Unveiling the Hidden Treasure that is the US Virgin Islands, A Cruising Guide

By: Charter, Cruising Tips, Destinations

While the BVI (British Virgin Islands) have long been renowned as one of the most popular and heavily traveled cruising grounds in the Caribbean, perhaps even the world, the USVI (US Virgin Islands) have often gone unnoticed.

However, in recent years, the USVI have witnessed a surge in popularity as a cruising destination, partly due to the introduction of fees and stricter regulations imposed by the British Virgin Islands… Changes that have sparked many a passionate discussion across numerous cruiser forums and social groups.

Alas, the golden era of carefree roaming between the British and US Virgin Islands is now a thing of the past. Perhaps one of the most notable laws enacted by these mandates is the requirement for sailors to undergo customs clearance when entering the BVI from the USVI. Thus, making them liable for customs duty on any “imported goods” they may have onboard, a category that could include provisions acquired in the USVI. 

Moreover, Charlotte Amalie (located in St. Thomas) is often the most accessible airport for travelers entering the British Virgin Islands. To reach Tortola, where most charter bases are located, a ferry or water taxi is often necessary. Many sailors are now finding, with the aforementioned changes and restrictions on cruising boundaries, the entire process has become cumbersome and inconvenient. 

This has led many to consider the USVI as their sole charter destination, rather than just a brief stop during a week-long (or longer) BVI exploration. And, with its distinct character and unique offerings, the USVI undeniably earn the status of a standalone destination. Comprised of three main islands (St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix), each destination within these cruising grounds presents its own distinctive characteristics that set it apart from the others.

While the US Virgin Islands offer numerous anchorages and destinations to explore, in this article we will delve into a selection that, in the writer’s opinion, are popular spots not to be missed, or lesser-visited locales worth exploring.


In This Article


ST THOMAS

St. Thomas, along with its main city, Charlotte Amalie, is steeped in pirate folklore and legends that add a fascinating element and sense of adventure to any visit to this region. While concrete historical records of specific pirate activities in the area may be sparse, locals are eager for the opportunity to share their stories as told throughout generations. Stories tell a tale of an infamous pirate named Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, who found sanctuary in their waters for a period of time years ago. 

A great deal of these legends surround our first stop at Water Island, located just across Crown Bay from Charlotte Amali. Rumor has it that during the 17th and 18th centuries, Water Island (then known as Orphanage Bay) was a popular haven for pirates and privateers. Rumor or not, it is hard to deny the island’s strategic location, just off the coast of the bustling port town of Charlotte Amalie, paired with its secluded coves would serve as an attractive hideout for pirates seeking to ambush incoming ships and seize their valuable plunder.

Today, Water Island has transformed from its pirate-infested past to a relatively quiet oasis, offering a tranquil and secluded atmosphere for residents and visitors alike.

HONEYMOON BAY

The most popular destination on Water Island is Honeymoon (or Druif) Bay. This well-protected cove offers white sand beaches and plenty of entertainment during the daylight hours where, onshore, Dinghy’s Beach Bar serves as a lively oasis, blending refreshing island cocktails and offering an impressive menu of American fare to satisfy your appetite – perfect after a day of enjoying the various water toy rentals available here. Once the sun begins to set and the day boats disperse, Honeymoon Bay transforms into a more peaceful haven, allowing you to fully appreciate the stunning views of St. Thomas’ illuminated skyline against the backdrop of the night sky.

For those looking to avoid the hustle and bustle of Honeymoon Bay, Flamingo Bay provides a quieter alternative. While not necessarily recommended for overnight anchorage, it does offer an ideal daytime stopover. Here, visitors can venture ashore and explore the historical remnants of Fort Segarra, constructed during World War II as part of the United States’ defense strategy in the Caribbean. Following marked paths on a short hike from the beach, you can uncover a fascinating network of tunnels, once underground bunkers, as well as remnants of ammunition storage areas and other military infrastructure. 

FORT SEGARRA [Photo Credit: Gruepig / Wikimedia Commons]

GREAT ST JAMES

Next up is Christmas Cove, situated off Great St. James Island. This daytime hotspot has gained popularity in recent years, but still remains a must-visit destination. A sailing trip in the US Virgin Islands simply isn’t complete without a slice from Christmas Cove’s renowned Pizza Pi pizzeria.

