The Skinny on the Virgin Islands...

1. Where is the best (most desirable) area on the island to stay?
>>This depends on what you want to do. Most of the hotels/resorts lie between Charlotte Amalie (south central STT) or Red Hook area (east STT). Charlotte has most of the shopping and downtown historic sites, Red Hook is much smaller, but has more nightlife, is more laid back and is closer to the ferry to St. John (STJ). STJ is killer and has the best beaches in the USVI, and a really cool outdoor shopping plaza called Mongoose Junction, so i think you will want to spend some time on STJ. i'll cover a few options for staying on STJ also, you should consider it instead of STT.

2. What offers the most bang for the buck? Do you know any insider stuff on best hotels, condos or houses to rent in desirable locations?
>>i'll break this down to a few hotels i can recommend, as for villas/condos, there are way too many to choose from, if you find any online you'd like me to help evaluate for you, just forward them to me and i'll tell you about the neighborhood, etc.

On St. Thomas: Pop. around 50,000. best beach=Magen's Bay on the northside, it's a taxi ride from anywhere on the island. tons of shopping in STT, and lots of cruise ship tourists running around downtown everyday.

Blackbeards Castle
- upside:This place is smack in the middle of Charlotte, walk to shops and restaurants, and features an amazing view of downtown and the cruise ship harbor. nice pool, big patio dining area w/piano bar, good food, reasonable $$. It's recently been totally rennovated and i haven't seen inside any of the rooms in several years. Used to be pretty cheap (>$100/rm.) but i think it's gotten a little pricier. downside: you have to taxi to the beach.$$$

Marriott Frenchman's Reef - upside: "The Reef" dominates the penninsula just east of Charlotte, and is definitley upscale, 4star. It offers killer views of downtown and the cruise ships' pass close enough to hit 'em with a frisbee. Amazing pool with waterfalls, ocean views, healthclub, outdoor hottubs built into a cliff, watersports, diving, 4 or 5 restaurants, tennis courts, beach front villas at MorningStar Beach (part of the complex), etc. After hurricane Marilyn, they pumped $54M into rennovating the Reef and it shows. One of the top 3-4 hotels on STT. downside: probably pretty pricey, but a lot of the upscale places are offering deals since 9/11. the water at the beach can be a little rough and it drops off quickly, but the everything else kicks ass.$$$$

Bluebeards Beachclub - upside: i used to live a block away from this place and used their pool/beach all the time. this is more of a villa/timeshare kind of set up, also recently rennovated. Beach side pool, restaurant and bar, tennis, watersports, nicely landscaped. food here is nothing special, but the location is key, b/t Charlotte and Red Hook, this place is safe, quiet and clean, lots of iguanas running around. not to be confused with Bluebeards Castle, which is downtown Charlotte, the castle is an ok place but not as nice or low key as Blackbeards. downside: like i said, sort of a timeshare thing, i don't know the details on how to get in. beach is a 7 out of 10, and believe me there are some "10" beaches to be had in the VI. $$$

Secret Harbor - upside: quiet, feels out of the way but is really close to Red Hook and what it has to offer. SH is a favorite of the locals, many live here year round. It has the usual, bar/restaurant, the cafe food is good, water and beach are an "8.5", but just a slightly on the pebblish side in some spots. good snorkelling. Really a relaxing place. downside: can't really think of one, this place is pretty nice. $$$

also see on STT: Bolongo Bay$$$, The Elysian$$$$, Ritz Carleton$$$$$,

On St. John- ok, here's the skinny. St.Thomas is to Little Rock what St. John is to Eureka Springs. STJ=5,000 pop. 80%of the island is unihnabited nat'l park, this island kicks ass, it has the best beaches, really laid back little downtown area (Cruz Bay), really good restaurants, did i mention great beaches? all of them 9's or 10's. STJ is popular with the younger crowd and honeymooners.

