It is nearing 70º and sunny outside and so the need to escape the cold to warmer climes may be waning, but travel is one of those things, like meals, that I never stop planning. Much like sitting at breakfast brainstorming dinner, one trip inevitably leads into the next. Recently, though my travel budget has been curtailed by, well, everything so when we did get to get away few weeks ago, we went to old faithful, St. John.
Many moons ago, my dear friend Alex Battles recommended the place to me when I was burnt out and broke, as a nearby and cheap Caribbean hideout for those seeking something laid back and with postcard-worthy beaches. On my first trip, I couldn’t believe that the water was actually that color. I had just assumed that photoshop was responsible. It is not. And everything else I have learned about the island in my ensuing retreats is just as I will promise you here.
*Disclaimer: St. John is not a resort spot, with the exception of The Westin and Cannel Bay Resort, so if you need turndown service or duty-free perfume, or towels folded into flamingos, this is not your island. If you are a salt of the earth character with dirt under your fingernails, read on.
A Brief Introduction
St. John is part of the US Virgin Islands just east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea. St. Thomas (the more populous and commercial island) and St. Croix (which is called “The Big Island” and can be seen on the southern horizon on a clear day) are St. John’s sisters, named collectively Les Vierges by one Christopher Columbus. Years later, after the collapse of the sugar and rum industry the the conclusion of the dark era of slavery, Lawrence Rockafeller cited the famous quote by John Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” as he granted a huge portion of a tiny island as National Park. There are white sandy beaches, rocky and rough shores with views to the other islands, amazing hiking trails that get the blood flowing and flora and fauna to soothe the urban soul. The non-park island is part vacation homes for the rich and famous (Kenny Chesney and one of the Rolling Stones have hideaways here) part homes for the rich and not famous (see below) and those folks who live on island and make such a lovely getaway possible by working to make it comfy for the rest of us. The offical language is English, but you’ll hear French, Creole and all sorts of local dialects, and US currency is standard.
Fly from wherever you are to St. Thomas (airport code STT.) A non-school holiday flight costs about $300 from the NYC area, before the ridiculous taxes and charges. Continental flies direct from Newark. Get your bags and a complimentary shot of rum from the Cruzan kiosk, or head to the airport bar and get a Painkiller, the official drink of the Virgin Islands, and wait for your luggage to arrive on the conveyer belt that you can watch from your stool. Then, head outside and hop in to one of the vans that will taxi you to either Charlotte Amelie (short taxi, long ferry) or Red Hook (long taxi, short ferry) for around $10 per person, and take the next ferry to St. John. Regardless of whether you leave from Charlotte Amelie or Red Hook, you end up on the same ferry dock on St. John. Here’s a schedule and fee info. Change your shoes to something flip-floppy.
Arriving at the Ferry Dock
When you get off the boat, follow the crowd down the dock. There are lots of people holding signs for folks staying on boats or at the Westin. Right at the end of the dock, the Vitran bus stops and will take you up and down Centerline Road, from Cruz Bay (where you have just landed) all the way to Salt Pond on “the other side” of the island. More on the bus later. Turn right on to the sand, kick off your shoes and walk in the water to the last spot on the left, the Beach Bar. You’ll know you are there when you see the Jolly Roger Flag sporting a happy face instead of a skull. Order a Painkiller, prop your feet up on your luggage and relax. You made it.
Where to Stay
In every trip before this last one, I have camped at Cinnamon Bay Campground. Click on the link for the most up-to-date rates on bare sites, platform tents, and cabins. Or, visit the following two links to find, for just a few dollars more or less, the homes of folks who have homes they aren’t using and rent out to people like you and me.
We stayed here and it was glorious:
There is a grocery store right down the hill and the Vitran will take you back and forth to Cruz Bay, or “town” to the locals.
How to Get Around
Its a small island, but not so small that you can walk everywhere. If you have the money, get a rental car which will cost you around $80 a day. Anytime you are in town, fill up your gas talk. There is a second gas station in Coral Bay, but for the eight days we were there, and we learned a month before that, they had no gas. Also, they drive on the left side of the road so take it slow, pull over if there’s a line of cars behind you and let them pass, and “Drive Right, Keep Left” is a very popular bumper sticker on local cars to remind you in case you forget.
