Sweet Spots on St. John
Read our expert’s tips on all that this USVI hot spot has to offer, from top beaches and hotels to the best places to pitch your tent.
There’s a saying at Skinny Legs, a bar and restaurant on the far eastern shore of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, “Same day service promised.” That captures the ambiance and feel of St. John—good natured humor on island time. The smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John definitely marches to its own beat. It attracts visitors with its small-town atmosphere, the genuine warmth of its locals and the exquisite natural beauty of the island, which is two-thirds national park with lush green mountains, serene white beaches and a pristine underwater world ripe for exploring. Once you visit St. John on a Virgin Island vacation, you’ll be hooked. I got caught in the island’s spell a long time ago.
But now I’m back to see the newest attractions that the island has to offer. Friends forewarned me of mega-development in the quaint port town of Cruz Bay, the harbor point at which most visitors arrive on St. John. I’m aghast at the huge, five-story condo development that now mars the low-level, pastel-building waterfront. Yes, development happens in the most pristine of places, but for some reason no one thought it would happen here on St. John. But while roaming the streets, I realize that the rest of the town is still the old St. John I know and love. The restaurants haven’t changed much in a decade. It’s still a very special St. John.
Let Them Eat Lobster
St. John was settled in the early 1700s by the Danish, who set up sugar and cotton plantations around the island then imported African slaves to work on the plantations. Legend has it that at one point an ordinance was passed to protect those slaves so they would not be fed lobster for more than six days in a row—the waters of St. John were as fruitful back then as they are today.
When the slaves were emancipated in the mid-1800s, plantation farming plummeted as did the population. Fast forward to 1956, a few decades after the United States purchased the Virgin Islands from the Danish: Laurance S. Rockefeller was so taken by the tranquil beauty of the island that he bought vast expanses of St. John and donated the land to the National Park Service so it could be forever appreciated. Today, those park lands with mountainous peaks featuring stunning vistas remain St. John’s biggest draw.
Just past the Maho Bay area, many visitors like to tour the Annaberg Sugar Plantation ruins, one of a couple dozen sugar plantations on the island in the late 1700s. Annaberg, which translated means “Anna’s Hill,” once produced molasses and rum. A trail now winds through the what’s left of the estate ruins, which include a windmill and former slave quarters.
Visitors to St. John typically arrive via the airport on neighboring St. Thomas and then take a 45-minute taxi ride east to the port of Red Hook. From there, it’s a 15- to 20-minute ferry ride ($3 for adults, $1 for children under 12) to Cruz Bay, St. John’s hub on its western tip. Most St. John hotels and resorts, prime beaches and park areas are within an easy distance of Cruz Bay.
The town of Cruz Bay itself consists of three main areas, all within strolling distance of one another: Wharfside on the waterfront features charming shops, restaurants and bars. Town central includes Woody’s Seafood Saloon (renowned for $1 happy hour drinks) and Quiet Mon Pub, which was made legendary in the Kenny Chesney song “Be as You Are.” (Chesney made the island his home for years.) Farther down the main road is Mongoose Junction, an upscale shopping and dining complex that has its own brand of charm.
My favorite nearby accommodations are at Gallows Point Resort, a resort and condo complex on the point of Cruz Bay that offers gorgeous and spacious suites, including two-story lofts with full kitchens, exquisite views and the convenience of a short walk to town. Staying at Gallows is like having your own private island villa. Rates start at $265 in the off-season and $495 in high season, with a discount to repeat visitors. (And trust me, you’ll want to repeat!)
A short ride away is the Westin St. John Resort & Villas, the most family-friendly of any accommodation on St. John with seemingly more child guests than adults. In addition to a kids’ club, there’s a game room, playground, water trampolines, iguana feeding and much more. The beach resort, situated on 47 acres overlooking beautiful Great Cruz Bay, also has its own ferry that brings visitors from downtown St. Thomas directly to the resort’s dock. The resort also offers a Family Fun Package with room rates starting at $539—it includes a $100 per day resort credit, transfers, discounted and free children’s meals, and much more.
In the opposite direction from Cruz Bay, but also a short distance from town is Caneel Bay, a Rosewood Resort, which is part of the Virgin Islands National Park. The area was “discovered” in 1952 by Laurance S. Rockefeller, who developed its infrastructure while preserving the natural jungle atmosphere. Caneel Bay is an ultra-luxury resort (and the prices reflect it) set on 170 lush acres and with seven lovely beaches and 166 guest rooms, featuring natural woods, native stones and hand-crafted furniture. The resort also offers a 90-minute boat ride to Rosewood’s sister property, Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands (passports necessary). Ocean view rooms start at $550 in the heat of summer, $395 for a courtyard view.
Back to Nature
To truly experience the natural beauty of St. John, many visitors instead opt for a stay at a luxury camp with eco-cottages.
Just around the bend from Great Maho Bay are the Maho Bay campgrounds, featuring pioneering and eco-camping grounds amidst serene surroundings. Maho offers tented cabins that are among the most affordable lodging options on St. John, at about $80 per night off-season and $135 in the high season.
