My heart is breaking today. St. John, my favourite island in the world, has endured a brutal battering by Hurricane Irma. I wrote the following article about a week before the storm, after my stay there in July. That was probably my ninth visit to St. John over the years, and I fall a little more in love with it every time I go.
I know it’s a changed place now, and this article will need, shall we say, a LOT of updating as the situation on St. John becomes more clear. But to quote Chris B Pye, one of the residents whose posts I’ve been following on Facebook, “So far everything I’ve seen and heard, the people here are fine. That’s the most important thing. The rest is just stuff, and stuff can be replaced.”
These folks are a resilient bunch, and they will pull together to help each other through the worst. They don’t call St. John “Love City” for nothing!
But they urgently need all the help they can get. At the end of this article, you’ll find more information about how you can donate funds or volunteer, as well as sites where you can search for news of friends and loved ones in the path of the hurricane.
I’m posting the story below, with photos from my previous visits, as a salute to the people of St. John, and to the island that has lured me with its siren call again and again. Read on to discover why I will be back…and why so many who visit here choose to never leave.
Some sojourns seem designed specifically for 21st Century social media consumption. Duck-lipped selfie with the Mona Lisa? Mais, bien sûr! Piccie of the Leaning Tower of Pisa supported by one carefully placed finger? Perfecto. Instagram of an Egyptian pyramid in the palm of your hand? Absolutely.
Then there are those rare holiday havens that feel less like fleeting, frenzied snap-and-go destinations… and more like destiny. The most magical places aren’t about bagging bragging rights; they’re about feeding a hungry hole in your soul.
For me, the Caribbean island of St. John is my vacation unicorn—the one place in the world where I can switch off and fully relax. With more than 7,000 acres of forested hillsides and pristine coast protected by the Virgin Islands National Park, and nary a stoplight in sight, it really has remained a “virgin” oasis in many ways.
This is a particularly special year for St. John, which is celebrating a century since the Danes transferred it, along with St. Thomas and St. Croix, to the United States. (Seriously, Danish people. What were you thinking?!)
On St. John, the white sand North Shore beaches are backed by sea grape trees and swaying palms, rather than high-rise condos. Sunbathers share the shoreline with chickens and iguanas, and free-range donkeys, deer and cattle amble along the switchback roads that connect St. John’s only two towns.
In buzzing Cruz Bay on the isle’s western tip, you’ll find the ferry port, an ample array of shops, and a surprising number of good restaurants, serving everything from sushi to Mexican to Thai-fusion fare. In Coral Bay to the east, you’ll find, well, mostly just peace and quiet.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve returned to St. John on at least nine occasions with my husband and a faithful cadre of friends. On each visit, we unfailingly fantasize about throwing in the towel in order to throw down our towels, permanently, on its wave-tickled sands.
I needn’t budge from my bar stool at Cruz Bay’s Gecko Gazebo to find corroboration among kindred spirits. The sun isn’t quite over the yard arm, but this al fresco watering hole, nestled among the clothing and jewelry shops at Mongoose Junction, is already open for business. As I sip from a sweating bottle of Virgin Islands Pale Ale, I strike up a conversation with the friendly blonde bartender, Kim Templeton, who originally hails from Newport Beach, California.
Twenty-eight years ago, Templeton arrived here on a 2 PM ferry for a brief holiday. “By 2:45, I was standing on the deck of a villa and I said, ‘Oh, hell yeah! Why not?’” she laughs. “I went home, sold everything, and came back six months later.”
“It’s not easy to get here,” she admits, noting that the closest airport is on St. Thomas. “But if you do, you’ll be back.”
Templeton pauses when she spies an approaching customer—a regular, apparently, because she cracks open a bottle of cider for the fellow before he even bellies up to the bar.
The newcomer is actually an old-timer: Charles “Chuckles” Seibert, who more than lives up to his nickname, with a broad smile parting a bushy white beard and eyes as twinkly as a sunbaked Santa’s.
“What brought me here?” Seibert says, echoing my question. “Sailboat!” booms the New York native, who came to St. John to deliver a boat in 1978…and that was that. Today, he works on the island in property management, “but my mother still thinks I’m a piano player in a bordello in Reno. She’d be heartbroken if she knew I’d ended up here,” he adds with a wry sideways glance.
