Less is more on St. John. It’s the smallest, quietest, least populated and most secluded of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, where even the residents of neighboring St. Thomas and St. Croix come to get away from it all.
That’s not to say there isn’t a plethora of tourist-friendly beaches (there are dozens, all open to the public) and frosty blender drinks. Activities run the gamut from snorkeling to eco-hikes. And there’s shopping, of course. Local handicrafts hold their own against mass-produced duty-free goods — St. John’s tranquility has transformed it into an artists’ community of sorts, and several have stores in town.
But much of the development is confined to Cruz Bay, St. John’s only real town. Otherwise, St. John’s unspoiled beauty is its main draw — two-thirds of the island is made up of the Virgin Islands National Park (the Rockefeller family donated the land in 1956). Nestled within the park are Cinnamon Bay and Maho Bay, each about six miles from town, offering active pursuits in pristine waters. Sailing, snorkeling and diving are top attractions, though kayaking and snuba have gained popularity over recent years.
Though the island is only about nine miles long, it takes about an hour to drive from Cruz Bay to the east end along winding roads. St. John rewards those who explore on foot, networked with hiking trails that lead to historical sites and hidden coves.
What to See
An island tour offers the gorgeous vistas of the highly undeveloped north side, which consists mostly of National Park land. Although rates are standardized, it is recommended that you speak to your cab driver and agree to your total rate (for you or your group) before boarding the taxi.
The National Park Service offers a guided, 5.5-hour Reef Bay Hike. This downhill trek passes through a section of the park’s rain forest, passing ruins of the Reef Bay Plantation and petroglyphs on the rocks at the bottom of the trail. There, you can cool off with a swim in Lameshur Bay before hopping on the NPS boat for the return trip to Cruz Bay. The tour is only available on select days of the week and space is very limited, so we recommend calling at least two weeks in advance to reserve your spot.
Trunk Bay, part of the National Park, is perfect for a few hours of snorkeling (for beginners) and beach-bumming; equipment can be rented there, and there is an underwater trail and on-site snack shop. You’ll pay a small admission fee.
Hawksnest is a local’s hangout; there’s nothing there but sand, surf and a gorgeous beach. Stop at the nearby Starfish Market and pack a lunch with drinks.
For adventurous snorkeling aficionados, Waterlemon Cay, on the north shore near Annaberg, is more secluded and has better viewing than the much-visited Trunk Bay. Haulover Bay on the island’s east end is another favorite snorkeling spot for insiders.
A must-stop is Annaberg Sugar Mill Ruins, a partially restored sugar plantation dating back to the 18th century where slaves harvested sugarcane and molasses was boiled. A trail leads through the factory ruins, slave quarters, windmills and other remains. Cultural demonstrations are offered on select days of the week; a gardener is on site to explain the importance of agriculture to the Virgin Islands, and a baker demonstrates in a Dutch oven the traditional way to make “dumb bread” — a rich, round loaf that takes its name from the “dum” style of baking that traveled to the Caribbean from India.
Cinnamon Bay, another National Park Service beach, has a restaurant and on-site shack renting snorkel gear and kayaks. Cinnamon Bay is also typically less crowded than Trunk Bay, which makes it a good alternative to get away from the masses.
Salt Pond Bay, on the east end of the island (you’ll need to rent a Jeep), has a comfortable beach and, as an added attraction, a terrific hiking trail called the Ram’s Head.
For a very private day on the water, charter a yacht. St. John Yacht Charters offers full- and half-day terms, as well as romantic sunset sailings.
Go horseback riding or take a donkey-drawn wagon tour or Coral Bay with Carolina Corral. You can take a guided trail ride for an hour or an hour and a half; horseback riding lessons are also available.
Where to Eat
Fresh fish and West Indian favorites dominate menus in St. John, but the island also offers a variety of other types of cuisine, like Italian, barbecue and French. You can find both gourmet fine dining and casual beach bars — and many places offer waterfront views. You’ll find the widest variety of restaurants in Cruz Bay.
Located right near the ferry dock in Cruz Bay, the Fish Trap is the place to go for some of the island’s freshest seafood. The conch fritters are a perennial favorite, and the fresh catch is always a reliable bet. For the landlubbers in your party, the restaurant offers pastas, sandwiches and salads in addition to its slate of seafood dishes.
