St. John: A Perfect Week in Paradise

By: Mauri Elbel
September, 2022

Everyone has their happy place, and mine is and always will be St. John. 

As the smallest of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John boasts a raw splendor that you just won’t find anywhere else. Two-thirds of the tiny island occupied by just over 4,000 residents is designated as Virgin Islands National Park, so undeveloped lush green hills, pristine powder-white beaches and translucent turquoise waters offer the kind of unspoiled beauty that’s lacking from many of its Caribbean neighbors. 

Scott Beach on St. John can only be reached by boat. Photo by Mauri Elbel

On St. John, you won’t find high-rise hotels on its protected beaches, nor any highways (or even a single traffic light). Here, folks drive on the left side of the narrow, switchback-riddled roads that hairpin through the hills, making frequent stops for the nonhuman residents that call St. John home including donkeys, goats, mongoose, chickens, deer and iguanas, which occasionally share the beaches. What you will find are some of the most breathtaking beaches in the Caribbean, heart-pumping hikes, a rich history, a flourishing underwater life, and the kind of beauty that makes it easy to tune out the rest of the world’s noise. 

Dreamy Trunk Bay before the crowds arrive. Photo by Mauri Elbel

Vacationing on St. John is not for everyone –– if you’re looking for an effortless, all-inclusive Caribbean destination where pina coladas and freshly laundered beach towels are delivered to your plush beach lounger, look elsewhere. But to me, St. John remains a throwback to a simpler time and possesses a timeless authenticity that’s been washed away from many other destinations.  

I first fell in love with St. John more than 20 years ago on a family vacation during my senior year of college. A few months after graduating from The University of Texas, I swapped the florescent lit cubical of my first professional job for the Caribbean sunshine where I worked as the writer and copyeditor of the island’s only newspaper. 

Since moving back to Texas, we can’t ever seem to stay away for too long. It’s the place I come to recharge my batteries in the Caribbean sun, swim in the prettiest water on the planet and reacclimate to a slower pace of life known to everyone there as “island time.” Returning these days brings a whole new level of joy because I get to watch our kids make their own St. John memories year after year. If you’re planning a trip to St. John, I’ve compiled some of my favorite beaches, hikes and must-dos into a handy day-by-day itinerary for spending a perfect week in paradise.  

Monday: Swim with sea turtles at Maho Bay

St. John boasts more bays than you will have days to experience them all, but the pearly white sands and crystal-clear turquoise waters found along its North Shore are arguably the most beautiful on the island, if not the entire Caribbean. I’d recommend starting with a morning at Maho Bay, known for its calm, shallow waters that make it ideal for little ones and anyone wanting a lazy beach day. Sea turtles can be seen swimming in various bays on St. John, but your best bet for spotting them is at Maho Bay, where lush seagrass beds provide a habitat for green sea turtles just off the shallow shore. Slather on your reef-safe sunscreen and pop on your snorkel gear (we prefer goggles and fins) and swim alongside these graceful creatures. Just be sure to keep your distance and never touch a sea turtle or any sea life. 

Maho Bay is a great beach to see sea turtles. Photo by Finn Albrecht

Hungry or thirsty? Maho Crossroads, a self-powered pop-up village tucked away on the east end of the bay, serves up burgers, sandwiches and cold Caribbean cocktails, like my personal favorite, the painkiller –– a mixture of dark rum, pineapple and orange juices, cream of coconut and freshly-grated nutmeg. 

Trunk Bay has been named one of the top 10 beaches in the world. Photo by Mauri Elbel

Tuesday: Spend the day at Trunk Bay, hop over to Hawksnest, dine on Caribbean lobster

Trunk Bay, known for its quarter-mile strip of pillowy white sand and sparkling water so blue and clear it could serve as Mother Nature’s swimming pool, is ranked as one of the top beaches in the world and is undoubtably the most popular beach on St. John. But if you go early in the morning or late in the evening, you’re likely to have the beach all to yourself –– plus, you’ll have better chances of snagging a parking spot. There’s better snorkeling to be found on St. John, but newbies can get their fins wet by exploring the underwater trail at Trunk Bay where plaques point out various marine life. It’s the only beach on St. John that charges a modest amenity fee ($5), but Trunk Bay comes with the conveniences of showers, snorkel rentals and food and drink options such as burgers, pulled pork sandwiches, painkillers and pina coladas. 

You can easily spend the entire day soaking in Trunk Bay’s blinding beauty, but if you aren’t quite beached out, stop off for an afternoon dip at Hawksnest Bay –– another handsome white sand beach where you can snorkel around the several fingers of coral reefs jutting out from the shoreline.  

Try Caribbean lobster at Morgan’s Mango. Photo by Mauri Elbel

Before arriving on island, make a reservation at Morgan’s Mango for Caribbean Lobster Night, which takes place every Tuesday and Saturday. This landmark island restaurant has been around for 30 years under the same ownership, and serves local spiny Caribbean lobsters caught that morning and grilled to perfection the same evening alongside drawn butter, seasoned rice, Morgan’s black beans and sweet plantains.

