The smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands – just seven miles long and three miles wide (roughly 11 by five kilometers) and with a permanent population just under 99,000 – is the favorite of some because it´s less developed and more pristine-feeling than St. Croix and St. Thomas. Some of its highlights include:
Cute, Laid Back, Welcoming Towns
On its west coast, St. John´s largest settlement is Cruz Bay (above pop. around 4,200), where Mongoose Junction and Wharfside Village are a pair of popular shopping/dining complexes (King Street and Main Street are also home to some nice shops), and the town’s historic district is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, with some 20 points of interest dating back to 1720, such as the mid-18th-century Enighed Great House (now home to the town library and cultural center), the Emmaus Moravian Church (1750-1782), and the ruins of the Danish Fortsberg fort (1760). There´s also a nice town beach as well as even a small casino-bar called the Parrot Club. And of course there are a variety of lodging options to use as a base to explore the island, from bed and breakfasts up to full-scale resorts.
Meanwhile, over on the east side, Coral Bay (pop. around 650) – which incidentally was the site of the island´s first permanent settlement, founded by Danish planters in the 1720s – is an even more laid back, less touristy affair, with a dash of bohemian charm and an assortment of nice shops, bars, and restaurants.
Beaches to Die For
Most of the islands best strands are on its north shore, within the Virgin Islands National Park (more about that below), and the most famous – and according to aficionados one of the world´s most beautiful – is Trunk Bay (above), with clear turquoise waters, powdery white sand, a fascinating underwater snorkel trail, and a number of amenities, including lifeguards, a snack bar, and rentals of beach chairs and snorkeling gear.
A five-minute drive away from Trunk Bay, also gorgeous Cinnamon Bay is – at more than a half mile – the island´s longest beach. It´s similar in attributes to Trunk, plus one big extra: a camping resort whose options range from bare sites up to elaborate tents and cottages with electricity; there´s also an eatery and social center called Rain Tree Café, and nearby are ruins of a centuries-old plantation (see below).
Other wonderful beaches include Maho Bay (just a 15-minute drive from Cruz Bay and where you can spot marine turtles); secluded, romantic Honeymoon Beach (accessible from Cruz Bay by a short hike or water taxi); and serene, less touristy Salt Pond Bay (which unlike the others is located on the south coast and so is a bit more of a drive from Cruz Bay – 40 minutes – though just over 15 from Coral Bay).
Abundant Nature & Adventure
Let´s start with the fact that the Virgin Islands National Park covers nearly 60 percent of the island, based on land donated by millionaire philanthropist Laurence Rockefeller in 1956, and it harbors more than 20 trails which take hikers through diverse terrains, including various beaches, rock petroglyphs carved by the ancient Taíno people (in some cases more than a thousand years ago), and the ruins of centuries-old plantations (more about them below). Particularly notable routes include Rams Head Trail along the coast and the popular but a bit more strenuous, back-country Reef Bay Trail, which includes an option for ranger-guided hikes including a boat ride back to your starting point.
Besides hiking, popular and highly rewarding adventure activities on/in the water include kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding, sailing, and diving/snorkeling, all of which you can do either independently or on guided tours. Waterlemon Cay, for example – accessible via the Leinster Bay Trail – is a fantastic spot for snorkeling the coral reef, where you´ll see a variety of colorful marine life including giant Hawksbill marine turtles (on a number of beaches at certain times of year you can also observe the females laying eggs and hatchlings racing to the sea).
A Helping of History
In addition to the Cruz Bay Historic District and the petroglyphs mentioned above, there are several other notable sites at which to explore St. John´s past stretching back more than three centuries to its settlement by Danish planters from St. Thomas who named the island St. Jan. These are the ruins of sugar plantations – the only ones left of the more than 100 which existed on the island in the 18th century – and part of the national park. The best known is the Annaberg Sugar Plantation (above) on the north coast, a 20-minute drive from Cruz Bay; here in addition to various ruins of the plantation house and outbuildings you´ll find exhibits explaining the sugar production process as well as the lives and times of both planters and the slaves who greatly outnumbered them. Also on the north coast near the eponymous bay, at Cinnamon Bay Plantation you can see the former plantation house as well as servants quarters, various buildings devoted to a sugarcane storage and processing, and a pair of small cemeteries. A another which is closer to Cruz Bay is Catherineburg, just ten minutes away. Near Coral Bay, meanwhile, similar ruins can be found at Estate Carolina (which was the first to be established, in 1718), and the Josie Gut Sugar Estate (established more than a century later, in 1820).
Get more information at VisitUSVI.com.