This is part 1 in a two-part series sharing the best of the family-friendly U.S. Virgin Islands.These posts originally appeared on ChicagoParent.com.
Known for their sandy beaches, crystal clear Caribbean waters and sunshine, the U.S. Virgin Islands are usually thought of as a popular destination for couples or honeymooners. Think twice and consider the stunning and friendly islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, all part of the USVI, for your next family vacation.
The USVI makes for a fun, kid-friendly, relaxing, yet excitement-filled destination - and since they're officially a U.S. territory, you won't even need a passport! I recently visited the USVI with my two kids, Daniel,13, and Chiara, 4 and we checked several items off our bucket list: snorkeling together as a family, swimming with sea turtles and flying on a seaplane were just a few of our many island adventures.
St. Thomas, the most bustling of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a popular day-stop for cruise ships, was the first stop on our spring break Caribbean getaway. Just 32 square miles in size, St. Thomas is small in size but big in fun. You’ll find not only beautiful beaches but also spectacular shopping and nightlife, as well as several cultural and historical sights, including Fort Christian, built in 1680 and a 17th century watch tower named "Bluebeard's Castle." You'll want to save up most of your energy, however, for lazy days spent on the sandy beaches, with the occasional dip in the turquoise waters for swimming, snorkeling or sailing.
After enduring yet another terrible Chicago winter and with no spring in sight, by far the best part of the USVI was the non-stop sunshine. We began each day greeting the sunshine and the ocean, followed by a lazy poolside breakfast, and spent most of our time swimming in the pool or the ocean. Here are five other ways to enjoy and explore St. Thomas as a family.
Snorkel the crystal clear Caribbean
Thanks to the awesome visibility, snorkeling was one of our favorite family activities in St. Thomas. My son, a strong swimmer, was old enough (and the waters calm enough) for him to set off on his own. One of his best vacation moments was when he spotted, and then followed, a swimming sea turtle while snorkeling in Bolongo Bay. My daughter was still a bit too young to feel comfortable with a snorkel, so she opted to explore with her swimming goggles. She could have spent hours underwater, looking for colorful fish and gathering seashells and interesting rocks. Bring your own snorkel/goggles or rent one from your hotel/resort.
Set sail on Heavenly Days
My son and I hopped on the 53’ catamaran, Heavenly Days, and set sail to a quiet cove for some more snorkeling and sea turtle spotting. After a very short sail to a special protected anchorage near an island with the second oldest lighthouse in U.S. territory, we jumped off the boat and snorkeled to our heart's content, spotting three sea turtles but also lovely corals and a rainbow of fish. I recommend this cruise for any families traveling with kids that are strong, confident swimmers with snorkeling experience. My daughter stayed at our hotel and took a nap with a sitter, which was arranged by our hotel, while we set sail - the sun and not being able to jump in and swim would have ruined the excursion for her, but you could bring a smaller child as long as a parent stays on board and under the limited shade while the rest of your party snorkels. The Heavenly Days Snorkel with the Sea Turtles Cruise includes snorkel gear, light snacks, soft drinks, beer and rum punch.
Explore Charlotte Amalie
Take a self-guided walking tour of Charlotte Amalie, the USVI's largest city and capital. Start your tour at Fort Christian, which dates from 1672 and is named after the Danish king Christian V. Though currently under restoration, this structure once served as everything from a governor's home to a jail until it became a national historic landmark in 1977. Continue walking up Fort Pladsen to Emancipation Park, which was where a proclamation freeing African slaves and indentured European servants was read on July 3, 1848. From the park, head down Main Street, where you can (duty-free) shop 'til you drop. Last but not least, climb up the picturesque 99 Steps (actually 103), a seemingly endless stairway built in the early 1700's that will take you to the very top of Government Hill. At the summit, you'll find a picture-perfect view of the port as well as Blackbeard's Castle, a U.S. National Landmark that once served as the island's watchtower. Though Blackbeard never lived in the "castle", this watchtower likely kept Charlotte Amalie protected from the infamous pirate and his pals.
