Susanna Henighan, author of Moon Virgin Islands, answered your questions about the Virgin Islands.
Susanna Henighan: Hi guys and welcome to today's chat. It is a beautiful sunny day here in the Virgin Islands, and I'm ready to answer your questions. So let's get started!
Durango, CO: We like to travel once a year with our best friends and we each have young teenage/preteen sons. Our trips usually revolve around snorkeling, hiking, and "easy" adventures (nothing too dangerous) for the kids and great beaches, but quiet locale for the grown-ups. We like to stay in condo-type hotels to save on meals and prefer places where we can experience local cultures rather than cookie-cutter, touristy, mega resorts. One of our favorite trips was Ambergris Caye, Belize, but we would like to find somewhere with better, "walk-in" beaches. Any suggestions in the Virgin Islands? Thanks, Mini
Susanna Henighan: Dear Durango:
Thanks for the questions.
The island that comes to mind is St. John. Estate Concordia or Maho Bay Camps are two of my favorite places to stay. Both are within the Virgin Islands National Park and have facilities for you to self-cater. Kids will love the unique accommodations, and there are tons of activities available (hiking, snorkeling, kayaking are the most popular). The beaches on St. John are fantastic -- beautiful white sand, coconut trees, reefs to snorkel on.
St. Croix might also be a good choice -- it has nice hiking, great scuba diving, and a lot of historic sites. The beaches are nice, but not as nice as those on St. John. You could check out Cottages by the Sea, which has some very cute little cottages right along the Frederiksted Beach.
I hope that you guys have a great vacation.
Washington, DC: Are there any major advantages to visiting the British Virgin Islands as opposed to the U.S. Virgin Islands? Thanks in advance for any information you can provide.
Susanna Henighan: Dear Washington, DC:
The main advantage to visiting the BVI is that it is a little bit more off the beaten path, so you feel less like one of the crowd. That said, there are places in the USVI that are remote and peaceful, and places in the BVI that are crowded. If you are intersted in a charter yacht vacation, than the BVI is your choice -- it has the greatest choice of charters and is closest to the best cruising ground.
The BVI has a reputation of being a little more upscale than the USVI, and the islands are less Americanized. I hope that helps.
Levittown, PA: Hi, my friends and I (early to mid thirties) are hoping to go on a vacation to one of the virgin islands in March. We are looking for an all inclusive that has a beautiful beach, good food, decent shopping, and above all--nice atmosphere! There are so many places to go and i was hoping you could tell me which you'd pick to go to. (i'm hoping to spend about $1500 or less per person). Any help or suggestions would be so appreciated. Thank you
Susanna Henighan: Dear Levittown,
Here are a few ideas that you could check out:
The Sugar Mill on Tortola is a charming little hotel, with great food and a lovely small beach right across the road. It routinely wins awards for good service. Its atmosphere is laid-back, but clearly upscale. (There is very little shopping nearby, however).
The Hotel on the Cay on St. Croix is located on a tiny island in Christiansted Harbour. There is a nice beach on the island, and tons of shopping is a VERY short ferry ride away. There is a restaurant too, but you might want to eat some of your meals at Christiansted's fabulous restaurants. The atmosphere is festive and welcoming.
On St. Thomas try Marriot Frenchman's Reef (1-888-236-2427), which offers inclusive pacakages, has a nice beach, and is close to Charlotte Amalie's famous shopping. This is a large resort, but it offers some attractive package deals, and the air link to St. Thomas is very good.
If you want something really unique, check out Cooper Island in the BVI. They have a handful of villas, a good beach, watersports centre, and restaurant. This is a real get-away.
And, since you asked, I would choose The Sugar Mill simply because it is a small hotel, and the food is excellent.
Duarte, CA: Do they use american dollars there?
Susanna Henighan: Dear Duarte,
Thanks, this is an easy one! Yes, both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands use U.S. dollars.
Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands: Dear Susanna, how would you compare life on Anegada with life on Virgin Gorda, with respect to the welcoming of visitors? Also, where do you recommend staying on Anegada, for a week, with the advantage of a television? George
Susanna Henighan: Dear George,
Thanks for the question. I can't say that there would be a big difference in the welcome you would receive on Anegada and Virgin Gorda: both are very welcoming islands. Anegada's population is smaller, though, so by the end of a week there is a good chance you would know most of the residents.
