ST. JOHN, US VIRGIN ISLANDS ESCAPADE
The United States Virgin Islands (USVI) is comprised of four main islands: St. Croix, St. Thomas, Water Island and St. John. A paradise on Earth can be found in the Virgin Islands National Park (VINP), where you can swim with sea turtles, eagle rays, and schools of multicolored fish (St. John, USVI). The VINP has several trails and historical ruins across island, sharing only pieces of St. John history during the sugar cane plantations and slavery. Laurance Rockefeller was so taken by St. John's beauty that he purchased nearly 60 percent of the island in 1952. The history books don't pay tribute to the land that was taken from ancestral natives in this process. It became a national park after the federal government purchased it in 1956, with the condition that it should be open to the public for generations to come.
Many historic sites are scattered across the island's forests, and mountains, including ancient Taino petroglyphs carved into the rocks and ruins of the sugar plantations, including the recently commemorated Road to Freedom trail acknowledging the enslaved people who were forced to work there. St. John and other Caribbean islands were first inhabited by Ciboney Indians, who predated the Taino and Kalinago (Carib). The Caribbean history is still being muddled through as colonizing countries possess first inhabitants artifacts.
Best Time to Go
The best time to go to VINP is from March through June since it has fewer visitors, slightly cooler temperatures, and lesser rainfall. July through October is hurricane season. Even though daily rain usually passes quickly, rainy periods in the high season from November through February bring more extensive crowds and less accommodation and transit availability.
How to Get There and Upon Arrival
It's a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Miami to St. Thomas, the most frequent destination for visitors to the U.S. Virgin Islands. U.S. citizens don't require a passport to enter the country; instead, they may present a driver's license or other government identification. To get from St. Thomas to St. John, you can take a 20-minute ferry from Red Hook on the island's eastern edge to the western side of St. John, Cruz Bay. Ferries frequently run for both passengers and vehicles.
At the VINP Visitor Center at Cruz Bay on St. John, you can get free maps or guidebooks, check out history and nature displays, receive information and sign up to volunteer in the park. You may start exploring the park by hiking to beautiful Honeymoon Beach, just over a mile away from the trailhead behind the center. The trail can be rather hot, but it is relatively simple.
How To Get Around The Area
The most recommended way to get around St. John if you stay for multiple days is to rent a Jeep. The local taxis don't go up all the narrow, dirt roads of St. John. You'll need a Jeep to explore St. John's steep, winding roads (and driveways). You'll want to arrive early to beaches, trailheads, and historic sites and for dinner in town. The traffic moves on the left side of the road in the USVI. Consider touring the park and island with STJ Tours if you're making a day trip. You will maximize your time by learning more about the island, learning some history, and not having to drive.
To protect yourself, coral and marine life, please use only non-nano mineral sunscreen containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. As of March 2020, sunscreens that contain the “Toxic 3 Os” of oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene are prohibited in the USVI. Protective SPF long sleeve shirts and hats are a necessity on latitude 18. Bugs will leave itchy bites on unprotected skin if you don't carry repellent. Wear lightweight, long pants and shirts in the early morning and evening when the no-see-ums are most active. Regular U.S. cellphone service is available on the island without extra charges, aside from the standard surcharges. On St. John's eastern edge, close to the British Virgin Islands, cell phones may connect to a European carrier and incur added charges- recommended to check with your carrier.
Where to Dine And Stay
There are no official National Park campgrounds on the island of St. John—just the recently renovated Cinnamon Bay campgrounds. You may stay at one of the 31 tent sites (with wooden tent platforms and picnic tables), 50 "eco-tents" (pre-assembled canvas cabins with beds and electricity), which accommodate 2-4 people, or one of the 40 cottage units in seven different buildings. The Rain Tree Café serves breakfast and dinner, and a food truck near the beach serves lunches. Purchase groceries and to-go meals at the camp store.
The most prominent area in St. John is Cruz Bay, home to a handful of dining, drinking, and shopping establishments. Each Caribbean island has a unique flavor and culinary technique influenced by several cultures of the world. Unfortunately, many restaurants on St. John have been Americanized. To get a real taste of the rich Caribbean culture in Cruz Bay, try the plantains from Forward to Your Roots, a pate from Hercule's, a tasty Roti from The Roti King or conch and lobster from P&P By the Sea. Across the aisle at Coral Bay, you may socialize with sailing enthusiasts and local beach bums at Skinny Legs, a renowned eatery, and pub. You may enjoy Esther's authentic home cooked meals at the pink restaurant on the corner, Ekaete. Miss Lucy's offers a true taste of old St. John with fresh and flavorful cuisine with a magical ocean view.
