A day in the US VI: St. Thomas

A day in the US Virgin Islands : St. Thomas
While planning a trip to the Carribbean you have several clusters of islands to choose from, one of which is the US Virgin Islands. This group is composed of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John. Visiting these islands offers a bit more than just your standard beach vacation with diverse architecture (evidence of nations that colonized the islands in the 17th and 18th centuries) and culinary encounters, artisan fairs, and most fun of all if you time it right: Carnivals.

The islands have a long history of habitation starting with the first inhabitants, the Ciboneys  before 100 AD. There were various natives before Christopher Columbus visited on his 2nd voyage in 1493, claiming the islands for Spain. The battle between the natives and Columbus on the island of St. Croix is known as the first insurgence in the New World. Columbus continued his exploration leaving the islands largely inhabited and many counties began expressing interest in the 1600s. It was the Danish who established the first settlement on St. Thomas in 1672 and expanded to the other islands while establishing the Danish West India Company in 1733. St. Thomas became a trading post mostly for slave trading with more than 200,000 slaves forcibly shipped to the islands. St John and St. Croix were maintained as plantations supporting the trade economy. With Denmark ceasing human trade in 1792 and the discovery of sugar beet (instead of sugar cane) agriculture began to decline and the need for the islands as a shipping port with the industrial revolution also changed the economic environment. 
Little was heard of the islands until World War I, when the United States realized their strategic position and negotiated the purchase of the islands from Denmark for $25 million in gold. Now the islands are thriving destinations for tourism and I’m glad I got to see at least one of them on this trip. I’ll definitely have to take a trip back to experience the other beautiful islands. 
What to do on stop over?
With the close proximity of other islands, it’s really possible to do just about anything: Snorkel with rays, explore historic towns, taste test the best restaurants around, visit the most scenic beaches, or get a birds eye view of it all from the top of St. Thomas!
We found a fair priced tour to Magen’s beach and skyride so for ease of planning on this trip, we went ahead and booked that. 
We were picked up right outside our cruise ship by a local who drove us (and a fair few other people) around for the day in an open jeep – like tram. We stopped at 2 scenic pull outs as we crossed over the top of St. Thomas to drive down the other side to Magens bay.
The first view point had awesome views of the cruse port and St. Thomas bay. 
 Multiple islands in the distance we visible from this spot 
Our 2nd stop would look down on Magen’s Bay itself: 

Magens Bay sits on the North Atlantic side  of St. Thomas and is one of the world’s most beautiful beaches with pristine white sand stretching ¾ of a mile. The beach doesn’t get much wave action making it wonderful for floating and lounging in the warm water. (but not so much for snorkeling with the sand) You can see many varieties of fish and occasionally sea turtles, and in our case, enjoy the many types of water fowl that would make dive after dive fishing just off shore. The entrance to the beach (if not on a tour where it is included) costs $5 with free  picnic tables, toilets and public showers. There’s additional covered table spaces available for rent as well as snorkeling and beach gear and snacks for purchase.  
When we first got to the beach it was a bit overcast so we took a long walk to one end of the beach and back admiring shells and watching the birds dive.

Once the sun came out, the water was perfect and we spent at least an hour playing in the warm subtle waves. Overall I couldn’t have asked for a better beach day/ stop along our week long cruise. 
After a couple hours we cleaned up and re-boarded our jeep-bus to head back to the port and ride the sky ride to the summit of the island- Paradise Point. It was a short wait with a fun ride, and stunning views from the top looking right down on the cruise ships in the bay. At the top is a restaurant and some tourist shops that you can enjoy before heading back down to the port. We looked around for some souvenirs while walking the short distance back to our ship. All in all a beautiful day on a beautiful island. Next time I’ll definitely have to try the snorkeling or more adventurous sports
We scored a skyride cabin to ourselves 
View of the 3 cruise ships halfway up 
The sky ride heading back down after dropping us off
View from the tip top.  Beautiful bay! 
Other activities to try on St. Thomas or around the 
US Virgin Islands : 
Swimming/ Snorkeling at Trunks Bay St. John
Cruzan Rum Distillery Tour
Exploring main street St. Thomas
Buck Island National Monument (St. Croix) for diving/ snorkeling
Estate Whim Plantation Museum (St. Croix)
Cinnamon Bay swimming/ beach – St. John 
Take an Island Catamaran tour 
Hike the Reef Bay Trail do a secluded beach – St John 
Dive/snorkel the RMS Rhone
View of the port from our private deck on the ship
Virgin Island Culinary Specialties to try:
Pumpkin Fritters (tried on the ship and delicious) 
Kallaloo (meat dish) 
Red Grout (guava tapioca) 

See you another time US Virgin Islands! 

Walking Tour of old San Juan

Historic San Juan in a day Walking Tour
Whether you have an extended stay in Puerto Rico, or less than a day from a cruise stop over, here’s my walkable itinerary for seeing the best of San Juan.Puerto Rico in one day! Experience history, art, shopping, and admire tons of cool city architecture. 

