St. John: The Wild Child of the Caribbean 

On my way to breakfast my first morning at St. John’s Caneel Bay resort, I pass several wide-eyed deer, an iguana basking in the sultry Caribbean sun, and a herd of donkeys, casually scratching their backsides on the trunks of palm trees. But something’s missing here. There’s not another human being in sight.

A donkey enjoys a snooze in the shade at Caneel Bay Resort on St. John, USVI. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

Not quite a unicorn, as he’s missing a horn, but this donkey, resting in the shade at Caneel Bay Resort on St. John, embodies the island’s laid-back spirit.

Just as a vague sense of panic sets in—have I missed the Rapture?—I near the waterfront breakfast pavilion, where I catch a reassuring whiff of bacon. So unless Noah’s menagerie has learned to use opposable thumbs and toss a skillet—or a wayward boar has spent too much time tanning in the sun–I’m relatively certain there are at least a few lost souls lingering about.

A woman relaxes on a sandy beach with a book on St. John, USVI. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

On St. John, there’s time to relax and unwind with a good book.

If a haven of such solitude seems improbable in the ever-popular Caribbean, consider this. More than half of St. John is devoted to national parklands, making it arguably the wildest and most pristine of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

St. John encompasses only two actual towns: Coral Bay, a quiet crossroads centered around a harbor where sailboats bob in sapphire-blue waters, and its brasher, bolder sister, Cruz Bay. Yet even Cruz Bay, the main port, hardly signifies as a big city, with free-range hens shepherding their chicks along a spaghetti-like labyrinth of roads.

But don’t imagine for a minute that being swaddled in the bosom of Mother Nature is boring—because this hot mama also knows how to party. I’ve visited more than half a dozen times in ten years, and I’ve always found something new to entertain me.

Read on to discover the best bars, beaches, snorkeling spots, and hotels that St. John has to offer. 

WATERING HOLES

Pick a perch at the open-air Beach Bar, where you can gaze out over Cruz Bay harbor while sipping a Painkiller–a potent combination of rum, fruit juice and nutmeg that will certainly leave you feeling no pain… until the inevitable hangover the next morning.

View from the Beach Bar

View from the Beach Bar

Can’t wait for waitress service? There’s a walk-up drink window at Woody’s in the heart of Cruz Bay. What it lacks in beach views, it makes up for with first-rate tourist watching…if you can ferret out a spot at one of the popular sidewalk tables.

Woody's walk-up bar in Cruz Bay, St. John

Woody’s drink window

Nearby, the Longboard, set on a wide covered porch, serves up kickin’ cocktails alongside sophisticated Mexican fare like Caribbean lobster tacos and spiced pork mango quesadillas while “surfs up” videos play on television screens above the polished bar.

Try the braised pork belly mango pepper quesadillas at The Longboard in Cruz Bay, St. John. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

Try the braised pork belly mango pepper quesadillas at The Longboard in Cruz Bay, St. John.

BEACHES

With more than 30 beaches ringing the coastline, you could stay for a month and try a new one every day. Some, like the Mermaid’s Chair (also known as Two Butt Beach, because that’s about the size of it). are most easily accessed by water.

Two Butt Beach on St. John, USVI

Two Butt Beach

Others, including the long sandy stretch of Hawksnest (one of my favorites), offer fairly ample parking, as well as restroom and picnic facilities and even a bit of shade among the sea grape trees.

Hawksnest, St. John

Hawksnest Beach

The oddest by far is Drunk Bay, a secluded, wave-lashed beach where visitors create crafty (and occasionally risqué) sculptures of mermaids, pirates and cowboys from coral and coconuts that have been washed ashore. Casting your eyes across their petrified poses, you can draw your own conclusions about whether the artists’ blood alcohol content lent this stony beach its curiously evocative name.

Drunk Bay St John sculpture

Sassy coral sculpture on St. John’s Drunk Bay

SNORKELING

St. John’s most famous snorkeling spot is Trunk Bay. While it’s tempting to just laze on your sun lounger, you can’t come here without strapping on your mask and fins for a spin around the underwater (as opposed to overwater, I wonder?) snorkeling trail, where I’ve eyeballed eels, a squadron of reef squid, and an elusive stingray burrowing in the sandy sea bottom.

Trunk Bay, St. John before Hurricane Irma. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse

Trunk Bay, St. John

Leinster Bay is more remote, requiring about a 10-15 minute walk along the shore, and a short swim out to the rocky outcropping of Waterlemon Cay. But if you’re a strong swimmer unafraid of deep water and strong currents, you’ll be rewarded with mature coral, rainbow-colored parrot fish, shimmering clouds of silversides, and perhaps even a four-foot-long torpedo-shaped tarpon, which makes me jump out of the water with the alacrity of a flying fish when I spy its dead-eyed gaze just yards away.

My most memorable offshore experience is a three-hour kayaking and snorkeling adventure with Hidden Reef Eco-Tours. We meet at Haulover Bay and paddle for perhaps half an hour along the coast before our guide, Jennifer Russ, instructs us to beach our kayaks and join her on a tour of the silent undersea world.

Kayaks at Haulover Bay, St. John

Kayaks at Haulover Bay, St. John

Gesturing right and left, she points out spiral Christmas tree worms, gently waving sea fans, pointy-nosed trumpet fish and a full-cheeked puffer fish which seems to be doing his best Louis Armstrong impression. Our greatest find is a sea turtle, which glides majestically up from the depths, his powerful paddles seemingly waving a friendly “hello” as he passes.

The Rapture might come and go, but I’ve found my underwater paradise here on St. John.

BEST BUNKS

Caneel Bay Resort

For an unplugged paradise, you can’t beat Caneel Bay. This 170-acre, 166 room oasis has no in-room phones or televisions–although it does have WiFi, so you won’t suffer total 21st century withdrawal. It was originally founded by Laurance Rockefeller in the 50s as his own private retreat, and with seven beaches, it’s still easy enough to claim your own quiet stretch of sand these days.

A view of St. John's Caneel Bay resort, founded by philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller, who was instrumental in founding the Virgin Islands National Park. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

A view of St. John’s Caneel Bay resort.

The Westin St. John Resort & Villas

For a little more hustle and bustle, check out the Westin St. John, where 175 rooms and 146 villas cascade down a hillside towards the Caribbean. There’s just one beach, a tidy crescent hugging Great Cruz Bay, but the quarter-acre swimming pool is so large, you practically need a sextant to navigate across it.

Private Villas

Prefer your own private digs? Rent a villa through a company like Destination St. John, which offers everything from honeymoon-worthy one bedroom homes to properties big enough to accommodate Hugh Hefner and a whole warren full of Playboy bunnies.

Private villa on St. John, USVI

Private villa

Day Trips

Sail Safaris offers a variety of aquatic excursions. I recommend a trip to White bay on the island of Jost Van Dyke, where you can wade ashore to the Soggy Dollar Bar for a legendary Painkiller or dig into a roti–sort of like a Caribbean-style burrito–next door at the casual beachfront Gertrude’s.

White Bay on Jost Van Dyke

White Bay on Jost Van Dyke

More information

www.visitusvi.com

Note: St. John was hit hard by Hurricane Irma in 2017. Some establishments may not yet have reopened, so check their websites for details!

A storm brewing over Maho Bay, St. John

A storm brewing over Maho Bay, St. John

3 Comments

  1. Denise Tucker says:

    It will take me two minutes to pack.

  2. […] heart is breaking today. St. John, my favourite island in the world, has endured a brutal battering by Hurricane Irma. I wrote the […]

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