1. Where to Stay
Surround yourself with nature at Caneel Bay (from $550), a resort inside the Virgin Islands National Park. Founded in 1956 by conservationist Laurance Rockefeller, the 170-acre property boasts seven beaches, eleven tennis courts, and a wellness center with meditation sessions led by Jan Kinder, a student of Deepak Chopra. Mid-century cottages outfitted with bamboo furniture and four-poster beds are spread throughout, but book one on Scotts Beach to stay steps from the water.
Bring a flashlight for nighttime rambles to Salt Pond Bay at Estate Concordia, a remote, sustainable hillside resort on the far eastern end of St. John. You can sleep in a tent, but you’ll find more comfort in one of eight solar-paneled ecostudios (from $115; accommodates four), where the countertops are made from recycled beer and wine bottles and there are no in-room televisions or phones. Book a unit in building A for uninterrupted water views and a screen door that lets the trade winds in and keeps mosquitoes out.
Sleep within walking distance of everything you need at the newly opened Cruz Bay Boutique Hotel (from $105), located near the ferry dock as well as the town’s shops and restaurants. All six suites are modest but comfortable, and hosts David and Denise provide breakfast (oatmeal, yogurt, mango bread) and tips on the best beaches. Light sleepers should avoid room 4, which faces a nightspot that occasionally hosts live music acts that last until 4 a.m.
2. Where to Eat
Eat local at the third branch of Fatty Crab, which opened in mid-February in an open-air space with the only smoker on the island. The menu retains Malaysian flavors but also emphasizes local ingredients, including just-caught deepwater fish and fresh greens from nearby Coral Bay Organic Farm. Try the house-made flat noodle ($19), prepared with turmeric butter and island thyme, and the skipjack tuna crudo, made with habanero chili, coconut milk, tarragon flowers, and holy basil flowers (market price).
Make reservations a day ahead to graze on Caribbean-flavored Spanish fare at La Tapa, a bistro where St. John regular Mario Batali dines when he’s in town. Chef-owner Alex Ewald changes the menu daily, relying on fresh ingredients to create dishes like grilled langoustines with passion-fruit cilantro aioli ($18) and braised pork belly with mango cabbage slaw ($15). If lobster’s on the menu, chances are Ewald went diving and snared the crustacean herself.
Follow locals to Vie’s Snack Shack (East End Road at Hansen Bay; 340-693-5033), a no-frills, cash-only roadside stand with plastic-covered picnic tables and a short list of West Indian specialties. Owner Violet Sewer Mahabir was crowned Miss St. John in 1963, but she’s most famous for her deep-fried garlic chicken ($7.50): The crispy quarter leg is sided with a honey-drizzled johnny cake and goes down well with a soursop nectar ($2.50).
3. What to Do
Explore the tropical forests of the 7,000-acre Virgin Islands National Park along twenty marked trails. Most tourists sign up in advance for a two-hour guided trek ($21) down Reef Bay Trail, lined with fragrant bay rum trees, sugar mill ruins, and pre-Columbian carvings. But for a more exhilarating, less congested hike, get up with the roosters and tackle the mile-long Ram Head Trail, which alternates between isolated beaches and rocky, steep terrain before reaching a 200-foot windswept cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
Skip the much-touted Trunk Bay snorkel trail, which has little marine life left thanks to careless visitors. Instead, rent your gear from Lowkey Watersports ($8 per day) and head to remote Beehive Cove on the southeastern tip of Great Lameshur Bay, where the remnants of the 1969 NASA-built underwater habitat Tektite lie 50 feet below water. On a calm day, you can see an abundance of colorful fish, small reefs, and sea turtles.
Paddle the red mangroves in the protected harbor of Hurricane Hole with a knowledgeable guide from Hidden Reef Eco-Tours (from $65 for a three-hour trip; reservations essential). Recently reopened for commercial tours, the well-sheltered area and its bright tangled roots serve as a nursery habitat for sea anemones, coral colonies, juvenile fish, baby nurse sharks, and lobsters. Sit-on-top kayaks make jumping in and out of the water easy during snorkel stops.
4. Insider’s Tip
Getting to and around St. John can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. After touching down in St. Thomas, skip the infrequent downtown ferry and instead take a taxi to Red Hook, where ferries leave hourly for the main town of Cruz Bay ($6 each way, plus $2 per bag). Once there, most visitors rent jeeps to get around, but that involves navigating roller-coaster-like back roads and dealing with goats and donkeys blocking your way. Alternatively, you can catch a safari taxi (from $6) just about anywhere if you wait for one to pass by, or even hitch a ride with locals by pointing your forefinger in the direction you’re headed and facing oncoming traffic. As for the beaches, they’re all public, but private waterfront properties often prevent access. It’s perfectly legal to access any spot by boat, however, so rent a dinghy from Noah’s Little Arks (340-693-9030; from $75 for a half-day) and go beach-hopping anywhere you like.
5. Oddball Day
Spend a day exploring St. John’s history, but first fuel up at the Donkey Diner, voted best breakfast spot by the Virgin Islands Daily News earlier this year. Sit under umbrellas in the backyard, and don’t be alarmed by the wild donkeys wandering by. Next, follow road signs north to the ruins of the Annaberg Sugar Mill, a Danish holdover from the island’s colonial past. A self-guided tour of the onetime slave quarters, horse mill, boiling room, and windmill takes about an hour. Don’t leave without admiring the view across the narrows, toward the British Virgin Islands (an illustrated sign identifies the different isles). Then head less than two miles away to the Cinnamon Bay Archaeology Lab and ask if resident archaeologist Ken Wild needs help with a dig. Home to a former Taino temple for nearly 450 years, Cinnamon Bay’s beach contains clay deities, pottery, and other artifacts waiting to be sorted, cleaned, and identified by volunteers. You can’t call ahead to reserve a spot, but chances are when you show up you’ll find Wild working on a ceremonial site that he recently discovered steps away from the shoreline. After the excavation, head fifteen minutes away to Cruz Bay to reward yourself with a citrusy Virgin Islands Island Hoppin’ IPA ($6) at the Tap Room, the island’s only brewery. Afterward, catch a rehearsal (Fridays at 5 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m) by the Love City Pan Dragons Youth Steel Orchestra at the St. John Youth Center, adjacent to the Cruz Bay Fire Station. You’ll hear 40-plus kids, ages 8 to 18, pounding out calypsos in preparation for the St. Thomas carnival in late April. End the day with an alfresco Caribbean-style dinner at Miss Lucy’s, where the best seats in the house are on the outside patio, less than ten feet from the water and right under the sea grape trees.
Go to St. John offers useful information on everything from ferry schedules to detailed descriptions of all the nature trails.
For restaurant openings, music shows, and other newsy bits, check out On-St. John.
Volunteer with Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, or visit their site for eco tips on how to protect the island—above and below water.
See St. John offers a comprehensive guide to all facets of the island, including detailed reports on all the hiking trails.