Scattered like emeralds across the Caribbean Sea, the U.S. Virgin Islands are encircled by gorgeous beaches and teeming coral reefs. A lively, if laid-back island culture offers eclectic cuisine and all manner of cocktails from island-made rum.
There’s music everywhere, from reggae to soca, and endless opportunities for adventure, from snorkeling and hiking to zip-lining.
But which island should you choose? St. Thomas, the most developed, is brimming with activities and world-class shopping. St. Croix, bigger but sleepier, is the place to go for diving, snorkeling, and beach life. Both extend a warm welcome and both have interesting culture away from the beach.
Read on to learn more about St. Croix vs St. Thomas as a choice for your dream vacation.
Weather & Best Time to Visit
Like the rest of the Caribbean, the USVI enjoys a tropical climate year-round. December to March is peak season when all the islands are busier. April and May are both great times to go, with sunny days and low rainfall. June to November is wetter, with the possibility of storms.
There’s no real variation between the climates of St. Croix or St. Thomas, as the islands are close together, just 46 miles apart. St. Croix may have marginally more rainfall, but this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
Some 46 miles east of Puerto Rico and west of the Leeward Islands, the USVI, including St. Thomas and St. Croix, are part of the Greater Antilles and belong to the same archipelago as the British Virgin Islands.
All the islands have a landscape of rugged, forested hills, white sand beaches, and fringing coral reefs. The mountains of St. Croix are in the north, with the south of the island flattening out into a coastal plain that’s dotted with old windmills, plantation houses, and former plantation villages.
St. Thomas is the location of the USVI capital, hilly Charlotte Amalie, and lies next to sleepy St. John, much of which is protected as a national park. It’s the most densely populated of the islands.
St. Croix, 46 miles to the south, is the biggest island in the chain at 84 square miles, compared to St. Thomas’ 31 square miles.
Throughout history, St. Thomas and St. Croix have swapped hands as different waves of settlers and invaders passed through the Caribbean.
Both were originally inhabited by the Taino people, who were conquered in the 15th century by the Carib, who were in charge when Columbus reached St. Croix in 1493.
Spanish, English, and French settlers all squabbled over the islands until 1666, when St. Thomas was claimed by Denmark. The Danes grew sugarcane, which was farmed by convicts and later, African slaves. St. Croix came under Danish control later, in 1733.
The sugarcane business fell into decline and slavery was abolished in 1848, after which the USA negotiated with Denmark to buy the islands. The purchase was completed in 1917.
The Danes have left their legacy in aspects of island life including architecture, place names, and some festivals, but otherwise, both St. Croix and St. Thomas today are highly multicultural.
You’ll hear a mixture of English, French patois, Spanish (among immigrants from Puerto Rico), and Creole spoken, for example, but not Danish.
The people of both St. Thomas and St. Croix are known for being friendly, laid back, family-oriented, and devout, generally speaking, with a rich history of superstition and storytelling. The American influence is clear, too, with familiar fast food restaurants and a keen following of American sports.
Both islands have a similar culture, but St. Croix is the more off the beaten track, relatively speaking, less busy, and less commercial. It might be the better of the two if you want to immerse yourself in authentic local culture and are less concerned about a lively bar scene.
St. Thomas and St. Croix both have a lively program of festivals year-round, so time your visit right if you want to catch one. St. Croix hosts a “jump up” four times a year, the biggest around Valentine’s Day, with carnival-like celebrations on the streets of Christiansted.
Mardi Croix, at Cane Bay, is a fantastic event to join, held on the Saturday before Mardi Gras. Yachting enthusiasts will want to visit in March for the annual St. Croix International Regatta, with yacht racing, live music, and lashings of Cruzan rum.
St. Thomas also has what’s regarded as the most colorful Carnival celebrations in the USVI, with parades, dazzling costumes, and an even more prestigious international regatta that takes place at the end of March.
Beaches & Natural Wonders
The real draw of both St. Thomas and St. Croix is the glorious sandy beaches that encircle each island. Because both islands are protected by coral reefs, the snorkeling on each is superb.
St. Croix has the edge for diving, with wrecks, drop-offs, and the largest living reef of any Caribbean island to explore.
One of the biggest bonuses of visiting St. Thomas is that you’ll have easy access to sleepy St. John, a short ferry ride away.
A large part of this lush island is protected as a national park, and Trunk Bay has to be one of the most gorgeous beaches on the islands. You can also easily take ferries to the nearby British Virgin Islands, which are equally pretty.
On St. Thomas itself, you’re spoiled for choice. Magen’s Bay, one of the best beaches in St. Thomas, is a long sweep of pale golden sand with plenty of facilities. Honeymoon Beach, on tiny Water Island, is as romantic as beaches come, lined with arching palm trees and sea grape trees, with great snorkeling just offshore.
Sapphire Beach, meanwhile, attracts windsurfers and at the same time has dreamy views across the aquamarine water toward St. John.