So why has he stayed? “The ambiance. The people. Kids just out of college come down to see the world, and some of them get ‘stuck’ here. It’s a pretty special place,” Seibert continues. “I like the pace of life, basically. It’s easier.”“But then again,” Seibert adds, after a moment’s consideration, “it’s more difficult than Stateside in some ways.”
Many islanders, for instance, head to the mainland US when faced with life-threatening medical conditions, while on a day-to-day basis, there’s the challenge of simply filling the fridge. “Groceries!” Siebert groans, with a shake of his head. Having just shelled out quite a lot of dough ($8 USD) for a meagre loaf of bread at the Starfish Market, I feel his pain, although the relatively cheap cost of rum (also $8 USD for 750 ML) does rather numb the sting of a rapidly emptying wallet…and pretty much everything else, besides.
At least there are supermarkets now. “When I first came here, the only place you could shop was a little place on the corner selling wilted lettuce and limp broccoli,” Templeton recalls, shuddering despite the heat.
Things are undeniably changing. While finding groceries has got easier, finding parking and a coveted shady spot at the most popular beaches has got harder.
Trunk Bay, in particular, is always teaming with tourists, lured by its underwater snorkeling trail and its reputation as one of the world’s best beaches. Maho Bay, one of my favourite sandy stretches, is also decidedly more crowded since bathrooms were built there a few years ago.
“St. John has gone from a classic third world society to sophisticated third world,” Seibert observes. “We’re living in paradox, instead of paradise,” he declares, washing down the bitter-sweet words with another sip of cider.
But crucially, one thing that remains the same is St. John’s chilled-out vibe. I’ve never found any establishment where flip-flops are not considered entirely appropriate attire, and I can think of no higher praise than this.
“It’s a lot less stressful than on the mainland; you don’t take things as seriously,” says David Thomeczek, who married his wife, Julie Hoy, on St. John in 2011. The pair moved here from Fort Collins, Colorado in 2014, when they were offered the opportunity to manage Coconut Coast Villas near Cruz Bay. I meet Thomeczek at Hali Lani, a four-bedroom villa which he and Hoy offer for short-term rentals, and the home where they eventually plan to retire.
“St. John is like a small town, where everyone knows everyone and cares about everyone,” Thomeczek explains, extolling the island’s virtues with an almost evangelical zeal. He also speaks of simple pleasures, like paddle boarding and swimming with turtles at Maho, and watching movies under the stars on Friday nights at the Susannaberg sugar mill ruins.
“It feels like time has paused, like it’s 1970 all over again—but without the bell bottoms,” he laughs. Thomeczek grows quiet as his eyes sweep over Hali Lani’s gardens, where a flamboyant tree’s bright red blossoms frame a view of the multi-hued blues of Pillsbury Sound. “It’s also a little bit beautiful,” he allows, breaking the silence at last.
I nod, savouring this picture-perfect moment, as I reflexively aim my iPhone camera toward the horizon. Yeah, I know what I said before. But this is going to look amazing on Instagram.
Looking back now, I’m tearfully nostalgic for the days when the price of groceries and parking at the beaches were two of the island’s biggest concerns.
Mother Nature has given St. John a terrible beating, but I know that, given time, she will restore the beauty she has so badly bruised. Rebuilding the rest is up to mankind. Read on for ways that you can help the hearty souls who live there.
Irma Safety Check: (mark yourself safe or search for others): https://irmasafetycheck.herokuapp.com/
Red Cross Safe and Well (mark yourself safe or search for others): https://safeandwell.communityos.org/cms/index.php
How to volunteer: https://www.nvoad.org/current-disasters/hurricane-irma-information/
Where to donate: Singer Kenny Chesney, who has a home on St. John, has started a Love for Love City Foundation, benefitting Hurricane Irma disaster reliever for the US and British Virgin Islands.
Various Go Fund Me Hurricane Irma relief sites have also also sprung up, including one organized by the non-profit St. John Rescue. This all-volunteer group has been instrumental in providing emergency assistance to the people of St. John following Hurricane Irma, and 100 percent of all proceeds benefit St. Johnians. You can read more about them here.
St. John Rescue: https://www.facebook.com/stjohnrescue/
News of St John: https://www.facebook.com/NewsofStJohn/
St. John Irma Pics and Video/Recovery & Donation Links: https://www.facebook.com/stjohnrecovery
Stateside St. Johnians Alliance for Hurricane Irma: https://www.facebook.com/groups/125185931463839/
General tourism info: https://www.visitusvi.com