Surreal Beauty and Strong Rum on St. John

Come for the solitude on the island's unpeopled parts and check out the dedicated ex-pat community if you decide you never want to leave.

Oct 6, 2014
Outside Magazine
st john islands travel destinations outside

Cruz Bay, St. John, home to more than half of the island's 4,100 residents.    Photo: Christian Wheatley/Getty

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The ferry chugs out of Red Hook harbor on St. Thomas, and I settle into a bench on the top deck as the sun sinks below the jagged outline of Thatch Cay in the distance. As far as I’m concerned, a boat is the only way to arrive on an island, which is why I’m so intrigued by my destination. St. John has no airport—and no golf courses, either.

What the 19-square-mile island does have is proximity—the flight from Miami to St. Thomas is less than three hours, and from there it’s a 20-minute ferry ride—and unadulterated wilderness. Nearly two-thirds of the island (7,000 acres) is part of U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. Beyond the bustle of the ferry port in Cruz Bay, the coastline is a series of protected white-sand beaches linked by hiking trails over peaks that rise to 1,200 feet. Add in 5,600 acres of offshore national park and 12,708 underwater acres of Coral Reef National Monument and the island is almost too perfect for snorkelers, divers, kayakers, sailors, stand-up paddlers, and beach loungers.

“Hellooooooo, lady!” Kenneth Louis, my Dominican taxi driver, greets me in a deep, resonant bass. He hoists my bag into his truck, which has a bumper sticker that reads “Positive Is How I Live”.

Louis, a walking encyclopedia of facts about the island, swings by his house on the outskirts of Cruz Bay—home to 2,700 of the island’s 4,100 residents—to pick up his wife, Thelma, a Pentecostal preacher. She’s coming along for the 30-minute drive up steep switchbacks and past the low-key expat community of Coral Bay on the east coast, then south to the island’s unpeopled tip, where I’m staying.

They drop me off at Concordia Eco-Resort, a collection of 42 tents and studios cantilevered onto 20 acres of hillside at the edge of the national park. It’s so arid here that both cactus and orchids grow. To the south is the sheltered harbor of Salt Pond Bay, to the east the rocky drama of Drunk Bay, and in between is Ram Head, a wind-worn natural bulwark at the end of a green peninsula with a sheer cliff that drops 200 feet into the Atlantic.

  Photo: Steve Simonsen

Laurance Rockefeller, who donated 5,000 acres to create Virgin Islands National Park in 1956, started the conservation craze on St. John. New York developer Stanley Selengut followed Rockefeller’s lead, building Concordia in 1990. The tents are equipped with solar showers, composting toilets, photovoltaic batteries that power the fans and lights, and “AC,” which consists of heavy trade winds blowing through the screened siding. Concordia’s newest units have solid walls, flush toilets, hot showers, and kitchens—all powered by grid-tied solar energy—and generous decks. The view is seemingly endless ocean that stretches to Africa.

Not a bad vantage point from which to explore the wild side of St. John. I hit the trails, starting with the steep two-mile path to the cliffs of Cabrite Horn Point, a great place to watch humpback whales migrate from January to March. Early the next morning, I take off on a four-mile hike that winds past sugar plantation ruins, then spits out on the arced crescent of white sand at Salt Pond Bay, where a lone sailboat is anchored. At nearby Drunk Bay, the wind is howling off the Atlantic, and there’s an eerie stash of voodoo dolls fashioned out of rocks and detritus. Feeling alone on a deserted island, I head back to Salt Pond, where a half-dozen people are plopped on the beach, then shed my shoes and snorkel among sea turtles and manta rays.

By day three, I’ve ventured farther northeast to kayak and snorkel at Hurricane Hole, the centerpiece of the national monument, which is off-limits to motorized boats. The water here is so vibrantly turquoise it looks dyed, which makes the jellyfish, parrot fish, and lobsters even more surreal.

Down in Coral Bay, a short ten-minute drive from Concordia, there’s a surprisingly lively food scene. At the Tourist Trap, a yellow hut at the top of a steep incline before descending into Coral Bay on Route 107, I order pulled-pork tacos because the Texans sitting at the table next to me can’t stop raving about them. Owner Larry Grenier, who moved here from New Hampshire 21 years ago, is blending his famously potent Drink Right, Keep Left cocktail, containing six flavored rums. Later in the week, at Sweet Plantains, the owners whip up a spicy, golden West Indian coconut curry that goes well with the restaurant’s scarlet walls.

My last day is all about the water. Arthur Jones, a Nashville, Tennessee, native who moved here 24 years ago with a few college buddies and stayed to open Arawak Expeditions, has arranged an ambitious paddleboarding journey downwind. It dawns on me that almost everyone I meet is an expat who caught St. John fever and has stuck around for decades.

  Photo: Anibal Trejo

“The reason I’ve stayed so long is the national park,” Jones says. “It will remain pristine forever. If we didn’t have it, St. John would be just like any other overdeveloped Caribbean island.”

Jones, his wife, Beth, a few friends, and I paddle from Haulover Bay, on the island’s northeast corner, ten miles through the chop along the north shore of the national park, past one immaculate white beach after another—Cinnamon, Hawksnest, Maho, Trunk—while barracuda and sea turtles swim under our boards. Three and a half hours later, we walk into Cruz Bay Landing, an open-air restaurant that welcomes sunburned, wind-blown customers. Some of them might just end up sticking around.

The Quick Guide to Seeing St. John

How to Get There: Six airlines offer direct flights to St. Thomas from cities including New York, Atlanta, and Miami. Ferries ($14 round-trip) leave from St. Thomas’s Red Hook Terminal every hour from 6:30 A.M. to midnight, seven days a week.

Where to Stay: Concordia Eco-Resort has St. John’s southeast end to itself. Eco-tents start at $195 per night. A few miles north, family-owned Estate Zootenvaal over-looks Hurricane Hole in Coral Reef National Monument and has four cottages on the property and access to a private beach (from $190). Oceanfront Caneel Bay Resort is just north of Cruz Bay (from $459).

Eat and Drink: In Coral Bay, try a Pusser’s Original Painkiller and conch fritters beachside at Miss Lucy’s, or drink beer and play horseshoes at Skinny Legs. Sweet Plantains has spicy curry, and don’t miss the six-rum Drink Right, Keep Left at the Tourist Trap.

What to Do: Pick up a copy of The Trail Bandit Guide ($3), a detailed hiking map of the island. Arawak Expeditions offers single- and multi-day kayaking and snorkeling adventures, SUP rentals and expeditions, and fly-fishing for bonefish and tarpon.

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