The Virgin Islands, immediately east of Puerto Rico, has its own distinct flavor due to the split loyalties of the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and the US Virgin Islands (USVI). Discovered by Christopher Columbus and passed through the colonial hands of Britain, Denmark and America until the latter two signed a treaty in which the Danish West Indies (now the USVI) was sold to America for $25 million in gold.
What this means is that they present two very different beach vacations – one more peaceful; the other more exciting. One more laid back, resplendent with unspoiled snorkeling and dive sites, the other with land attractions that’ll entertain kids and keep adults well within comfortable range of rum. Both have unique histories, and both have sparkling beaches. Read on to learn more.
White Bay Beach, British Virgin Islands – photo by Kaos Kapers
Want to escape to the tropics without the inconvenience of boatloads of other tourists bogarting your beach space? The British Virgin Islands is your hook-up. Much more laid-back than most resort islands, a bit more expensive, but with way less high-rise condos, chain restaurants and cruise ships, the British Virgin Islands harken back to a time and lifestyle of the Caribbean before tourists descended upon every luxury beach they could get their claws on. Located in the Caribbean, east of Puerto Rico, the largest and most popular of its 50 islands are Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke. The BVIs are peaceful, with sails dotting the horizon on the forefront of a marvelous sunset; elsewhere, the land is strewn with dirt paths, scattered residents, local stores and markets – in fact, save for certain luxury brands, most international chain retailers are banned by law. Local culture thrives in small boutiques, brightly painted West Indian houses, bars and market stalls selling island crafts and baked goods.
Its beaches: There’s an impressive sprawl of beaches all over the islands of Tortola and Virgin Gorda, all which trounce the beaches of the rest of the Caribbean in fine white sand and incredibly warm water, which means visitors to the British Virgin Islands will never have to look very hard for a place to lounge. The BVI are for beach purists – no boardwalks, few amenities (although certain beaches, especially near resorts or ports will have their own beachside bars or underwater snorkel trails), just a long strip of heaven to dig your feet into while the sun washes over.
Its attractions: Those who sail will find their element between the BVI, the most popular area for sailing in the Caribbean, and scuba divers can explore the wreck of the RMS Rhone, as well as a variety of other shipwrecks – if they can take their eyes off of the vast array of sharksuckers, remora, barracudas and other gorgeous reef fish. In true Caribbean style, the British Virgin Islands are known as a huge rum destination, which means visitors can’t miss out on a chance to tour the Callwood Distillery, the world’s longest continuously running distillery, located in the woods at Cane Garden Bay on Tortola, or at least learn how to make a decent Painkiller, made with dark rum, cream of coconut, pineapple juice and OJ.
Its resorts: Littered all over the smaller islands, luxury resorts are aplenty. Peter Island Resort and Spa was once home to the rich and famous, the heavy-hitters of history like Christopher Columbus, Sir Francis Drake, the pirate Blackbeard and others far before "tourism" had a name. Now, Peter Island is host to the rich and famous of our era, a white-washed fortress mere steps from Deadman’s Beach, housing a fabulous pool, spa, upscale restaurants and a beachfront lounge. Biras Creek Resort is another high-end accommodation, offering suites with private verandahs and infinity soaking pools looking out over the Bercher’s Bay and the Caribbean Sea and a restaurant on a hill.
Saint John Island, United States Virgin Islands – photo by zuhairah-worldtraveldestinations
Made up of the four main islands of Saint Thomas, Saint John, Saint Croix and Water Island, as well as several dozen smaller islands, the US Virgin Islands are a popular Caribbean getaway for those living in the United States (no passport required). For more exciting family vacations or days spent walking around a diverse range of attractions with some of the comforts of home, the USVI will do quite nicely. St. Croix is home to European-style historical buildings housing art galleries, local crafts markets and authentic Island restaurants mixed with traditional American restaurants. The resorts are less expensive than their British counterparts, while the night comes alive in upscale restaurants, clubs and hopping bars.
Its beaches: Proper resort islands, the USVI gets action during the season and the beaches become populated by sailors from America. There’s great snorkeling around fish and coral, and the beaches are close to restaurants and bars. Honeymoon Beach just a small hike from Caneel Bay on St. John is a popular beach due to its wealth of natural attractions and hiking trails, as well as a great view of the ships coming in. Big Maho Beach, also on St. John, is a quieter beach, surrounded by tree-draped mountains and a sparkling coastline.
Its attractions: When in the Caribbean, check out some rum and ruins. Located in the historic village of Christiansted in St. Croix, where the narrow streets are lined with European-style houses and buildings, the Cruzan Distillery allows thorough tours through their small but hugely productive facility. Elsewhere off St. Croix, on the island of St. John, visitors can walk down the scenic Reef Trailhead and walk to the bottom of the trail to a decaying sugar mill, part of the National Register of Historic Places. Dating back to early 1800s, the factory still houses steam power machines and an engine room from when they switched to steam power in the 1860s. The ruins are large and enlightening, with boiling coppers still in tact, cogwheels, and many other rusted facilities. Be aware in the evening, however – the ruins are a hot spot for bats, which squeak, flutter and hang from the decaying rafters.
Its resorts: With less alienating luxury than their British counterparts, the understated elegance of the USVI resorts provide lovely, laid-back beachside accommodations with private balconies and terraces overlooking the Caribbean Sea, all-inclusive dining for an American palate and world-class pools and cocktails. The Marriott Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star resort on St. Thomas is a perfectly wedding-ready destination, with four pools, stunning room views, luxury spa and large restaurant dining rooms. Caneel Bay Resort on St. John are close to sugar mill ruins, the Honeymoon Beach; the resort offers fine dining, miles of beaches at its doorstep, open air lounges and restaurants and a range of luxury rooms and suites.
It depends on what you’re looking for. Want a quiet beach vacation replete with dazzling sunsets and peaceful solitude? Want to see the ships sail past, each headed different directions, and then head, yourself, to local craft markets, small independent stores and attractions? Do you value authentic culture that is vastly different from your own? Do you have the coin? If the answer to all of the above is yes, then steer your ship towards Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.
American families, on the other hand, who are looking for the comforts of home with a beachier backdrop, cool historical attractions that are different enough to present a perception-expanding exploration while still feeling a little close to home, and more casual resorts with all of the usual amenities should look to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
So, as for which is better? Well, both have rum, so it’s hard to say.