One thing my wife and I like to do every year in the middle of winter is go on vacation somewhere warm and sunny. Because we live on the east coast of the United States we usually go to the Caribbean, which can be easily reached via a 4 hour flight from our home in New York. We’ve been lucky enough to visit a few islands over the years, but the one we keep going back to is St John, in the US Virgin Islands (USVIs). Since I just finished my fifth trip to the island I thought I’d share some thoughts (and some of my photos from over the years) of one of my favorite places on Earth.
What is St John?
St John is the smallest of the three main islands in the USVIs. The USVIs are pretty much “in the middle” of the Caribbean – north-west of most of the smaller islands, but south-east of Cuba and the Bahamas. The USVIs are a territory of the US – they are officially part of the country of the United States, under US federal control, but (like Puerto Rico) don’t have statehood.
St John is close – about a 20 minute boat ride – to St Thomas, the capital of the USVIs. St Thomas is a major cruise port, and also has the main airport of the islands. Despite the geographical proximity of the two islands they feel completely different. St John is much quieter, but still has plenty to do. Part of the reason it’s quieter is because the sea and air ports are over in St Thomas, but partly it’s because half of St John is a federal national park.
St John is about 10 miles long and 4 miles across, so it’s pretty small. But in that small area it has an incredible amount of variety – beautiful beaches, breathtaking walks through mountainous rainforest, history, lovely people, and great restaurants and bars.
And one other thing: St John is not St John’s – that’s a different place in the Caribbean. 🙂
Why do I enjoy St John so much?
Here’s what I like from a sunny vacation – excellent beach time, interesting places to go walking, good food and drink. St John has the best of all three of these things that I’ve come across in the Caribbean.
St John beaches are beautiful and relatively quiet. I’ve never had a beach to myself there, quite, but I’ve also never had a problem getting a shady spot. The bigger beaches have car parking / food / drink / chair hire / etc. St John isn’t really a “sceney” place – it doesn’t have the “cachet” of more “fashionable” islands (*cough* St Barts *cough*), so you won’t have big beach parties or groups of people wanting to be admired. Thank goodness.
St John’s beaches and bays are also renowned for their snorkeling. I’m a weak swimmer so I don’t typically snorkel that much, but this year I plucked up some courage (with the help of a “noodle” float) and got out in the sea. Turtles, rays, and of course many varieties of fish are easily visible.
If all I wanted was beaches though there are plenty of other islands. But another aspect to St John is the walking / hiking. Because half of St John is a national park there are well tended trails in abundance. None of them are that long – you’re unlikely to go on a 15 mile epic hike there – but most of them have a good amount of elevation change through wonderful nature as well as interesting ruins to look at, and spectacular views.
And finally the food and drink. We’ve always stayed in Cruz Bay – the main town on the island where people typically arrive. Cruz Bay has an embarrassment of good restaurants and places to drink considering that it’s on an island of only 5000 permanent residents. From “reasonably high end” – think 3 course prix fixe style – to bars on the beach where you can sip on a fruity cocktail with your feet in the sea.
What does a week in St John look like?
This year Sara and I went to St John with friends for the first time. The first week – while everyone was there – was something of a “St John Greatest Hits”. Here’s what we got up to.
Day 1 – Arrive
We got to St John the way that most people do – fly to St Thomas, then get a ferry from St Thomas to Cruz Bay. At present there are 3 different passenger ferries running between the two islands. The most frequent runs every hour and takes 20 mins, but it requires a longer drive across St Thomas. Our preferred option – if the timing works out – is to get the Crown Bay ferry which is a 5 min taxi ride from the airport, and then 45 mins on the boat across to St John.
We usually end up arriving late afternoon, and check in to our accommodation. We’ve always stayed walking distance from the center of Cruz Bay, so once we’ve unpacked we’ll head back into town.
