For many travelers, St. John is as near to perfection as a Caribbean island can be. More than 60 percent of the 20-square-mile island is national park, so its beaches, vistas, underwater coral gardens, and peaceful hiking paths are quiet and unspoiled. For outdoors enthusiasts, there is no better place to explore a tropical wilderness. St. John may be small, but its bays, hills, and reefs hold a seemingly infinite array of sights and sounds; as you peel off the layers, you will be surprised, enchanted, and inspired.
St. John is a playground. It is the type of place where you’re tempted to live in your swimsuit, and where less is definitely more. The simple pleasures are divine: driving around with the windows down, reading a book from cover to cover on the beach, snorkeling in turquoise water, and watching the sunset over a glass of wine. There is certainly an upscale bent to St. John—just check out some of the prices—but it is an upscale that prefers flip-flops to heels.
The loveliness of St. John is breathtaking. Blinding white sand is lapped by crystal clear water; the hillsides are a palette of greens; and the sky above is a sheer blue canvas. Tucked within St. John’s scenic coves, bays, and mountainsides is a remarkable history. In 1733 the island was the site of one of the only successful slave revolts in the Caribbean. Ruins of sugarworks and great houses from the plantation era remain and provide visitors the opportunity to consider this dramatic past.
St. John complements its natural beauty and historic sites with two laid-back hamlets, Cruz Bay and Coral Bay. These small towns have pretty much everything a visitor needs to feel at home: gourmet coffee, trendy restaurants, cold beer, and Internet access, for starters. While Cruz Bay often vibrates with the day-to-day comings and goings of car barges, passenger ferries, trucks, cars, and gangs of tourists, Coral Bay is a sleepy row of bars, restaurants, and shops.
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- St John highlights
- Travel tips for visiting St John
Trunk Bay is St. John’s most magnificent beach and its most popular.
The bay is a vision of fluffy white sand, sea grape trees, and sapphire sea. Trunk Cay, just offshore, is a tiny island of rocky cliffs, tufted by hardy shrubs.
An offshore snorkel trail sustained serious damage in the 2017 hurricanes, but the bay remains an enjoyable place to snorkel and explore.
Trunk Bay is named for the leatherback turtles, locally called trunks, which nest here. It is a long beach—over a quarter mile—and even at its most crowded you will usually find a semblance of quiet at either extreme end. Facilities include restrooms, changing rooms and showers, and a place to rent chairs, snorkel gear, and an umbrellas.
Trunk Bay is often mobbed, since it is the most popular stop for organized day trips from St. Thomas and the cruise ships and parking is also limited. To avoid the crowds come early or late, but do come—this is what Caribbean beach dreams are made of.
Annaberg Sugar Mill
The ruins of the Annaberg Sugar Mill are the best place to learn about the colonial-era life of both planters and slaves on St. John. The site includes the ruins of a windmill, a sugar factory, a mill round, a rum still, and slave quarters. A 0.25-mile paved trail meanders through the grounds past interpretive signs describing elements of the ruins. There is sometimes a Friends of Virgin Islands National Park volunteer on hand to answer questions about the site and its history. Check with the National Parks office in Cruz Bay for a schedule of ranger-led activities at Annaberg.
Annaberg is a pleasant place just to be: from the crest of the hill you will find views of crystalline Mary Creek, the steep green hillsides of Mary Point, and the bluish mountaintop of Tortola. During the summer, broad flamboyant trees bloom flaming red, and year-round this is a breezy and quiet place to pass time or enjoy a picnic.
The windmill at Annaberg, built by slaves with fieldstone, coral, and hand-mixed mortar, was one of five windmills on St. John during the plantation era. The ruins of the windmill, mill round, and boiling house are what remains today of the plantation’s massive sugar operation. Look around and imagine gangs of men and women cutting cane on a steeply terraced hillside above. The cut cane would have been loaded on wooden skids and slid down the hill to the factory. Water also flowed downhill; Murphy used slave labor to build a reservoir and elevated aqueduct to complement the 20,000-gallon rainwater cistern that lies alongside the boiling house.
