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St. John (U.S.V.I.) Overview
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 aren't plenty of tourist-friendly beaches (all 44 are open to the public) and frosty blender drinks. Shore excursions run the gamut from snorkeling to eco-hikes. And there's shopping, of course, though truth be told 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 -- the Virgin Islands National Park makes up two-thirds of the island. (The Rockefeller family donated the land in 1956.) Nestled within the park are Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay, each offering active pursuits in pristine waters. Sailing, snorkeling and diving are top attractions, though kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and scuba are increasingly popular.
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; the island is networked with the national park hiking trails that lead to historical sites and hidden coves. If your ship is docked in St. Thomas, your day spent here will feel like a break from the madding crowds -- and you'll want to return again and again.
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Other Eastern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Antigua • Castaway Cay • CocoCay • Freeport • Grand Turk • Great Stirrup Cay • Half Moon Cay • Jost Van Dyke • Key West • La Romana (Casa de Campo) • Labadee • Nassau • Nevis • Princess Cays • Samana and Cayo Levantado • San Juan • Santo Domingo • St. Croix • St. John (U.S.V.I.) • St. Kitts • St. Maarten • St. Martin • St. Thomas • Tortola • Virgin Gorda
Bushwackers -- potent tropical drinks consisting of rum (light and dark), creme de cacao, cream of coconut, Kahlua and Bailey's Irish Cream -- are served everywhere. However, Woody's Seafood Saloon (across from First Bank, from 11 a.m.) is the classic place.
Support the continued preservation of St. John by buying a box of made-in-the-islands Bush Tea at the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park store in Mongoose Junction.
Locals speak English, often with a Creole accent.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The U.S. dollar is used throughout the Virgin Islands, including St. John, but foreign currency can be exchanged at major banks; an ATM is located in First Bank, two blocks north of the ferry dock.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships can't dock in St. John. If your ship calls at St. John, you'll be anchored and tendered ashore to the National Park dock.
Most cruisers, though, come to St. John by passenger ferry from a cruise ship that is docked in nearby St. Thomas. There are two places on St. Thomas to catch the ferry to St. John. Red Hook is a 15-minute ride across the sound from the east end of St. Thomas to Cruz Bay; ferries leave every hour on the hour. Charlotte Amalie is a longer and usually rougher ferry ride that is more limited, schedule-wise; boats leave downtown Charlotte Amalie harbor at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., returning from Cruz Bay at 11:15 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.
A multitude of activities and dining opportunities are available within walking distance of the ferry dock in downtown Cruz Bay, a good anchor point. Just east of the dock is Wharfside Village, where you'll find powerboat rentals, grills and bars as well as stone-walled shopping haven Mongoose Junction. Access to the Northshore beaches, such as Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay, are a 15-minute taxi ride.
On Foot: The tender or ferry drops you in the heart of eminently walkable Cruz Bay.
By Taxi: Safari (open air) cabs wait at the ferry dock and at the major beaches and hotels. Taxis are generally found at the ferry terminal, where the boats that ply the waters between Charlotte Amalie/Red Hook and St. John tie-up; it's about a five-minute walk from the tender dock.
By Car: Local rental car agencies are clustered mostly around the car ferry area. Among those within easy walking distance are St. John Car Rental (340-776-6103), O'Connor Car Rental (340-776-6343), Varlack (340-776-6412), Spencer's (888-776-6628) and Cool Breeze (340-776-6588). Rates start at $80 per day, $75 off-season.
Editor's note: Locals drive on the left side of the road in St. John. Keep this in mind before renting a car. Rentals go quickly; if you are certain you want to rent a car, it is advisable to reserve one before leaving home.
Watch Out For
As you would in any destination, beware of your surroundings. Don't wear expensive jewelry or flash large amounts of cash. Leave unnecessary valuables in your cabin safe.
An island tour offers the gorgeous vistas of the north side, which is mostly national park and highly undeveloped. Although rates are standardized, speak to the driver and agree to your total rate (for you or your group) before boarding the taxi. For two hours, the price for one passenger is $50; if there are two people or more, the cost is $25 per person.
A must-stop is Annaberg Sugar Mills Ruins, a partially restored sugar plantation dating 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; a gardener is on site to explain the importance of agriculture to the Virgin Islands, and a baker demonstrates using 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. (You might have seen it elsewhere in the Caribbean as "bake.")
Most people come to St. John for its wonderful beaches and snorkeling opportunities. While everyone has a favorite, keep in mind that only Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay have rental facilities and restrooms. Within Cruz Bay, there are numerous outfitters offering excursions to snorkeling spots on the island or even over to the British Virgin Islands.
For shopping, Cruz Bay is full of 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. Also check out Donald Schnell Pottery for hand-blown glass, kaleidoscopes and wind chimes, 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. Wharfside, Dreams and Dragonflies features local art, funky jewelry and hand-painted clothing. Verace is an exquisite jewelry boutique with distinctive, handmade 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.
