The Caribbean Defined

St. John: The Island of Eco-Delights

Nov 15, 2001
Outside Magazine

It's no surprise that Laurance Rockefeller snapped up most of St. John for his private fiefdom in the 1950s, given the island's rolling green hills, pristine bays, and Pepsodent-smile-white beaches. What's surprising—and a boon for the average sun-worshiping schmo like you and me—is that in 1956 he gave 5,000 acres to the National Park Service, which now oversees 7,200 acres of land (about half of the 19-square-mile island) and 5,360 acres of surrounding water. Today, Stanley Selengut, the ecotourism guru who's developed an enclave of green resorts (Maho Bay, Concordia, Harmony), has replaced Rockefeller as the island's keeper. Even if you don't stay in one of his elevated platform tents outfitted with shared bathhouses and recycled everything, you'll find yourself communing with nature most of the time anyway—hiking, sea kayaking, diving, sailing, and swimming. Although the island is only a short ferry ride from St. Thomas, a cruise-ship mecca the Johnnies would probably love to torpedo, St. John has managed to escape the duty-free-shop/souvenir-stand fate of its buck-churning neighbor.

The Sporting Life
Start high in the hills on one of Virgin Islands National Park's 22 hiking trails and work your way down to the waves. The scenic Reef Bay Trail (2.2 miles, two hours) descends 957 feet from Centerline Road to the Reef Bay Valley and ends at Genti Bay beach. Reserve a spot on a ranger-guided hike and pay $15 for the boat ride to Cruz Bay; call the Park Service Visitors Center in Cruz Bay (340-776-6201). Arthur Jones will take you sea kayaking to nearby Henley and Lovango Cayes ($75, full day) with his outfit Arawak Expeditions (800-238-8687;, or to points beyond (some in the British Virgin Islands) on one of his kayaking and camping tours (five days, $995; seven days, $1,195). He also runs a new adventure week with Maho Bay Camps ($1,295 in winter, $1,125 in summer). Sandy West runs six-hour snorkeling trips to Hurricane Hole and other hard-to-reach spots on her 40-foot Lindsey Trawler, the Sadie Sea ($65; 340-776-6421; Scuba divers can explore the abundant local waters on both day and night dives with Low Key Watersports, which also offers a three-day PADI certification program ($350; 800-835-7718;
The Beach
The snow-white sand of three-quarter-mile-long Trunk Bay, on the island's northwestern shore, is the most photographed beach on St. John, but it tends to get crowded, thanks to an express shuttle from the ferry dock. Head instead to the north shore, where you'll find a handful of gorgeous beaches, all part of Virgin Islands National Park. The liveliest is Francis Bay—a great place to spot sea turtles in the shallows, and pelicans, ospreys, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and banana quits camouflaged by the nearby marsh's mangroves.

After the Sun Goes Down
Sure, you came here for the peace and quiet, but let's face it, debating the pros and cons of low-flow showerheads at an eco-resort workshop isn't nearly as much fun as getting ripped with the local hippies at Skinny Legs—an open-air bar in Coral Bay.

Lay Your Sunburned Head At...
Harmony Studios shares the same stunning location as legendary Maho Bay Camps (Selengut's original tent-cottage resort). Plus, it has real walls (as opposed to fabric) and you don't have to share bathrooms. Harmony's six miniature townhouses, most of which have incredible views of Maho Bay, are solar powered and were built almost entirely of recycled materials (tiles made from crushed lightbulbs, countertops from recycled glass—the works). Each unit has a balcony and a full kitchen (doubles, $110-$210 per night; 340-776-6240; For total privacy nothing beats renting a villa. Try Park Isle Villas (340-693-8261;, on lush Battery Hill overlooking Cruz Bay.

Très St. John
Getting busted by a park ranger for nude sunbathing at Salomon Bay (St. John's unofficial nude beach); watching baby sea horses frolic among the mangroves at Hurricane Hole; feeling like a crunchy Über-conservationist after checking into your Maho Bay digs.

The Price of Paradise
Thanks to its blue-blood past, St. John has been de-Caribbeanized—if you want cultural attractions and lively local flavor, go elsewhere.

Resources: U.S. Virgin Islands Tourist Information Board, 800-372-8784;

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web