Wednesday: Hike Reef Bay Trail, refuel at Skinny Legs and relax at Francis Bay

If you’re up for the challenge, Reef Bay Trail is one of my favorite hikes on St. John and offers a trek rife with island beauty and history. This steep 6-mile roundtrip hike weaves through some of the island’s oldest and tallest trees and leads to ancient petroglyphs carved around 900-1500 AD by the pre-Columbian Taino and their ancestors. Just before reaching remote Reef Bay on St. John’s south shore where you can cool off before heading back, you’ll discover the Reef Bay Sugar Mill ruins that produced brown sugar rum and molasses until 1916. Be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks and be prepared for the 900-foot elevation gain on the way up and out (especially if you happen to end up carrying a tired kiddo on your back like I usually do). 

Reef Bay Trail is a 6-mile round trip trek. Photo by Mauri Elbel

After the strenuous six-mile hike, follow Centerline Road to the sleepier side of the island until you reach Skinny Legs in Coral Bay. This longstanding, laid-back restaurant boasts a true “boatie” vibe with a sailcloth that serves as the ceiling, an open-air bar that serves cold beer and strong drinks made without a noisy blender, and the best burgers and mahi-mahi sandwiches found on St. John. 

Sandcastle architecture on Francis Bay just before sunset. Photo by Mauri Elbel

End the day at calm, uncrowded Francis Bay. This tranquil bay is as still as glass, making it ideal for swimming, sandcastle-building and snorkeling. Here, we usually spot a few sea turtles, schools of juvenile fish and some sting rays, but on our most recent trip just last month, we were lucky enough to swim alongside and observe a fascinating octopus just off the shore. On your way back home, you can revisit St. John’s past by touring the extensive Annaberg Sugar Plantation Ruins nearby.

This octopus, a master of camouflage, was seen swimming close to the shoreline on Francis Bay last month. Photo by Finn Albrecht

Thursday: Hike to Honeymoon and cool down in town 

If you’re looking for a less strenuous hike to follow up Reef Bay Trail, hoofing it to stunning Honeymoon Beach via the Lind Point Trail is ideal for two reasons. One, from the trailhead at the National Park Visitor Center in Cruz Bay, it’s less than a 2-mile round trip hike, making it doable even for young kids. And two, gorgeous Honeymoon and its sibling white-sand beach, Salomon, can only be reached by foot or boat, making them less trafficked and more secluded than others lining the island’s North Shore. Both Honeymoon and Salomon can be accessed from the same trail, and beneath their crystalline waters, you’ll find several species of coral and a diverse variety of colorful fish and marine life. 

On this day, there were more donkeys than people occupying Honeymoon Beach. Photo by Mauri Elbel

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For a post-hike treat, our kids love getting Irie Pops just across the road from the Cruz Bay Visitor Center. These handcrafted ice pops are made with local, organic ingredients that come in yummy island flavors like Soursop Pineapple, Passionfruit Mango, Chocolate Sea Salt and Simply Coconut. Afterward, adults can reward themselves with a cold craft beer like the Island Hoppin IPA or Pale Tourist Pale Ale at St. John Brewers, which brews beers in small batches on the island and also serves locally-crafted sodas and hard seltzers as well as pizza and a pub-style menu from its tap room located on the second floor of Mongoose Junction. 

This marks the beginning of the trail to Ram Head. Photo by Mauri Elbel

Friday: Hike Ram Head, snorkel Salt Pond and dine at Miss Lucy’s

It’s well worth the drive to experience the other, more bucolic side of the island when you start your day hiking to the summit of Ram Head –– the southernmost point on St. John. From serene and sundrenched Salt Pond Bay, the trail is just under one mile to the top. But the narrow trail features steep climbs and rocky cliffs, so keep a close watch if you are hiking with kids. I’d recommend hiking early in the morning because the unshaded trail gets very hot and be sure to bring plenty of water, but the sweeping ocean views from the summit are worth every steep step and drop of sweat. 

Afterward, cool off in the calm, clear waters of Salt Pond Bay, where you’re likely to spot several sea turtles. You can also meander past the real salt pond behind the bay until you reach windswept Drunk Bay where you can craft your own rock art and coral sculptures on the cobblestone beach.

For a memorable island meal, refuel at Miss Lucy’s on Friis Bay, where you can tuck into authentic island flavors like Johnny cakes, callaloo soup and conch fritters while sipping a rum punch and gazing out onto the bejeweled bay.

Be your own captain for the day to get to beaches with no one else around. Photo by Mauri Elbel

Saturday: Day in a dinghy beach-hopping and snorkel-stopping on the North Shore 

When we used to live on the island years ago, our favorite way to follow up the work week was to spend our weekends boating to the nearby British Virgin Islands with friends. Since COVID, the BVIs still remain closed to most commercial day charters, but you can still have a fun-filled day at sea beach-hopping and snorkel-stopping along St. John’s North Shore (plus you don’t need a passport when you stay within the U.S. Virgin Islands).

