Boating, Diving, Snorkeling and Beaching around St. Thomas and St. John
The ocean is a not-to-be-missed MAJOR ATTRACTION. Seeing it from land or shoreline is stunning but getting out on a floating vessel is a must-do. Ideally, you should take to the sea more than once during your stay.
- 1. Water activities involve A LOT OF SUN. Take precautions. If you want to enjoy multiple days at the beach or near the water, plan your excursions for early mornings or late afternoons when the sun is not as strong. Peak sun happens between 11-3.
- 2. Consider buying a rash guard or swim shirt with UV protection. Even with sunscreen the reflective rays of the sun while you are floating on the water are intense. The bonus is that if there are any sea lice or stinging things you will also be protected.
- 3. WARNING: Check the label on your sunscreens before you buy. Many commercial brands contain ingredients that are inadvertently killing the coral reefs. (Read this post on sunscreens by Captain Kelly of Singing Dog Sailing before you buy.) Be aware that even waterproof sunscreens need to be reapplied every 2-4 hours for maximum effectiveness.
You have some important decisions to make!
- Powerboat or Sailboat?
- Captain or No Captain?
- Small and private or large and public?
- Luxury or Affordable?
- Full Day, Half Day or Sunset?
- USVI or BVI waters?
Most full and half day boat rentals are private charters on what you call 6 packs. This refers to the kind of license the captain has not the amount of beer on board. It simply means that only 6 passengers are allowed on board during the charter (not including the captain and crew).
These trips usually involve one or more snorkel stops and a lunch stop. They tend to be more intimate because you usually know everyone on board and itineraries are customized by your group with some guidance offered by the captain.
The larger charters, offer full day, half days and sunset cruises to specific destinations. These charter boats often include a variety of passengers (30-50) from different resorts and most often include snorkeling, drinks and snacks in the ticket price.
Pros: Powerboats can travel farther and faster than sailboats and can make more stops in the allotted time so you can potentially see more sites in one single trip. Sailboats offer a more relaxed, serene experience. Smaller 6 pack charter boats give you more personal attention than larger charters. Larger charters are more affordable and usually include extras like some food, beverages and snorkel equipment. Plus, you can make new friends!
Cons: Powerboats often smell of diesel and the engine noise makes it difficult to talk or listen while underway. There is also the additional cost of gas and oil on top of the boat and captain rental. Large charters can often be impersonal because of the volume of guests and more rigid schedules.
Price: There are a lot of variables to consider when estimating your budget. You can get on a boat for as little as $65 all the way up to $450 per person (pp). For the most part, prices on 6 pack charters and the larger charter boats are pretty compatible as there is LOTS of competition in each of these classes. Luxury always costs more. There are a handful of really excellent charter boats that cater to a high end experience. If you’re going to splurge on a VI activity, this is where to do it.
If booking a private charter, the cost of the charter is set and then can be divided by the amount of passengers (up to 6 for a 6 pack). Unexpected extras not always considered are BVI Customs Fees of $40 pp (an excellent reason to stay in the USVI waters), tipping the crew 15-20% and gas. Many powerboat charters don’t include gas in their quoted price, so be sure to ask. Some have a set fee and some do exact calculations based on usage.
The larger charters offer a per person (pp) fee for their trips. Some of the smaller sunset and half day charters will also offer a pp rate. Expect to pay from $65-85 pp for a half day or sunset sail and $150 pp for a full day. Half day power boats start at $275-550, full day $400-700. 6 pack sailboat charters can be $500-900/per day.
The variation in price is dependent on many things including size of boat, amenities offered on board (luxury or affordable), travel to the BVIs, whether or not the boat is affiliated with a hotel concession or privately-operated, gas and pick up/drop off location.
Recommended for: older children, couples, seniors, party animals
- 1. Book early. Because there are so many options and so many charter companies vying for your business, do your research and make your reservation early. If visiting during peak season (Jan-April) or holiday weeks (Thanksgiving, X-mas/New Years, President’s Week, Easter), it’s smart to book your boat trip prior to arriving.
- 2. Yes, it’s fun to be the Captain of our own ships but it’s more fun in the VI being a passenger. While bare boating is available, our experts HIGHLY RECOMMEND using a captain no matter what your vessel choice.Unless you are VERY familiar with the local waters and the type of boat being rented, your experience will most certainly be far less stressful if you hire a captain.Besides, while you’re taking care of the biz-nus of slathering on sunscreen, preparing various hydration remedies and doing fun stuff, your captain will be dutifully standing in line at BVI customs checking in the boat and taking care of the not-so-fun stuff.
