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US Virgin Islands
Islands in the Sun

St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John are collectively known as the US Virgin Islands. Indeed, they are united by the same language, laws and monetary system; however, each island has its own distinct personality. St. Thomas is busy and sophisticated, St. Croix is dotted with historical ruins, and St. John is filled with unspoiled natural beauty. Of course access in the Caribbean is still in its infancy; and access in the US Virgin Islands ranges from good to "do-able". Still, this US territory is your best bet for an "accessible" Caribbean experience. Access varies from island to island, and advance planning is a must; so here's a breakdown of what you can expect to find in America's Caribbean.

St. Thomas

Photo of Vendor's Plaza
Vendor's Plaza on St. Thomas
Photo by Charles Pannell

Dotted with mega resorts, St. Thomas boasts a large number of accessible lodging choices. It's a busy port of entry, and the city of Charlotte Amalie is a popular port of call for many cruise ships. Additionally St. Thomas offers the greatest number of direct flights from the US mainland. Although the St. Thomas airport has no jetways, there is lift-access to the planes for wheelchair-users. In short, St. Thomas is the easiest of the three islands to get to; and because of its size and development, it also offers the largest number of accessible accommodations and tourist attractions.

Photo of Outdoor Aquarium at Coral World
Outdoor Aquarium at Coral World
Photo by Charles Pannell

One popular tourist attraction which offers a high degree of access is Coral World Marine Park and Undersea Observatory. Coral World features a number of hands-on exhibits, an undersea observatory, a mangrove lagoon, a turtle pool, and the Caribbean reef encounter. Level pathways and accessible boardwalks are present throughout most of the park, and a new lift in the Caribbean reef encounter allows wheelchair-users an up close and personal look at the local marine life. A map highlighting the accessible routes is available at the park entrance. Plan to spend the day at Coral World, have lunch, visit the shark tank and then feed the resident iguanas. For more information, visit coralworldvi.com or call (340)775-1555.

Of course, if you'd rather spend some time in the water, then head on over to Aqua Action Dive Center at the Secret Harbor Beach Resort. Owner Carl Moore is certified by the Handicapped Scuba Association; and on a personal note, he's one of the most patient people I've ever met. Carl is a natural teacher, and he truly utilizes the inherent abilities of every student. You can choose from an introduction to scuba course for $65 or a full PADI openwater certification course for $310. A wide variety of dive packages are also available for certified divers.

And if you've ever wanted to try snorkeling, Carl has a wide selection of snorkel gear and fun toys, including prescription face masks and a sea scooter. The sea scooter is a hand held water propulsion vehicle, much like what Lloyd Bridges used on Sea Hunt. It's the perfect gadget for paras who want to snorkel, as this trigger-operated device starts easily with just the flick of a finger. Of course if you'd prefer to just sit and watch, you can enjoy a cold drink or lunch at the Blue Moon Cafe which overlooks the beach. Check out the Aqua Action website at or contact Carl at (340)775-6285 for more information about Aqua Action's current offerings.

For a more historical look at St. Thomas, stop by Fort Christian in downtown Charlotte Amalie. Built in 1672, Fort Christian is the oldest standing structure in the Virgin Islands. Today Fort Christian is home to the Virgin Islands Museum which contains historical exhibits and galleries. There is ramp access to the fort, and many of the galleries and exhibits are accessible. Some exhibits have one step at the entry, but you can still view them from the courtyard. There is no admission charge to Fort Christian. For more information call (340)776-4566.

Next door to Fort Christian you'll find the vendors plaza, an open-air market filled with local vendors. There is curb-cut access to the plaza; however it gets a bit crowded when ships are in port. For more information on tourist attractions in the Virgin Islands, stop by the Visitors Center located at 1 Toldbod Gade, just across the street from the vendors plaza.

Accessible transportation on St. Thomas is available through St. Thomas Dial-A-Ride. Visitors pay a one time registration fee of $25, which includes a round trip transfer to any St. Thomas property. After that, St. Thomas Dial-A-Ride fares are equivalent to local taxi fares. All St. Thomas Dial-A-Ride fares include free transportation for one companion. St. Thomas Dial-A-Ride also offers accessible day tours of the island. Advance notice (one month) is required for all tours, while reservations for local transportation must be made 24 hours in advance. For more information about St. Thomas Dial-A-Ride services, or for access information about St. Thomas call (340)776-1277 or email dar@viaccess.net.