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On our last trip, we rented 12-foot inflatable dinghies from Wharfside Watersports, which also offers larger 22-foot Zodiacs and a Medline 9 for more experienced boaters. There’s some good snorkeling to be found at Henley Cay and Waterlemon Cay (pay attention to currents), and captaining your vessel gives you access to beaches that can only be reached by boat such as spectacular Scott Beach, which we had all to ourselves one afternoon, and gorgeous Gibney Beach, which rarely has more than a few people on it. A boating bonus? Some of the coolest restaurants and bars, such as the floating taco bar in Coral Harbor known as Lime Out, can only be reached by boat.  

Gorgeous Gibney/Oppenheimer Beach rarely has anyone on it because there are very few parking spaces. Photo by Mauri Elbel

Sunday: Grab a pate, hike America Hill and cool down at Cinnamon Bay

If you rise early, you might be lucky enough to get a West Indian pate from Hercules Pate Delight for breakfast on your way to the North Shore. Hercules and his wife open up shop at 5 a.m. every day and have been making their West Indian-style hand pies from their bright yellow and green building in the heart of Cruz Bay for as long as I can remember. Indulge in a spicy, meaty, fried-to-perfection pate stuffed with ground beef, chicken or saltfish, and you’re sure to have enough fuel to get you through a day of hiking and beaching. 

Views of Maho and Francis Bays can be captured from America Hill. Photo by Mauri Elbel

Twenty-plus trails weave through the V.I. National Park, and the best ones always come with complimentary cool down at a nearby beach. Explore the ruins of the historic Cinnamon Bay Sugar Plantation before setting out on the steep hike to the 19th century America Hill Great House Ruins, where efforts are rewarded with dramatic views of Maho and Francis Bays below. The uphill hike weaves through a forest shaded with towering mango, genip and guava berry trees, and it’s only about three-fourths of a mile to reach the America Hill great house (there’s a .38 mile spur off the main trail). If you want to extend your workout on your way back down, continue on the Cinnamon Bay Trail that leads to Centerline Road and back. 

Play for the whole day at Cinnamon Bay. Photo by Mauri Elbel

The best cooldown can be found at beautiful, breezy Cinnamon Bay, St. John’s longest beach. The pristine half-mile strip of powder is lapped by crystal-clear blue water and offers the perfect beach for strolling, swimming and soaking in a Sunday fun day in paradise. There’s also overnight camping options spanning bare sites to eco-tents and cottages, an onsite Rain Tree Café, watersport and snorkel gear rentals and grab-and-go food and drinks. 

If you’re looking for a delicious finale meal for your last night on island, reserve a seat at La Tapa or The Terrace –– two St. John staples overlooking Cruz Bay which serve chef-driven dishes and offer elevated fine island dining experiences.  

If You Go

Getting there:

There is no airport on St. John, and traveling to the island from Austin is a full day’s trip. Because flights out of Austin generally have two to three stops, we prefer driving to either Houston (IAH) or Dallas (DFW), which both offer direct flights to St. Thomas. Once landing on St. Thomas, you’ll take a 45-minute taxi ride to the ferry dock in Red Hook, which offers ferry service every hour on the hour to Cruz Bay on St. John (20 minute ride). We usually rent a Jeep from St. John Jeeps, but if you stay in Cruz Bay, it’s easy to get around via the colorful island taxis.

Stay:

For a luxurious, eco-friendly stay with jaw-dropping views, check out Calichi. Rent the perfect villa for any size group from Destination St. John. Sleep on the beach at Gibney Beach Villas. For a budget-friendly stay, reserve Kachi Ra. Stay right next to the conveniences of town at Gallows Point Resort. Experience the resort life on St. John at The Westin St. John Resort Villas.

Do:

Spend the days beaching, swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, hiking, boating and exploring historic ruins — all of which can be done without crowds in the off season when you can find reduced lodging rates and empty beaches.

Eat and Drink:

Make a reservation at longstanding Morgan’s Mango, for Caribbean lobster night every Tuesday and Saturday. Indulge your taste buds in the contemporary Mediterranean dishes served at La TapaSkinny Legs, in Coral Bay serves up the island’s best burgers along with cold drinks and a strong sailor vibe. Pick up a West Indian saltfish or beef pate from Hercules Pate Delight for breakfast on your way to the North Shore beaches, or tuck into delicious West Indian-inspired dishes like conch fritters, Johnny cakes and callaloo soup at Miss Lucy’s (340-693-5244) on breezy Friis Bay on the other side of the island. Many of the island’s restaurants close for the off-season in September and reopen in October.

Insider tip:

If you’re a U.S. citizen and you travel directly to the U.S.V.I., you do not need a passport. The BVIs still remain closed to most commercial day charters, so passports are not needed if you don’t plan to visit them.

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St. John: A Perfect Week in Paradise

St. John: A Perfect Week in Paradise

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