Discover St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

For many travelers, St. John is as near to perfection as a Caribbean island can be. More than 60 percent of the 20-square-mile island is national park, so its beaches, vistas, underwater coral gardens, and peaceful hiking paths are quiet and unspoiled. For outdoors enthusiasts, there is no better place to explore a tropical wilderness. St. John may be small, but its bays, hills, and reefs hold a seemingly infinite array of sights and sounds; as you peel off the layers, you will be surprised, enchanted, and inspired.

St. John is a playground. It is the type of place where you’re tempted to live in your swimsuit, and where less is definitely more. The simple pleasures are divine: driving around with the windows down, reading a book from cover to cover on the beach, snorkeling in turquoise water, and watching the sunset over a glass of wine. There is certainly an upscale bent to St. John—just check out some of the prices—but it is an upscale that prefers flip-flops to heels.

The loveliness of St. John is breathtaking. Blinding white sand is lapped by crystal clear water; the hillsides are a palette of greens; and the sky above is a sheer blue canvas. Tucked within St. John’s scenic coves, bays, and mountainsides is a remarkable history. In 1733 the island was the site of one of the only successful slave revolts in the Caribbean. Ruins of sugarworks and great houses from the plantation era remain and provide visitors the opportunity to consider this dramatic past.

Ruins at Annaberg Sugar Mill in St. John. Photo © Susanna Henighan Potter.
Ruins at Annaberg Sugar Mill in St. John. Photo © Susanna Henighan Potter.

St. John complements its natural beauty and historic sites with two laid-back hamlets, Cruz Bay and Coral Bay. These small towns have pretty much everything a visitor needs to feel at home: gourmet coffee, trendy restaurants, cold beer, and Internet access, for starters. While Cruz Bay often vibrates with the day-to-day comings and goings of car barges, passenger ferries, trucks, cars, and gangs of tourists, Coral Bay is a sleepy row of bars, restaurants, and shops.

St. John’s perfection has consequences. So many people have come here and loved it that real estate agents, development companies, and construction firms are trying to build on every piece of the island’s undeveloped privately held land. In some parts of the island, the sound of waves crashing is drowned out by the scream of air brakes, the ringing of hammers, and the hum of construction generators. Equally problematic, the influx of wealthy snowbirds and young continentals has created a social divide between native St. Johnians and their guests.

Planning Your Time

It is safe to assume that no matter how much time you spend on St. John, it won’t be enough. A tired joke is that most of the continentals living there came down for vacation and never left. It’s hackneyed, but there is definitely a kernel of truth to the belief: St. John is just that enchanting.

But if you can’t pick up and move, a week is a good length of time to be on St. John. You’ll have time for several beaches, a couple hikes, and a day sail: just about what you need to properly unwind.

Travel map of St. John, Virgin Islands
St. John

Where to Stay

The best beaches are along the island’s north shore but there are not many accommodations here: only one resort, a campground, and a few villas. If you want to be within walking distance to restaurants and nightlife, look for digs in Cruz Bay. If you are happiest away from crowds, head to Coral Bay, where you’ll find the greatest concentration of vacation villas as well as the island’s leading eco-resort.

Day Trips

St. John is a good day trip if you’re based on St. Thomas or Tortola. If all you have is a day, take an open-air taxi along the lovely north shore to Annaberg and then choose between a snorkeling expedition to Waterlemon Cay or an afternoon at one of the north shore beaches.

If you’re staying on St. John, the most popular day trips are to the British Virgin Islands. Book an outing with a day-sail operator headed to Norman Island, Virgin Gorda, or Jost Van Dyke. Alternatively, take a ferry to West End (Tortola), Great Harbour (Jost Van Dyke), Spanish Town (Virgin Gorda), or Setting Point (Anegada) and explore at your own pace.

Cruz Bay in St. John. Photo © Susanna Henighan Potter.
Cruz Bay in St. John. Photo © Susanna Henighan Potter.

Ferries and day sails depart exclusively from Cruz Bay. Ferries to Tortola (round-trip $55 adult, $45 child) and Jost Van Dyke (round-trip $80 adult, $60 child) run about three times a day. The ferry to Virgin Gorda (round-trip $90 adult, $70 child) runs on Thursday and Sunday, and the Anegada (round-trip $135) trip operates on the first Sunday of the month. Ferry trips last 25-45 minutes, plus additional time to clear BVI customs and immigration. For more information about ferries to the British Virgin Islands contact Inter Island Boat Services (340/776-6597).

While it’s not necessary to make reservations for ferries to Tortola, call ahead to confirm the availability. Day-sail outings should be scheduled several days in advance (or several weeks in peak season).

Related Travel Guide