US VIRGIN ISLANDS WITH KIDS PART ONE: St. Thomas and St. John – Take a kid to a beach where sand flows through fingers like fine sugar and the sea is as warm and translucent as a bath, and he won’t ever want to leave. Add in a bit of pirate history and a chance to swim with kaleidoscope-hued fish, and the entire family will vote this the best vacation ever.
The United States Virgin Islands consists of three main islands—St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix—the first two located close enough to explore from one home base. Island hopping to St. Croix is easy, but the greater distance and varied attractions merits more than a day trip. (Click here to read part two: St. Croix with Kids.)
My advice? Enjoy the best of ‘both worlds’ and book a stay in each! Here are tips for your St. Thomas and St. John family vacation.
Activity 1: Swim with the Fish at Coral World Ocean Park (St. Thomas)
Learn about the Virgin Islands’ ocean life and get up close and personal with the marine animals at Coral World Ocean Park. In addition to looking under the sea in the geodesic underwater observatory, you can get within kissing distance on the sea trek, snuba diving, sea lion swim, Nautilus submarine, of several see and touch tanks. Coki Beach, one of the best beaches to learn how to snorkel, is next door. Rentals are available, and if you bring a dog bone or bread you can literally have yellow-and-black-striped sergeant major fish eating right out of your hands.
Activity 2: Dive into the Blue in Magens Bay (St. Thomas)
Without a doubt, Magens Bay is one of the most beautiful and family-friendly beaches in the world. The mile long crescent beach hugs a gentle stretch of sea that’s perfect for young and old alike. Magens does charge an entrance fee ($4 for non-residents, kids 12-under free,) but in exchange you get lifeguards, bathrooms, and showers. There’s also a snack counter, souvenir shop, and a shop renting kayaks, paddle boards, and lounge chairs. On the far end there’s an arboretum, mangrove, coconut grove, and nature trail. The Nature Conservancy also opened a hiking trail to Magens Bay from the hill road above, but it can be tricky to spot the entrance. If you do drive in, be sure to stop at Famous Delight (long-time residents know it as Udder Delight) for a liqueur-laced milkshakes—perfection after a day in the sun.
Activity 3: Kayak through a Mangrove on a Virgin Islands Eco Tour (St. Thomas/St. John)
Virgin Islands Eco Tours runs a number of hike, kayak, and snorkel tours on St. Thomas and St. John including a thrilling nighttime kayaking trip to “Pirates Point.” Probably the best adventure with kids is the one to Mangrove Lagoon where in between learning about nature’s coastal filter they may also see a variety of marine life—on a typical day guides may point out lobsters and barracudas—and an army of hermit crabs.
Activity 4: Hike a Nature Trail in the Virgin Islands National Park (St. John)
One of the smallest of the US Virgin Islands, St. John remains mostly as nature intended because more than half the island has been protected as the Virgin Islands National Park since 1956. Your best bet for making the most of a day on St. John is to get around by jeep (either on St. John or bring it on the car ferry from St. Thomas, but check that it’s allowed by your rental policy.) Otherwise, you can take a safari taxi either as a tour, or point to point, from Cruz Bay where the ferry docks. Check the calendar for park ranger programs, they’re all excellent but there are a couple of standouts: discover medicinal and other uses for tropical plants along the Reef Bay Trail on your way to seeing the ancient Taino Petroglyphs; learn about the sugar plantation at Annaberg Historic Site; and/or learn how seagrass inhabitants defend themselves on the Waters Edge walk at the Leinster Bay Trailhead next to Annaberg.
1 Great Place to Stay: Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Beach Marriott Beach Resort (St. Thomas)
Frenchman’s Reef is blessed with a great location. Set on Morningstar Bay, the main building is only a short path from one of the best beaches on the island—known for its gentle waves, Morningstar is a favorite with skimboarders–while satellite rooms and a couple of restaurants and bars are right on it. The resort itself is huge with everything you might want, and more. There are 4 restaurants, 4 bars, plus a café, deli, and well stocked convenience shop. Better still, consider the four pools (including 2 infinity pools and a swim-up bar,) full-service spa, fitness center, and variety of watersport rentals. Available excursions include sunset sails and night kayaking tour. Plus, Frenchman’s Reef recently benefited from a $48 million renovation, which shows in the upscale and comfortable tropical décor.
1 Great Place to Eat: Iggies Beach Bar & Grill (St. Thomas)
Iggies Beach Bar & Grill has reasonably priced meals, cheap drinks, and kids can play in the sand. Go on Wednesday nights for the all-you-can-eat buffet and stay for a West Indian Carnival with steel pans, conga lines, mocko jumbies, and fire-breathing limbo dancers.
Ready to start planning part one of your visit to the US Virgin Islands with kids?
Don’t miss the Google map with my recommendations below. And don’t miss part two of this feature: St. Croix with Kids.