The campgrounds also have a sister property on the east side of the island, Estate Concordia, with posh “camping” and exquisite Caribbean views. Standard eco-tents start at $155 per night during the high season, $105 in the low season. Concordia also offers premium loft duplexes for larger families starting at $185.
[Read our article on upscale camping in the U.S. Virgin Islands.]
For most visitors, St. John is famous for its lush surroundings and beaches. One of the most popular beaches is Trunk Bay, which has an underwater snorkeling trail and is on many people’s top 10 lists from all over the world. I’ll let you in on a secret: We used to say on St. John that the cruise ship passengers are all sent to Trunk Bay so they can destroy just one beach. In fact, St. John is home to several beautiful beaches and to say which of them is the best is like trying to pick a favorite child. They’re all wonderful for different reasons.
Hawksnest Beach near town has a wonderful coral outcrop for snorkeling; Cinnamon Bay is long and wide and offers cabins for rent. (Be sure to check out the nearby archeological dig.) Further along the hilly, winding roads is Great Maho Bay, which is about as pretty as a beach can get.
The east side of St. John is relatively sparse but worth renting a car to explore. Coral Bay is the main point of reference and is about a 40-minute drive from Cruz Bay (in the USVI people drive on the left). Skinny Legs, always a lively place, is a highlight in Coral Bay for its outside grill and collection of “crusty characters.” Shipwreck Landing and the Island Blues Seaside Bar and Grill are two more popular restaurants. All of these dining accommodations serve burgers and seafood fare in casual settings.
Along the way to Coral Bay, off Centerline Road, are several popular hiking trails including Reef Bay Trail, which descends more than 900 feet through shaded park grounds past former sugar estates, ancient petroglyph rock carvings and the spectacular Ram’s Head peninsula. Also along Centerline, about halfway between Cruz and Coral Bay, is a fine restaurant well worth a visit for the best sunset views on the island and excellent food—Le Château de Bordeaux, with dinner entrees around $28 to $34.
Dining in St. John
Along Centerline Road, about halfway between Cruz and Coral Bay, is a fine restaurant well worth a visit for the best sunset views on the island and excellent food—Le Château de Bordeaux, with dinner entrees around $28 to $34.
Back in Cruz Bay, recommended restaurants include Morgan’s Mango, which serves a staple of Caribbean seafood cuisine with entrées ranging from $14 to $28. Zozo’s at Gallows Point Resort has fine Italian dining (entrées in the $30s), and Rhumb Lines serves award-winning Pacific Rim cuisine at reasonable prices (in the low $20s for most entrées).
For special occasions, the Waterfront Bistro is a top pick due to its lovely waterfront location at Wharfside and classic French cuisine with Caribbean twist (entrees $29-$39). Just across from Wharfisde is also Banana Deck, known for some of the best steaks on the island. Try specialties like the jerk-seasoned Ribeye topped with pineapple or a one topped with gorgonzola and roasted pine nut butter (sizes and prices vary).
On the more affordable side is JJ’s Coast Café for Tex-Mex, Woody’s Seafood Saloon for good take-out Caesar salads (assuming you don’t want to dine in with the $1 happy hour crowd), and Café Roma for pastas and specialty pizzas. If you’re planning a full day of boating or beaching, Deli Grotto in Mongoose Junction has amazing sandwiches to go. For happy hour or a nightcap, you can count on the Beach Bar at Wharfside.
[Read about more restaurants in our St. John Taste Buds article.]
Wherever you go on St. John, be prepared to embrace the casual side of life because this is an island that’s not about man-made glitz, but rather about natural beauty and breezy island attitude. So indulge in the island’s low-key ambiance where, as Kenny Chesney sings, you can be “a tourist, a beach bum or a star.” It doesn’t matter much on St. John, as long as everyone’s “OK Mon.”
For more information, visit the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism.
Themes: Beach Vacations
There are also guest house, inns, bed and breakfast accommodations on St. John with reasonable rates.
Great St. John guidebook Pick up St. John Off The Beaten Track, by Gerald Singer. St. John is still so undisturbed compared to other places in the Caribbean that you really can get off the beaten track. He lists some great beaches that take a bit of exploring to get to, but are well worth. Swimming with small sharks, snorkeling through a spot around a small island where the current shoots you to the beach, etc. Every morning I grabbed the book and found a new destination to explore. Our whole group loved the recommendations!
Our favorite island in the Caribbean We love St. John. A friend of ours described it this way. "You wake up in St. John and it's as if god asks you: What do you want to do today?" It's sooooo laid back and undeveloped. A very quiet place compared to the hustle of St. Thomas only 20 minutes away. We've stayed at both Maho Bay Campground and Caneel Bay. Two very different but exceptional experiences. Last time we went we split our time between the two resorts to save some bucks with 3 days at Maho and 3 days at Caneel Bay. I definitely recommend that order so you pamper yourself at the end of the trip.