St. John, Virgin Islands: The Best Snorkeling and Top Beaches
Coral Bay, St. John USVI – A Snorkeling Paradise
By Terri Clemmons
St. John (not John’s) is “a whole 'nother world” according to Kenny Chesney, a country singer, as described in one of his ballads. Some locals blame him for giving away the secret of the sublime island in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
With undeveloped beaches with postcard views in every direction, hiking trails for every fitness level, historic ruins, and laid back vibe or party atmosphere; there is something for everyone.
Our top reason to go is for the excellent shore snorkeling. No need to get on a boat, although you can take boozy cruises or guided tours if that is your thing. The pristine beaches offer nature’s best views.
No hotel strips here. But be warned, the trip to “The Rock”, as it is affectionately known, can be addictive. There are many travelers that return year after year, and it is easy to see why this small Caribbean island is a sun-and-sea lover’s favorite.
The island of St. John is mostly undeveloped because 60% of it is a national park, with rich history including sugar plantations, slavery rebellions, the Rockefellers, and the Oppenheimers.
There are two sides to the island, Cruz Bay and Coral Bay. Cruz is the island hub, where Coral is the laidback former fishing village.
There are two main roads on the island and it is easy to get from one bay to the other in 20 minutes. It is left side of the road driving, which you get used to pretty quickly.
The locals drive with more “gusto” than the tourists, so just pull over and let them pass. There are public transport open-air buses and taxis, but they do not go to all the beaches. We chose to rent a jeep to have access to the whole island.
The news of St. John is a blog about, strangely, the news of St. John, and offers an abundance of information including cruise ship days, events, and web-cam views.
A Hop, a Skip, and Ferry
There is no airport on St. John, so you fly into St. Thomas and take a 15-minute ferry ride into Cruz Bay. This extra step of taking a ferry might deter some, but that makes it less crowded for the rest of us.
It also means no cruise ships blocking your view, but ships docking at St. Thomas do take day trips to STJ.
There are no direct flights from Chicago, but there are from the east coast. We had a short layover in Puerto Rico before reaching Cyril E. King Airport. The second time we made sure to book a flight that arrived earlier, so we could avoid driving in the dark on your first day on the island.
The sun sets early because it is close to the equator, so check sunset times for your travel month. Allow time for jeep rental and grocery shopping too.
If you do end up arriving after 6:00 p.m. like we did, Courtesy Car Rental will give you a number to call for late arrival. Most rental companies do not, so check.
There are drivers lined up at the airport and a dispatcher will direct you. We asked for a direct ride to Red Hook to avoid stops at hotels along the way. We waited about five minutes while he got two other couples traveling to RH.
It took about 30 minutes to get to ferry on a Saturday afternoon. The cost was $15 per person and additional $2 per bag.
There are two ferries that run the 20-minute route back and forth from RH to St. John. They depart RH on the top of the hour. The 20-minute ride cost $28 including the cost of two big bags.
There is a newer ferry and an older one, and you can tell the difference. I tend to get motion sickness, but it was not a problem.
The north shore beaches are well known for their easy access to stellar shore snorkeling. Many are easily reached and others require hikes. Parking can be an issue if you arrive in the afternoon.
Honeymoon/Solomon requires a little more effort than walking across the street, but it is worth it. The Lind Point Trail from Cruz Bay leads to these beaches, but we parked at the Caneel Bay Resort. The walk from the parking lot is quite a jaunt, but it is clearly marked with signage.
You are given a parking ticket from the attendant when you enter, and if you spend the equivalent of the $20 fee at any of their facilities, the parking fee is waived
. You need to exchange your ticket for a different color when you make your purchase to show attendant on the way out. It is easy to spend $20 there, as it is the priciest resort on St. John.
We chose to eat at the Beach Bar restaurant and the food was really good. We ordered appetizers that were generous enough for a meal. The resort has a reputation for being rather snooty, and we felt that from some of the guests when we were lugging our chairs down to the beach, but the staff was friendly and helpful.
Timing is essential here because of the chartered boats that stop offshore and dump a mass of finned humanity into the water. We got there by 8:30 am and had the beach to ourselves for a while. We snorkeled for two hours. This was one of our favorite reefs with colorful coral and diverse fish.
We saw an eel and turtles on the grassy area to the right of rocky outcrop on the left side of the beach (facing the ocean). The water was very calm and it felt very safe and protected from boaters.