We, however have never rented a car. My early trips I got around by taxi. Not the yellow kind, but a pickup truck outfitted with benches running the length of the bed and a canvas canopy to protect you from the elements. This is an experience to say the least, there are lots of unfathomable switchbacks and some near-vertical inclines, just hang on and trust your driver. Chances are they’ve been doing it a long time.
While exhilarating, taxis get expensive fast. So consider taking the bus. Here’s a good spot to tell you about the roads, the ones I know about anyway. There is Centerline Road that runs the length of the island across the ridge of mountains granting incredible views of the sea and sand a thousand or so feet below. Also called Route 10, this is the only road that the bus travels on. It costs a dollar and there are no stops, just flag them down as they approach on no known schedule at all. Ask to get off where ever you are going, Town, The Triangle, Crabby’s (for Harbor Place Too). The only access the bus provides to any of the north shore, white sandy beaches is via the Cinnamon Bay Trail. Bring everything you need for the day, ask the driver to drop you at the trail and hike down to the beach. At the bottom of the trail, you’ll land on the other road, conveniently called North Shore Road. Lots of taxis go back and forth from town to the North Shore Beaches, so if hiking back up to Centerline isn’t what you want after a hard day of beach sitting, you won’t be stuck.
The final, unofficial but recommended by every local met, mode of transport is to hitchhike. Gas is super expensive everywhere, but especially so in the islands, so lots of people don’t get cars because they can’t afford one or, heck everyone else has one! No matter how “local” you may act, you are still a tourist and the real locals can spot your pale skin and ray bans from a mile away. That said, some folks won’t pick you up because you might be an uppity mainlander who complains about the cigarette smoke or the Bud Light cans. Not us! We met some awesome characters, one of which asked me if I was an axe murderer through his oxygen tubing when Mark got out to throw his garbage bags away. I’m not, but suddenly wasn’t sure the friendly old dude thing was a ruse. If you do decide to hitch, walk along the side of the road with traffic and when you hear a car approaching point with your index finger in the direction your heading and they may (or may not) stop to let you hop in and tell them stories of “back home.” And don’t be uppity.
Ok, so, you’re there, you’ve figured out how you are going to get yourself from place to place and you want to feel some sand in your toes. The lateral line of the island runs pretty much due East-West, dividing the beaches into North Shore beaches and everywhere else. These on the North Shore are the postcard-type shimmering white arcs with iridescent turquoise waters lightly lapping the sand. Normally. For the last, well no one quite knew how long it had been, but when we were there, there was a head high swell and surfers. Go figure. There’s lots of info out on the beaches of St. John so I won’t get too detailed except to tell you the following:
• I have never been to Trunk Bay and don’t ever plan on going. There is an “underwater snorkeling trail” labeling the corals and explaining the fish camoflogue. This attracts the day-trippers from cruise ships in St. Thomas with screaming little ones in soggy diapers and with so many beaches to explore, there is very little reason to expose myself to this. I’m trying to relax, after all.
• Cinnamon Bay is beautiful. There is a pretty well stocked hut on the beach, lots of toys to rent like kayaks and boogie boards, soda, beer, ice cream, salty snacks, etc. There’s also a restaurant that serves burgers and stuff like that.
• In town, locate the National Park Visitors Center building. It is on the old ferry dock. Behind that building is the Lind Point trail head. This is an easy hike through dry scrub that will lead you past Solomon Beach (with arced palm trees stretching out of the sand,) Honeymoon Beach (where we actually witnessed a couple get engaged) and finally to Caneel Beach, which is the other resort besides the Westin. If you have enough money to be staying there, chances are you aren’t reading this blog. Luckily, all the beaches on St. John are public property so you too can enjoy the stretch of sand that Mr. Rockafeller once called home.