St. Croix is more isolated—you wouldn’t go to St. John for a day from here, for example—but it does have absolutely beautiful beaches. A worthwhile day trip is to Buck Island, one and a half miles off the coast and protected as a national park.
A long swathe of powdery white sand invites sunbathing, while the snorkeling is superb, with an excellent chance of spotting the sea turtles that nest here. You can follow an underwater snorkel trail and look out for blue tang, graceful angelfish, and parrotfish.
Fort Frederick Beach is convenient for Frederiksted, should you want to spend some time in town and then cool off with a dip. Cane Bay Beach, meanwhile, is the quintessential Caribbean dream and one of the best beaches in St. Croix.
This long stretch of powdery white sand offers abundant shade, crystal clear water, and a quarter mile offshore, spectacular diving on The Wall, where the seafloor plummets to 1,000 feet.
Cane Bay is a great choice if your party is a mix of divers and sun worshipers who prefer to lounge on the beach. There are plenty of bars and restaurants, beach volleyball, and more gentle snorkeling here.
Activities & Things to Do
Both St. Thomas and St. Croix feel as though they’re made for outdoor living, with a huge choice of activities.
St. Thomas, as the more developed of the two, is the one to choose if you’ve got teens in tow. You’ll find the Tree Limin’ Extreme zipline here, as well as adventure sports like parasailing, and watersports equipment to rent at every major beach.
Away from the beach, you can take the Skyride Tram 700 feet up to Paradise Point for spectacular views, or wander through the quaint old streets of the Charlotte Amalie Historic District.
Here, you can admire Fort Christian, the Emancipation Garden, which celebrates the end of slavery, and climb the 99 steps, an old Danish step-street, to the five-story Blackbeard’s Castle. This isn’t a castle as such, but a watchtower built by the Danes from which to look out for approaching enemies.
Shopping in St. Thomas packs a punch for such a tiny island. You’ll find shops offering everything from a vast choice of duty-free jewelry, electronics, liquor, cigars, watches, and fashion to more authentic local stores where you can buy crafts including pottery, paintings, fabrics, and rustic jewelry.
St. Croix is altogether more sleepy, although no less interesting. One of the best things to do in St. Croix is to take a kayak tour of the Salt River National Park and Ecological Preserve, one of the most important mangrove forests in the USVI, with colorful bird life. This is also the point where Columbus arrived at the island back in 1493.
Elsewhere, visit Fort Christiansvaern, an 18th-century fort built by the Danish that’s regarded as one of the best-preserved colonial defenses in the Caribbean. Inside, there are exhibits on the history of the island and of the town of Christiansted, the island’s capital.
Also worth seeing is St. George Village Botanical Garden. This lush garden occupies the site of a former sugar plantation and exhibits more than 1,500 Caribbean species, many with the potential for commercial use, whether as herbal medicine, color dye, food, or building material.
In Frederiksted, drop in at the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts, a wonderful gallery showcasing the work of Caribbean artists.
Food & Drink
Food on both islands reflects the flavors of the Caribbean: fiery jerked meat on the BBQ, tasty curries, fresh fish, conch fritters, and rum punch with everything.
St. Croix sees itself as the culinary capital of the USVI, with a dining scene that varies from toes-in-the-sand beach bars to romantic spots and food trucks selling roti, salt fish pate, and ice-cold beer.
Try spiced mahi mahi fish, baked yellowfin tuna, and juicy clawless Caribbean lobster, or go all out for a meat fix at a pig roast.
Arrive in June and you’ll be able to join the fun at the Mango Melee and Tropical Fruit Festival, a chance to try an astonishing 80 varieties of mango from the island in many formats, as well as mango cooking and even eating competitions.
This is also the month when the internationally famed Taste of St. Croix food festival takes place. It’s a great opportunity to sample the wares of the island’s top chefs.
Caribbean rum is big on St. Croix, too, with two distilleries to tour—Captain Morgan and Cruzan Rum—both of which offer tastings.
The food scene on St. Thomas is no less diverse. Look out for fungi—nothing to do with mushrooms—but a tasty side made of cornmeal, okra and water. Snack on sweet, fried Johnny cakes from Island Flavor in Charlotte Amalie, and leafy callaloo, a soup that packs in greens, fish, and meat.
You’ll see signs everywhere for pate, which isn’t like the French liver pâté, but rather, the islands’ answer to empanadas: meat, chicken, fish, or veggies stuffed into a pastry case and deep fried.
Try some on a food tour of Charlotte Amalie, which might also feature fungi, fried yellow plantain, pulled pork tacos, and curried chicken, as well as the ubiquitous Caribbean cocktails.
On St. Croix, you might try a Cruzan Confusion, a heady mix of coconut rum, mango rum, and pineapple juice over ice. St. Thomas, though, can claim the Bushwacker as its signature drink, a boozy combination of coconut rum, dark rum, Kahlua, Bailey’s, vodka, and amaretto over ice.
Still puzzling over whether to pick St. Croix or St. Thomas? There’s no need. Why not take a cruise that incorporates both? Browse Celebrity’s itineraries and choose your escape to paradise.