St. Croix

Even though it's the largest of the three US Virgin Islands, St. Croix still retains a quaint old world charm. You'll find remnants of old sugar mills throughout the island and you can't help but notice the Danish influence on the local architecture. As far as access goes, according to Mark Vinzant of the USVI Department of Human Services, local advocacy efforts have paid off and access is improving.

A good place to get a taste of St. Croix's old world charm is at the Whim Plantation Museum (340)772-0598. This restored sugar and rum plantation dates back to the 1740s. Today the greathouse features an interesting display of period furnishings while the outbuildings offer a glimpse at a working plantation. The front entrance to the greathouse is ramped, and except for a four inch step in the back orientation room, it's nicely accessible for wheelers. The grounds are level with hard packed dirt paths throughout the plantation.

And if you still haven't had your fill of the crystal clear Caribbean, consider a visit to Buck Island Underwater National Monument. Unfortunately, none of the local boats have roll-on access; however the most accessible option is Mile Mark Watersports' glass bottom boat (340)773-2628. Wheelchair-users have to be carried up two steps to board the boat; however the glass bottom makes for great reef viewing for those who cannot snorkel.

Air access fares a bit better than boat access on St. Croix. The St. Croix airport does not have a jetway, but they do have a lift and a stair climber. Additionally, accessible day tours and transportation are available through Wheelcoach Tours. Call (340)719-9335 or visit wheelcoach.com for more information.

St. John

Covered with lush greenery and dotted with pristine beaches, St. John is known to the locals as the real "virgin" of the US Virgin Islands. It's relatively undeveloped, and the Virgin Islands National Park occupies nearly two-thirds of the island. The big attraction of St. John is that it's a great place to enjoy nature and get away from it all. Tourism options range from just relaxing at a resort to enjoying a scenic day tour of the island.

St. John isn't big enough to support an airport, so the only way to get there is by water. Public ferries depart from both Charlotte Amalie and Red Hook; however because of the tides and the construction of the Charlotte Amalie pier, the Red Hook ferry is the most accessible. The ride from Red Hook is also shorter; a definite advantage when the seas are rough. The Red Hook ferry does have a two inch lip on the gangway; but with a little help it's do-able for most people. There are no tie-downs on board the ferry, and the 20 minute ride can sometimes get a bit bumpy. For more information about the Red Hook ferry contact Transportation Services at (340)776-6282.

Photo of Common Area at Caneel Bay Resort
A Common Area at Caneel Bay Resort
Photo by Charles Pannell

Another option is to take the private ferry operated by Caneel Bay Resort. Of course this is only an option is you are staying at the resort. In fact, Caneel Bay Resort can arrange for accessible transfers directly from the St. Thomas Airport. Peggy Blitz, of Caneel Bay Resort, points out that the Red Hook dock is more accessible than the dock in Charlotte Amalie, however she adds, "Most of our ferries go to the Charlotte Amalie dock where, if seas are rough and we have the larger of our ferries, portable steps are necessary." Still, it is possible for Caneel Bay Resort to arrange accessible transportation with advance notice. Accessible options include using the Red Hook dock for better wheelchair access, working with St. Thomas Dial-A-ride for assistance at the Charlotte Amalie dock, or contracting with a private water taxi service. For more information, contact Caneel Bay Resort at (340)776-6111 or visit caneelbay.com.

Accessible ground transportation is available on St. John for just $1 per ride, thanks to the folks at St. John Dial-A-Ride. They also offer customized day tours of the island. Advance notice (one week) is required for all tours, and reservations for local transportation must be made 24 hours in advance. St. John Dial-A-Ride is also happy to provide free access information about St. John. For more information contact Mary Blazone at St. John Dial-A-Ride at (340)693-7600 or andblaze@viaccess.net.

For more information about tourism in the US Virgin Islands, visit www.usvitourism.vi or call (800)372-8784.