St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

St. John’s beautiful white sand beaches, rugged terrain, and rich history make this little island in the Greater Antilles an exciting tropical destination right at America’s doorstep. In fact, it’s American territory, even though they drive on the left side of the road. My fiance and I visited for five days. I went for hikes in the early morning; in the afternoons, we went on sailing trips around the island. Below you’ll find my accounts of my morning hikes, followed by a set of photos I took while out on the water.

Rainbow seen from the America Hill Estate near Cinnamon Bay

Rainbow seen from the America Hill Estate near Cinnamon Bay

Saturday hike: Reef Bay Trail, Petroglyph Trail

Reef Bay Trail USVI sign

Reef Bay Trail sign on Centerline Road

The white sun had just inched its way above the horizon as I left Great Cruz Bay and followed Centerline Road, which winds back and forth up and down steep hills all the way across St. John and provides access to several great hiking trails in Virgin Islands National Park, most notably the Reef Bay Trail, which leads down a steep hill through tropical forest to the ocean. The trail takes about an hour and a half one-way if you’re taking your time.

Kopak Tree Virgin Islands on the Reef Bay Trail

Kapok tree on Reef Bay Trail

There’s a lot of natural and man-made sights to see on the way down. A short way into the trail there’s a huge kapok tree with a wide trunk that extends out from the main tree like a wooden wall. Further down the hill there’s a huge bay rum tree and other species of trees with placards in front of them bearing names I’ve never heard of. There’s also a lot of wildlife to be seen. A grey mongoose darted in front of me and tiny geckos bounced here are there across the path. A hermit crab rolled down the side of the hill and landed at my feet, curled up into its shell as it held its breath that I would pass.

Hermit Crab st. john virgin islands

Hermit Crab

Reef Bay sugar mill USVI st. john

Reef Bay sugar mill

The ruins of old sugar plantations dot the trail, including Jossie Gut Sugar Estate, about halfway down. The brick, metal, and iron structures of these plantations are still prominent among the green forest 150 years later.

The highlight of the morning was the Petroglyph Trail, a 1/4 mile path off the Reef Bay Trail. At the end of this short trail is a set of fresh water pools at the side of a steep hill, about 75 feet high. There’s a waterfall here when it rains, but it was a dry as a bone that morning.

Petroglyph Petroglyphs Taino Virgin islands Reef Bay

Petroglyphs

Taino petroglyphs USVI Virgin

Taino petroglyphs (800-1000 yrs old)

 

On the rocks below the waterfall are ancient drawings etched into the rocks. Archaeologists believe they were carved by the Taino Indians, who inhabited the island before Columbus arrived. The petroglyphs could be 1000 years old.  Some of the petroglyphs were representations of faces–many had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Others depicted a mysterious symbol–a rectangle set atop two circular coils–that has since become the symbol of St. John. As I studied the drawings, dragonflys buzzed by me, a frog hopped by, and a hummingbird with a green throat flashed past me at 20mph as its fluttering wings disturbed the tranquil air.

After leaving the petroglyphs and rejoining the main trail, I read in the travel book I was carrying that my pictures of these ancient symbols would have come out better if I had splashed water on them. Next time!

Another 15 minute walk down the main trail are the ruins of the Reef Bay sugar mill. I walked through several of the rooms where there are placards describing each stage of the sugar and molasses production process. Right after the mill is the nice broad, sandy beach of Reef Bay.  The walk back up the hill was pretty tough, especially the end of it, but it gave me a good workout.

Sailing pictures from the afternoon:

Road Town, Tortola BVI British virgin

Road Town, Tortola

Rainbow over St. John USVI virgin

Rainbow over St. John

St. John USVI palm trees beach

St. John, northern coast

Sunset St. John USVI Virgin

Sunset St. John

Sunday hike: Cinnamon Bay Nature Trail; Cinnamon Bay Trail; America Hill Trail

The northern beaches of St. John are among the best in the world.  They dot the North Shore Road like a string of pearls, each somehow more spectacular than the other.  Coconut palm groves stand before white sand beaches with stunningly clear water, filled with coral. The turquoise hue of the water is so perfect that it almost puts you in a trance with the beauty.

Cinnamon Bay Nature Trail St. John Virgin Islands

Cinnamon Bay Nature Trail

On this morning I took the car and drove out to Cinnamon Bay, braving hairpin turns while driving on the left side of the road up hills so steep that I felt my gunning the engine wasn’t going to be enough. There are two trails at Cinnamon Bay: the Cinnamon Bay Nature Trail and the Cinnamon Bay Trail.

The Nature Trail consists of an easy 1/3 mile loop through the forest, beginning at the ruins of a sugar plantation. Along the way are placards set up by the National Park Service explaining the flora and fauna you are likely to see on the trail.

Cinnamon Bay Cinnamon Bay Trail St. John

Cinnamon Bay Trail snail

If you’re looking for a workout, the Cinnamon Bay Trail is the way to go. From the road, I followed a steep rocky trail up through the forest; my brow was sweating not one minute into the hike. I came upon the turnoff for the America Hill Trail and took that to the left up yet another big hill. As I turned a  corner on one of the many switchbacks on this trail, a huge white-tailed deer, about 10 feet in front of me, jumped across the path and darted into the woods, looking back at me with its big dark eyes when it got to its perceived place of safety.

USVI virgin St. John

America Hill Estate

At the hill are the ruins of the America Hill Estate House, an excellent example of 19th century architecture. The view was amazing; I could see Cinnamon, Maho, and Francis Bays, and the western edge of Tortola (British Virgin Islands). And to top it all off, a rainbow appeared.