Been There, Done That
The National Park Service offers a 5.5-hour guided Reef Bay Hike; a downhill trek, it passes through a piece of the park's rain forest along with 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 starts at 9:15 a.m. and is only available Mondays and Thursdays. The trip leaves from the Visitor Center at Cruz Bay.
Note: Because space is limited, reservations are required; call 340-779-8700 at least two weeks in advance for all of the activities available in the Virgin Islands National Park.
Other hiking opportunities are also available within the National Park. Take the 2.2-mile roundtrip Lind Point trail from the Visitors Center in Cruz Bay to Honeymoon Beach, a popular spot for -- you guessed it -- honeymooners. (Honeymoon Beach is also accessible from the parking lot at Caneel Beach Resort.) Cinnamon Bay also has a trail into the forest that follows an old Danish plantation road.
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. Currents here can be dangerous; tourists who were not strong swimmers have died. It's also hard to get taxis here, so we only recommend this if you have a car.
For a private day on the water, charter a sailboat. St. John Yacht Charters offers full-day and half-day options. (340-998-9898)
Most Popular Beach: Trunk Bay is justifiably popular with cruise daytrippers, as it has the most up-to-date facilities on the island. It's perfect for a few hours of snorkeling (for beginners) and beach-bumming; equipment can be rented here and there is an underwater trail and on-site snack shop. There is an admission fee for adults; children 16 and younger are free.
Best for Active Types: Cinnamon Bay, another National Park Service beach, has a restaurant and on-site shack renting snorkel gear, boogie boards, stand-up paddleboards, windsurfing gear and kayaks. (It's the only National Park campground on the island, as well.) Cinnamon Bay is typically less crowded than Trunk Bay, which makes it a good alternative to get away from the masses.
Best for Beach Bums: Hawksnest is a local's hangout; there's nothing there but sand, surf and a gorgeous beach. Stop at Starfish Market located in the Marketplace and pack a lunch with drinks; there are picnic tables and a restroom. Francis Beach, farther north, is also a spot where you'll need to bring in your own equipment. The calm water here makes it a popular spot for private sailboats to dock.
Best for Hiking: Salomon Beach is accessible via the same hiking trail that takes you to Honeymoon Beach and is reputed to have some of the best snorkeling on the island. Once popular with naturists, it seems to attract a more mainstream crowd now. The part of the trail that goes down to the beach is rocky, so wear closed-toe shoes. There are no facilities.
Best Secluded Beach: Salt Pond Bay on the east end of the island (you'll need to rent a Jeep and make sure you have plenty of time to get back to your ship) has a comfortable beach and, as an added attraction, a terrific hiking trail called the Ram Head.
As befits an island that was once home to Rockefellers, St. John has its share of fine restaurants. However, most of them aren't open for lunch. That's OK; you won't go away hungry. There are beach bars and fish shacks to spare.
Casual, In-Town Joints: In Wharfside Village where you get the best views of Cruz Bay's harbor, there's the rollicking Beach Bar, as well as Joe's Rum Hut. Both serve the same style of island-infused pub grub, both have soundtracks of classic rock and Jimmy Buffet favorites, and both open daily at 11 a.m. The Lime Inn (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), behind Pink Papaya in the Lemon Tree Mall, has no sea views but does offer wonderful burgers and fresh fish; it's another local favorite.
Gourmet Lunching: At one time, the closest thing St. John had to a gourmet lunch was the buffet at the tony Caneel Bay Resort's Caneel Beach Terrace (11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.), a 15-minute taxi ride from the ferry and tender docks. At Wharfside Village, the Waterfront Cafe has a classier lunch setup than its beach bar counterparts; you're still getting salads, sandwiches and lunch entrees, but they're served on white tablecloths with a lovely choice of wines by the glass.
Staying in Touch
Many bars and restaurants on the island offer free Wi-Fi with purchase. In Cruz Bay, your U.S. phone service is likely to work without roaming fees, but be careful once you start moving north; once you hit a BVI tower, international charges will apply.
Best for First-Timers: The St. John Champagne Catamaran Sailaway combines a few activities to sample all that St. John offers. Departing in the catamaran from St. Thomas, your 4.5-hour excursion will include sailing to St. John, two hours for snorkeling, beach combing, sunbathing and a 90-minute sail back to St. Thomas. Fresh food and beverages are served onboard as well as Champagne after snorkeling.
Best for Active Travelers: The St. John Eco-Hike takes you on the 45-minute boat ride from St. Thomas to Cruz Bay. You'll hike through the National Park on the Lind Trail to scenic Lind Point and Honeymoon Beach. The excursion ends with lunch at Caneel Bay.
For More Information
On the Web: St. Thomas/St. John This Week and St. John Online Guidebooks
Cruise Critic Message Boards: St. Thomas and St. John
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Exchange
--Updated by Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor