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The Virgin Islands
November 29th-December 6th, 2000
St John, the smallest and most tranquil of the three United States Virgin Islands, abounds in colorful coral reefs, picture perfect white sand beaches, and turquoise bays—at a mere nine miles long and three miles wide, its spectacular wilderness beaches and untouched forests will remain that way for future generations, thanks to two thirds of the island being encompassed and preserved by the Virgin Islands National Park.
While St John is only a short ferry ride away from the larger more commercialized island of St Thomas (twenty minutes from Red Hook, forty-five minutes from Charlotte Amalie), you will find that it is the pristine paradise of island fantasies—St John has no high-rise hotels, cruise ship docks, or airport.
Despite the deserted island feel, St John offers every amenity and facility found at other major island resort destinations—getting around the island is also easy, Cruz Bay, the major town where the ferry docks, is the home to several rental car operators and colorful canopied taxis line the docks during the day and evening hours.
We caught the ferry out of Red Hook, St Thomas and arrived on St John just twenty minutes later—we grabbed our bags and jumped onto one of the open air taxis run by the Paradise Taxi Association (official taxis will have JP on their license plates).
Destined for Cinnamon Bay, our taxi cruised with ease along the curvy mountain roads, passing by such beautiful sights as Caneeel, Hawksnest and Trunk Bay—inviting and gorgeous sapphire blue lagoons ringed by white sand and palm trees.
Cinnamon Bay, owned and operated by the campground of the same name, is the perfect place for kayaking, swimming, sunbathing, water sports, and snorkeling—the campground, located right on the beach with baresites, tents and cottages tucked amid the trees, offers guests an eco friendly, and relaxing way to experience the stunning natural environment of St John.
We arrived at the campground, decked out like a couple of vagabonds with luggage, and made a beeline for the front desk—having reserved a cottage prior to arrival, we were eager to ditch our bags and hit the water.
Check-in was a snap, and we were soon making ourselves at home in our cottage—each cottage is 15 feet by 15 feet with an outside patio and charcoal grill. The cottage has two walled sides and two screened sides (front wall– facing the ocean, and back wall) that let in the refreshing trade wind breezes, four twin size bunks, electric lights and outlets, fan, propane gas stove with cooking and eating utensils, ice chest, water container, picnic table and hutch. All sites offer easy access to the central bathhouses that provide toilet facilities and cool water showers—rustic and bare bones but comfortable, be prepared to share your accommodations with geckos, scorpions, and the occasional tarantula. We roomed with all three for seven nights—happy geckos, a scorpion who hid out under the hutch, and a tarantula who posed as a doorman outside the screen door.
Cinnamon Bay Campground, within the Virgin Islands National Park, also offers a convenience store, the T’ree Lizards Restaurant and snack bar, and access to Cinnamon Bay Beach—the longest and one of the most renowned beaches on St John.
Eager to explore the watery world of St John, we immediately headed for the ocean and Cinnamon Bay Watersports/Beach Shop—located right on the beach, they rent kayaks and sailboats, and provide scuba, windsurfing, and snorkel lessons.
Planning to spend as much time as possible on the water, we rented a two-person sit on top kayak for the entire week—no need to worry about access, your rental kayak remains accessible, all hours of the day, on the beach—you simply store the paddles in your cottage for safe keeping.
Adventure abounds on St John, and there is no lack of spectacular snorkeling/kayaking destinations—every morning we set off from Cinnamon Bay Beach in search of soft sand, open water, and colorful reefs teeming with tropical fish. In fact, you need not go any further then Cinnamon Bay itself—the rocks at the eastern end of the beach or between Cinnamon and Little Cinnamon Bay harbor colorful sea life and the waters surrounding the offshore island of Cinnamon Cay offer excellent snorkeling for the more advanced.
Our favorite destination via kayak was Trunk Bay—practically every day we kayaked over to the postcard perfect beach to snorkel the bay and the crystal clear waters of the national park’s underwater trail—it also helped that the beachside grill served amazing burgers and fries!
While Trunk Bay, neighboring Jumbie Bay, and Cinnamon Bay ranked high on our “favorite places” list, our kayak trip to Leinster Bay topped the charts—an exciting and challenging trip from Cinnamon Bay, we paddled our way past Maho Bay, and Francis Bay to navigate Fungi Passage between Mary Point and Whistling Cay.
Whistling Cay, a small island off the west coast of Mary Point, is the perfect place to land your kayak— a pebble beach, complete with a partially restored stone house for exploring, offers ample room for a picnic. Be prepared to share your lunch with the resident iguanas, and be sure to bring your snorkel gear—excellent snorkeling can be found all around Whistling Cay.
After rounding the tip of Mary Point along the northern shores of St John, we entered the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean’s Sir Francis Drake Passage—make no mistake, it requires a strong, experienced kayaker to navigate these rough waters wrought with boat traffic—don’t overestimate your abilities.
In contrast to the dark rolling waves of Drake Passage, the azure waters of Leinster Bay are tranquil and perfect for snorkeling—lined by mangroves and lying in the shadow of the Annaberg Ruins, Leinster Bay and the offshore island of Waterlemon Cay make for a perfect all day excursion.
Waterlemon Cay, at the eastern end of Leinster Bay, is often chosen as the best snorkeling reef on the island—if you aren’t a kayaker, you can also reach this cay by hiking along the beach from the ruins.
From the shore, the entry is rocky—be careful not to step on urchins or live coral. The swim out to Waterlemon Cay, just offshore, passes over seagrass and scattered reef—watch for sea turtles, sea cucumbers, starfish, and stingrays that frequent this area. When you reach the island, the water becomes shallow allowing for excellent views of the reef fringing the cay—schools of blue tang, colorful stoplight parrotfish, and the occasional nurse shark can often be seen.
The reef on the west and north sides of Waterlemon Cay lies in deeper water (about 20 feet) and is home to a variety of soft and hard corals, sea fans, and sea plumes—eels and octopus are often seen taking refuge in rocky crevasses along this part of the reef.
While it is tempting to spend the entire day snorkeling and kayaking the beautiful waters of St John, you would be amiss to ignore all that the island has to offer topside—numerous hiking trails, visiting landmarks, and shopping/dining in Cruz Bay and other towns kept us busy.
Being Natural Born Hikers, most of our island exploration centered on the prolific hiking trails—the Cinnamon Bay Loop Trail and the Cinnamon Bay/Reef Bay Trail were both within walking distance of our cottage. However, to get to the other trails we needed to procure transportation—we took the taxi back to Cruz Bay and rented a Jeep.
Driving around St John proved to be painless enough—but if you drive, just be watchful of the iguanas and donkeys that cross the road at inopportune times.
Having a Jeep meant the freedom to discover the many sights of St John on our own schedule—giving us ample time to fully explore places like the Emmaus Moravian Church, Peace Hill, Francis Bay, Coral Bay, and the Annaberg Ruins.
Our last day on St John found us back at the Cruz Bay dock ready to depart for St Thomas and our flight back to The States—from the Red Hook dock on St Thomas we took a taxi to Charlotte Amalie. We had a few hours to spare before our flight, so we decided to scout out the 99 Steps and Fort Christian—the former being a set of brick steps built by the Danes in the mid 1700’s, and the latter a National Historic Landmark fort that the Danish built in 1666.
St John truly is a Caribbean gem—sunny days filled with tropical hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling in the crystal clear cobalt blue sea, and nights spent relaxing underneath the stars serenaded by coqui frogs, make it difficult to think of a better vacation destination.
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