Sailing pictures from the afternoon:

St. John sailing ship USVI

Really cool ship with Dutch flag

St. John sailing ship USVI

Same ship, broadsides?

Monday hike: Chocolate Hole, Harts Bay

Chocolate Hole, St. John

Chocolate Hole, St. John

I woke up not feeling so hot so I decided to stay local to Great Cruz Bay and take it easy for the morning. From the waterfront, I walked up a few steep hills to the top of a paved road, where I was awarded with an excellent view of Chocolate Hole, the narrow bay east of Great Cruz Bay. I used other paved roads to skirt the edge of the bay, eventually coming up to another steep hill that overlooked the next bay down the southern coast of St. John–Hart Bay.

The view overlooking Hart Bay was outstanding; I could see for dozens of miles in almost every direction. Far off in the distance was the southeastern tip of St. John and in front was the dense woods of the Reef Bay Trail that I had walked through the day before. Below was a rocky beach being pounded with wave after wave in the windy morning.

Hart Bay iguana st. john USVI virgin islands

Iguana near Hart Bay

Hart Bay St. John USVI

Hart Bay

Picture from the boat later on in the day:

Waterlemon Cay USVI virgin St. John

Waterlemon Cay

Tuesday hike: Rams Head Trail

Rams Head cactus USVI

Rams Head

I woke up early again and drove across the island, about 40 minutes one way along Centerline Road to hike this trail, ranked among the best on St. John. Even if I had just gotten out of my picture at the trail head and took a picture, the drive would have been worth it on its own. During the drive, the views of the rising sun above the ocean and the Virgin Islands National Park were stunning.

Coral Bay St. John Virgin Islands USVI

Coral Bay

The way up to Rams Head brings you along Salt Pond Bay Trail, a short trail leading down to picture-perfect, deep turquoise Salt Pond Bay.

St. John Virgin Islands USVI

Crystal clear water at Salt Pond Bay

St. John Virgin Islands USVI Saltpond Bay

Saltpond Bay

Rams Head USVI St. John virgin

Blue cobblestone beach on way to Rams Head

The first thing I noticed is that the landscape on this island is more like a desert than anywhere else on the island. The vegetation is much more Arizona than Amazon. Along the trail, barrel cacti dot the arid landscape like little red and green prickly landmines. Admiring the scenery at one bend of the trail, I walked into some sort of cactus plant and it silently retaliated by injecting an inch-long barb into my foot.

Rams Head USVI Virgin cactus

Cactus near of Rams Head

 

Rams Head USVI St. John

Top of Rams Head

Barrel cacti

Barrel cacti Rams Head USVI

I followed the trail past another bay, this one with a beach full of blue and grey cobblestones, towards Rams Head, a headland jutting out into the windy Caribbean Ocean. As I ascended this rugged terrain, the wind gusts grew stronger and the views improved. I could see for dozens of miles in almost every direction. No one was around; I felt like a castaway stranded on a desert island peering out into the ocean for any sign of life.

Picture from the boat later on in the day:

USVI St. John sail sailboat sailing

Cool sailboat

Restaurants

Zozos (Caneel Bay):  While Zozos’ previous Cruz Bay location exuded a treehouse-like West Caribbean charm, the new restaurant at Caneel Bay is definitely a step up. It is beautiful. The restaurant is set up like a huge upscale hut–it’s built atop the ruins of a 19th century sugar mill–with the sides open to the ocean air and the sound of the surf.  A torch outside the entrance and low lighting bring a campfire-like atmosphere to the restaurant. During high season (December-April), this place gets crowded; the waits can be long if you don’t reserve in advance. The menu has a good mix of seafood and meat dishes, and even has a few good vegan options. I chose the veal shank, which was so big I could almost not finish despite my big appetite. The food is fairly priced for its quality and the atmosphere of the restaurant. The one downside–if you can call it a downside–is that the restaurant is a little drive outside of town, so you have to drive up and down some steep hills in the dark and therefore have to watch your alcohol intake.

St. John Waterfront Bistro (Cruz Bay): This restaurant gives Zozo’s a run for its money for the top food position in St. John. Both restaurants are around the same price range; and the food is of similar quality. What sets the Waterfront Bistro apart is its convenient location right in Cruz Bay, directly on the beach in an area buzzing with activity. If you’re looking for a quiet, intimate dinner, I would choose Zozos. But if you like to be among the buzz of Cruz Bay and people watch, I would choose this place.

De’Coal Pot (Cruz Bay): I discovered this little restaurant on Yelp; it had the most 5 star reviews of any place on the island. Opened in 2014, this restaurant serves authentic West Indian fare at fair prices (like that?). We ordered five dishes for the four of us, getting the opportunity to sample about half of their entree menus. Among us we had the conch, red snapper, veggie delight, chicken, and pork. Each entree came with three sides. I tried each dish and found them all to be very flavorful and filling. If you have time, grab a drink at the small bar in front. They have a few different West Indian drink options including some with unique fruit juices that are hard to find in the U.S., like soursop and tamarind. I swear the bartender poured about four shots of dark rum into my soursop-based drink. I chose not to finish it despite its great taste–I wanted to enjoy my food!

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Kevin is based in Washington, DC and writes about his travel adventures in the Mid-Atlantic region and around the world. Through entertaining writing and eye-catching photography, he aims to provide readers with useful information as they plan their next trips.

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