- 3. If you’ve got anyone in your group who gets motion sickness ask about the kind of hull your boat has. Catamaran hulls are much more stable (less rocky) in big water than monohulls. This is true for power boats as well as sail boats.
- 4. If chartering a 6 pack powerboat, ask if gas is included or additional. Ask any charter if they provide ice, water, snorkel equipment and a head (toilet).
Kayaks and Stand Up Paddleboards are a great way to get out on the water without making a big money or time commitment. Get a little or a lot of exercise, get off the beach and away from the shore. The world has a way of receding when you are floating and gliding across the water.
Think of Kayaking and SUPing like taking a hike on the water. There’s nothing quite like this self-propelled floating vessel to make you consider turning your trip to the VI into a permanent vacation. It’s a great introduction to getting your feet wet (pun intended).
Feeling more adventurous? Consider a guided kayak tour to the outer cays or through the mangroves.
Price: Kayak rentals range from $20-$25/hr, $50/day, $150/week. Guided tours start at $70-90+ for a 3 hour tour. SUP rentals $40/hr, $120/day, $195/week +/-
Recommended for: younger children, older children, couples, seniors, athletic/adventurous
This is a must for anyone who is okay with putting their face in the water. It may even change your life forever. Seriously.
Rent or buy your own equipment or enjoy snorkeling as part of your charter boat trip. Most boat charters have complimentary snorkel equipment and usually accompany their guests (if they have crew) on short snorkels around their anchorage. (Yet another reason to go boating!)
Some scuba trips also offer snorkeling for those who don’t want to go “deep”.
Price: Snorkel rentals start at $9/day, $40/week (+/-)
Recommended for: older children, couples, seniors, athletic/adventurous
- 1.Get properly fitted before you rent or buy a mask. The shape and size of your face really does affect the seal and a leaky mask is no fun.
- 2. Spitting like a sailor may give you street cred but it’s sometimes hard to summon saliva from a salty mouth. Splurge ($6-$10) and buy yourself some anti-fog juice for your snorkel mask. It’s fast and effective and you won’t be smelling your lunch while you take in the view from below. If you mask has a good seal, it will be effective for the length of your snorkel trip.
Are you part mermaid or dolphin? Love snorkeling but want to go deeper? Beware, you might get hooked! Anyone who has ever gone diving remembers their first time. The VI is a great place to have that first experience.
For those of us who have had the privilege of diving in the VI we can boast ad nauseam about the magical world below the water. Never gone diving? Don’t worry, many of the dive operators here offer “resort” courses or refreshers for those who have never gone or who haven’t been in years.
Price: Starts at $100+ for certified divers and $150+ for non-certified including all gear (+/-)
Recommended for: couples, athletic/adventurous
If your traveling party needs a water experience on your own terms, planning a beach day or a beach vacation for that matter is an art, especially if you have small children or whiny teens. All concur, St. John wins for best beaches. If you are staying anywhere in the VI, a trip to St. John’s beaches is a must.
Even though some local transplants might roll their eyes, Trunk Bay is the go to beach for visitors. It has all the amenities anyone could want including showers, change rooms, food, beach gear, snorkeling, and a taxi stand. Tripadvisor voted it the #15 beach in the Caribbean. (Maho Bay, St.John was voted #4!)
- Most beaches are free but some of the ones with amenities charge an entrance fee. It’s totally worth it, so don’t skimp out on visiting a beach because of the fee. Most offer family passes to help you save a little extra for other things.
Pros: A sense of well being, opportunity to commune with nature, natural soak in minerals, meet new fish friends, beach hair, natural exfoliant, disconnect from technology
Cons: Could produce anxiety in those with Aquaphobia.
Price: Most National Park beaches are free but for those with shower and concession amenities there is often a small fee. On St. John the only beach that has a fee is Trunk Bay. Expect to pay $5 pp for a day pass or purchase a family pass for $20. If you plan on going more than once it makes sense to by the annual family pass for $30. Senior annual passes are $15. Military are always free.
On St. Thomas there is a fee at Magen’s Bay and Lindquist Beach of $2 pp for locals $5 pp for visitors (children under 12 free) and $2 per car.
Recommended for: younger children, older children, couples, seniors, adventurous/athletic, party animals
More info for you about things to do in the Virgin Islands:
Feeling uncertain? Contact us. Maybe we can help you plan your activities or even get you a good deal. We know most of the local operators and are happy to give you our expert opinion.
Do you have more questions (or answers) about water activities in the Virgin Islands?
Let us know in the comments below what we missed.
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