An Overview of St. John

IMG_3482Ahhh, the Virgin Islands. Just the name sounds seductive and alluring. The postcard-like beaches have always drawn me in and I knew they were at the top of my “Caribbean List.”

History
The USVI have a colorful past and rich history. The islands were “discovered” and named by Christopher Columbus in 1493, and over the next 200 years, ownership changed hands between many different European countries. Slave labor drove the sugarcane industry until abolition in 1848. One of the first significant slave rebellions took place on St. John in 1733, when they took over the island for 6 months. Sold to the United States in 1917 by the Danish, they are now considered an unincorporated U.S. territory.

Consisting of the main islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, all three are rather different. Do your research and decide which is the right atmosphere for you. Look at pictures of each and maybe you’ll “know” which one has what you’re looking for. I’ve never visited St. Croix, only spent one day in St. Thomas, but have always know St. John was the one for me. As the smallest island (19.6 square miles), a population of just over 4,000, and 60% of the land owned by the National Park Service, it is relatively undeveloped with plenty of outdoor activities. The only way to get there is by ferry from St. Thomas or the British Virgin Islands.

Where to Stay
St. John is a relatively expensive place to stay. At the time I visited, I was really trying to save money, so for a couple days I stayed at Cinnamon Bay Campground in a canvas tent on a platform. A truly beautiful spot, but you couldn’t even call it glamping. The accommodations and bathroom facilities were quite rustic. Cockroaches, tarantulas, and scorpions are there on the trails to greet you when you return to your tent at night. I recall insisting upon tennis shoes at night and retiring to the tent once the sun went down for fear of those creatures. But, if you want to visit St. John on a budget, this is it. And although still pricey, it’s as cheap as I could find without having to sleep in my rental car. Cinnamon Bay was quite beautiful and quiet.

I was happy to move on to our next accommodation. Still relatively rustic, Maho Bay Camps were likely the world’s first eco-resort created in the 1970’s on the edge of the National Park. With plank walkways winding through the jungle, screened in structures allowing the ocean breeze to come through, propane camp stoves, and cold community showers, Maho Bay was still a bit like camping. We had a rat who chewed a hole through the screen and came into our room each night, there were cockroaches scurrying around at night, and the cold showers took your breath away. But there was a culture of sustainability. Nightly glass blowing demonstrations transformed glass waste into art that was sold at the studio where they also recycled other trash into art. It was a beautiful concept. In 2012, Maho Bay Camps’ 36 year lease expired and they were forced to abandon the camp and an era came to an end. The entire staff had to walk away, and people who had spent their lives either working or visiting Maho Bay Camps had to say goodbye. Their less rustic partner resort, Concordia Eco-Resort, still operates on the other side of the island and has been well received.

For 5 star luxury, Caneel Bay Resort is considered the standard. It’s close to some of the best beaches the island has to offer.

If you travel with a family or lots of people, renting a home on VRBO or AirB&B may be the most economical and fun way to go.

Getting around
Traversing St. John is not particularly difficult. Personally, I highly recommend renting a jeep. I don’t normally spring for an upgraded vehicle, but in St. John, this is the normal rental car. The roads can be steep and windy, and when it downpours, that 4 wheel drive comes in handy. There is a bus service for an amazingly low price that runs from Cruz Bay (the tiny main town) to Coral Bay and taxis are available for consistent official fares. But there’s a huge benefit to renting your own transportation. You can pull off to take pictures, explore and find your own private beach. Just remember to drive on the left side of the road. And for the more adventurous and resourceful, hitchhiking is quite common and considered safe in St. John. We picked people up occasionally.

Beaches
They all rock. Honeymoon Beach is stunning. It is accessible from Caneel Bay Resort where there is a $20 parking fee or, alternately, you can get there by hiking from the Lind Point Trail. Trunk Bay is, of course, a must see. It’s one of the most photographed beaches in all of the Caribbean, and for good reason. Just because it’s popular or touristy, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. The water is stunningly aqua and the sand is soft and white. If you can arrive early, you’ll enjoy it so much more. The classic picture from the overlook spot is great too. If you happen to be visiting in February, there is a romantic, free Valentine’s Day vow renewal on the beach just before sunset. Cinnamon Bay, as I mentioned before, is beautiful, long, and has convenient facilities. Get there early and you may have it to yourself for a while. Jumbie Bay is small and parking is extremely limited (like 2 cars can park on the side of the road). Because of this, you may get it all to yourself. Salomon Bay = gorgeous. And because it requires an approximately 1 mile long hike to get there on the Lind Point Trail, you’ll likely avoid some of the crowds. At one end of the beach, you can continue to follow the trail to Honeymoon Beach. There are plenty more beaches to be had all over the island, of course.

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Activities
St. John is a fantastic spot for snorkeling, and with so much National Park there are plenty of trails to beaches and old historic ruins from the sugar plantations. There are also a multitude of boat tours to take you around the island and spot celebrity homes, or perhaps cruise to the British Virgin Islands for a day. The Virgin Islands are also a top sailing destination. Cruz Bay has plenty of little shops and restaurants or you can drive to Coral Bay and explore what the town has to offer. Of all things to eat while you’re in the Virgin Islands, make sure you sample a variety of conch fritters. They are fantastic.

St. John is really a nature lovers paradise. If you want to to feel like you’ve gotten away from it all, enjoy pristine beach views, with a little adventure thrown in, this is the perfect place to enjoy a holiday with your significant other.

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