Our first night we usually like to be pretty chill, so this time we took our friends to one of the bars along the small beach next to the ferry port. The Beach Bar is a classic Cruz Bay dive-ey place, and it’s often our first and last stop of a vacation. Next door, Rum Hut has better drinks and food though.
Day 2 – Walk to Honeymoon Beach
My favorite of the north shore beaches is Honeymoon Beach (see first photo above). It’s not the biggest, but it’s usually the quietest beach that also has concessions – food, drink, and chairs for rent. This year the food and drink were especially good, although everything was a touch more expensive than the other beaches.
I love Honeymoon for two reasons – it’s super chill, and because of how we get there … which is to walk into “downtown” Cruz Bay, then 1 mile through the national park along the Lind Point trail. For whatever reason most people don’t know that this is possible! But it’s just a beautiful short walk along a ridge line running along the coast. At one point the trail splits – we took the very-slightly-more-strenuous route (the “upper” trail) on the way to the beach to visit the viewpoint overlooking Cruz Bay.
After a few hours reading / swimming / snorkeling / just listening to the waves and looking at the boats in the bay it was time to head back, again along the Lind Point trail. After getting “home” and showering off the sunscreen and sand we headed back into town . We usually like to go to a nicer restaurant on our second night. Our favorite restaurant the last three times we’ve been to St John has been Extra Virgin, and so we’d made a reservation to eat there on the second night of this trip. Most St John restaurants do “modern american” style cuisine, but with a heavy caribbean element. Expect plenty of local fish, plus pasta, etc.
Day 3 – Reef Bay Hike
As I’ve mentioned already, half of St John is a federal national park, run by the very same organization of park rangers that work in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, etc. In St John the National Park Service works hand in hand with the non-profit organization “Friends of Virgin Island National Park”. One of the things that “Friends of” do is run various activities – from guided hikes to educational seminars. Our absolute favorite of these activities is the Reef Bay Guided Hike.
The hike itself starts pretty much right in the middle of the island, several hundred feet above sea level. It winds its way down a long, forested, valley to the sea. Along the way are ruins, centuries-old stone carvings, and all kinds of nature. The Guided Hike is wonderful way to do this journey for 3 reasons:
1 – “Friends of” organize transport to the trailhead – you just need to get to Cruz Bay.
2 – The guides are super knowledgeable and friendly – you’ll learn a lot about both the nature and history related to the walk.
3 – Instead of having to walk back up the valley you get picked up by a boat at the end! The boat drops you back in Cruz Bay.
If you want to do this hike then book ahead early – it typically sells out a few weeks ahead of time during high season.
On returning to Cruz Bay we engaged in a traditional Caribbean activity – happy hour! There’s something special about sitting at a beach bar, sipping on a cocktail, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on a weekday, while all your friends are slaving away at work somewhere cold. Happy hour can easily slide into an early dinner, followed by an early night after a full day.
Day 4 – Boat trip & Lime Out
New to us this year was chartering a boat for the day. There are a mind-boggling number of options for who to do this with. We went with Captain Jug Charters – with the namesake captain, his able colleague Becca, and their boat JuggerKnot. They were PHENOMENAL and I very highly recommend them.
We did a full-day charter – from about 9am until 5pm. During this time we circumnavigated the island, with plenty of commentary from Jug and Becca; snorkeled in three different spots; and also visited one of the most unique bars in the world – Lime Out. Depending on what you want a charter will adapt the itinerary, but this worked well for us.
First – the snorkeling. A good charter will know where to go for good snorkeling according to the weather conditions, and our group had a breathtaking time. As I mentioned earlier though – I’m a weak swimmer and I hate being out of my depth. But Jug got in the sea with me and helped me relax and get used to using a “noodle” float, the snorkel and mask, plus helped me with my first spots – a couple of turtles, and a starfish. The hour doing this set me up for the rest of the trip.
Our first snorkel was at Maho bay, which is also home of one the most popular north shore beaches. Maho is known for two things – calm seas, and turtles. Even if you’re not doing a boat trip I recommend visiting Maho by road for snorkeling.
So then, Lime Out. It’s a swim-up taco bar in the middle of a bay. You can only get there by boat. Yes, it’s ridiculous. And yes, it’s brilliant. At Jug and Becca’s superlative suggestion we actually only had cocktails at the bar itself, then ate the tacos back on the boat. Becca put our taco order through before we got there, and they had magically appeared back on the boat after we’d got back from our cocktails.
The bar itself is a barge, basically. You don’t go inside, but it has seats in the water around the edge or (much more fun) has floating “lily pad rings” where 6 people can sit facing each other while sitting in the sea. You then shout your order to the bar staff on the barge, and they then push your drinks / etc. across the water on a float. Genius. The cocktails were great, the experience was absurdly fun, the tacos were surprisingly good, and I thoroughly recommend it.
After a full day at sea we eventually got back to our villa to shower, and then had a lovely light meal at Longboard.
Day 5 – A day in town
After a couple of busy days, day 5 was much more relaxed. We spent it walking around town, a bit of light shopping, plus some obligatory food and drinks.
- We had lunch at The Tap Room – home of St John Brewers, who actually brew some great beer on premises. Plus they make some good pizza.
- The Tap Room is in Mongoose Junction – small “mall”, or at least St John’s take on one. It’s actually really nicely done, with a bunch of small shops, etc., architected in a fun way. Places we particularly like in Mongoose Junction are Scoops – for ice cream, and Bajo el Sol – for art. There’s also a small deli which is good for getting sandwiches before heading to the beach, and Greengos – a Mexican bar / restaurant. Plus lots of shops for clothes and souvenirs.
- Mid afternoon we like to have a coffee, but we also like ice cream, and perhaps a first cocktail of the day. So why not have all three in one? Cruz Bay Landing makes a good coffee cocktail. Sit at one of their tables, or get one to go.
- My favorite spot to let two or three hours slide by is underneath the tree on the beach outside High Tide, next to the ferry. Yes, that’s weirdly specific. But I challenge you to pull up an Adirondack chair on the sand, have a couple of beers, and watch the world go by from there, and not have a grin on your face.
- After that we walked the 50 feet or so along the beach back to Rum Hut to have some early dinner, before heading back to our villa to play some card games.
Day 6 – Cinnamon Bay
February in St John usually has excellent weather. About 80 degrees fahrenheit / 27 celsius, occasional showers that usually stop after 10 mins (but give great rainbows while they last), and some wind to take the heat off. And that weather usually leads to calm seas on the north shore beaches. But for the first time since we’ve been going there there was a marine warning on the morning of day 6, with high waves.
Our group was unperturbed though, so we headed to Cinnamon Bay. Cinnamon is particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly there’s a well-loved campground there. We’ve never stayed there, but have heard good things. Second, there are a couple of good walks. One is short and flat, but it goes through ruins and has lots of useful signs. The other goes up the hills into the forest, and there’s a spur trail to a particularly good ruin with great views at America Hill.
Which is all well and good, but we stuck to the beach. 🙂 I was happy sitting on the sand with a book, while the others played in the waves.
We like Cinnamon a lot. Because of the campsite it’s very down to earth, even for St John.
This was, amazingly, the first day where we needed to get ourselves to somewhere other than just Cruz Bay, so we took a taxi. I talk more about taxis later.
For the evening we went to our second meal that we had a reservation for – Zozo’s. Zozo’s is currently located at the site of the former Caneel Bay Resort (Zozo’s has had a few homes in its history.) Caneel Bay Resort used to be one of the fanciest places on the island to stay, but it was destroyed by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. For reasons that are far too long and complicated to get into here, it hasn’t (yet) been rebuilt, and it might never be. Zozo’s is the only thing that’s been put back together. One of the reasons the resort was so special (we never stayed there) was because, even for St John, it’s in a breathtakingly beautiful spot. So dinner at Zozo’s – especially if you get there around sunset – is spectacular. We felt the food didn’t quite live up to the location this year, but it’s still worth a visit.
