If you know us personally or have been following our blog, you probably know that we’re on a quest to visit all 59 US National Parks. To date, we’ve been to 42 parks in 19 states and territories. While we’ve been to a few parks twice and a handful three times, only one has drawn us back year after year — nine trips in all over the past 20 years, with another trip slated for 2014 — Virgin Islands National Park.
Simply put, it’s the most beautiful park we’ve been to.
Turquoise waters, white sand beaches, lush green hills, colorful corals, myriad sea life, and a storied past, coupled with friendly locals, a vibrant culture, a welcome absence of resort and restaurant chains, and a transportation system that necessitates slowing down, make it a fantastic travel destination.
While we can’t put VINP in the budget travel category due to airfare and island prices for, well, everything, it’s worth it. Besides, there are a few budget options once you’re on island. Cinnamon Bay Campground offers bare campsites, tents, and camping cottages for relatively reasonable rates — all within a few steps of the water’s edge. Several grocery stores can help cut down on your food budget. (Our favorite is within walking distance to many Cruz Bay lodging options.) Open-air taxis that circle the island bus-style provide a budget alternative to car rental (and to driving on the left side of some of the steepest roads around).
But it’s really all about the beaches. VI law states that all beaches are open to the public, although access via land sometimes isn’t. Entry to all but one beach is free, and there are plenty to choose from. Choose wisely, and you may have one all to yourself.
Caneel Bay is perfect for beginner snorkelers, and although it’s technically home to a private resort, the resort provides free access to beachgoers (not to mention restrooms and a bar!).
Trunk Bay, pictured above, is perhaps the most picturesque — and certainly the most visited — of St. John’s beaches. Check out the cruise ship schedule (they dock in nearby St. Thomas) to avoid the crowds. A unique underwater self-guided snorkel trail is a highlight.
Cinnamon Bay, another gorgeous beach, has decent snorkeling (we’ve snorkeled with huge schools of blue tang here) and, frequently, good afternoon waves perfect for bodysurfing.
Looking for turtles? Maho Bay, east of Cinnamon Bay, is a safe bet. Big sea stars frequent Maho, as do conch. We’ve been lucky enough to spot schools of squid and even a reef shark here! If you’re really lucky you can hear them take a breath when they come up for air — perhaps my favorite sound.
Farther from Cruz Bay you’ll find Leinster Bay — accessible only by boat or an 0.8-mile water’s edge trail — with a nice variety of coral, seagrass, conch, sea stars, fish, and, often, turtles, and Salt Pond Bay, on the south side of the island. With a huge coral head in the center of the bay, Salt Pond offers amazing snorkeling but, unfortunately, no shade.
Back in Cruz Bay, many restaurants offer a tasty variety of dinner options, but prices are steep by mainland standards.
The Beach Bar lives up to its name with a great location right on Cruz Bay (order a Lime in da Coconut!) and a pub grub menu with a Caribbean twist. Looking to go local? Hercules Pate Delight, just up from the National Park dock, offers a variety of pates — a local staple akin to a British meat pie or a Michigan pastie — and, in the morning, delicious johnnycakes. If you’re lucky, Monica will have a pitcher of tamarind juice to help wash it down. And the smoothie stand around the corner from the post office offers fresh fruit smoothies (with or without rum!) and chilled green coconuts ready for a machete and a straw.
The best sights in VINP are underwater, but Annaberg Plantation is well worth a visit to learn some island history. If you’re lucky, there will be traditional food and drink being prepared (it’s customary to leave a tip) and someone there to show you around the demonstration garden. Look for a very tall West Indian man dressed in Rastafarian garb — he’s your guy, friendly and amazingly knowledgeable about the fruits being grown there. If you’re lucky, he’ll let you taste a few, too!
Customary island greetings are a hearty “good morning”, “good afternoon”, or “good night” (which isn’t a farewell expression like it is on the mainland; in STJ “good night” is the equivalent of “good evening”). As it is when traveling anywhere, a warm greeting, smile, and a healthy respect for the locals and their way of life go a long way to making your trip more enjoyable and maybe even making a few new friends!
Enjoy your week or your weekend on St. John!