This floating eatery has become a regional destination, with a completely converted interior, housing ovens, fridges, and even a bar. On the exterior, a network of sophisticated floating “booths” create a truly unique dining experience. Not wanting the landlubbers to miss out on the chance to savor a “piece of the pie,” Pizza Pi has even introduced their own water taxi, cleverly named Slice Slice Baby. Alternatively, if you prefer the convenience of having your pizza delivered directly to you, simply place an order under your boat name and your delicious hot pie will be promptly delivered via dinghy.

While this popular cove has admittedly become more and more congested in recent years, most likely due to increased water taxi traffic and the addition of Slice Slice Baby – the pizza party provider, it still holds its charm as a worthwhile destination. In fact, during peak months, you might even stumble upon a day when a local band performs live music from their boat, with concertgoers gathered in dinghies and floats around this buoyant concert venue.


ST CROIX

Due to prevailing easterly winds in this region, Great St. James serves as a great jumping-off point to chart your destination south and make your way to the island of St. Croix, a vibrant and captivating island and one that merits a visit when cruising this territory. With the wind at your beam, this journey often provides ideal circumstances to hoist the sails, turn off the motor, and relish in a day’s passage across open water. Embrace the tranquility that accompanies the silence of turning off the engine. And be sure to keep a lookout for dolphins! They are a common sighting during this trip.


Salt River Bay, a designated National Park, holds a storied past. It lays claim as the only documented landing site on US soil by Christopher Columbus, albeit an unpleasant one. As Columbus’s men disembarked in search of water, they found themselves confronted by the Carib Indians. The encounter turned into an altercation, which ultimately led to the enslavement of the native Caribs by Columbus and his crew.

Despite this unpleasant history, the present-day Salt River offers an unbeatable anchorage. Its natural harbor offers considerable protection and secure holding, making it a popular choice as a hurricane shelter during storms and high winds. However, there are a couple of factors to consider before visiting. Firstly, the bay’s water depths require caution and great attention, only suitable for boats with a shallow draft of less than five feet. Secondly, while the bay provides excellent shelter, the lack of sea breeze can mean muggy nights and pesky insects.

While  the offerings ashore might not admittedly warrant, this a “can’t miss destination.” Salt River holds a unique treasure in its surrounding waters. It is among a rare few on the planet that offers the unique opportunity to experience the wonder known as a bioluminescent bay. Here you can experience the mesmerizing glow of millions of tiny marine organisms known as dinoflagellates, whose natural chemical reaction when disturbed by movement in the water creates a mesmerizing glow. To experience this is truly magical and something unlike any other.


Christiansted is one of the two larger towns on the island of St. Croix. Not only does it provide a perfect location to access Buck Island (which is next on our list), but its waterfront boardwalk offers a plethora of activities and sights to enjoy before and after your visit to Buck Island. With its friendly local vibe and reputation as one of the most beautiful towns in the Caribbean, Christiansted has successfully preserved its visual charm depicting colonial days. The town showcases stunning old buildings, adorned in pastel colors, while the lively boardwalk houses a variety of bars, restaurants, and shops, making it an ideal spot to savor a (somewhat) cold beverage or enjoy a meal while observing the bustling activities both on land and in the water.

AERIAL VIEW OF BUCK ISLAND [Photo Credit: NOAA]

A small uninhabited island just a short jaunt from Christensted, Buck Island is often THE destination for snorkeling enthusiasts planning a trip to the USVIs. This National Wildlife Refuge holds great significance in terms of natural beauty and marine life preservation. At least, President John F Kennedy must have thought so when he first visited and shortly thereafter, in 1961, established this location as a national monument. And it’s not only the underwater ecosystem here that is unique, but also the means of exploring it. The “underwater snorkel trail” is an underwater path marked by plaques and strategically placed floats for moments of rest. It offers an opportune method to view stunning coral and diverse marine life. 

It is important to note that, to visit Buck Island, a permit must first be obtained. Applications can be submitted in advance online or can also be obtained in person at the National Park Service office near the fort in Christensted. However, several online resources seem to indicate hesitation in relying on the chance of obtaining a same-day permit in person during higher seasons of travel.  

To access the “underwater snorkel trail” off Buck Island, you will want to keep a lookout for markers south of the Island that will guide you through a narrow channel. This should only be attempted in a catamaran with small draft. At the end of the channel, you will find a collection of park-maintained mooring buoys that are free to use (or, at least, included in the fee you paid to visit). With the number of tour boats that visit this destination daily, keep in mind that at certain times it can be nearly impossible to find a mooring that is available (or one that won’t be claimed shortly by a tour boat returning with a boat full of fresh sightseers). It is advised to pay mind to the time of day that is popular for these tours and plan accordingly (hint: later in the day).


