St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix make up the U.S.V.I and are scattered between the British, Spanish and Dutch Virgin Islands , which span for thousands of miles. St. Croix is the largest and most removed island while St. Thomas is the most popular vacation spot. But St. John, a stone’s throw away from St. Thomas and the island’s capital of Charlotte Amalie, is a nature-lover’s dream.
The Islands: The Ins and Outs
St. John is characterized by the lush, green overgrowth of the Virgin Islands National Park, which takes up the majority of the island. The park has almost 10,000 land acres between St. John and Hassel Island, a small island off of St. Thomas, and almost 6,000 water acres that encompass submerged land and ocean reefs. As the only biosphere in the Lesser Antilles, there are way more critters than people in the 20 square miles of the island; the native population is slightly more than 4,000, making St. John the least populated island of the U.S.V.I.
Although most of the island is undeveloped, a few parts of the island are people-friendly. Cruz Bay is the main tourist spot and is filled with tiny shops and restaurants. Of the handful of bars there, The Rum Shack has one of the best Happy Hour deals in the entire V.I. ($3 for any drink!) There isn’t an airport on St. John, so transportation to and from there is restricted to either boats or one of the many regular ferries coming from St. Thomas or one of the British Virgin Islands.
Down by the Bay: Reef Bay Trail
One of the most beautiful things about St. John is that its history is preserved, in old ruins which are scattered all over the island. Reef Bay Trail is probably the hike with the most bang for its buck, located on the south side of the island. The hike is about two and a half miles, descending the entire way, and the main trail ends at Reef Bay and the Reef Bay Sugar Mill ruins.
The old sugar cane mill is remarkably preserved. It is nearly 200 years old and is mostly intact. There are helpful informational signs along the hike and at the mill itself that provide some history of how the sugar cane was harvested and processed and exactly how much of St. John’s economy relied upon the mill. Some of the rooms even have the original equipment that was used for processing, rusty but still beautiful relics. The beach right past the mill is lovely but the sand strip isn’t very deep, making sunbathing problematic.
Other than the mill, there are also remnants along the hike from the village where slaves and workers lived, as well as from ancient irrigation systems. A side trail off the main stretch goes to a bulding that’s largely intact, The Great House, where the owner of the mill lived, as well as an adjacent slave house. Another side trail leads to one of the island’s only waterfalls, and on nearby rocks are mysterious rock carvings known as petroglyphs. The National Park Service offers guided hikes for those who want a more detailed account of the local flora and fauna.
Overnight Accommodation: Camping
The beauty of the National Park carries over to dusk, where visitors can stay overnight. For those experienced in outdoor adventure, there are plenty of places to set up camp for the night in the forest or along the beach. For those who wish for a most structured camping experience, Cinnamon Bay is one of the most popular campgrounds on St. John.
Cinnamon Bay has spots either by the beach or tucked back in the forest, with tents already prepared with gear to make the overnight stay comfortable. A grill, cot, and mosquito netting are among some of the equipment provided, as well as fresh linens. Cottages are also available for rent. For guests who want the convenience of Cinnamon Bay but who are regular campers, there are bare sites to pitch tents. The front desk also provides gear rental for anything you are missing from your personal stash.
Under the Sea: Snorkeling and Beaching
Trunk Bay has been listed as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches and the National Park Service has done its best to make sure visitors can make the most of it. It has an underwater snorkel trail, which has waterproof displays at the bottom of the sea with information about the local underwater plants and fish that snorkelers will most likely see. Trunk Bay also has water adventure sports gear available for rental, like paddleboards and kayaks.
For a more relaxed underwater experience, or to avoid the tourist crowds at spots like Trunk Bay, one of the best places to check out is Solomon’s Beach. It’s a short hike from Cruz Bay, and the isolated location is one of the reasons why years ago it was the island’s nude beach. No longer a skin-baring beach, Solomon’s is sandy but the rocks which mark the ends of the beach have colorful fish and beautiful coral that make for perfect snorkeling.
St. John is a quiet island that is geared toward the outdoors and allows visitors to see how all of the islands were before Columbus’ discovery of them started the European immigration here. There is a balance between the natural beauty and the town’s nightlife, and St. John is perfect for those who want to go outdoor exploring before they kick back with a $3 cocktail at Happy Hour.