Last year, the Virgin Islands were devastated by two powerful hurricanes: first came Hurricane Irma, followed by Hurricane Maria. In July, thanks to a press trip I took for my job in PR, I was able to visit the region to learn more about how the islands have rebuilt and come back stronger than ever almost a year later.
Despite popular misconceptions, the Virgin Islands are open for business – I saw firsthand that the beautiful beaches, viewpoints and historic city streets are all intact. While some hotels and restaurants are closed and still undergoing renovations, there are plenty of accommodations, eateries and bars that are ready to welcome tourists – just be understanding that not everything is 100% back to normal, and have patience. A tarp might replace a roof that’s yet to be rebuilt, you might have to walk around construction on the city streets, and cell service is still spotty in some areas.
That being said, now is probably one of the best times to plan a trip the US Virgin Islands or British Virgin Islands. You’ll have some of the most gorgeous beaches to yourself, and no trouble scoring restaurant reservations with a perfect sunset view. Plus, tourism is the biggest industry in the Virgin Islands and your support now will help restore jobs vital to the islands’ economy – since Irma, employment in the US Virgin Islands dropped 12 percent (4,500 jobs) and only 600 jobs were recovered as of May 2018.
The view from my room
We stayed at Bolongo Bay Beach Resort, a family-owned property where the rebuilding efforts were well underway. While the hotel itself wasn’t damaged too badly in Irma, its bars and restaurants were. They’ve already completed a remodeling of the poolside bar, and plans are in the works to rebuild the rest of their property. The beach is still intact (and you can easily walk to nearby delicious Mim’s Seaside Bistro with your toes in the sand), kayaks and paddle boards are available to rent, and resident iguanas will keep you entertained.
The food at Bolongo Bay was surprisingly delicious, definitely outdoing my expectations for an all-inclusive Caribbean resort. Also, the hotel’s location a short taxi ride from Red Hook Ferry Terminal made day trips to St. John and the British Virgin Islands super easy.
If you’re visiting the USVI or BVI, here’s my suggested itinerary for 3 days of fun (and rum!) in the sun.
Take a Walking Tour of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas
When visiting a new place, I like to get a feel for its history and culture to gain some context – and a walking tour of Charlotte Amalie is basically Virgin Islands History 101. Try to time your walking tour with a date that a cruise ship is not in port to avoid large crowds. You’ll have a chance to see the city’s colorful Caribbean architecture and plenty of steps, with stops such as:
Blackbeard’s Castle – a watchtower that’s over 300 years old and possibly the oldest historical structure in the Virgin Islands. It’s believed that pirates resided here in the 18th century! Unfortunately, the castle’s roof was damaged significantly by the hurricanes so at this time you can’t go inside – but it’s a good starting point to take a taxi to if you want to do your tour in reverse (downhill) on a super hot day. Visit their website for details on when it might reopen.
99 Steps – Charlotte Amalie is famous for its side alleys and “step streets” built by its former Danish inhabitants to help people navigate the hilly terrain. The 99 Steps is one of the most picturesque, and the steps lead up to Blackbeard’s Castle.
Frederick’s Lutheran Church – this church was established in 1666, but the present building was completed in 1793 and rebuilt in 1826 after a fire burned down everything but the walls. This church sure has survived a lot – when we were there, it had just received a fresh set of doors and shutters as the previous set had been blown open during the hurricanes.
Fort Christian – If you started your tour up high and walked downhill, you’ll likely end here, at a Danish fortress that dates back to 1671. The fort was previously used as a local jail, the governor’s house, and today is a museum that gives you a peek into St. Thomas of the past (plus a great view of the harbor from atop its walls). Just last year, Fort Christian finally reopened after more than 10 years of renovations — sadly, the hurricanes left some damage after all that work (e.g. buckled floors) but the fort is still largely accessible and worth visiting.
Catch the Sunset for Dinner at Paradise Point and Mafolie on St. Thomas
Two places you must schedule a sunset dinner during your Virgin Islands trip are Paradise Point and Mafolie. Both overlook Charlotte Amalie’s harbor from up in the hills.
From Charlotte Amalie, catch the Skyride to stunning Paradise Point for a view you won’t forget. The restaurant and bar is open on most days that a cruise ship is on port — and on Wednesday nights they host a sunset buffet featuring local cuisine and live music.
Mafolie is more upscale and perfect for a romantic dinner or special occasion, serving a variety of delicious seafood dishes – I recommend the rum lobster and conch chowder! During our visit, the restaurant & hotel had yet to rebuild a permanent roof following the hurricanes. However, a tarp will keep you dry from any rain showers and the view is still 100% incredible. Parking can be tricky, so I’d suggest taking a cab if you can.