Day 7 – Salt Pond Beach and Ram Head
This was the last full day for our friends who were staying for a week. We headed to the opposite end of the island from Cruz Bay for one of my favorite little walks in the world – Ram Head, plus the great beach at Salt Pond.
Getting out to this part of the island is more tricky. The easiest way is if you’ve rented a car, but we hadn’t done that. So we did something new for us and took The Bus. Yes, St John has a bus! It goes from Cruz Bay to Salt Pond and runs … sometimes? Officially it’s every hour, but on this day it was every other hour. But it got us where we needed and was cheap – $1 each way per person.
Salt Pond is on the south shore, so while the north shore beaches were still getting pounded with high waves, Salt Pond beach was calm, with great snorkeling. Salt Pond beach doesn’t have any concessions though – one toilet is the only comfort you get!
While I like the beach at Salt Pond, the real highlight for me is the hike to Ram Head. It’s not long – only about a mile and a half each way, but there are still a bunch of different things to see, and the view from the end is gobsmacking. A lot of the walk is not under trees – so make sure to either go early, or to be considerate of the sun.
To get to Salt Pond you go through the only other “town” on the island – Coral Bay. Which is really a small village. If we’d had a car we’d have stopped in Coral Bay on the way back, and gone to Skinny Legs – a fun dive bar that makes a good burger. But because we were using the bus we headed straight back to Cruz Bay.
Our final dinner as a group of 6 was at 1864 (named after 18 & 64 – the latitude and longitude of St John). 1864 is the “sister” restaurant of Extra Virgin – where we’d gone on day two – so it has a similar vibe, but slightly more chilled, and with a different menu.
The following morning the first of our friends got back on the Crown Bay ferry to start their journey home.
And that’s a week on St John!
Other notable recommendations
While we tried to fit all the “greatest hits” into one week we couldn’t cover everything we like in St John, so here are some other places to consider if you visit.
Trunk Bay is the other big north shore beach I haven’t covered. It’s huge, and has an interesting snorkel “underwater trail” – which has seen better days but is still worth a visit. On the road before you get to Trunk Bay is a great overlook which is worth stopping at.
Brown Bay beach & trail is an out-of-the-way spot, so is always quiet. No concessions or toilet, but great to get away from the “huge crowds” (hahahaha) of St John.
The Caneel Hill trail is a steep walk that starts right in Cruz Bay next to Mongoose Junction. At the top there’s a viewing platform with, yes, fantastic views (see the top of this article). From there you can walk further and end up on the north shore road or (my preference) reverse course for about a quarter mile then branch off and land up at Honeymoon Beach.
Bars and Restaurants:
The Terrace is the other of the “fancy 3” restaurants we’ve been to, along with Extra Virgin and Zozo’s. Snag a balcony table for sunset if you can, but you’ll need to make a reservation.
The Windmill Bar is a couple of miles outside of town, and is a wonderful happy hour spot. Great views, good local music. Taxis will take you there and back. Check out their web cam!
To take a break from the beach bar vibe head to The Wine Store – which is what it says, but has tables and serves wine by the glass along with small bites. Great for when you want to ease back on the rich food a little. It’s a little tough to find, it’s tucked away behind all of the “Wharfside” places like Rum Hut. It’s also under new ownership as of a few months ago, and I preferred it this time to when we went previously.
New bars and restaurants are always opening. Our find of this trip was The Refinery – a small rum cocktail bar which had only been open two weeks when we went. While it’s among a group of dive bars (it’s next to Woody’s, e.g.), it’s actually comparatively classy.
Lovango Rum Bar is next to The Terrace, and above Drink. It can be noisy, but if you catch them when it’s not too loud it’s worth it for a great cocktail and tasty pizza.
If you’d like to tour the island on land rather than by boat I recommend Jenn’s tours. We got a full-day tour with her 3 years’ ago on our third trip to St John, and she certainly showed us a bunch of places we hadn’t seen before.
