(10:20 a.m. EST) -- You know those cruise line marketing photos that show a happy couple walking on an idyllic -- and empty -- Caribbean beach that are more fantasy than cruise vacation reality? Head over to St. John, and you can take your own too-good-to-be-true photo and enjoy beautiful, uncrowded beaches.
The tourism folks we spoke to on our visit to the island yesterday had one message: St. John is open for cruise visitors.
The U.S. Virgin Island, more than half of which is national park land, was hit hard by both Hurricane Irma and Maria. Months later, buildings in Cruz Bay are still missing roofs and awaiting repairs, grounded sailboats lie at odd angles on the beachfront and electricity is just coming back to places like Coral Bay. Caneel Bay Resort lies in ruins. The National Park Visitor Center has been turned into a control center for park cleanup.
Despite the ongoing construction and cleanup, many of the tourist attractions are now accessible to visiting cruise passengers. The ferry is running from Red Hook in St. Thomas to Cruz Bay, allowing for shore excursions and independent travel to the island; small ship cruise lines like SeaDream Yacht Club have begun calling in St. John again. Many stores and restaurants in Cruz Bay are open, and popular beaches like Honeymoon, Hawksnest and Trunk Bay are open. (The water has been safety tested, and all open beaches pass.) The park service lists more than 20 hiking trails available to hikers.
While not everything is back to its pre-storm state, there is one way in which a winter 2017 visit might be even better than a pre-hurricane one: There are hardly any tourists on St. John. Trunk Bay -- which a local couple likened to Coney Island in its crowded, before-the-hurricanes heyday -- was practically deserted when we visited. Some of the shops in town have slashed prices to make buyers out of the scarce tourists. If you want that pristine beach experience, we highly recommend you visit sooner rather than later. Here's more of what you need to know.
Honeymoon Beach is accessible only via a half-hour hike from the National Park Service visitor center, and the trail has been cleared of debris. The hut offering water sports rentals, souvenirs and bathrooms is operational; an employee there told us that the building and the water sports equipment weathered the storm well. We counted fewer than five other people on the beach with us, and the water was that perfect ombre from sea foam to turquoise to deep blue and clear for snorkelers.
Trunk Bay is open, clean and uncrowded -- for a time, we were the sole people on the beach. However, the water lines are not yet open so the bathrooms and food service areas are closed. The only facilities are porta potties and water sports rentals. Bring your own food and water if you go. On the bright side, the beach is waiving the entrance fee while the facilities are being repaired.
Shops and restaurants
The stores, bars and eateries at Mongoose Junction -- just past the park service visitor center and tender dock -- are open, but Wharfside Village suffered much more damage and is still closed. A few shops and restaurants just across the small park from the St. Thomas ferry dock are open, as well.
If you go to St. John, bring extra U.S. dollars and be prepared to pay for most things in cash. Tickets to the ferry between St. John and St. Thomas are cash only -- as are the open-sided taxis. Several shops we visited were cash only because the Internet connections needed to run credit cards were down. Also, while the representative at the small tourist office claimed that some ATMs are operational, the two we passed downtown were not.
The vastly reduced number of tourists on St. John means there is less work for taxi drivers -- and so you'll find fewer cabs waiting to pick up passengers at formerly popular spots, such as the ferry terminal and Trunk Bay. We had better luck finding one of the open-sided buses that serve as cabs near the ferry terminal than at Mongoose Junction. However, if you catch a cab out of Cruz Bay, be sure to arrange for a return pickup. We neglected to do so and nearly got stranded at Trunk Bay because there weren't cabs waiting for beachgoers to return home, nor were there many taxis -- or any cars at all -- driving past on the main road.
If your cruise ship calls in St. Thomas, it's easy to get to St. John and back in a day. Not all cruise lines are offering tours to St. John; if you'd like to travel independently, catch a cab to the Red Hook ferry terminal (about a half hour ride from Havensight Mall), as that's the only place you can currently catch a boat to St. John. Ferries leave on the hour, and the ride is 20 minutes to St. John. Aim to get to the ferry at least 15 minutes before it's scheduled to depart. If all-aboard is 5:30, as it was for the two ships docked near Havensight on our day in port, the 4 p.m. ferry might be cutting it too close; try for an earlier ferry.
Cruz Bay has had its electricity back for a while, but is still experiencing frequent power outages. Mongoose Junction was without power when we visited, and not every venue has its own generator. Some shops were happily operating in the dark, without A/C or fans, but if you must dine in an air-conditioned restaurant, you'll have to change your expectation or skip your St. John visit for the time being.
There are some good resources online if you want to get more information before you head over to St. John. The Virgin Island National Park's Facebook page lists updates on openings. The ranger we spoke with at the park's visitor center recommended the local blog, News of St. John, for getting updates on what's going on with island recovery. The online guide VINow also has a section focused on recovery efforts throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands.
--By Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor