Although three islands, St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas, make up the dynamic culture of the U.S. Virgin Islands, each place has a completely different feel. St. Croix is the farthest removed of the sister islands, being 40 miles out from St. Thomas and St. John. Because it is so far out, St. Croix has a more isolated vibe, and many visitors are there to stay with minimal travel outside of the island. The two other islands are close; St. Thomas and St. John are about a 15-minute ferry ride apart from each other. St. John and St. Thomas are also extremely close to the British islands, making island hopping a popular pastime. The proximity to the other islands cultivates more of a transient vibe on St. Thomas and St. John than on St. Croix. The majority of St. John is the Virgin Islands National Forest and is an outdoorsy person’s dream. But it is St. Thomas that is the busiest of the U.S.V.I. and has the most adventure activities.
The Islands: The Ins and Outs
St. Thomas is home to the territory’s capital, Charlotte Amalie, and consequently the largest city in the Virgin Islands. The island itself is about 13 miles long and 4 miles wide, coming in with just over 30 square miles of land. Although it’s small, St. Thomas is home to over 51,000 residents meaning that the island houses more than half of the total U.S.V.I. population. The international airport on the island, located on the west end, is a hub to thousands of travelers and during the tourist season cruise ships dock each week, giving leave to thousands to explore the island.
Because of the sheer volume of tourists, St. Thomas is the most cosmopolitan and most trafficked of the three islands. There are lots of tourist-friendly activities available, and the nightlife on the island is the most consistently vibrant. Extreme water sports are also more diverse and plentiful than they are on the other islands.
Into the Ocean: Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
It’s a small island, but St. Thomas has more than a handful of beautiful dive spots. There are gorgeous reefs, ancient sea wrecks and vibrant underwater flora and fauna. Stingrays, reef sharks and tarpon can be commonly seen, as well as lobsters, starfish, turtles and hundreds of different fish species. Lionfish, an invasive species in the Caribbean waters that originally come from the Indo-Pacific, are also frequently seen, although local divers are doing their best to stop their population from spreading. Most of the popular dive sites are near the small islands are scattered between St. Thomas and St. John, such as Mingo, Hans Lollick, and Thatch Cay.
Because of the popularity of scuba diving in the islands, most dive shops offer accessible classes for those wanting to get certified in any level of diving. They also provide day trips for groups to dive sites that are farther out, as well as normal morning, afternoon, and night dive options. Although many of the coral and reefs are found in relatively shallow water, some dive sites exceed 100 feet.
For those who want to stay at the surface of the ocean, most dive shops allow snorkelers to swim along the top at shallow dive sites. Although they don’t go as deep, snorkelers are not shorted with the number of animals and different kinds of coral they see, due to the clear water. Most dive shops also provide gear for underwater adventurers, both for snorkelers and scuba divers, to make dives easily accessible.
Catching air: Kiteboarding
Because of the constant wind that blows across the ocean, especially during the winter months, kiteboarding is an extremely popular beach sport. Kiteboarding is similar to windsurfing in that the principles of manipulating the wind are the same, but the gear and setup is extremely different. In kiteboarding, a rectangular kite is attached to the rider through a halter that is located in the center of the chest. Riders utilize the wind using a bar that is attached to the lines of the kite, and their feet aren’t connected to the board.
Many kiteboarders can be seen doing tricks and jumping the waves all along the perimeter of the island, but there are also classes for beginners. The classes usually last the better part of the day, as students learn to balance on the board, control their direction using the wind, and how to reposition themselves when they fall off into the water. The first lessons are off the beach and in shallow water, but once the basics are learned, kiteboarders can find new spots farther off the island by taking a short boat ride.
There are also classes and community gatherings for advanced and professional kiteboarders who are vacationing. More and more professional boarders are coming to the islands to practice since kiteboarding will be a new event in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Perhaps the most popular pastime in the Virgin Islands, boating in St. Thomas comes with a wide array of options. Hundreds of sailboats and power boats offer everything from day trips to incredible snorkeling spots to week-long island hopping through the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.
Other than the obvious attraction of traveling and seeing the sites across many islands, many charter boats are also equipped with adventure gear, like paddleboards and canoes, for solo exploring either off the beach or in shallow cays that bigger boats can’t access. Some sailboats also have certified scuba instructors on board and provide guided scuba or snorkeling trips.
St. Thomas is certainly the fastest paced and busiest of the three islands, but because of the larger number of people who live and work there, there is also a wider range of adventure sports. Whether you want to dive below the water with scuba or snorkel gear, catch air above the water on a kiteboard, or just float on top of it with a sailboat, St. Thomas is the best place to get wet and have fun.
Ed. note: This is the third and final post in the series about the U.S. Virgin Islands, called Caribeean Cruisin’. Stay tuned for more posts about kiteboarding and other adventure tips from Alyssandra Barnes.