There are a lot of places that will rent you snorkel gear. We went to Beach Bum on our most recent visit (they’re right by the ferry dock) and they were super helpful. One of my friends discovered prescription-lens snorkel goggles that he could rent, and he had a snorkeling epiphany.
My favorite sunset spot in Cruz Bay is a 5 / 10 min walk from the beach bars at Frank Bay (go towards the Gallows Point resort and keep going). You can sit on the wall, listen to the waves, and watch the sun go down. If you go earlier then pop in at the gallery of Elaine Estern right behind the beach.
The best grocery store on the island is Starfish Market, at the Marketplace. It’s not the nicest walk to get to if you don’t have a car, but worth the walk is Papaya Cafe. It’s a fun second-hand bookstore, but the real draw is the iced Vietnamese coffee – tasty!
A good guide book is local resident Gerald Singer’s St John: Off the beaten track. (you can also find it on Amazon). I used to have a different favorite book, but it hasn’t been updated in a few years – make sure you get something that’s been updated in at least the last two or three years.
How to get there / where to stay / how to get around
As I mentioned earlier we’ve always flown to St Thomas, and got the passenger ferry to St John. If you are chartering a boat for a week that’s an option too. If you’re on a cruise that stops at St Thomas you can do day trips to St John.
St John doesn’t really have many hotels. It has one “big” resort – The Westin – but we’ve never visited it, let alone stayed, so I can’t really comment. There are a few other smaller resorts, but I think those are mostly timeshare places that people rent out. I’m not sure though since I’ve never been to them!
What we’ve done on our previous 4 visits is stayed at Garden by the Sea – a wonderful “real” bed-and-breakfast that’s a 5 – 10 min walk from the center of Cruz Bay. It’s small (only 3 rooms), but is perfect for us. If you go then say hi to Eileen and John for me! This year though – because we had a group – we rented an apartment / villa, which seems to be what most people who visit St John do. We found the places on Airbnb / VRBO, but then I booked directly with the owners. That’s a bit of a risk but St John is small enough that I was willing to take it for the discount (10 – 20%).
We’ve always stayed close enough to the center of Cruz Bay that our typical way of getting around is walking into “town”, and then if we want to get out of town then we get a “taxi”. I put quotations around taxi because they’re a little different! St John taxis, like other places in the caribbean, are somewhere between a normal taxi and a bus. Like a taxi they’re not on a schedule – you can hail them or call for them – but like a bus they seat more people than a taxi, and you’ll usually be riding with strangers.
St John taxis have fixed rates according to where you are going, and are charged per person. Taxis will happily take you to any of the north shore beaches, or places close to Cruz Bay, but getting out to Coral Bay or further might be more problematic for you.
Most people who visit St John will rent a car. Sometimes we do too, but not always (we haven’t at all for our last two trips), and not for the whole time we’re there – partly because we drive very rarely anyway, and St John roads are “interesting” – twisty and with sudden changes of incline. Most rental cars on the island are Jeep Wranglers – these are especially useful for parking on sides of roads which may have a sudden drop-off. There aren’t any major rental chains on St John – instead there are lots of small companies. Cars also tend to get booked up well in advance, and if you don’t have your own car insurance get ready to figure out how to make that work! For your first trip I recommend you get a car so you can explore, at least for some of the time you’re there.
You can also rent a car on St Thomas – which does have major chains – and then get the car ferry over to St John. Plenty of people do this but I’ve heard enough bad stories that I wouldn’t recommend it.
My happy place
I’m sure we’ll go to different Caribbean islands again, and visit places in Central America, but I love St John. Because it’s officially “in the United States” it’s very easy for us from a practical point of view, but more than that it has all the wonderful things I’ve described here. I look forward to seeing how it changes, and doesn’t, over the coming years.
My thanks to Nick Carr who wrote a similar post to this 11 years ago which got me interested in St John.