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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
- 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.
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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