantly surprised by the amount of fun activities, beautiful coastlines, nature hikes, and friendly people there. 🙂

  • Oana

    Great post, thanks for sharing. I would love to go island hopping one day even though it will be hard to convince the other half of aroundthecompass to stay more than 5 days in a sunny place.

    • Diana Chen

      Hey Oana! You can hop to a lot of islands in under 5 days! Or you could always sneak off on a solo trip or with friends 😀

  • Only By Land

    That’s annoying with the taxes you have to pay. What is the currency of the British Virgin Islands? Do they accept pounds and dollars?

    • Diana Chen

      Actually both the US Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands accepted US dollars. I’m not sure why that is, but it was convenient for us to not have to exchange any currency while island hopping.

  • Aryane @ Valises & Gourmandises

    Everytime I come to your blog, I’m amazed by all your beautiful pictures!!
    The Virgin Islands seem like so much fun! Thanks for all the helpful tips! I hope to visit someday!

    • Diana Chen

      Thanks so much, Aryane! I hope you get to visit the Virgin Islands one day – they are truly lovely. 🙂

  • Courtney Jones

    The Virgin Islands looks so amazing! I’ve only heard of the bigger islands, so had NO idea there are over 100! Great tips – I hope to make it over there within the next couple of years! 😀

    • Diana Chen

      That would be awesome, Courtney! I hope you make it there soon 😀

  • Kelly

    Very thorough and informative. I had no idea that St. Thomas was so connected to the other virgin islands. I loved the baths in Virgin Gorda. The caves looked so picturesque and the photos were great. Also loved Anegada for its coral reefs, and the picture of you guys snorkeling looks great.

    • Diana Chen

      Thanks, Kelly! If I had to pick a favorite place, it would have to be Virgin Gorda. It was the perfect mix of adventure (climbing around the caves) and relaxation (hanging out on the beach or having a beer at the Poor Man’s Bar)! I hope you get to visit soon 🙂

  • luxurybackpacking | Emma

    I’ve always wanted to visit the Virgin Islands! I’ve visited a lot of the Caribbean but haven’t got round to this stunning set of islands yet! I love the fact they will give you $300 spending money because its their 100th year of being a territory, it makes it that ever more tempting!

    • Diana Chen

      The $300 stipend is tempting for sure! We’ve visited around 10 Caribbean islands, and the Virgin Islands are some of our favorites. Hope you get to visit soon. 🙂

  • Bhushavali

    I’m a big fan of secluded and intimate beaches, so its totally my kinda place. St.John might be my favorite place to be in! Virgin Gordo is just mind blowing!

    • Diana Chen

      You would love St. John for its secluded beaches! You can find secluded beaches on St. Thomas and the other islands as well, if you know where to look. My biggest advice would be to stay away from the cruise ship areas and the super touristy beaches. Hope you get to visit soon. 🙂

  • Sarah

    Looks like you had an awesome time!! I could so use these views and sun rays after being stuck in rainy England all winter!

    • Diana Chen

      I feel you! The weather here in Chicago is pretty similar to that of England, so I am always looking for warm getaways!

  • Annalise

    Great post! I’ve never properly done island hopping but it’s definitely on my bucket list! X

    • Diana Chen

      If you wanted to go all out, you could try to rent or make friends with someone who owns a sailboat and sail all around the islands! That would be even more exciting! 🙂

  • David

    The Virgin Islands look like a lot of fun and these are some great tips for getting about. I didn’t know much about the Islands so didn’t realise the US and UK ones were so close. Good to know about all the expenses that come with crossing the border. Thanks for sharing.

    • Diana Chen

      We were surprised by all of those things as well, David! Thanks for reading and hope the Virgin Islands are on your travel plans soon. 🙂

  • Kreete

    That’s a great guide! Thanks for clarifying that some of the islands belong to Britain as well. It surely does seem a hassle to go over to the British side. The photos featured look like you were in true paradise and I would love to try those rum cocktails! Island life!

    • Diana Chen

      Island life, right?! Those rum cocktails will put you in the laid back island mood in an instant. If the British islands look more appealing to you, you could always stay there and take the ferry to the US Virgin islands for a day or two. 🙂

  • LC

    I had a bit of a lol at the Virgin Gorda story! A bit rude on CC’s part! I think I liked the sound of St. Croix best – was there evidence of each nationality littered throughout the island? Anyway, your pics look great, although it’s hard to take a bad photograph of a beach, hey. They generally look quite nice and inviting.

    • Diana Chen

      Haha that is a funny story about Virgin Gorda, isn’t it? We actually didn’t make it to St. Croix on this trip since it was so much farther away from the other islands. Maybe next time we’ll make a separate trip just to St. Croix. 🙂

  • Lisa

    Yes, they are beautiful especially St. John. St Croix is a great place to relax and kick back. Nice post and good detail.

    • Diana Chen

      Thanks for reading, Lisa! St. John was a lovely respite from the hustle and bustle of some of the other islands. We didn’t make it to St. Croix on this trip but hope to next time!

  • Rob+Ann @TravelLatte(.net)

    It really doesn’t take much encouragement, but now we are completely ready to ditch all plans and go island hopping. Like, right now, before another winter storm takes over the map. 🙂 #feetdotravel

    • Diana Chen

      Hey Rob and Ann! I feel the exact same way! What do you say we rent a sailboat and sail around the islands? See you in the Virgin Islands! 😀

  • Travel Lexx

    Looks like paradise! Such a beautiful place and a super informative post! I haven’t explored that part of the world yet but, as always, it’s on the list! Thanks for sharing

    • Diana Chen

      It was truly such a beautiful place, and there were so many fun activities to do as well! Hope you make it over there soon! 🙂

  • St Thomas Boat Rental Guy

    Loved your article and it really goes over a lot of islands as destinations from St. Thomas for day trips. If you have any interest in adding more resources to this article, please feel free to contact me. I would be happy to be of assistance. Thanks again for this lovely share!

  • Anne

    Where did you stay in St. Thomas?
    Do you know if you can camp with your own tent on the islands?
    And where do you find the cheapest places to stay?

    • Diana Chen

      Hi Anne, we stayed on a house boat in Red Hook. We found that to be the cheapest option as the beach hotels were all pretty pricey. Not sure about the camping policies there unfortunately. Let us know if you have any other questions!

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