Other structures still standing include a traditional stone oven used to bake large batches of bread and a dungeon outfitted with a post, handcuffs, and chains, evidence of the means used by overseers to control the enslaved population, especially after the 1733 rebellion in which Annaberg slaves took part.
Waterlemon Cay & Leinster Bay
Three-quarters of a mile along the Johnny Horn Trail from the Annaberg Sugar Mill lies Leinster Bay Beach, a calm bay covered with packed coarse yellow sand and fringed by shade trees. It’s not anyone’s favorite beach, but it is a decent place to swim, and snorkelers who putter around the bay will enjoy peering down at conch, sea cucumbers, and sea stars tucked into swaying sea grass. From the beach, you can swim out to excellent snorkelling.
Named for a type of shark, Waterlemon Cay is a tiny offshore islet and home to what many consider the best snorkeling on St. John. The cay is a 0.2 mile swim from the beach at Leinster Bay and consists of a hard-packed sandy beach on the Leinster Bay side which leads to an impenetrable rocky edge on its seaward face. Underwater there is a shallow fringing reef around the protected side of the cay.
As you proceed around the rocky side of the island, the reef deepens to some 20 feet with an intricate diversity of coral as well as squid, eel, and other reef-dwelling creatures.
To get to Waterlemon, hike the 0.8 mile to Leinster Bay and then swim out, either from the beach or proceed another 0.25 mile on an unofficial trail along the shore for a shorter swim. Once you reach Waterlemon, it’s a good idea to take a break to catch your breath on the small sandy beach before beginning your circumnavigation of the island. Enter the water at the beach and head in a counterclockwise direction, travelling with the current. Be aware that the back of Waterlemon Cay can be subject to high swells and on some days it is just not safe to venture the full way around.
There are no facilities at Leinster Bay; pack plenty of food and water. Most weeks the National Park Service leads a water’s edge walk along the trail to Leinster Bay where hikers learn more about the shoreline ecosystem. Contact the Cruz Bay Visitor Center to confirm upcoming dates and times.
The extreme southeastern tip of St. John is a narrow finger of land called Ram’s Head. Here, waves crash on rocks 200 feet below and howling wind carries your voice far away. The view is of the Caribbean Sea to the south and the irregular foothills of southern St. John to the west. During the 1733 slave uprising, Ram’s Head was one of the Africans’ camps, chosen because it was easily defended and difficult to reach.
Ram’s Head is a dramatic place that inspires silence and awe.
The only way to get to Ram’s Head is on foot. It is a 1.2-mile hike (one-way) from the Salt Pond Bay parking lot through dry forest, along rocky shorelines, and then through the open, grassy landscape that defines Ram’s Head. Turk’s head cactus dot the hillside, and as you walk, look back for outstanding views of Salt Pond Bay and Concordia.
Though the round-trip to and from the parking lot is just 2.4 miles, do not underestimate the difficulty of this hike and the amount of water you will need. Sun protection is also a necessity; there is very little shade along the trail.
St John Petroglyphs
Only accessible by foot, St John’s mysterious petroglyphs are a reminder of St. John’s rich history and one of the most unique things you will see on the island. The ancient stone carvings depict symbols of spiritual significance to prehistoric people who lived on St. John. They are carved in the rock face of a spring-fed reflecting pool about 0.5 mile off the Reef Bay Trail, and about 2 miles on foot from Centerline Road.
Evidence suggests that the Reef Bay reflecting pool was a site of spiritual significance for people on St. John as early as AD 500 and that it remained so through the entirety of Taino habitation for the next 1,000 years.
Most of the petroglyphs in Reef Bay are carved into the rock just above the surface of the water in the reflecting pool. Splash a little water on the rock to make the carvings easier to see and observe that they are reflected in the still springwater below.