Sea views and delicious Italian cuisine are the highlights at ZoZo’s Ristorante, located on the waterfront at the Gallows Point Resort. The pastas are truly delicious — like the house-made ziti with hot Italian sausage — and entrees include variety of meat and fish dishes. (The restaurant will create special plates for vegetarians.) This is a popular place for dinner and reservations are recommended.
The Lime Inn, in the Lemon Tree Mall, has no sea views but offers wonderful burgers and fresh fish and is another local favorite. The fresh lobster is one of the menu’s best offerings. The Lime Inn is closed on weekends.
Duffy’s Love Shack, which originated in the alleyways of Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, has an outpost in Cruz Bay. The fare is simple and affordable — burgers, tacos, burritos, salads — and the bar features an array of colorfully named drinks like the Barracuda Bomber and Love Potion Number Nine.
If you love quirky local joints, don’t miss the Donkey Diner in Coral Bay. (Yes, there are real live donkeys hanging around the diner!) In the mornings, you’ll find hot breakfast items like omelets, hash browns, biscuits with gravy and stuffed French toast with mango pineapple chutney. On select days the diner stays open for lunch and dinner, offering homemade pizzas plus baked goods for dessert.
Where to Stay
St. John has a variety of accommodations, from luxury resorts to affordable campgrounds, with plenty of condos, villas and guesthouses in between. Many are clustered in or around Cruz Bay. It’s worth looking into villas and other vacation rentals; there are many throughout the island. Wintertime is high season in the Virgin Islands, especially during the holidays; hotel rates go up accordingly. For lower rates (albeit with a bit of risk), travel during the summer/fall hurricane season.
Popular with honeymooners, the romantic Caneel Bay is one of St. John’s few luxury resorts. The sprawling property includes 166 airy rooms and 7 beaches on a 170-acre peninsula. It’s a great place for a quiet escape; rooms do not have TV’s or phones. Guests can enjoy yoga or meditation classes at the Self Centre, and there’s a raft of outdoor activities available including snorkeling, sailing, windsurfing, golf and tennis.
If you’re more interested in shopping and restaurants than seclusion and soft sand, check out the condos of Gallows Point Resort, which are within walking distance of Cruz Bay. The rocky beach here is hardly the island’s best, but the units are spacious and colorfully decorated, and there’s a great Italian restaurant (Zozo’s) right on site. Rooms include TV’s, wireless Internet and fully equipped kitchens.
Garden by the Sea is a charming, mid-priced bed and breakfast just a 10-minute walk from Cruz Bay. The three brightly decorated rooms have canopy beds and hardwood floors (but no phones or TV’s). Full breakfast is served daily on a veranda surrounded by tropical plants and flowers; the rotating menu includes dishes like frittatas, eggs Benedict and pina colada French toast.
The Treetops guesthouse is one of St. John’s more affordable options, offering three clean guestrooms in the lushly forested area of Fish Bay. Rates include coffee and pastries at breakfast. Although it’s only 2.5 miles outside of Cruz Bay, it’s not on the regular public transportation circuit, so a rental car is recommended.
If you’re looking to stay within the National Park without having to “rough it,” you might enjoy Estate Concordia Studios and Eco Tents. The 25 “eco tents” have running water, screened windows, kitchens and private bathrooms, and are large enough to sleep four to five adults. The property also has nine studios, large open-air rooms with fully equipped kitchens and private baths. Most of the tents and studios offer sweeping ocean views.
Where to Shop
Cruz Bay is full of very upscale boutiques, most of which are one of a kind. At the atmospheric, stone-walled Mongoose Junction (to the left of the ferry dock), don’t miss Bougainvillea Boutique for chic bathing suits, linen fashions and straw hats. Bamboula, which sells everything from bed linens to keepsakes from all over the world, is St. John’s most eclectic shop.
Check out Donald Schnell Pottery for hand-blown glass, kaleidoscopes and windchimes, and Sea Leathers for belts and accessories made out of fish skin.
Adjacent to Margarita’s (across from the dock) is St. John Editions, which has fabulous fashions including Lilly Pulitzer, Koko and Flax.
At Wharfside, Dreams and Dragonflies features local art, funky jewelry and hand-painted clothing. Verace is an exquisite jewelry boutique with distinctive, hand-made pieces by artists from around the world.
Out of the way, but worth the half-block stroll, is Pink Papaya (in the Lemon Tree Mall), an artsy shop specializing in boldly colored Caribbean handicrafts.
–written by Sarah Schlichter and the Cruise Critic editorial staff