The U.S. Virgin Islands are an attractive destination because of their stereotypical “tropical paradise” landscapes, warm weather and convenience. Since the islands are part of U.S. territory, American citizens can visit and return to the U.S. without a passport.

The territory’s three main islands -- Saint Croix, Saint Thomas and Saint John -- have become havens for tourists, especially during the Northern Hemisphere’s colder months. The cruise terminal on Saint Thomas sees numerous ships each year. The idyllic setting and the laid-back island vibe lend themselves to a strong tourist industry: 80 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ gross domestic product comes from tourism. This heavy economic reliance has lead to the development of large resorts and tourist areas with woefully overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops.

But the Virgin Islands also have a long tradition of eco-tourism. Maho Bay Resort (see “sleep green” below), the first of several amenity-rich campgrounds on the island of Saint John, started business in 1976. Even with the tourist boom, parts of Saint Thomas and Saint Croix and most of Saint John retain an inland ruggedness as well as quiet and picturesque sandy stretches of seaside.

Go green

Driving can be a challenge in the Virgin Islands. It is the only U.S. territory where the law requires cars to drive on the left side of the road (though steering wheels are built on the left side of the car). This is enough to keep many visitors from getting behind the wheel. Taxis can be expensive, but are the only reasonable way to get around in many parts of the islands. In main cities and towns, public buses are a cheap alternative to taxis, but the buses often run on “island time.”

Motor scooters are a popular form of transport among locals and tourists alike. For green-minded travelers, these two-wheelers might constitute the best balance between convenience and low environmental impact. Saint John’s traffic is not as chaotic as the other islands, making both motorized and foot-powered transport a bit less harrowing.

The only other low-impact option is found at sea. Sailboats can be chartered in Saint Thomas. Smaller boats can dock at any number of places around the islands and many offer sleep aboard options.

Sleep green

One of the region’s first eco-resorts is Maho Bay Camps . Opened in 1976, the green venue sits in a beautiful seaside area on Saint John. Accommodations consist of “tent cottages” connected by a series of wooden walkways. The camp offers easy access to the sea and to the trails of Virgin Island’s National Park , which covers more than two-thirds of the island.

Cinnamon Bay Campground and Botanical Villas Campground are two similar resorts on Saint John.

Play green

During the colonial era, much of the islands’ plant life was cut away to make room for sugar cane fields. Though few original native species remain, it is difficult to find remnants of the islands’ slash-and-burn past, especially in protected places like Saint John’s Virgin Island National Park . The visitors center in Cruz Bay, Saint John (the ferry terminal for boats from Saint Thomas), offers maps of the 20-plus trails in the park. There are also guided “safari bus” tours of the island.

Though it is the most cosmopolitan and crowded island, Saint Thomas has plenty of green swaths including a mangrove-fringed lagoon filled with marine life. A company called Virgin Island Ecotours offers guided kayak and snorkeling trips to the lagoon. Aside from the lush plant life on the shore, there are rays, nurse sharks, jelly fish and barracudas in the water. Naturalists are on hand to give the tours an educational element.

Swim and sun green

The main attraction of the Virgin Islands are the beaches . Even travelers who normally shun sand and sunscreen in favor of wild inland terrain will be in awe of the seaside landscapes along the coastlines. Most beaches on the islands are public property. As long as you stay on the sand, it is possible to wander back and forth in search of the perfect scene or ideally tranquil setting. Sandy Point Beach on Saint Croix has an added attraction for nature appreciators. It is a protected area for nesting sea turtles.

Eat green

Many different cuisines are represented in urban and tourist areas of the U.S. Virgin Islands. However, local food is the most environmentally friendly. A dish called Kallaloo features island-grown vegetables, such as okra and greens, and locally caught fish.

Seafood is prevalent on the islands. Much of it is fresh and locally caught. Over-fishing has been a problem on the Islands, but certain species near the shore are protected , including conch , a shellfish that is a staple of the local diet and considered a delicacy by many visitors.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are a major destination for snowbirds and cruise ship passengers. But the sometimes-chaotic atmosphere of the towns, beaches and resort areas is easy to avoid and a strong tradition of conservation and eco-tourism remains, especially on Saint John.

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MNN homepage photo: Topyti /Flickr

Destination of the Week: U.S. Virgin Islands
There are many green driving, sleeping and playing options on the Islands.