Park historians say that most of the carvings at Reef Bay probably date to AD 1300-1450, but in 2011 a group of volunteers led by the park archaeologist found a “lost” petroglyph dated to AD 500 stoking interest in full-blown archaeology project at the site.
The petroglyphs make a perfect pit stop along the Reef Bay Trail. It is peaceful and beautiful in the rocky cove which surrounds the reflecting pool. Stop here for a snack or picnic lunch and ponder the generations of humans before you who have made the trip to this special place. From the petroglyphs, you can hike another 20 minutes to the shoreline to explore the the remains of the Reef Bay Sugar Mill, consisting of a well-preserved large mill building, handsome stone smokestack, and largely intact cattle round.
The Reef Bay ruins lie at the end of the 2.6 mile Reef Bay Trail which begins on Centerline Road about midway between Cruz Bay and Coral Bay. On the trail down, you pass several other plantation and subsistence era ruins and the foundation of an old worker’s cottage. The National Park Service has erected a half-dozen interpretive signs along the trail identifying noteworthy trees and sociohistorical features.
A couple times a week the NPS and the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park offer ranger-guided hikes down the trail. In addition to the benefit of the ranger’s knowledge, hikers get to take a boat back to Cruz Bay rather than hike back up to Centerline. The hike costs $30 per person and space is limited. For reservations contact the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park.
Planning your time on St John
It is safe to assume that no matter how much time you spend on St. John, it won’t be enough. A tired joke is that most of the continentals living there came down for vacation and never left. It’s hackneyed, but there is definitely a kernel of truth to the belief: St. John is just that enchanting.
But if you can’t pick up and move, a week is a good length of time to be on St. John. You’ll have time for several beaches, a couple hikes, and a day sail: just about what you need to properly unwind.
St. John is a good day trip if you’re based on St. Thomas. If all you have is a day, take an open-air taxi along the lovely north shore to Annaberg and then choose between a snorkeling expedition to Waterlemon Cay or an afternoon at one of the north shore beaches.
Getting to St John
There is no airport on St. John; the only way to get here is by ferry. It is a 20-minute ferry ride from St. Thomas, home of the nearest international airport.
The St. John ferry departs Red Hook daily at 6:30 am, 7:30 am, and then hourly 8am-midnight. Return ferries leave Cruz Bay every hour on the hour from 6 am to 11pm. The fare for the 20-minute ride is $8.15 one-way for adults and $1 for children 2-11 years. There is also a charge of $4 per piece of luggage on both routes.
Getting around St John
Taxis are widely available on St. John, especially in Cruz Bay and at the popular north shore beaches. When you disembark from the St. Thomas ferry in Cruz Bay, you will be bombarded by taxi drivers offering to take you where you need to go. Taxi rates are set by the government. From Cruz Bay to Trunk Bay you will pay $8; from Cruz Bay to Maho Bay it’s $13 per person; and from Cruz Bay to Salt Pond Bay, the rate is $20 per person. Per-person rates are lower for groups of two or more.
Rental vehicles are a popular way to get around St. John. This is the kind of place where you want the wind in your hair and the freedom to go wherever you want.
Rental companies based on St. John only rent four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles suitable for the island’s roads. Rates start at $80 per day. Book ahead, since rentals are often fully booked up, especially in the winter season. Many agencies have a three-day minimum rental for advance reservations, however. None of the big rental chains serve St. John. Rental companies are exclusively located in or around Cruz Bay.
Where to Stay
The best beaches are along the island’s north shore but there are few accommodations here: only a campground and a few villas – grab one if you can find it. If you want to be within walking distance to restaurants and nightlife, look for digs in Cruz Bay. If you are happiest away from crowds, head to Coral Bay, where you’ll find a large concentration of vacation villas. Vacation rental sites including VRBO.com, homeaway.com and airbnb.com have the most St John selection.
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