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