Regards a place to stay with television -- believe it or not, but there are not too many hotels on Anegada with TV. I stayed at the Sands Hotel, on the North Shore, (340/777-3217), which had television and is one of the best deals on the island. I recommend it. But a word to the wise: Anegada is not the place to come if you require a lot of diversions. Its main attraction is the peace and quiet.
Thanks again for the question!
Munroe Falls, OH: We (a party of eight) will be traveling to St. John USVI on March 23, 2007. We are having trouble figuring out how to get our luggage from the airport in St. Thomas to our villa on St.John. We will be renting two jeeps (4 people to a jeep) and there is not enough room to transport our luggage. It doesn't matter if we get the jeeps in St. Thomas or in St. John, we face the same problem. Any suggestions? Kathryn
Susanna Henighan: Dear Munroe Falls,
The best thing to do would be to take a taxis. You can easily get a taxi from the airport on St. Thomas to the St. John ferry dock, which is located at Red Hook, St. Thomas. All the airport taxis are large passenger vans that will be able to accommodate you and all your luggage. If you want, explain to the taxi driver at the airport that you want a private taxi -- this means that he won't wait for every seat to fill up before driving off. You will pay more, but in some situations it is worth it.
After you arrive on St. John, I recommend taking another taxi to your villa. Perhaps you could ask the driver to drop two members of your party off at the car rental agency to drive to the villa, or else you could go to the villa, get settled, and then deal with the rentals. If you call in advance, the rental agency might even agree to pick you up at your villa in the rentals.
And just as a note: it is possible to rent a car on St. Thomas and transport it to St. John via one of the car ferries. This is a fairly major undertaking, however, and not advisable since in the event of car trouble, your rental agency is on another island.
Have a great time! March is a wonderful time to visit the islands.
Washington, DC: I'm a US licensed private pilot. Are there any aircraft rental businesses in the BVI that will rent a light aircraft to me? If not, is there any way to fly around with a BVI pilot in a small plane? I'd like to check out some of the smaller islands that are off the beaten track. I'm also a huge fan of roti. What's the best roti in the BVI? Also, what can you recommend for day care in the BVI? I'd love to leave my 1-3 year-old with somebody for a few hours so that my wife and I can go SCUBA diving.
Susanna Henighan: Dear Washington:
Wow, these are some great questions.
First of all, I have not been able to find a business in the BVI that rents aircraft. There are a number of air charter companies, and it is possible that you could negotiate with one of them to provide this service. It is certainly not the usual request, however. You could start with Fly BVI (284/495-1747).
I should add that flying around the islands is a lot of fun, whether you're a pilot or not. I love the short flights between Tortola and Anegada, Tortola and Virgin Gorda, and St. Thomas and St. Croix. The scenery from up above is just spectacular.
On the topic of Rotis, this is an easy one: the best roti in the BVI can be found at the Roti Palace on Main Street, next to the Post Office. Call ahead so Mrs. Leonard knows you are coming (284/494-4196).
Finally, childcare: Some of the resorts offer this service; Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda has an entire programme for children. There are also a number of day care centres on the island, most in the Road Town area. As far as I know, however, none of them cater to visitors. I would recommend speaking with the proprietor of the inn or villa that you are staying with early -- preferably before you arrive. I am sure that they could arrange something for you.
Have a great trip!
Newcastle, ME: Is St. Croix less expensive than St. John? We took our adult children and a grandchild to St. John, found the condo rentals reasonable, and car rentals expensive.
Susanna Henighan: Dear Newcastle:
You are correct that car rentals on St. John are expensive; in my experience they are the most expensive in the whole Virgin Islands. This is partly because none of the rental companies rent cars -- only SUVs -- due to the island's rough terrain.
As a rule, St. Croix is probably less expensive as a vacation destination, although not dramatically so. Gas certainly is cheaper, and comparable accommodations will be less than those on St. John. Of course, in all things it depends on your standards and expectations: you can spend a fortune at a fancy resort on St. Croix, or be quite frugal at a campground on St. John.
