Since coming home from our latest trip (my 10th) to St John, I’ve had so many questions about travel to the island that instead of trying to answer individually, I decided it would be easier to put together a guide of sorts. This will be long, so bear with me and I’ll try to update it.
A (very) Brief History of the Island
The US bought St John from Denmark in 1917 and by the 1930s, word had spread to the mainland and it’s economy shifted from sugarcane/cotton plantations (also thanks to the abolition of slavery) to tourism where it’s held tight ever since.
In 1956, Laurence Rockefeller sailed past St John (where there were still no roads or cars, no electricity, and no dock) and said it was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. He then purchased 5000 acres (nearly half the island) and donated them back to the US Government to establish the 29th US National Park, to ensure the preservation of St John for generations to come. In 1962 the boundary of the park was expanded to include 5,650 acres of offshore water. Since then, the actually size of the park’s land has grown to 7,259 acres, which accounts for 56.7% of the island.
Natives Islanders, of West Indian descent, with their often hard to understand accent are very proud to call St John their home and thus, it’s to be respected.
I feel like I should start with disclaimer about going to St John in general. While it’s clearly one of my favorite places in the world, it’s not for everyone. Like I’ve mentioned before, every time we bring someone new, I hold my breath a bit in the hopes that it speaks to them like it does me. It is a full day of sometimes exhausting travel— usually two flights from where we live, followed by a taxi ride on St Thomas, then a ferry ride to the island and then rental jeep ride to your house. St John is not for travelers who are used to rolling up to an all inclusive and parking it for a week. Can the trip be tiring? yes. Is it worth it? Yes.
You’ll need a passport. While the US Virgin Islands is a US territory, you won’t need your passport upon arrival but you will go through customs and immigration at the airport in St Thomas on your way home. And you don’t get a stamp—sorry.
The island itself is fairly primitive, though it’s come a LONG way since the first time my parents brought us in 1996. You’ll need to rent a 4×4, likely a Jeep, from one of the on island rental agencies (we ALWAYS use Denzil Cline). I strongly advise against renting a car on St Thomas. Some people think this is easier but I disagree and a lot of houses will NOT allow you to park a St Thomas-based rental car at your house (be sure to read the fine print of your rental agreement). As far as I’m concerned, I want to give as much as my travel funds to local, on-island businesses as possible. The car barge is unreliable at best. Plus, if you have car trouble, you’re stuck. Just not worth the possible (small) price savings. Plus, I would NEVER have the cojones to drive on St Thomas. And don’t forget, you’ll drive your American car on the LEFT side of the road. And word has it, rentals are going fast so call as soon as you decide to book a trip.
I think my biggest warning to people coming is to throw out the notion of an all inclusive-type trip. This isn’t it. It’s a journey and about exploring, not just walking out to your resort pool deck every morning. I mean, over half the island is designated National Park. Don’t get me wrong, there’s totally a place for that and why we also love going to Mexico and the like, but St John just isn’t that. There is only one on-island resort (The Westin) since Hurricane Irma took out the other ultra posh option (Caneel Bay). We spend every day at a different beach on the island as they all offer different things. I’ll get to more about that later.
Where to Stay
I had lots of questions about how to go about accommodations. We generally rent a house (my parents have stayed at the Westin a couple times) as it’s just how our family likes to travel. We like the privacy of our own pool and being able to spread out and relax in a house vs a hotel room. With that said, we like to stay mid-island the best. The views are just incredible and hard to beat. Bordeaux Mountain and Catherineburg are two great places. In the past we usually stayed out in coral bay, but since the hurricanes, that area has been very slow to recover. The roads are still pretty beat up and our last travel companions couldn’t believe what qualified as a “driveway”. Being mid-island gets you out of the craziness of downtown, better views and gives you easy access to the north shore beaches as well as the east end while still being fairly close to Cruz Bay for restaurants and shopping. For our last trip we stayed in Rendezvous Bay, toward Chocolate Hole. While you don’t get the sweeping views of the BVI’s in the distance, I really enjoyed our house and will link it later. It was great to be fairly close to town.
As far as finding a house, let me start by begging you to stop booking through VRBO. There is no cost savings, listing info isn’t always right, you still rent through the same on-island agencies, and you pay an additional 3% fee for literally nothing. Stop it! It’s a decent search tool and sometimes a good jumping off point but simply find the house name (they’re always listed) and then google it to find the agency to represents it. https://stjohn-villarentals.com/, https://www.destinationstjohn.com/, https://www.caribbeanvilla.com/vacation-rentals/st-john-villas/ are a few of the sites we use. And just because a house is listed as 4 bedrooms but you only need 3, don’t discount it. Many book based on occupancy and will just lock the door to the extra room.
Warning to avoid sticker shock: since the hurricane, all houses receive a 13% “island tax” on top of your house rental fee. So be sure to include that in your house budget since you can imagine how hefty that fee can get.
I would also suggest renting a house as soon as you decide to make the trip. It’s a small island, with 70% of it being national park, so there just aren’t a TON of options. Same goes for cars.
Ok so you decided St John is for you. Great! Here are some specifics that you might find useful. I’ll break them down into Beaches, Hikes, and Food. Just please promise you’ll get out and explore. In my opinion, you haven’t lived until you’ve driven out to the east end of St John. Hairpin turns, hills so steep you can’t see the road in front of you when you get to the top and sweeping views that take your breath away.
I really can’t play favorites because, like I mentioned before, they all offer something different. Though I will say, some past favorites are taking a back seat as they become more popular and crowded. And a word to those who like to sleep in—If you get to the beaches past 10:30, you will not find a parking spot. You’ll also resemble fried bacon by 1. We try to be at whatever beach we’re going to that day by 9 at the latest.
- Maho Bay- I almost always suggest newbies start at this beach the first day. You’re guaranteed to see turtles and we saw a ton of (HUGE) rays on our last trip. Parking is easy on the side of the road and there are a few food/drink options. I’ve been hearing that past lunch time this beach is turning into the new soggy dollar, which is unfortunate.
- Cinnamon Bay—my forever favorite. The biggest of STJ beaches, next to Trunk bay, it’s just so good. Super wide beaches with an undulating coastline, glowing water always and great snorkeling (only strong swimmers at cinnamon please, as this is typically the water with the strongest current). The bathrooms should be reopening soon as will the snack bar and camp grounds.
- Hansen Bay-Way out on the east end and 100% worth the drive. Various kayaks, floats and paddle boards for rent on a donation basis. Best snorkeling of our trip, per usual and just a great laid back vibe with minimal people.
- Little Lameshur- this drive is NOT for the faint of heart. It’s always been bad but the hurricane left it impassible after heavy rain. Worth it for snorkeling and very quiet beach. If you’re not a snorkeler, I’d probably say to skip it. There are better beaches for swimming and beach-sitting. Lameshur does offer a great jumping off point for the Reef Bay Trail and the petroglyphs.
- Trunk Bay- It’s never a priority for me and on our last trip the parking lot was ALWAYS full. Once cruise ships start up, it will be completely littered with people which is why I don’t run there. It’s the only beach truly run by the parks office so there’s a small fee but good bathrooms and a snack bar. It also offers a guided snorkeling trail for newbies.
- Salt Pond-someone in our family loathes this beach for the “boring” snorkeling but I was reminded on this last trip why it’s always on my list. Very quiet lazy cay and we had turtles literally swimming around us, popping up their heads. It’s also where you jump on the Ram’s Head trail which is breathtaking but requires proper footwear so plan ahead.
- Honeymoon Beach- this one was new for us as it used to be part of Caneel. Now that the hotel is still demolished you can park at the hotel entrance and pay $10 to be shuttled back to the beach where there is a fantastic food stand with cocktails. Also offers an all inclusive option for the use of chaise lounges, kayaks, paddle boards, etc. the beach itself was just ok, as was the snorkeling. While it was nice having the food and beverage option, I’m not sure if I’d run back.