Westin St. John - upside: this place is badass in every way, it's in Cruz Bay, close to food, nightlife. downside: you pay for the goods, i'm sure. $$$$

Estate Concordia Studios: upside: this villas are run by the U.S. Park Service and are not flashy but quite nice, some come with little private pools etc., a good place if you want to get away from everything and probably quite affordable downside: these villas are on the far side of St. John, really not close to anything, especially shopping. a car or jeep is mandatory, and you might not want to drive in the Vi, roads are very narrow and you drive on the left (but lots of tourists DO rent vehicles, it's not uncommon, and STJ has far less traffic than STT.) $$$

Maho Bay Eco-tents - upside: the whole Maho Bay complex is eco in design, recycling bins are abundant, all buildings and cabins are constructed from recycled or eco-friendly materials, and the focus is definitely "green". The beach and water here are incredible, you will not find a cleaner beach on this planet, with snorkel gear, sunfish sailboats and kayaks for rent. Eco-tents usually feature a double bed w/misquito net and a couch, basic furniture, utensils and cookware, Igloo-type cooler, wash basins, and a couple of lawn chairs on a small deck. A small store in the campground sells all the basics and some luxuries too, and there is also a restaurant on site that is good and affordable, breakfast is especially good. Eco-tents are around $75/night, cheaper if you can swing a "locals" discount, more expensive during season. Book in advance, this place is often full. What's the absolute best spot? Ask for A-12 or close to it. downside: it's way out there in terms of STJ, zero nightlife, and a helluva cab ride late night from the bars. If you or your significant other are "high maintenance" look elsewhere. $$

3. What are the fun / good restaurants?
STT: In Charlotte, the "Frenchtown" area offers the best restaurants. try Craig n' Sallys($$$), or Alexanders($$$)..... Hotel 1829 ($$$$) near Blackbeards is pretty famous. The Old Stone Farmhouse ($$$$) near Magens Bay is good but pricey, but has GREAT atmosphere, it is literally one of the oldest buildings on STT. In Red Hook, you MUST stop for lunch at the Grateful Deli ($) in Red Hook plaza, another favorite with the locals, it's owned by a very good friend of mine from Fayetteville, Dan Sheffey (Dan is my age, has long hair, owns a sweet Harley and looks like a Hells' Angel, but he is about the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet). Their sandwiches are awesome and all named after Grateful Dead songs! they also have all kinds of pastries and desserts made fresh daily. Ask for Dan and tell him you're from the 'ville and i sent you, seriously, he will treat you right....oh yeah, and buy one of his tshirts or frisbees, i designed them. Also in Red Hook is Duffy's Love Shack, probably the most famous bar on STT, they have a wide variety of foofoo drinks, fun atmosphere, really hot waitresses:), and it really gets hoppin after 10pm.
STJ: Most restaurants are in Cruz Bay. Cafe Roma ($$/locals favorite) has really good, affordable italian and pizzas, but it's very small, go early. Paradiso ($$$) in Mongoose Junction has a nice patio and good atmosphere and carib/mediterranian food along with fresh seafood. Morgan's Mango ($$$) has good seafood, it's close to Paradiso. Woody's ($) has great appitizers and is THE happy hour spot in Cruz Bay. Just up the street from Woody's are a couple of good places, but i can't remember the names right now. Skinny Legs ($) in Coral Bay is notorious, if not for the food for the bizarre crowd that hangs out there.

4. Best excursions? Sailing? Fishing? Snorkeling etc?
You definitely have to take a full day trip on a powerboat thru the islands. You can easily hop on a group tour, or rent your own 25-30ft powerboat w/a captain for about $300/day. (add a $100 for the captain, and $100 for fuel and food to take along.) This may sound like a lot, but most of the group tours are $80-$120/person for a full day and you are herded along with everyone else, and they might not go where you want or stay there as long as you want. I recommend hiring your own powerboat for a day (this was my absolute favorite thing to do when i lived there), then later getting on a half day or sunset sail with a group charter, the latter are easy to line up from any hotel, you'll have your choice. I know a great barebaot captain/good friend i can personally rec. His name is Steve Thornton, he's American but a native V.islander, about 30yrs old, very personable and responsible, he's a certified USCG captain (sailing and motor) and he knows the islands like the back of his hand. As a bonus, he's a helluva photographer so he can shoot pics of you all day long. His website is If you want to use him, email me and i'll help set it up. He can take care of getting the boat, etc, and pick you up where ever you are staying.