As a side note, I have had success getting good prices for rental cars by using one of the national rental brands and booking in advance.
Thanks for the question!
Louisville, KY: My husband and I are considering a trip to the Virgin Islands. What is the best time to visit? We'd love to come when the crowds are small and the prices are low!
Susanna Henighan: Dear Louisville,
The tourist trade in the Virgin Islands is highly seasonal. The winter season, from December 1 to the end of March, is considered high season. This is when the prices will be at their peak, as well as the number of visitors. Low season is July to November, which is also the peak of the hurricane season and the hottest time of year. In between is the so-called "shoulder season", a good time for bargain hunters who still want to avoid the hottest time of year.
Prices for hotel rooms can drop as much as 40 percent between high and low season, and air fares also typically decline, although not by quite as much. So planning a trip outside of high season is the best way to save some money.
I hope you and your husband decide on a trip to the VI -- it is a great place to visit!
Boston, MA: We are taking our first trip to St. John in early March for one week. Two main questions for you: 1--Are there any secrets to making the St Thomas to St John ferry trip hassle-free, such as timelines, pre-trip arrangements, etc.? This trip will be our only vacation until Christmas, so we'd like to avoid time-eating travel mix-ups that we could've planned around. 2--We are staying in Caneel Bay and have rented a car for four days, but we're not sure how to take best advantage of seeing all corners of the island. Can you recommend an itinerary for the week, if we'd like to be fairly active and see all of the sights that we should before we leave? Thanks so much for taking our questions!
Susanna Henighan: Dear Boston,
You've made a great choice to visit St. John, and Caneel Bay is a beautiful property.
Regarding ferries to St. John, Caneel Bay is one of the resorts that offers special airport transportation for its guests. I copied the next two paragraphs from the Caneel Bay website:
"Upon arrival at the St. Thomas airport, please go to the baggage claim area and you will find our reception lounge on the right. We will assist with your luggage and escort you to our private ferry. The transfer fee is prepaid and will be applied against your advance deposit.
"Cost for transfers which includes baggage handling, van transportation and unlimited use of the Caneel ferry between St. Thomas and St. John during your stay with us is $85 per adult roundtrip, $50 per adult one-way, $42.50 for children ages 5 to 12 years and complimentary for children 4 years or younger."
So for ease and making the most of your time, this is probably your best choice. If you want to go on your own with the taxi/ferry/taxi option, my primary piece of advice is to remain patient -- frustration is the quickest route to starting your vacation out on the wrong foot. It takes a maximum of 30 minutes to drive from the airport to the ferry dock at Red Hook, and ferries to St. John leave Red Hook every hour on the hour (from 8 a.m. to midnight), so plan accordingly.
Regarding your second question -- how to make the most of four days with a rental car on St. John -- I would suggest spending at least one day exploring the area around Coral Bay: Salt Pond Bay is a nice beach. If you are up for an adventure, drive the unpaved road to Lameshure Bay, which is past Salt Pond Bay and very remote and beautiful. You should also spend a day in the area of Anneburg. You can spend the morning at the Anneburg Sugar Mill Ruins and then spend the afternoon at Waterlemon Cay, just down the road. Finally, you could spend the day at one of the lovely North Shore beaches: Hawksnest or Trunk are the best. And remeber, just driving around St. John can be a lot of fun -- so plan on a self-guided island tour too. Under no circumstances should you drive into Cruz Bay, however. Traffic and parking are terrible, and you are much better off taking a taxi.
Have a great trip!
Washington, DC: Another pilot question: Which islands in the BVI have a landing strip? Also, is there any sea plane service between the islands?
Susanna Henighan: Hello again Washington, D.C.:
There are airports on three of the islands in the BVI: Beef Island, which is connected to Tortola by a bridge; Anegada; and Virgin Gorda. The strips on Anegada and Beef Island are paved, and the strip on Virgin Gorda is dirt (and very exciting, thanks to strong winds and some nearby cliffs!)Several of the islands have helicopter landing pads.