- Oppenheimer—This beach is like a unicorn. There are literally 3 parking spots so you can’t really plan to go, you just have to get lucky.
- Francis Bay
I will preface this by saying that I am not a hiker. However, hiking from a beach, through a rainforest and seeing ancient ruins is 100% worth it. Here are some of the top trips:
- Reef Bay trail—by far one of the most popular, I mentioned it earlier and there are a few ways to do it. One is from centerline road at mile marker 5 which is about a 5 mile in and out. Another, like I said, is from Lameshur bay which makes it a bit shorter. And finally another way is to arrange it through the parks office to make it a one way trip by getting picked up at reef bay and boated back to the parks office (this option is currently unavailable because of Covid so check before you go). Just make sure you take the .25 mile offshoot on your way to see the petroglyphs.
- Ram’s Head/Drunk Bay
- Lind Point
Our last trip saw us revisiting a lot of old favorites and adding a couple new winners
- Skinny Legs—I hated that we only got there on our last day this past trip because I’m pretty sure had we gotten there sooner, we’d been there a LOT more. Awesome burgers, no blender or fryer. Swizzles for days. Cheapest drinks on the island for sure.
- Longboard—while not the sharpest service, the instagrammability of this place just keeping you wanting more. It’s beautiful and the food is pretty solid. And frozen painkillers are always a must.
- Lime Inn—they’re currently still on a prix fixe menu which got pricey really fast but the food was, in my opinion, the best of the trip.
- Uncle Joe’s BBQ-sides are just ok and this is not fast food, but man….his smoked ribs and chicken were fantastic. Easy dinner to pick up and take home.
- Rhumb Lines—We didn’t make it here our last trip but it’s always one of my favorites. IT’s now only located in coral bay and the menu still hasn’t changed (something that really irks some members of our family) but it’s so good.
- Beach Bar—Tuna Down Now and Nachos are always a sure bet. Our service wasn’t the best our last trip but it’s post pandemic and staff is short–to be expected. Also Josh’s favorite BBC on the island with the same guy who’s been making them since 2010.
- Woody’s—not for food but most fun happy hour.
- The Tap Room
- STJ Provisions— we grabbed breakfast sandwiches and smoothies here twice and ate them on the beach. Literally what else do you want in life?
- Columbo’s— mid island smoothies and they now offer breakfast.
- Grocery stores: Midway Market is new to the island and also offers meat pies (AKA pate and you HAVE to get at least one. or 5. Starfish and Dolphin in Cruz Bay and Love city market out in coral bay it always a colorful experience.
Other useful tidbits
- Bugs are either nonexistent or relentless, there doesn’t seem to be an in between. Our last visit had steady breezes the whole time so we didn’t have an issue at all. However on other trips, the noseums were SO incredibly bad. Always travel with deet.
- St John has banned the use of any non reef-safe sunscreens. No, they don’t check suitcases or anything but you shouldn’t be using coppertone anyway. Beauty Counter, Blue Lizard, Sun Bum and Alba’s are some favorites. I will say, it’s pretty comical seeing so many people turned white after reapplying. 😉
- You won’t need a special cell phone plan, but be sure to disable roaming. If you venture to the east side of the island it could ping BVI towers which will incur charges. 80% of the time you’ll be pinging the tower on St Thomas so you’re good. And most houses have wifi so you can just utilize that.
- Speaking of houses, a good question to ask is if it’s on it’s own cistern and if it’s filtered. Not all do but it’s a huge bonus as then you won’t need to buy water. Our last house had both of these and we also brought along huge water canteens and just filled those each morning to take to the beach. Water on the island *shouldn’t* make you sick, but if you’ve ever gotten sick on vacation from bad water you never want to repeat it.
- You can rent snorkeling gear on island if you don’t want to mess with bringing your own. And beaches like Honeymoon and Maho have them to rent on site if you want to try it out first. If you’re new to snorkeling, I’d suggest starting at Maho as it’s the most calm.