Underwater Natural Wonders
While I hesitate to classify St John as a natural wonder by virtue of its uniqueness, I do think it deserves an honorable mention. Imagine an island where more than half is a national park that nestles against picture-perfect white beaches that spill into aquamarine seas. Sunsets sear the sky with saturated reds and oranges, and cooling trade winds keep you comfortable when the temperature rises.
The reefs are by no means the best in the world but they are easily accessible from the beaches which means that you can park your car and be eyeball to eyeball with the fish in less than 2 minutes. And for an island of only 19 miles, St John offers plenty of beaches with reefs for snorkeling. This easy access to the underwater natural world, together with great hiking ranks it as a great island getaway. Added to the charm is the fact that the cruise ships do not stop there which keeps it from being overrun with tourists.
Getting to the island is an adventure in itself. After flying in to St Thomas, USVI (STT), catch a local cab to Red Hook ferry. Depending on your driver this experience could be a white knuckle ride as you adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road, winding roads, and chickens, or if you luck out with a chatty local a chance to learn more about island life. At Red Hook, take the passenger ferry to Cruz Bay (about 20 minutes) where you pick up your car rental. St John is Jeep city which is a good thing as the roads are steep and need 4 wheel drive at times. If you prefer not to drive, island taxis are available on most routes.
Choosing which side of the island to stay is perhaps the biggest dilemma. Cruz Bay is a hub of activity and features an endless choice of restaurants from sushi to tapas to seafood. For the best sunset views and wave noises check out High Tide restaurant or Waterfront Bistro. Meal prices are much higher on St John and especially Cruz Bay. Expect to pay $35+ for your entrée and $18+ for appetizers. Highly recommend the meals at Waterfront Bistro. The melding of food flavors makes for a memorable meal. If you have room for dessert, try their home-made ice-cream – the mint chip flavor is divine and as the mint is grown locally, is supporting the farm to fork movement.
Cruz Bay is also known for the postcard beaches that are popular for weddings which include Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay and Hawksnest Bay. For a little action on the water, Cinnamon Bay offers rentals of kayaks, catamarans and SUPs. Try kayaking out to the island in the bay and snorkeling the island reefs. Cruz Bay is also more developed with its proximity to the ferry.
If you are looking for a more laid back experience, head to the hippy side of the island, Coral Bay. As you wind your way along Route 10 you will start noticing more chickens, goats and donkeys roaming the roads. They are free-range and mostly wander along the roadways so share the road. This side of the island is drier and more desert-like compared to the lusher Cruz Bay area. Think cactuses. Great spots for snorkeling are Salt Pond Bay, Francis Bay, Mako, and probably the top spot on St John, Waterlemon Cay. This requires a short hike to the access point where you swim out to the Cay and snorkel around it. To get off the beaten path, follow the road through Coral Bay to the end where you access the National Park on very bumpy dirt road. Some maps say rental cars should not go there but based on the number we saw, this is more likely the locals way of keeping the tourists from their secret spot. The road is rough and requires a 4-wheel drive but the Little Lameshur and Great Lameshur Bays are beautiful with decent snorkeling.
A great spot to shoot the breeze with the locals is Aqua Bistro restaurant which has a bar with a view of the bay. Highly recommend Indigo Grill for the fresh imaginative dishes at a more reasonable cost. If budget is a high priority visit The Tourist Trap for well-priced, tasty dishes. While nothing more than a roadside shack with a few tables, a limited menu, and no view, it is a local spot that feels more authentic than more expensive restaurants.
Nature you can expect to see underwater includes many species of reef fish, sting rays, squid, turtles, octopus (look for a pile of shells and peek under the rock to find them), nurse sharks (more rare), barracuda and tarpon. If you are lucky you might witness huge shoals of fish come close in to shore at Jumbie Bay and nature puts on a spectacular display of pelicans and sea gulls diving to catch the fish. As you snorkel through this silvery mass, a sudden splash signals a pelican dive bombing and watching them scoop fish from under the water is a pretty exciting experience. Tarpon will also be cruising around gorging themselves. On land if you hike the many trails there is a healthy deer population, iguanas, and a decent bird population including the bananakeet made famous by the Yellow Bird song. A recommended trail to get your workout in, is the Reef Bay Trail which is 4.2 miles and 900 feet of elevation change from the road to the private bay where you can wander the ruins of a rum distillery.
Reasons to go:
- It is not on the cruise ship route so doesn’t get overrun with tourists
- Over 60% of the island is national park which keeps it pristine and gives you lots of hiking options
- You can snorkel right off the beach so don’t have to book boat trips
- Is close enough to the British Virgin Islands if you want to island hop
- The views are incredible with spectacular sunsets and sunrises
Favorite things to do:
- Watch the sunset on the west side of the island. Best spots are between Cruz Bay and Cinnamon Bay.
- Hike the many trails on the island.
- Rent a sailboat, SUP or kayak from Cinnamon Bay.
- Take a day trip to British Virgin Islands. Party atmosphere as you sip on cocktails and visit the highlights of BVI including The Baths and Soggy Dollar Bar (you have to swim for your drink!).
- Snorkel, snorkel, snorkel – of course!
Reasonable places to stay
- If you are on a budget and are fine with roughing it, look into Cinnamon Bay. There is camping (bring your own tent and gear) or small cottages that are reasonable.
- Rent a house via vrbo.com or Airbnb.com. Sizes and prices vary but there is generally a good choice.
- Go green and stay in Concordia Bay eco lodge.
Have you gone underwater for adventures?