The catamarans arrived about 10:30 a.m., and then again about 2:00 p.m. The second wave had three boats and it was snorkel chaos. It was hard to watch the lack of respect for the reef.
Elkhorn Coral and Glowworms
Hawksnest is known for the elkhorn coral, and it is impressive. Go early to snorkel the reef that is right off the beach without a crowd. When the crowds come, the quality diminishes considerably as the sand kicks up. The beach is narrow so it fills up quickly. Go to the far left to the shady nooks, which are also less populated.
A guidebook mentioned that if you are there three nights after the full moon, go to Hawksnest at dusk to see glowworms. When we went, there was only one other couple there, and it felt a little like a snipe hunt at first. Then the charter boat arrived off shore and you see the flashlights.
The idea is to flash your light into the water to attract the glowworms that come into this bay three nights after a full moon. Official sunset was 7:00, and by 8:00, it was truly dark, and we started to see the glowworms. It looked like fireflies in the ocean. Very cool.
We scooped up a handful and they were translucent worms about 3/4 of an inch...and they were everywhere! A little freaky since I was standing knee deep in worms.
Cinnamon Beach has excellent snorkeling on the far right along the rocks. We saw lots of fish and a nurse shark. Keep inside the buoys! There are shady nooks on the far right and is less populated as it is a little distance down the beach.
The cay is supposed to offer great snorkeling, but not on the day we were there.
Trunk Bay photographs like a dream, but the snorkeling trail is strictly for beginners. This is the only beach with a fee. The far side of the small cay is supposed to have better snorkeling, but we did not have any luck there.
Check the cruise ship schedule and avoid this beach on those days. Excursion groups flood the place.
Maho is like an aquarium on the right side. It was calm and shallow for a long distance, so it would be ideal for children or beginners. The beach is narrow and not much shade in the afternoon. Parking in right across the street, but limited.
Francis a Favorite Beach
Francis is our favorite beach. It is wide, shady beach with unique snorkeling experiences every time. There are always turtles in the grassy area. We saw stingrays, puffer, squid, but the highlight was the tarpon.
These silver giants glide in the water and their fins remind you of Jaws. There was a school of tarpon that were charging into a large ball of baitfish while we snorkeled.
They circled in and out of it for 20-30 minutes as we hovered above and to the side. As they swam in front of us, they would tilt to the side, causing the sun to reflect off their silver sides and flash us. Look for those bait balls and there will be big fish.
Waterlemon (not a typo) is the reason I will return someday. I never got to snorkel it. It is one of the best places to snorkel according to…everybody. I got sick, and could not do the one-mile hike that it requires.
I could barely drag my chair onto the beach at Hawksnest. I ended up having to go to the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center to get medicine.
It was island slow, but the doctor was kind and rather entertaining. I hope no one else has a coughing-up-a-lung woman sitting behind them on the flight to St. Thomas, but if you do, it is nice to know health care is available when you start coughing nonstop.
They accepted my BCBS insurance. The pharmacy at the market was pricey, even by island standards, for generic antibiotics, but it is the only game in town.
There are so many more beaches that it would take a book to detail them all. Coincidently, there are two books that are helpful for planning and navigating the island: St. John Feet, Fins and Four Wheel Drive by Pam Gaffin and St. John Off The Beaten Track by Gerald Singer.
Hiking is a big attraction on the island with its dozens of trails. The Trail Bandit spent years mapping out known and unknown trails. A free map is available on his site trailbandit.org. The National Park Rangers give guided tours of Reef Bay Trail. This 4½ -mile round trip hike through the tropical forest includes a ruin site and petroglyphs from the Arawak Indians.
The trail is rocky with many roots. You need good shoes, not flips. The tour is very detailed, perhaps too detailed. However, the guided tour offers the perk of a boat ride back to Cruz Bay instead of hiking back out.
The Annenberg Sugar Plantation ruin is a popular site, and a self-guided tour offers a sobering look at the plantation system that once existed. Go early to get great pictures without someone else’s kids in the background. There are great views and interesting information along the trail.
The Moravian Church, constructed in 1750, sits on a hill in Coral Bay and is on the National Registry of Historic Places. They do not offer tours as this is an active church, but they do welcome visitors.
We attended and were welcomed with open arms, literally. The people on the island are generally very friendly, but there is a cultural expectation of a friendly greeting before conducting any business.
A simple “good day” is all it takes.
Coral Bay Eats
Caribbean Oasis is the best value on the island and the food is good to great! Each night is a different menu consisting of at least four entrees, prices ranging from $9-12. Check their Facebook page or website for daily menus. Carryouts are popular here.