The beaches on the other side of the island are way more interesting and less densely populated as you have to drive, hitch or take the bus to get to them. The last stop on the bus is Salt Pond Bay. If you take the bus from town out this way, its about a 45 minute drive. You’ll get to The Triangle in Coral Bay, turn left, pass Skinny Legs and the Donkey Diner, and probably donkeys themselves, goats, chickens, cats, cows, whatever escaped the barnyard that day. The bus then turns around, heads back to the triangle and turns left again, down the other branch of the giant Y that is Coral Bay and heads out to Salt Pond.
Get off the bus and hike down the rocky, moderatly steep trail, pass the composting toilet and you are on Salt Pond Beach. The water doesn’t have that postcard blue look because there isn’t much of a sandy bottom here. Instead, there is lots of sea grass and coral along the rocks, making for excellent snorkeling.
(Side Note: All that white sand is actually digested coral once eaten by fish then um, excreted back into the water where in collects over the millennia into those white sand beaches we all love. While you are snorkeling, listen for the crunch-crunch sound and look for the brightly-colored parrotfish for whom you can thank for their choice in food.)
From Salt Pond, you can hike to Drunk Bay, named so as a mispronunciation of the Dutch verb “to drown.” There are huge swells all the way from Portugal pounding the rocky shore. Don’t even think about swimming. Instead, look around at the sculptures that people have left behind of the Coral and Rock People.
You can also hike out to Ram’s Head which is a hot hike, we made the most out of the overcast weather we had and were rewarded with sweeping views of St. Croix and the British Virgin Islands, complete with the silent white sails of boats drifting by. Along this hike is the Blue Cobblestone Beach. This is my Happy Place. In the dentist’s chair or times of high stress and anxiety, I think about this beach, where the waves break over millions of perfectly smooth blue stones and as the water recedes, it drags the rocks around, banging them into each other creating the most soothing and percussive sound.
There are still lots of beaches I haven’t explored beyond the reach of the bus and for that, there will be more trips. But, after all this exploring, you get a little hungry! So let’s talk about island food.
Where to Eat
If you rent a house, which I HIGHLY recommend, you’ll no doubt have a kitchen and most likely a grill which will save you lots of money in the food budget. In Cruz Bay, there is the Dolphin Market, an everything-you-need kind of place. In Coral Bay, we stayed a few steps from Lily’s Gourmet Market that had everything we needed and the prices were totally reasonable, despite “gourmet” being in the title. By cooking at home, you can save money drinking at home too. A liter of Bacardi Gold was $6.99 at Lily’s.
If you are cooking at home, or just want to visit an incredible operation, Josephine’s is an organic garden and vegetable farm in a valley in Coral Bay. If you are on the bus, when you are headed out towards Coral Bay, hope off at the gas station and walk down past Love City Market, past the folks chilling and drinking under the palm trees across from the dumpsters about a mile to Josephine’s on the left. There is no website that I could find, but get there and ask to see the garden and you get to walk through the hanging palms and into a valley garden of several acres raising greens for salad or stir fry, strange squash and gorgeous little tomatoes that taste just like a little tomato should.
If you do want to eat out, prepare to pay for it. I can’t give a fair review to the places we did visit because it was just once at each. That really wouldn’t be fair. In short, you won’t go hungry. I recommend (as with travel anywhere) ask a local person where they would eat.
That being said, here are the places we eat every time we visit and absolutely love:
Like I said, you won’t go hungry but eating out gets expensive so try to get the recommendation of a local and rent a place with a barbeque.
I hope you are planning a trip to St. John. It truly is such a spectacular place and will forever be, thanks to the work of the National Parks Service. If you have any questions or I’ve left anything critical out, let me know. Meanwhile, I’m going to scour Orbitz for the next great deal on plane tickets and make myself on of these:
2 oz Pusser’s dark rum
1 oz cream of coconut
4 oz pineapple juice
1 oz orange juice
Freshly grated nutmeg
Put the juices, rum and a few grates of nutmeg into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake until very cold then pour over fresh ice and top with another scratch or two of nutmeg.