The Best of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

St. John is the least developed and most sparsely populated of the three main islands in the U.S. Virgin Islands. That’s not surprising, since more than half its land is protected as a U.S. National Park. Most visitors reach St. John by ferry from St. Thomas, landing at the dock in Cruz Bay, St. John’s main settlement. A village with only a few thousand residents, Cruz Bay has gained a reputation as an upscale retreat for movie stars and other high-profile people looking for a secluded getaway.

It all started back in 1956, when businessman and conservationist Laurance Rockefeller, who had bought extensive land holdings on St. John, opened the low-key but luxurious Caneel Bay Resort. It’s still going strong, and visitors can stop in for lunch and a swim in the beautiful bay. Rockefeller later donated much of his estate to the national park.

Snorkelers should make time for an underwater tour in Trunk Bay, where the National Park Service maintains a submarine snorkeling trail. And no sightseeing drive around the island is complete without a stop to see the fabulous panoramic view from the Bordeaux Mountain Overlook. Back in the town, the boutiques at Mongoose Junction offer one-of-a-kind souvenirs, while Cruz Bay Landing is a perfect spot to grab lunch and drinks.

74-2 Cruz Bay Town, St John, VI 00830
The sleepy town of Cruz Bay, nicknamed Love City, is the main settlement on St. John, and the hub where most visitors arrive after a ferry ride from St. Thomas. The island draws everyone from salty sailors to A-list celebrities, and Cruz Bay is where they all gather in the afternoon to drink Cruzan rum at beachfront bars while deconstructing their day spent hiking, scuba diving or lounging on beaches around the island.

Take in the view of St. John’s scalloped coastline from the island’s highest point, Bordeaux Mountain. The Bordeaux Mountain Overlook is an easy-to-find stop on Centerline Road. From this viewpoint, you can see all the way down the green hillsides to Coral Bay, on the island’s east end, and beyond to the British Virgin Islands, which lie just across the Sir Francis Drake Channel.

St John 00830, USVI
Often called one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Trunk Bay is a crescent of snow-white sand with a small green islet on the north side of the aquamarine lagoon. Part of the Virgin Islands National Park, Trunk Bay is known for its underwater snorkeling trail. Submerged signs along the trail describe the corals, tropical fish and other marine life found within the bay. Visitors can rent snorkeling gear on the beach, and lifeguards are in attendance.

This open-air bar and restaurant is right at the ferry dock in the heart of Cruz Bay. It’s a great spot to have lunch between island adventures, or just to grab a drink and enjoy some people-watching along the dock. The menu lists barbecue ribs, fish tacos and Caribbean-style roti, as well as a variety of sandwiches and salads.

Caneel Bay, St John 00830, USVI
Take in the view of Caneel Bay Resort’s secluded beach while enjoying lunch at this beachfront bar and grill. On the menu: burgers, tacos and pizzas, along with a creative sushi selection and artfully prepared cocktails. If you’re interested in local specialties, try the conch fritters or curry chicken roti, a Caribbean staple that resembles an Indian-inspired burrito.

North Shore Road, St. John, St John 00831, USVI
This property is closed through 2019 for repairs made necessary by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Caneel Bay, one of the island’s more secluded and protected bays, is home to Caneel Bay Resort, a historic luxury hotel founded by Laurance Rockefeller. After opening the resort in 1956, Rockefeller donated the land on which it lies to become the Virgin Islands National Park, which covers about 60 percent of the island. Day-trippers can easily reach Caneel Bay by taxi from Cruz Bay. The resort has no fewer than seven beaches, including Honeymoon Beach, a short hike away. Come here to relax on the main beach, book water sports at the diving and snorkeling center and have lunch at the hotel restaurant.

If you’ve developed a taste for the flavors of the Caribbean during your cruise, stop at this small spice shop to take some home with you. It’s hard to miss, since it’s located upstairs from the ferry dock. The owners hand-mix most of their signature spice blends. The top seller, Cruz Bay Grill Rub, is a potent dry rub that combines nutmeg, cinnamon, fennel and other spices. The shop also sells island-made candles, rum balls and hot sauces—but watch out for the one made with searing Scotch bonnet chili peppers, a favorite in the Caribbean.

North Shore Road
If shopping is on your agenda, be sure to stop at Mongoose Junction, at the north end of Cruz Bay where North Shore Road heads out of town. The open-air mall is small but attractive, made of local stone and mahogany and landscaped with tropical plants. Mongoose Junction is packed with art galleries, restaurants and boutiques selling locally made clothing and jewelry. Before you leave, check out St. John Scoops, which makes almost 100 flavors of ice cream and sorbet (like mango, passion fruit and salted caramel) and serves them up in hand-rolled waffle cones. Delicious superfood smoothies are on the menu, too.

Reef Bay Trail, St John 00830, USVI
The most popular trek in the St. John national park, this trail begins on Centerline Road and descends 937 feet through a shady forest. Along the way, hikers will encounter the remains of four sugar estates, as well as ancient petroglyphs, or rock carvings. The trail ends at the ruins of the Reef Bay Plantation near Genti Bay.
Mongoose Jct, St. John, VI 00830
The home of St. John Brewers, among the leaders of the recent craft-beer revolution in the Caribbean, is a must-stop for all beer lovers visiting St. John. At the Tap Room, you can sample the brewery’s very latest beers, sometimes even while they’re in mid-development. Look for a plain black tap among the lineup of more colorfully ornate ones behind the bar. New beers in development are often available there. Feedback from customers goes into finalizing the brews.
Cruz Bay, St John 00830, USVI
The 32 points of a compass face are called rhumb lines and in Cruz Bay, all those lines point to this Asian-influenced restaurant. Owned and operated by longtime St. John residents, Rhumb Lines is located inside a mini-mart. The restaurant’s humble setting has been transformed with fairy lights, colorful decor, and a palm-shaded garden, which, the owners say, reflects the “comfort and ambiance of a well-appointed south seas home.”
St John 00830, USVI
One of St. John’s most beautiful seaside spots, Hawksnest Beach offers a beautiful and easy-to-reach locale with convenient parking, picnic tables, barbecue grills, and ample shade. That accessibility, alas, can mean crowds, so try to arrive early and find your spot on the sand. A long snorkeling reef begins a few yards from the shore.
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Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
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