The Triple B food truck parks in the Oasis parking lot in the morning. It has great coffee and outstanding baked good and breakfast sandwiches.
Aqua Bistro has a great view of the bay and always a nice breeze. The bar serves good frozen cocktails like the refreshing "Lime in De Coconut". Sit at the bar to get the half price drinks from 4-6 pm.
Concordia Café has open mic night on Mondays. It was an enjoyable night of music at a beautiful location. Overpriced food, but the entertainment made it worth it. Go early. It is from 4:30-6:30. Ask about the half-priced drink specials.
Shipwreck Landing is a great spot with a view of the bay and nice breezes. Fish taco and conch fritters for lunch were very good. The only good dessert I had on the island was here. It was the caramel coconut cheesecake with chocolate ganache. Stellar! One caveat for the place: the seats are not comfortable.
Pickles in Paradise is open early. We discovered the "Trainwreck" sandwich late in the trip, but we got it several times to take to the beach anyway because it is so good. It is big enough to share and comes cut in half.
If you plan to explore St. John, and of course you are, then you must rent a Jeep. We’ve rented from Courtesy Car Rentals on both trips and had a good experience.
It’s not cheap, about $75 per day, but it’s a cheaper rate to rent by the week rather than the day.
If you are staying in Cruz Bay, you could rent a jeep for a few days to explore the more remote parts of the island, and take the buses the other days.
The four-wheel drive allows you to access some of the rougher roads, or even the “used to be a road” roads. Talk to a local bartender to get the story on the lack of road maintenance, local politics, and all the latest in the resident intrigues.
There are plenty, from activist battles with big developers to beach access wars.
The two main roads are maintained, but there are many roads that have been left to crumble. Since it is left-side of the road driving, the worst part is when you get into your rental jeep for the first time, and try to navigate Cruz Bay side streets and turnarounds. Have a map and a plan before you put it into drive. The co-pilot position is no joke. But once you get the feel of the island, it is not difficult to get around at all. There are not enough roads to get lost.
Coral Bay is the laid back side of the island where your sleep options are house rentals or “villas”. The housing is built into the sides of the rocky cliffs, which often afford wonderful views, but it also requires navigating tricky driveways. Always ask about the drive to the house. Some are truly villas, but you can rent anything from mansions to studio cottages.
Many have pools and other amenities. Look on vrbo.com where we booked to see the options. Both places we rented were accurately represented, but I did my due diligence to be sure. Most rentals provide beach chairs, beach towels, and coolers. Look at the list of provisions and pack lightly. Both sides of the island are casual, with the exception of a couple of upscale restaurants.
Coral Bay has plenty of shops and restaurants, some with live entertainment. There is no walking back to your villa, though. There might be some that say you could, but the roads are narrow and winding, and there are no designated sidewalks. I wouldn’t do it.
Cruz Bay is the main hub where the ferry docks, with shops and restaurants and nearby boutique hotels, condos, and inns. There are only a couple of big resorts on the island, the Westin and Caneel. There is also a campground at Cinnamon Bay and Concordia Eco-resort on the more remote east end.
Pack lightly. Truly. The dress is casual. Shorts are fine. Flipflops are fine. You are in your swimsuit most of the day, so bring at least two. Water shoes are advisable for trail trekking. Leave room in your bag for more important things like reef-friendly sunscreen. Don’t be that red guy.
We back our own snorkel gear, but rentals are widely available. If you think you will snorkel every day, it would be worth buying your own. A gear backpack for snorkel equipment and a cooler backpack are beach essentials. The straps make it easy to lug the gear.
Food is expensive on St. John. Everything is shipped in, thus the high price tag. We bring some things with us like peanut butter, protein and granola bars that don’t melt for the beach, tea bags, coffee, and a box of cereal. When we get our rental jeep, our first stop is the Starfish Market grocery store. Water is not usually potable, so buy plenty of water.
For two weeks, we bought two cases water and two gallons of water for making iced tea.
There is a spirits store next to the market, and Sam and Jack’s deli is on the level above the grocery where we pick up a sandwich to take for dinner on the first night. Once you load the groceries, call your property manager, and arrange the meeting place to go to your rental house.
Unpack the essentials, head to your balcony with the fabulous view, pop a top, and start your dream vacation.
Terri Clemmons, right, is an elementary teacher of gifted students in Illinois who uses her summers wisely for travel experiences.
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