By Amy Laughinghouse; originally appeared in September 2015 issue of Virtuoso Life
Tropical hillside forests, beaches kissed by clear waters, and superb snorkeling define stoplight-free Saint John, one of the Caribbean’s most pristine destinations. The 20-square-mile island owes its unsullied allure to conservationist Laurance Rockefeller, who donated vast tracts of land to the U.S. government in 1956. Today, travelers can explore coral gardens, forested hikes, and eighteenth-century sugar-mill ruins, all protected by the National Park Service, which maintains 60 percent of the island and thousands of acres below the waves.
Cruises to Saint John (smaller ships from lines such as SeaDream and Seabourn) call on Cruz Bay, the lively main port. About 20 minutes to the east, over roads traversed by donkeys, goats, and cows, sailboats line the harbor of quiet Coral Bay. Saint Thomas, about four miles west, is home to the closest airport and has regular ferry service to Saint John. As well, most cruise ships stopping in Saint Thomas provide excursions to Saint John, and yachts and chartered boats moor in its harbors if you desire private transport. Whether you’re there for a day or a week, here’s how to make the most of your time on Saint John.
Beaches, Snorkeling, and Diving
Saint John’s most beautiful beaches stretch out along the North Shore Road. Trunk Bay, the only beach that charges admission ($4), features a 675-foot snorkeling trail with underwater markers. Cinnamon Bay extends for almost a mile and offers water-sports rentals. A shady fringe of trees and a handful of picnic tables back Hawksnest, while at Maho, turtles graze on sea grass offshore and iguanas and deer forage in the foliage.
Robust swimmers snorkel around Waterlemon Cay, an offshore outcropping in Waterlemon Bay, not far from the well-preserved remains of the Annaberg sugar plantation. Watch for turtles as you approach the rocky cay, where parrot fish and blue tangs dart among coral in the strong current.
For scuba enthusiasts, Low Key Watersports leads shore and boat dives, including the popular wreck of the Rhone, a 310-foot brigantine-rigged schooner that sank in 1867 off Salt Island, east of Saint John.
The northern coast is best for beaches but Saint John’s south shore caters to hikers. Follow Salt Pond Bay Trail to the south end of Salt Pond Bay Beach, a broad, sparsely frequented bay. Then continue along Drunk Bay Trail to a rocky, wave-lashed beach strewn with coral sculptures left by previous visitors, or follow Ram Head Trail, ascending 200 feet of cactus-lined track for panoramic views of the sea.
For a more challenging workout, climb the steep 2.2-mile Reef Bay Trail, which winds past the ruins of four sugar estates. Continue down the Petroglyph Trail to see pre-Columbian rock carvings surrounding a freshwater pool.
Shopping and Dining
From the Cruz Bay ferry terminal, the compact port’s best bars, restaurants, and boutiques are all within a ten-minute walk. Browse Mongoose Junction, an attractive, open-air stone mall, for gifts and souvenirs. At Wharfside Village along the palm-lined waterfront, shop for fine jewelry made from rare old coins or shaped like the island’s iconic petroglyph symbols at Verace.
Order a St. John Brewers’ Tropical Mango Pale Ale and tempura fish tacos to go with the bay views at The Beach Bar, also at Wharfside Village. Head to The Longboard, a Cruz Bay newcomer, on Prince Street for happy hour and a Mexican-inflected menu.
If you’re out and about in a Jeep, Caneel Bay resort general manager Nikolay Hotze recommends a meal at Miss Lucy’s on Friis Bay for authentic Caribbean food: conch fritters, fried fish and plantains, and more. Italian fare at Zozo’s at The Sugar Mill, housed – you guessed it – in an old Caneel Bay sugar mill, has seafaring flair, with dishes such as lobster tagliatelle and pistachio-crusted mahimahi.
How To Cruise Here
Seabourn’s 450-passenger Seabourn Odyssey
calls in Cruz Bay during a 13-day Caribbean sailing round-trip from Fort Lauderdale. Among optional shore excursions: a snorkeling tour by catamaran and a hike through a tropical forest to Honeymoon Beach.
Snorkel Trunk Bay’s underwater trail or kayak to uninhabited Henley Cay during one of the 112-passenger SeaDream II’s
frequent calls on Saint John. SeaDream Yacht Club’s six- to eight-day sailings run from November through April each year.