There is a seaplane company in the U.S. Virgin Islands -- Seaborne Airlines -- which has announced that it plans to start seaplane service between Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, and North Sound, Virgin Gorda, although this has not yet become a reality. Seaborne does, however, provide regular seaplane service between Charlotte Amalie and Christiansted, St. Croix, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Seaplanes are tons of fun, and very time efficient since you don't have to go to the airport.
Thanks for the questions!
Seattle, WA: Hi! Is beach camping permitted in the Virgin Islands? If so, what kind of restrictions are in place? Are permits needed? Thanks! Abby
Susanna Henighan: Dear Seattle,
Ahh, camping on the beach. This is really one of the best ways to enjoy the Virgin Islands--one of my favorites, anyway. The specific rules may vary a little bit between the islands, but in general, you are not allowed to camp on the beach unless you are camping at a bonafide campground. Luckily there are several of these: Ivan's on Jost Van Dyke (284/495-9358) is fabulous, as is Cinnamon Bay on St. John. Vie's, also on St. John, is very bare-bones (340/693-5033). Brewer's Bay on Tortola is okay, and there is a simple campground on Anegada. All of these will allow you to either bring your own tent, or use one which they provide (a plus considering airline luggage limits). There aren't any campgrounds on St. Thomas, and St. Croix's lone campground is in the rainforest, not on the beach.
A word of warning, camping on the beach is fabulous, but remember to pack some powerful bug spray and long sleeves/pants to protect against mosquitos and sand flies.
Thanks for the question!
Philadelphia, PA: I'f I'm coming to the BVI in late July. Is there some way I can participate in the Festival parade or obtain a costume? Also, I am particularly interested in historical sites--are they pretty easy to find or should I hire a guide? If so, is there a particular company you'd recommend?
Susanna Henighan: Dear Philly,
Thanks for the question. It is great that you are planning to visit the BVI during Festival, which is a unique and really fun time to be in the islands. Besides the annual parade, there are a whole lot of other activities including food fairs, horse racing, beauty pageants, and tons of music -- reggae, calpyso, soca, and much more. The Festival reaches its peak during the first full week of August -- the first Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of August are the main holidays, and the parade takes place on Monday. So be sure to time your vacation accordingly.
Regarding costumes, to be honest, most tourists do not take part in the parade itself, but that should not stop you. I would suggest contacting the BVI Tourist Board directly to find out if they can hook you up with a Festival troop. Be aware, however, that most troops rehearse for several weeks prior to the parade. Just coming out to watch the parade is a lot of fun. It usually starts around midday, and continues until sunset. The whole parade route is something like a street fair, and you should get there early to scope out a shady spot.
On the topic of historic sites, I am not aware of anyone who offers tours of historic sites of the BVI. In my book, and many other guides, you will find a listing of the main historic sites, and if you are the least bit adventurous, the best way to visit them is to rent a car and find them on your own. The BVI Tourist Board has also published a pamphlet with information on historic sites -- you should be able to get it directly from them. As a rule, though, historic sites in the BVI are not particularly well-managed, marked or protected, so be prepared.
Takoma Park, MD: I know that crime is a problem on some Caribbean islands. But I never hear about any crime problems in the BVI. What's the deal with that? Are the BVI police just better?
Susanna Henighan: Dear Takoma Park,
Crime is something that worries many visitors to the Caribbean, and it's good to consider it. First of all, most all visitors to the Virgin Islands have absolutely no problems with crime. That said, it is important to remember that although you are on vacation, you should still practise basic common sense -- pay attention to your surroundings and do not leave valuables unattended. Don't even bring them with you -- there is no need for fine jewelry down here. And please, don't do anything that could see you on the wrong side of the law -- drugs are just as illegal in the VI as they are in the rest of the world. Regarding the different crime rates, it is true that the BVI's crime rate is one of the lowest in the Caribbean. I think that this is more likely due to the small and close-knit population than the police themselves. It also may have to do with the BVI's rule that basically makes all types of guns illegal.
Thanks for the question, Takoma.
Susanna Henighan: I am afraid that our time is up, but thanks for all the questions. You really tested my knowledge on a few of them! I hope that my answers were helpful, and that you will all plan on coming down to the Virgin Islands soon. There are a lot of unique experiences waiting for you.
Have a great afternoon,