- US Virgin Islands National Park covers over half of St. John
- If arriving by flight, you’ll fly into St. Thomas and take a ferry to St. John
- The north end of St John has some of the best beaches in the world
- The snorkeling is fantastic and can be done right off the beaches
- The South and East are more remote but also have excellent beaches
- Renting a 4WD jeep is recommended to explore the island
- Cars drive on the left, but the steering wheel is on the left like in the U.S.
- Download an offline map on Google and use it to navigate
- Excursions are possible to nearby British Virgin Islands
- Climate is tropical, meaning hot and sunny with occasional quick downpours
If you love beaches, snorkeling, nature hikes, and/or drinking, and especially if you enjoy all of those things, you’re going to love St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. First of all, it is a U.S. Territory, so US dollars are used, English is spoken, no passport is required for US citizens, and there’s no anxiety for US travelers of being in a foreign country. They do drive on the left side of the road but the steering wheel is on the left side of the car and I found it to be easier than driving in a car with the wheel on the right side and actually a lot of fun driving on the windy roads, especially four-wheel driving on the dirt roads! Another thing that’s different from the U.S. mainland is that there is no open container law on alcoholic beverages, including on the beaches, and what’s better than drinking on the beach? You’ll feel like you’re in a Corona ad as you’re relaxing in your beach chair on an uncrowded beach.
So, let’s get right into it, here was my experience in St. John in May of 2017 …
We flew direct from Boston to St. Thomas (there is no airport in St John), picked up our rental car, a 4WD jeep, and drove a half hour to Red Hook Ferry on the other side of St. Thomas for our 20 minute ferry to Cruz Bay, St. John. On the way, we stocked up at a grocery store, as everything is more expensive in St. John because everything has to be taken over on a ferry. (Alternatively, you could also take a longer passenger ferry from Charlotte Amalie, closer to the airport in St. Thomas, to Cruz Bay and pick up your rental car there. Here’s a link to the ferry schedule.)
There are only two large hotel resorts that I know of in St. John, and those are The Westin and Caneel Bay Resort. There are also two campgrounds, Cinnamon Bay Campground and Concordia Eco-Resort. Your best option, in my opinion, is to find something on Airbnb or VRBO. We stayed at a house in the Coral Bay region on the quieter East-end of the island that they called Dancing Dolphins Villa. It’s a four bedroom house (we had a party of 9!) with an awesome outdoor bar and small infinity pool overlooking Coral Bay. There aren’t nearly as many shops and restaurants in Coral Bay than Cruz Bay, but it was only a 25 minute drive across the island, and the cheeseburgers at Skinny Legs in Coral Bay hit the spot for me!
On our first day, we headed to the beach at Maho Bay. There’s a small, free parking lot across the street, which was packed but somehow we got a spot. I had heard that snorkeling here will give you the best chance of seeing sea turtles and that was absolutely correct. We didn’t have to snorkel long before we were swimming with a couple of sea turtles not far from the beach. We also swam around the rocks to Little Maho Bay Beach, another beautiful beach that we had all to ourselves!
The next day, we headed to Salt Pond Bay Beach on the Southeast of the island. After passing the road to Cancordia Eco Resort, there’s a small parking lot at the beginning of the .25 mile trail to the beach. Although it’s a short walk, it’s a HOT one, and coming back is tougher because there is a bit of an incline. This beach is gorgeous but before enjoying it, we kept walking to get on the Rams Head Trail. This 45 minute hike (each way) takes you past the rocky Ram Head Trail Beach, then up the cliffs with great views along the way (I was surprised to see the cactus!), to the top of Ram Head where we enjoyed 360 views. After hiking back to the beach, it felt great to jump in the water. Like many of the beaches we went to, we had the beach mostly to ourselves. The snorkeling was really good all throughout the bay. From Salt Pond Bay Beach, you can also hike the 20 minute Drunk Bay trail to the other side of the peninsula.
We started off our third day by exploring the Annaberg Sugar Plantation ruins, which has a nice viewpoint of Watermelon Cay (another hot spot for turtles so I hear) and the surrounding British Virgin Islands. Next, we went over to Cinnamon Bay Beach, made famous by Kenny Chesney. There were lots of rentals available for water sports here but we just soaked up the sun and snorkeled. There’s a campground in the woods near this beach but it didn’t look too appealing to me because I feel like the mosquitoes would be terrible.
On our fourth day, most of our group went on the famous Reef Bay Hike, but I decided not to go. I’m normally all for a good hike, and this one sounds cool because you’ll see petroglyphs, a waterfall, freshwater pools and sugar mill ruins, but lounging by the pool with rum drinks sounded so much better than a 6 mile roundtrip hike on a hot, muggy, 90-degree day. In the afternoon, we met the rest of our group at the famous Trunk Bay Beach. This is the only beach that requires a small entrance fee, and I had heard that it got “crowded” because this is where cruise ship excursions go, but I didn’t find it crowded at all and it was one of my favorite beaches in St. John. There’s a cool underwater snorkeling trail around the small island where little plaques tell you what you’re looking at through your fogged-up mask. Unfortunately a lot of the coral here was dead, likely due to the high traffic of snorkelers, but the snorkeling trail was still a lot of fun.
On our fifth day, we headed to Lameshur Beach on the South of the island, past Salt Pond Bay. Lamshur Road takes you to the beach, a fun dirt road where we loved splashing through the puddles in the jeep. This is a big sandy beach with lots of trees available for shade. There was decent snorkeling along the rocks to the left of the beach. This was yet another beach that we had practically to ourselves!
After soaking up the sun at Lameshur Beach, we headed to Hawksnest Beach on the North, which tied with Trunk Bay Beach as my favorite beach on the island. There’s great snorkeling to be found here directly off the beach. To the left is a small beach you can go to and have to yourself, and if you’re up for the somewhat difficult swim to the right around the rocks, you’ll get to Gibney’s Beach / Oppenheimer Beach, home of the tire swing on the palm tree pictured below. You can also get to this beach from the road but it’s not easy, as there are only a few parking spaces off the road, it’s not marked and easy to miss.
On our final day, we checked out the remote East end of the island and found ourselves spending most of the day at Haulover South Beach, where we really lucked out because there was a floating bar that we swam to from the beach. There was really good snorkeling just off this beach as well. What a perfect way to end the week!
The weather in St. John is HOT! When we went in May, it was sunny and humid, with temperatures in the high 80s or low 90s every day, but we we went to the beach every day so I didn’t mind! One negative is that there are mosquitoes. Not the giant mosquitoes that I’m used to in Maine, but still, they were annoying, so get bug spray.
If I had more time to spend on vacation or if I go again, I would check out the snorkeling at Watermelon Cay and probably do a few more nature walks, but I think we did a good job of seeing St. John’s best beaches in one week. We didn’t go to the more developed and residential South-West End of the island, but I don’t think we were missing anything. One thing I still want to do is visit the British Virgin Islands. There’s a full day island tour on the Bad Kitty Catamaran that hits all of the hot spots. Jost Van Dyke and The Baths on Virgin Gorda are the two places in BVI that I really want to visit, but a one day tour wouldn’t be enough time so I’ll have to look at other options. I would also like to go to St. Croix, the third island of the U.S. Virgin Islands. I’ve read that there’s some great snorkeling and swimming with sea turtles to be had at Buck Island Reef National Monument. Hopefully we’ll make it back to the Virgin Islands soon!