MUST SEES IN THE VI: The Baths on Virgin Gorda, BVI- an amazing collection of huge, naturally formed granite boulders that create a cave-like walkthrough on the beach in VG, but with lots of opportunities to splash around in tidal pools and sun atop the boulders. really, really cool. The Indians, BVI - some of the best snorkelling you'll ever do. Big coral heads w/swim thrus, millions of fish. The Caves on Norman Island, BVI - right next to the Indians, sea caves you swim into with no threat of getting lost, also tons of fish. Supposedly a bunch of pirate treasure was found in one of these caves by a local frenchie family about a hundred years ago. The William Thornton, Norman Island, BVI - this is a floating bar that gets pretty wild at times, as in naked wild. Body shots on the bar are an everyday/hour occurance, and the party starts early and goes late. You can pull your boat right up alongside, tie it off, and dive off the roof to swim with the barracudas. Not known for it's decorum, the Willy T, as it's known to locals, can be a pretty fun place. Their tshirts are cool, even though i didn't design them. Ivan's Stress Free Bar on Jost Van Dyke, BVI - If you are a musician and are looking for a laid back jam session or just a cool place to hang out, go to Ivan's. His place sits on a beautiful stretch of beach in White Bay, and inside you find a variety of instruments hanging around to strum or thump. If you ask nicely, Ivan may even let you play his ivory Strat. Most times you can pour your own drinks and there is a kitchen and fridge to use at will. About a dozen beach front campsites are available at about $15/night, cheaper if you stay longer and/or Ivan likes you. I've seen some good times here, and judging from the pictures on the wall, so has Keith Richards. Yes, that Keith Richards. Go there. Ideally, you want to do all of the above in one day, hence the powerboat rental, most group tours don't make all of these stops....Sunset from Paradise Point in STT - take the tram or drive up to this bar/restaurant overlooking Charlotte and the cruise ship harbor. Live music most nights. take a camera. Magen's Bay on STT - If you stay on STT, make sure you spend some time at this beach, it's huge, it's beautiful, watersports, food, beverages, etc, all available right at the beach. snorkelling here is the only thing not exceptional. Also...lots of cool historical stuff on both islands, the oldest church in the western hemisphere on STT, sugar mill ruins at Cinnamon Bay on STJ, the old fort in downtown Charlotte, etc, pick up one of the free guide books at the airport and see what interests you.

5. Any do's and don'ts regarding travel, car rental, areas to avoid, tourist traps etc?
The Island Way is to start every conversation with any islander with the greeting Good Morning, Good Day, or Good Evening. Seriously, do this, it shows politeness and coupled with a little small talk it will get you farther than money or attitude in many places. People are on "island time" in the VI, so relax and be patient with them in restaurants, shops, etc. nobody is in a hurry in the VI except taxi drivers and people who don't know better.
Tourist traps? Mountaintop (viewpoint on STT) is overrated in my opinion. You get a better view from Paradise Point and you can't see the sunset from Mountaintop. Island sightseeing tours on those big safari buses usually suck, don't waste your time. Trunk Bay on STJ has gotten a little touristy and overrun, they charge a $5/person fee to use that beach now, but if you want showers, bathrooms, concessions, etc, it might be worth it. I prefer Hawksnest, Cinnamon, or Maho, the last two also have bathrooms, food, etc., Hawksnest has only pit toilets that are iffy, but all of these 3 beaches are free. If you are into gardening, you might enjoy the GreatHouse Botanical Gardens on STT, but drop the kids at the beach first .Ferries between STT/Red Hook and STJ run both directions at the top of every hour from 7am to 11pm, $3 each way. There is a ferry to/from STJ from Charlotte Amalie for $7, check for a schedule. If you are American, you DON'T NEED a passport to go to the USVI or BVI if you have a drivers license and photocopy of your birth certificate with a raised seal or voters reg. card, but honestly a passport is easier to deal with. Taxi's are mostly these huge customized vans, and can cost $5-10/person to go anywhere, so it's pretty economical to rent a car if you are ok with driving. Parking downtown in Charlotte is a bitch tho, dont' even bother, take a taxi. STJ is easier, but watch for one way streets in both towns. Stay on the beaten path after dark in Charlotte, do not venture into the outer 'hoods. Muggings of tourists are rare and usually only happen to people who go where they have no business being. Most of the restaurants/bars in Charlotte ARE on the beaten path, ditto STJ, so it's not really a big deal. If you are unsure, hop in a taxi.
Flying into STT is the only way to get to the VI. I rec' taking Delta thru Atlanta, they fly big jets straight to STT. AA usually flies you thru dallas or miami, often with a stop in San Juan PR, where you take a puddle jumper prop to STT. Fly Delta if you can. Ask if your hotel provides an airport shuttle. As for $$, there are ATM's everywhere so you don't really need trav checks unless you just want to take them. I've seen some good deals to the VI lately on, it may be worth a look if you're bargain hunting.

that's about it, reading back over this it sounds like i belong on the Travel Channel. but this is all the real deal and should save you some needless headaches and stumbling around (like a tourist). I hope you have a great trip....