What to Do
Beaches - VINP is well-known for its white-sand beaches on peaceful, protected bays filled with sea life. Hawksnest, Trunk, Cinnamon, and Maho bays are on the North Shore Road from Cruz Bay east to west. Parking and shady spots on the beach are available, so arrive early to secure one. After soaking in the sun all day, you can go for a snorkel in the Caribbean Sea just off the shoreline. Please remember to wear reef safe sunscreen only and to respect the locals- do NOT touch the turtles or stand/touch the coral reef ecosystems. At Maho Bay, you can find a variety of food trucks, souvenir shops, and small bars across the street from the beach. You may also rent equipment, use the facilities, including bathrooms and a snack bar. Nearby, Honeymoon Beach is a popular snorkeling spot with beachside food and drink vendors. Salomon Beach and other nearby beaches are nearby.
The VINP extends into the sea to safeguard the coral reefs surrounding the island, making the north shore beaches excellent spots for snorkelers and divers to see some of the 400 fish. Sea turtles are abundant, especially in Maho Bay, and placid eagle rays often swim close to the shore. According to Laurel Brannick, the park's interpretation manager, it's like being dropped into an aquarium. It's so incredible underwater, she says. It's like going to the Grand Canyon and not looking down if you don't look underwater.
Hiking - Take a walk on Virgin Islands National Park's more than 20 trails to see magnificent vistas, explore historical areas, and observe wildlife, including fluttering yellow bananaquits (the VI's official bird), scampering lizards, creeping hermit crabs, red footed tortoises, goats, deer and even wandering wild donkeys. Take precautions against the hot and moist climate by bringing plenty of water, applying insect repellent and sunblock, and wearing a hat to prevent sunburn on sometimes exposed trails. The Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park lead hikes when available (see its website for more info).
VINP has some flat hiking trails that are open to most everyone. Lind Point Trail, which starts directly behind the NP Visitor's Center, is a one mile hike to Honeymoon Beach, a relatively easy path. If you're inspired, you can walk up to Lind Point Overlook for fantastic views of Cruz Bay. On the island's northern side, the Cinnamon Bay Trail provides a flat, accessible half-mile trail through the ruins of the Cinnamon Bay Plantation plantation— the first 500 feet paved and wheelchair-accessible—beginning near North Shore Road. You can get off for a short trail to Peace Hill in your vehicle, where you will see a stone windmill and enjoy breathtaking sea vistas.
The Reef Bay-Petroglyph Trail is a challenging route that takes visitors on a 2.2-mile hike through history and beauty. You can get to Reef Bay via the 900-foot-long Reef Bay Trail, through thick jungle and sunny spots. After taking the half-mile-long Petroglyph Trail, spur midway through the trail to see the mysterious symbols the Taino peoples carved into rocks hundreds of years ago. You can see sugar-estate ruins and the scenic beach.
Sailing - Small sailboats, sturdy catamarans, and extravagant power yachts provide VINP with sea transportation. You may reach the park's numerous small islands, islets, reefs, and remote beaches only by sea. Alternatively, you may snorkel, go on a sunset cruise, or wander from serene beach to serene beach on a charter boat or group expedition. You may also do multi-day charters through private companies.
Explore History - The visitor center houses an archaeological collection offering information about the Taino indigenous people's rock carvings on Petroglyph Trail. See the remnants of the Danish colonists' extensive sugar plantations preserved throughout VINP. In northern VINP, the Annaberg Plantation has information about the windmill, sugar factory, distillery, and homestead sites. Take a walk through the plantation and meet landscaper Charles Jackson, who gives informal talks about park flora on most weekdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and gives out fresh sugarcane and mango grown in the garden.
St. John is still affected by the generations of slave labor that cleared the land and worked the sugar plantations, the brutal repression of these people's freedom, and uprisings. Annaberg Slavery Museum and the recently designated Road to Freedom Trail, which follows the Leinster Bay shoreline, are examples of this history. Enslaved people seeking freedom from the British Virgin Islands, which abolished slavery 12 years before the then-Danish Virgin Islands, often escaped by launching stolen boats or swimming the 1.2 miles to the British shoreline. The VI has a violent history and a culture that should be honored.
Outside the Park
Beyond park boundaries, St. John's East End is the spot to go if you want to avoid crowds, jet skis, and other powered watercraft. You can experience the clear waters of Saltwell Beach in Hansen Bay by taking a glass-bottomed kayak or a motorized sea scooter. Parking is free, as is parking, a small snack bar, and a souvenir stand, where a local family operates a parking lot ($5).