Eat Local: Enjoy Pates for Breakfast in the Virgin Islands
The vast majority of the US Virgin Islands’ restaurants cater to tourists with expensive seafood dishes, often including items like beef or shrimp that aren’t available in large quantities locally. While a lot of this food is great, I tend to feel like I haven’t really experienced a place until I’ve tried some of the local food.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many restaurants that you’ll find on St. Thomas serving local cuisine (if you know of any, leave in the comments and I’ll update!).
But there’s one meal you’ll have no problem finding a local specialty for: breakfast. Stop into a convenience store or bakery for a pate, which is similar to an empanada with meat, chicken, fish or veggies stuffed into a pastry. They’re delicious, cheap and filling!
Day Trip to St. John & Hike to Spectacular Beaches
While St. Thomas is where a lot of the action is in the Virgin Islands, St. John is your destination for incredible natural beauty. The beaches here are some of the best I’ve seen, with white sand and crystal clear blue waters.
More than 60 percent of St. John is made up of a National Park, and there are plenty of trails that you can hike to for spectacular views. If you only have a couple hours, you can hike the Lind Point Trail which is a short walk from the ferry terminal. The shorter version is a loop (~1.8 miles) that stops at Honeymoon Beach, where you can have a drink or rent kayaks and paddle boards.
Or, when you’re about 0.7 miles in, you can take a side trail on the left to Salomon Beach. The fact that it’s only accessible by a hike means there’s more beach for you to enjoy!
If you’re a more serious hiker or have a full day to explore, check out the 4.4-mile Reef Bay Trail for a strenuous hike that will take you past Danish sugar plantation ruins and ancient rock carvings. The trail ends at a beach, where you can cool off before making the trek back up.
If you’re driving around the island or taking a tour, don’t forget to make a pit stop at Peace Hill for a scenic overlook with ruins of an old sugar mill tower (approximately a 0.1-mile hike from the parking spot). The world-famous Trunk Bay beach is also a must-see – stop at the overlook for photos before heading down and taking a dip into the amazing water! Snorkels are also available to rent at Trunk Bay.
If you’re looking for guided hiking tours, I recommend Virgin Islands Ecotours which offer combinations of hiking, kayaking and snorkeling so you can see as much natural beauty during a day to St. John as possible.
Island Hop in the British Virgin Islands for One Day
Did you know that it’s incredibly easy to pop over to the BVI during your trip to USVI? In fact, if you’re on St. John, sometimes you’ll even pick up BVI cell service (if you do, make sure you’re not roaming!).
There are several combinations of British Virgin Islands island hopping day tours you can take. On this past trip, I boarded The Breakaway for an adventure to The Baths National Park on Virgin Gorda. The Baths were absolutely stunning, with batholithic rock formations to hike through and explore. The hike was pretty easy and I’d recommend going barefoot and bringing just a small bag as sometimes you’re walking through water and crawling through small spaces.
We ended the day with lunch at a restaurant called Top of the Baths. While the food was pretty mediocre, the view was well worth it. They also had a pool where you could cool off.
After lunch, we made our way back to the boat where our captain had prepared painkillers for us to get the party started. Our final stop was at White Bay for drinks at the iconic Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke – named so because your dollars will literally get soggy as you must swim from your boat to the shore. The bar was basically destroyed in the hurricanes but has reopened — it might look totally different, but it’s still just as fun and their world-famous painkillers still taste amazing!
If you’re visiting, don’t forget to pack a waterproof pouch so you can bring your phone for snapping photos and some cash or a credit card onto Jost Van Dyke. I bought a bunch of these for our group before visiting – they’re less than $5 each and they worked perfectly!
Be prepared! Download my Virgin Islands packing list here!
With a quick stop at customs on St. John, we were back in the USA in a snap. Although a word of advice: reapply sunscreen before heading to customs, since you do wait in line outside and you can’t wear sunglasses or hats.
The Virgin Islands were so fun, and I can’t wait to go back in October for my friend Jackie’s wedding. I’m excited to check out one of the Virgin Islands Eco Tours’ kayak, snorkel and hike tours on my next visit!
Sunrise at Sapphire Beach
Peace Hill Ruins, St. John
The 99 Steps, Charlotte Amalie
Flowers in Charlotte Amalie
Have you ever visited the Virgin Islands? Have you been back since the 2017 hurricane season? Let me know in the comments.
Prepare for your trip! Download my Virgin Islands packing list for just $0.50.