Enjoy some up close and personal time with the marine life at Coral World
Plan on spending an entire morning or afternoon at Coral World, a marine life park that gives visitors the chance to meet and greet a wide range of aquatic creatures. My kids interviewed a seal lion, fed lorikeets their morning nectar and pet some not-so-cuddly stingrays. Plan on making as many trainer and feeding presentations as you can: the excellent staff taught us so much about the sea turtles, sharks, turtles and iguanas that all live at Coral World and fielded lots of questions from curious kids. Adults and kids who aren't quite ready to scuba dive but would like to experience exploring underwater with an attached-to-land breathing apparatus should give Snuba or Sea Trek a try. The Undersea Observatory Tower will give you the chance to explore the deep blue sea without getting wet.
Take a day trip to St. John by ferry
We caught a ferry at the Red Hook Port in St. Thomas for a day trip to the nearby island of St. John, home of one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Trunk Bay Beach. While you can rent a car upon arrival in St. John, we opted for a guided tour of the island. Snaking our way through the winding roads of the island in an open-air van, we were treated to splendid vistas and interesting commentary from our guide. Much to the kids' delight, we saw anteater nests and wild pigs, too. We stopped at at a quiet beach, where we took a break and dipped our toes, then moved up to Bordeaux, the highest point in the island, with the spectacular view of Coral Bay. The Annaberg Ruins, once a bustling sugar mill, were another highlight of our guided tour.
We stayed at the very kid-friendly Bolongo Bay Beach Resort. Tucked into a calm cove in stunning Bolongo Bay, this family-owned resort was casual, comfortable, and best of all, directly on the beach. Every morning we took just seven steps from our room door and greeted the sun, dipping our toes into the clear blue, warm waters of the Caribbean. Our beachfront room was spacious and comfy, with two queen sized beds and basic amenities (cable TV, air conditioning, etc.) but also featured with a Euro-style kitchen with a refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker. We opted for the hotel’s European Plan (room-only rate), but if you're looking to stay mainly on-resort, Bolongo's All Inclusive package is one of the best in the Caribbean. We loved eating breakfast poolside at the on-site restaurant, The Lobster Grille (and I loved those few extra moments sipping my coffee while the kids jumped right into the pool!). For lunch, dinner or late-night entertainment, Iggies Beach Bar & Grill, located just a few sandy steps off the ocean, can't be beat: Voted "Best Beach Bar 2012" by Caribbean Travel & Life, you’ll want to give the West Indian Killer Conch Fritters a try and bring some sand toys so the kids can build sandcastles while you enjoy a rum cocktail. Fun in the sun is always included in your daily room rate, and there was a wealth of water and land activities with free equipment rentals available. Play on paddle boards, Hobie Cats, kayaks, windsurfers, aqua tricycles, swim mats, snorkel gear and more.
- Be on the lookout for vendors selling fresh coconuts on the side streets off Main Street in Charlotte Amalie. My kids loved sipping the sweet and refreshing coconut water and watching as the vendor hacked the top off with a sharp machete
- The Tourist Trap on St. John is the place for the best lobster rolls ever. Located roadside on Route 107, heading south from Coral Bay, ask your tour guide to make a pit stop at this eclectic, gourmet roadside shack.
- Be sure to head to Iggie's Beach Bar for Carnival Night, held every Wednesday. Dance in the sand or on the dance floor to Calypso Music, do the Limbo and celebrate with the Mocko Jumbie, traditional island stilt walker. Local Artisans display and sell their local handicrafts throughout the evening and a Caribbean Buffet offers a wide range of local specialties.
- With its warm, clear Caribbean waters, St. Thomas is an excellent place to learn to scuba dive.Patagon Dive Center, a 5-star PADI Scuba Dive Center with locations on both St. Thomas and St. John, offers snorkeling lessons for kids ages 5 and up as well as junior scuba diving certification courses for kids as young as 8. Young divers will be limited to dives less than 6 feet.