ST JOHN

Two-thirds of St. John falls under the National Park Service, preserving its pristine beauty. Framed by stunning white sand beaches and tropical forests, many have long considered St. John their favorite and most treasured island, even predating the surge in Virgin Island sailing enthusiasts driven by the new mandates in the BVI region. The island’s beaches alone make it a standout destination. Boasting a plethora of breathtaking anchorages scattered around the island, if you seek tranquility and serenity, Little and Great Lameshur Bay are perfect choices. These bays offer a peaceful escape, where it’s not uncommon to spot tiny deer strolling along the beach. A day trip to Coral Bay promises a delightful experience, whether you choose to indulge in mouthwatering tacos at the renowned Lime Out Restaurant (an eccentric floating taco shack with an in-water bar and floating seating) or visit the beloved local favorite, Skinny Legs.

The main town of Cruz Bay is the largest and a convenient place to replenish your provisions if needed. However, attempting to access this town via Cruz Bay anchorage is ill-advised. This crowded bay offers limited opportunities for anchoring or mooring, as most mooring balls are private, and water traffic is ceaseless throughout the day. Instead, there are plenty of mooring balls dotting the coast north of Cruz Bay. These mooring balls are free during the daytime and many are just a short dinghy ride away from Cruz Bay. In Cruz Bay, you’ll discover a unique collection of shops, restaurants, bars, and galleries, while the colorful buildings with Victorian-style shutters create a charming atmosphere. Don’t miss a stroll through Mongoose Junction and Wharfside Village.

CINNAMON / MAHO BAY, ST JOHN [Photo Credit: John Kernan / Wikimedia Commons]

Maho Bay in St. John is a popular and picturesque anchorage that guarantees a captivating experience. With multiple moorings available, both in Maho Bay proper and the nearby Francis and Cinnamon Bay, you’ll find no shortage of options. The expansive, white sand beach is one of the largest on the island, and the turquoise waters offer a perfect snorkeling spot with plenty of opportunity to spot sea turtles. On shore, Maho Crossroads is a lively outdoor bar located right by the beach. Indulge in a refreshing drink from the bar and sample delicious bites from the assortment of food trucks. Immerse yourself in the laid-back island vibes, with the enchanting sound of steel drums filling the air, courtesy of Maho Crossroad’s occasional live music bands.

The newly opened Lovango Cay Resort & Beach Club feels like a private oasis, as it essentially is. Situated on the outlying Lovango Cay, this exquisite island and resort offers a tranquil refuge for visitors. With day passes available, you can fully immerse yourself in a life of luxury, enjoying the resort’s exceptional facilities, including luxurious spa treatments and a refreshing pool. And be sure not to miss out on a meal at their beautiful restaurant, offering unbeatable views overlooking the water with the island of St. John in the distance. What’s more, making a dinner reservation here comes with the added perk of an overnight mooring ball and water taxi service to and from your boat during high season.


While having only scratched the surface of what sailing in the US Virgin Islands has to offer, there is no doubt that anyone considering these islands for their next charter destination is in for a treat. With its stunning landscapes, tranquil anchorages, vibrant towns, and wealth of attractions, the USVI offer a tempting alternative to their bustling sister islands in the BVI. Embark on a journey to explore these charming islands, and don’t be surprised if the USVI become one of your favorite sailing destinations for future voyages, as they have become one of mine.


THE VIRGIN ISLANDS
A CRUISING GUIDE

The Cruising Guide to the Virgin Islands is filled with detailed charts of the various anchorages, supported with colorful aerial photography in addition to piloting, anchoring and shoreside information. The Island Connections sections provide valuable telephone, email and website information to make finding island businesses, services and restaurants effortless. Additionally, the guide includes a free, fold-out color 27” x 17” planning chart covering the British and U.S. Virgin Islands. 

THE VIRGIN ISLANDS
WATERPROOF CHART

Printed on two sides this new chart includes the U.S. & B.V.I. from St. Thomas to Anegada, including anchorage and mooring locations as well as GPS coordinates, sailing routes and distances between waypoints. Excellent for the cockpit and attractive enough to hang on the wall when you get home.

This planning chart is a duplicate of the one you receive in the guide with the exception of being waterproof.