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St. John, USVI 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 isn't a plethora 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 -- 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 in 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.
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Bushwacker -- a potent tropical drink consisting of rum (light and dark), creme de cacao, cream of coconut, Kahlua and Bailey's Irish Cream -- is served everywhere. However, Woody's Seafood Saloon (across from First Bank, from 11 a.m.) is the classic place.
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 the First Bank, two blocks north of the ferry dock.
Locals speak English, often with a Creole accent.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships cannot dock in St. John. If your ship calls at St. John, you'll be anchored and tendered ashore to the National Park dock.
However, most cruisers 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 (a 15-minute ride across the sound from the east end of St. Thomas to Cruz Bay, St. John) and Charlotte Amalie (a longer and usually rougher ferry ride that departs from downtown Charlotte Amalie harbor).
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; just east of the dock is stone-walled shopping haven Mongoose Junction. Access to the Northshore beaches, such as Hawksnest and Trunk 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 best 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 (340-693-8784) and Cool Breeze (340-776-6588). Advance reservations are highly recommended. Rates start at $70 per day, $65 off season.
Editor's note: Remember, locals drive on the left side of the road in St. John. Keep this in mind before renting a car. Also, rentals go quickly; if you are certain you want to rent a car, it is advisable to reserve one before leaving home.
Shopping: 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. Also 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.
Water sports and beaches. For a very private day on the water, charter a yacht. St. John Yacht Charters offers full-day and half-day terms; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 340-998-9898 for more information.
An island tour offers the gorgeous vistas of the north side, mostly National Park and highly undeveloped. Although rates are standardized it is recommended that you 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 or more people, the cost is $25 per person.
A must-stop is Annaberg Sugar Mills 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.
Been There, Done That
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.
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 is only available Monday, Thursday and some Fridays and costs $21 per person. Take a taxi to the Visitor Center, about 30 minutes from Cruz Bay. (www.nps.gov/viis)
Editor's note: Because space is very limited, advance reservations are required; call 340-776-6201, ext. 238, at least two weeks in advance for all of the activities available in the Virgin Islands National Park.
Donkey ride in Coral Bay via Carolina Corral; you can also rent horses.
For something special, consider a catered lunch on the beach by St. John chef Shay Mulcare (340-693-7362) -- perfect for celebrating a big birthday or anniversary with a group.
Best Beach for a Half-Day Visit: Trunk Bay 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. There is a small admission fee.
Best Beach for the Dedicated Beach Bum: Hawksnest is a local's hangout; nothing there but sand, surf and a gorgeous beach. Stop at Starfish Market located in the Marketplace and pack a lunch with drinks.
Best Beach for Active Types: 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.
Best Secluded Beach: 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 Head. Salomon Beach, popular with naturists, is accessible only via a walking trail.
Casual, in-town joints: In Wharfside Village where you get the best views, there's Spyglass. The Lime Inn (11:30 a.m. - 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. Woody's Seafood Saloon (across from Chase Manhattan Bank) has an infamous happy hour. Duffy's Love Shack, which originated in the alleyways of Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, has an outpost in town (from 11:30 a.m.).
Gourmet Lunching: Some of the finest restaurants in town, such as Italian ZoZo's Ristorante, are not open for lunch, but we highly recommend them if you are in town late. The closest thing St. John has to a gourmet lunch is the buffet at the tony Caneel Bay Resort's Caneel Beach Terrace (11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m.), a 15-minute taxi ride from the ferry and tender docks.
Staying in Touch
Connections, in Coral Bay and Cruz Bay, offers Internet access and phone service.
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 four and one-half hour excursion will consist of sailing to St. John, two hours for snorkerling, beach combing, sunbathing and a 90-minute sail back to St. Thomas. Fresh food and beverages will be served onboard, as well as champagne after snorkeling.
For Families: BOB Underwater Adventure, featured on the Discovery Channel, takes you on an underwater motor scooter with no breathing gear needed. The "Breathing Observatoin Bubble" traps the oxygen so you can move around freely without having to stay near the surface. Particpants venture underwater to discover sea life and tropical reefs. Snorkeling and refreshments are included.
For Active Travelers: Eco Boat, Hike & Snorkel of Cas Cay: For a real adventure, step aboard a dinghy as you cross the lagoon to Cas Cay. After a brief nature talk, choose your hermit for hermit crab racing, snorkel through colorful reefs and a shipwreck, and hike to explore the gems of Cas Cay.
For More Information
On the Web: St. Thomas/St. John This Week
Cruise Critic Message Boards: St. Thomas/St. John
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Exchange