If you’ve been following my travel adventures for awhile now, you know that I have a particular affinity for beaches and the islands. The influence is most likely from my Trinidad roots, spending almost every summer there as a child. There is nothing like cracking open an ice cold beer and taking a swim in the ocean where you just have to look down to see the fish swimming with you.
The US Virgin Islands (dubbed USVI for short) consists of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. I had the pleasure of visiting both St. Thomas and St. John. To me, St. Thomas had more of a city feel with a bustling environment (it was also Carnival), while St. John had was very relaxed and laid back, feeling like an escape to a remote and untouched part of the world. I’ll admit, I was shocked that in four hours I could escape the craziness of the Big Apple and arrive in a modern day form of paradise.
I went in the beginning of May and arrived just in time for Carnival. Carnival is huge throughout the Caribbean and was brought by the slaves. Unfortunately, when they arrived, the Europeans took over Carnival, not allowing slaves to participate. Well, in modern times, the people of the Caribbean have taken it back and are sharing the culture that people travel from all over the world to celebrate.
Because the Virgin Islands are part of a US territory, if you don’t have a passport but still want a Caribbean escape, you can come here. What you will need is some info so you can maximize your stay. I’ve curated the perfect Carnival trip for you and your friends. Just click the links, book, and get ready to fete in the USVI!
BEFORE YOU GO
If you don’t have a passport and are a US citizen, you will need to fly with your birth certificate. Don’t play yourself and only bring your drivers’ license. You won’t get on that flight.
WHAT TO PACK
The weather is warm so bring shorts, tank-tops, skirts, loose fitting clothes and of course: lots of bathing suits!
If you are playing mas like I did, you will need specific items for your Carnival costume. The most important, is a comfortable pair of shoes. Yes, your outfit will look sexier if you were wearing heels, but do you want to dance down the road for 4 miles in 4 inches? I thought not. Most carnival revelers wear sneakers or boots. Many bands will share where to buy shoes if you ask in advance. You can also do a search online, but remember, go for comfort, not just style. Your feet will thank you! The band will share what the color scheme is and then you go from there. I was instructed to have silver shoes, so I went to DSW and bought some silver Keds with sparkles ($79.99, dsw.com). You also need tights. Bring three pair. Seriously. I did and ripped two before I even had my full costume on. Make sure you bring sheer tights that don’t have control top (the line will look funny in your costume and you will look like an amateur). You can go with basic tights or have a little fun, I opted for fishnet tights from Nude Barre ($33.00, nudebarre.com). They held up well throughout the day.
WHERE TO STAY
Even though it has been two years, the USVI is still feeling the effects of the back to back category 5 hurricanes that hit the isles in 2017. On St. Thomas the Marriott is still not opened and neither is the Ritz Carlton. Damaged homes and debris still dot the hillsides in St. John.
Nevertheless, what has emerged from this is a strong villa rental community and honestly, for a Caribbean vacation, it’s the place to be. I love a villa feel for girls trips, bachelorette parties, family reunions and more. If you are trying to vacation and save money, this can be an option. Also, because you are renting a home, you have a kitchen so cooking even one meal a day in, will save you some cash that you can spend on the island!
For this trip, I stayed at Villa Sharazad. It’s located on the south shore of St. Thomas perched on a hill in an area called ‘Green Cay’. The views are stunning and I liked staying here because it’s away from the hustle and bustle of the downtown area. It took about 20 minutes to get to wherever we needed to go. There are beautiful beaches close by to the villa including Bolongo Beach and Abi Beach. The villa is spansive and beautiful. Four of us stayed here but it could easily sleep at least 10 people (it’s a 5 room villa). The only downside to the villa is that there is construction going on next door so that can feel a bit disturbing. Nevertheless, they had 2 category 5 hurricanes! Know that you will need some patience in paradise.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
I wasn’t sure what kind of food to expect from the USVI, but it’s pretty in line with Caribbean food so my taste buds were in heaven! However, unlike other Caribbean islands, I feel you can get a strong array of good quality food here. I think the American influence of the melting pot dribbles over into this Caribbean getaway. I ate everything from Caribbean, Italian, to steak while on this trip.
It’s 5’o’clock all the time in St. Thomas. Cruzan rum is big in USVI so get ready for sweet rum punches that go down easy and get you tipsy even easier.
The restaurants in St. Thomas had exceptional food. If you enjoy yacht views but want a more casual dining experience, you have to try French Bistro. The food there was so good! It was simple, yet elegant. The food was a bit of a mix, so if you have picky eaters, this is a great place to satisfy everyone. I had pasta with shrimp. It was heavy, so I ate about half and packed up the rest.
Personally, when I come to the islands, I eat a lot of seafood; however, on your visit to St. Thomas, if you are a meat eater, you must try Island View Steakhouse. This was one of the best rib eyes I have ever had. The aesthetic of this location is absolutely gorgeous. While I went for a later dinner, I recommend going for an earlier dinner so you can experience the breathtaking views. This place is so beautiful, that you could easily propose to someone here. Another thing I loved about this restaurant was the “Honor Bar”, which is there fully stocked, self-serve bar. Different chips are representative of the pricing of different types of drinks and you just bring the chips back to the table and the server will ring it up at the end of the evening. It made the experience feel even more intimate.
I had one of the most delicious ribeyes ever there and the sides were good too as were the appetizers. Sometimes you’ll go to a nice restaurant and it will have a beautiful view and subpar food or amazing food but it’s in a hole in the wall. This one was the perfect balance of a gorgeous view and delicious food.
If you go to St. Thomas during their Carnival, there is no way you can skip liming and eating at the Carnival Village. Think of it as a food schmorgasborg with live performances. Everyone from locals to tourists are in attendance, enjoying the booths with food and drinks. I’ll dive more into this later.
WHAT TO DO
The beauty of the USVI is that you are often a shorty ferry ride away from another small island. There is so much to explore and island hopping will grant you more than just beaches and pina coladas.
We took a 10 minute ferry from Crown Bay Marina to Water Island. Water Island is considered the “fourth island” in the USVI with a population of less than a 150. The island was owned by a slave who owned slaves and there are small rental villas. The island doesn’t have any grocery stores and the mail is dropped off every day via ferry; however, locals and tourists love it for a quick getaway. Honeymoon Beach was one of my favorite beaches with Dinghy’s Beach Bar & Grill serving up strong drinks and easy bites so you don’t have to worry about brining a picnic. You can enjoy paddle boarding, snorkeling, and kayaking for rent or just take advantage of the beautiful beach and water. You can get a piece of history by visiting Fort Segarra. Fort Segarra is an underground fort that was never finished. It’s purpose was to protect a submarine base on St. Thomas but the war ended before it was finished. I highly recommend taking a day trip Water Island.
The beautiful thing about St. Thomas is that you are just a ferry ride away from the sister isle St. Croix and St. John. We went to St. John for a day on our visit and if you are looking for even more tranquility and remote beaches, this is the place to go. All beaches in USVI are public beaches. With the Category 5 hurricanes, the beaches that charged entrances have stopped; however, this is going back in effect on June 1st. Get off the ferry and have a leisurely breakfast at Cruz Landing (within walking distance), then take either an island tour (you can do this in about 1.5 hours) or head straight to the beach.
We went to Cinnamon Bay, which is a beautiful beach and you can look off into the yonder and see monstrous properties owned by wealthy individuals like Michael Bloomberg.
We also visited the Virgin Islands National Park and spent time on the Annaberg Plantation. The plantation, located in St. Johns, holds a lot of history, as a former sugarcane and molasses making plantation. The views are beautiful and it’s very picturesque. However, one can’t help but to be haunted by the history. The point where I’m sitting at above is referred to as Suicide Point. On a clear day, you can see the British Virgin Islands. The slaves in BVI were free before USVI, so many slaves would try to “jump” to freedom by swimming the channel. Some succeeded but many died; nevertheless, they determined it as “freedom” either way.
Some people have been disrespectful to the grounds. Please remember that when visiting the Annaberg Plantation, that many people died here. Have respect and don’t anger the ancestors.
If you have never played Carnival, I find that St. Thomas Carnival is a great one to start with. It’s not as large (or expensive) as Trinidad Carnival, but you will have lots of fun! I played with Elskoe & Associates, a mas camp that has been around since 1957. It was started by Dorothy Elskoe, with only 20 members in the band and has grown over the years. Elskoe had been part of another band when Carnival was revived in St. Thomas in 1952 and then started her own band 7 years later. Dorothy Elskoe is now 93 and no longer participates, but still loves Carnival and the culture. The legacy has been carried on by her daughter, Monica Elskoe. Monica explained, “some people just have it in their DNA, the whole Carnival thing.” I followed up, “Like y’all?” She laughed and agreed. I was in awe at the Elskoes roots in Carnival and Carnival culture. The fact that this band is 62 years old, and still going strong is a testimony. While Dorothy is 93, Monica revealed that the “greatest gift we can give her is to continue her legacy.”
This mas camp takes members of all ages with everyone from young to old (a woman who was 70 was playing as well!) being involved. In the 1950’s, the costumes were not as revealing and according to Elskoe, “had more historical references,” with themes like Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, you can still see the culture and history of Carnival with modern day costumes and practices. The costumes for Elskoe & Associates ranged so that everyone could play.
All Caribbean Carnivals are not the same and what makes St. Thomas Carnival so special is not just the Saturday that people play mas and the country comes to watch, but also everything surrounding the event. There is a Carnival Village that is set up with Carnival rides and various booths serving drinks and delicious Caribbean food and Carnival food for guests. You can get true Caribbean delights like Mannish Water (a goat soup) or chicken wings if your palate is less adventurous. The island of St. Thomas really gets together to put this on. Black fraternities like Omega Psi Phi even had a booth and served as a great example of the American cultural influence on the island. The village doesn’t close til’ about 4 in the morning with SOCA artists and DJs pumping out tunes.
Another thing that differs with St. Thomas Carnival is that it happens on a Saturday and the adult parade is only one day. In Trinidad, Carnival is both Monday and Tuesday, meaning that you pretty much have to take off half or even the full week to get a true experience. With St. Thomas you can leave on a Thursday (or even Friday) and fly out that Sunday (or Monday), giving you maximum lime time while using minimum PTO. While in Trini you are playing mas, in St. Thomas, Elskoe revealed, “if you are walking in the parade, you call it a troop.” The whole experience (playing in the band, walking with the troop, having a float) is called a floup. This is a St. Thomas phrase.
I loved this Carnival because of how relaxed it is in comparison to others. We started around 11AM in the morning. Each troupe has a number so they know what order they are in the parade, some troupes weren’t ready so we got to go a bit earlier. We danced down the road to music with drinks til’ about 4:30PM. This Carnival is great because while others have heavy security and ropes so people in the crowd can’t participate, St. Thomas is more lax. Our videographer, Felix Estevez, was easily able to chip down the road with us, whereas in Trinidad, it might have been a bigger deal, particularly because he wasn’t in costume. If you’re friends aren’t playing mas, they can still chip down the road with you for a bit. I felt very safe during this Carnival experience as well and it was reported that the day went about with no incidents.
When you think of Carnival, people think of Brazil, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Barbados. St. Thomas Carnival should definitely be added to the list as one for fun, even though it’s not heavily played by tourists. This Carnival will give you an authentic Caribbean Carnival experience for a fraction of the price.
You can check out this video to learn more about Elskoe & Associates and see more of the Carnival experience, here. Check out