The San Juan Port in the historic area. Grab some bottles of water from the shops around the port as you’ll head up the hill on Calle Marina street to Castillo San Cristobal, the largest fort built by the Spanish in the New world. 
Distance ~0.5 miles 
Along the way you’ll pass some squares with little shop tents if you’re a fan of the blown glass, one of the tents that is along the way makes little blown glass animals right there for figurines or jewelry. You’ll also see lots of brightly colored buildings and as you finish the uphill trek, you get an awesome view of the port looking down on the big ships docked there.
Peak down all the colorful alleyways as you trek up the short hill

Vising Castillo San Cristobal
Hours: 9:00-6:00 PM everyday 
Cost: (16+): $7.00 
*If you have a National Parks Pass, you can get 4 adults entry for free. 
This fort as mentioned is the largest Spanish fort in the Americas, spanning 27 acres. It took 150 years to build with construction beginning in 1634. It covers the Eastern gate of San Juan Island and its walls extend in either direction of the coast. There are 3 levels to explore: cannon embrasures, sentry boxes, tunnels to explore, and exhibits to learn about the former military quarters. All in all, it’s a great stop and won’t take longer than an hour for self-guided tours. 
**You can also get married here.. *swoon*
After San Cristobal, follow the sea coast along Calle Norzagaray where you can explore old parts of the wall that made up San Cristobal’s defenses with multiple garitas (guard towers) and historical markers. Learn about the La Perla area of San Juan where another fort used to be as you make your way to Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Here walk across the great lawn taking in all the kite flyers and the size of this incredible fort perched on the bay. 
Distance ~ 1 mile

Vising Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Hours: 9:00-6:00 PM everyday 
Cost: (16+): $7.00 
*If you have a National Parks Pass, you can get 4 adults entry for free.
If you have to choose between visiting the 2 forts, this would be the one to go with. While overall containing less “acres” than San Cristobal, this fort has 6 levels and unparallel’d views of the bay and San Juan Isle. While San Cristobal was built to defend against land invasions primarily, this fort was built to defend the bay. And defend it did as there is only one instance where the fort was penetrated by enemy invaders making it the most successful of all the Spanish forts built at that time. Construction began in the 1500s when the battery and tower were built to protect the harbor. In 1632, the governor of San Juan began construction on San Cristobal and the city walls. It was also the center of Spanish life at the time so the structures contained within the fort have a lot more complexity making the tour a bit more interesting.
After a visit to the fort, walk down the stairs on the right/ East side to the start of multiple trails. If you follow the same trail to the right/ East it will take you to the cemetery you pass as you approached the fort from the street. Heading left/ West the path wraps around the bottom of the fort and connects to the Paseo del Moro trail. 
Views looking East along the Paseo del Moro trail 

Paseo del Moro

This trail was my favorite part of San Juan. (shocker right.. I do love trails) It follows the old wall almost around the entire western side of Old San Juan with nothing else along the way besides the ocean and cats. The old wall has been wonderfully maintained dating all the way back to 1630! Between the wall and the ocean, it’s like walking into Pirates of the Caribbean scene.  Along the trail you can also watch the big ships leave from port back to the open ocean easily catch wildlife (other than cats) out in the water.  The area directly under the fort has multiple tide pools that can be peaked into, but be careful not to slip on the wet rocks or get soaked by a sneaky wave. 
Watching a large ship sail out of San Juan Bay
The area which is maintained by the NPS like the forts, is also serving as a cat sanctuary with little cat boxes, food, and water to help the strays out. There were so many adorable cats, most of which won’t let you get too close but will play with a bit of string if you have some. (My dad led a cat by the string quite a ways down the path as it follow and continually pounced on it)
After following the trail a ways (approx. 0.75 miles)  you’ll have two options to make you way back into town and then back to the port. The first option is to turn in at the Puerta De San Juan The Iconic red gate that served as the doorway for dignitaries and bishops to enter into San Juan back when there were only 5 gates into the city.  
Or another 5 minutes down the path, the trail ends at a beautiful fountain on the Paseo de la Princesa which is lined with shops, galleries, and also includes for those of you who skipped out on bathrooms at the forts, a public toilet.
Watching a cruise ship sail past the old San Juan walls out into open ocean 
Both gates are great options and worth seeing if you have to backtrack as the path between the two has beautiful trees overhanging the path and the fountain is really cool. The old gate takes you down Caleta de San Juan straight to the San Juan Bautista Cathedral. From either location, make sure to head over to Fortaleza street to see the fun umbrella covered walkway and explore more little shops and restaurants. And from there with whatever time you have remaining, head back to your hotel or cruise ship. 
Distance ~ 0.75 miles depending on the road you take

Walking Distance for entire loop ~ 3 miles/ 5 km

Colorful buildings of San Juan visible over the old wall
The Paseo del Moro is also a wonderful walk to do at sunset 

Other Points of Interest around San Juan to check out in a day:
Museum of Arts of Puerto Rico
Condado Beach 
El Yungue National Forest and waterfalls 
Tour of the Bacardi Distillery