Travel, Etc. --> St. John, USVI
A Visit to a Beautiful Island
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
We came back from vacation last month recovered from December, and perhaps a little better prepared to face February and March in Indiana. We traveled back to an island Linda and I have always enjoyed, St. John, in the United States Virgin Islands. We visited the island five years ago on a four night Ambassadair Travel Club trip and had a great time.... this time we went back for a week!
Truth is, after Ambassadair melted down two years ago along with the ATA bankruptcy, we thought we might never visit the Caribbean again. It's just too much trouble to get there! Well, we are happy to report that Ambassadair, under the new Grueninger ownership, is back. They are offering a limited number of flights on chartered ATA planes, and while the prices are a little higher than the old days, there is still no better way to get non-stop to an exotic destination. The service was great and the tour directors were friendly and helpful... they even had a guitarist singing Jimmy Buffet covers while we checked in at the airport. (Just so you know, we did the "air only" option).
You have to really want to get to St. John... it was a four and a half hour flight via charter, then a 40 minute taxi ride followed by 20 minutes on a ferry. The good news is that's part of what makes it so nice...no cruise ship docks, no swarms of people, no casinos and no streets filled with glitzy shops. Its the smallest of the Virgin Islands, only about 19 square miles... most of it vertical. It's not very developed, there are only two hotels on the island. And, it is not very populous with only about 4,300 residents. And, best of all, over 70% of the island is a U.S. National Park!
They say a picture is worth a thousand words...and here is Trunk Bay, the most popular and accessible of the island's 39 beaches.
Notice...no high rise hotels, no jet ski rentals, no parasailing, just plenty of white sand,
clear turquoise water and Trunk Cay is one of the best shallow water snorkeling reefs in the world. And, yes it's that pretty, Linda took these pictures! The National Park Service maintains the beach, with restrooms, showers, snorkel gear rental and a snack bar. That's the extent of development.
The park is filled with beaches, hiking trails and over 5,600 acres of protected underwater acres some of it a little crowded at times, but much of it deserted. When we snorkeled out to a little cay off Waterlemon beach, we were the only ones on there except for a few thousand very colorful fish.
There are only two hotels on the island. Most notable is the famous Caneel Bay Resort with 166 rooms scattered around the beautiful white sand crescent of Caneel Bay. Unfortunately, it's a haunt of the rich and famous with the water views starting at about $700 a night... and it's still just a hotel room. The other choice is the Westin Resort on Great Cruz Bay. It has all the large resort amenities including a fabulous pool and expensive restaurants. Unfortunately, Great Cruz Bay has a reasonably small beach and no reefs to snorkel. The good news is that the island has plenty of villas and condos for rent. We found our condo on line at http://www.suitestjohn.com/ and were more than satisfied.
We stayed at Gallows Point, a 60 unit condo resort on the tip of Gallows Point at the entrance to Cruz Bay. It was a great setting and as you can see from this photo taken from the hill across the bay... pretty picturesque. And, it was close enough to the town that you could walk to dinner or lunch... always a bonus when you want to order a dessert wine or brandy.
When the kitchen cabinets, granite counters and appliances in the condo are nicer than you have at home, you know you probably paid too much... but the view from unit 9C's deck was probably worth the price of admission.
Every morning we could open the two double doors and find out what yacht or small sailing cruise ship had anchored off the point.
One of the nicer touches was the deck at the base of the point with deck chairs and a pier out into the reef that allows easy entry to the water for some great snorkeling. There is even a swimming float just off shore that is rumored to be the favorite haunt of a five foot barracuda. Fortunately I never saw him.
We must be at that point in our lives when hotel rooms just don't make it anymore... I want to be able to brew good coffee and make breakfast in the morning and cook dinner in a few nights. We found a resource in the Starfish Market at the Market Place, the largest retail center on the island (all the stores would probably fit in one of our Marsh stores). They have great steaks and fresh fish and our complex had two very nice Weber gas grills. And, best of all, across from the Starfish market is the Starfish Wine and Gourmet shop. You have to close your eyes when they ring it up but we found plenty of great wines including some of the $20 Mollydookers. They were just $29 by the time they got to the island.
I am sure that no one ever went to St. John for the shopping but the town of Cruz Bay is worth an afternoon's wander. Mongoose Junction has a lot of interesting shops and you can get a great lunch at the Ocean Grill. The best place to start, though, is the National Park headquarters where you can pick up a copy of their great map of the park and buy a copy of a local book called St. John — Feet, Fins & Four Wheel Drive by Pam Gaffin (better yet, order it from Amazon and read it on the plane). Pam gives you the details about every beach, reef and trail on the island including where to find those deserted beaches and snorkel spots.
Rent a 4WD Jeep Wrangler, trust me, you will need it. Then load up your snorkel gear and start exploring. There are really only two roads on the island. Route 20, the North Shore Road, takes you through the park and past one beautiful beach after another. Worth a stop is the resort at Caneel Bay, so you can see how the other half lives. We didn't have lunch there but were told it is very good. It just seemed a little stuffy and populated by either honeymooners or retirees.
After Caneel Bay comes Hawksnest, which is about as pretty a stretch of sand as you will ever see, followed by Trunk Bay (a must do), followed by Cinnamon Bay, Maho Bay, Francis Bay, etc...each one prettier than the last (you get the point). The Annaberg Sugar Mill Ruins are also an interesting stop and the view of Tortolla across Drake's Passage is worth the climb.
Past the dead end at the sugar mill, a mile up a dirt road along the shore line is more great snorkeling, especially out around Waterlemon Cay. Just be sure you feel "ok" about the swim... it's farther than it looks over some fairly deep water. If unspoiled beaches and reefs or even hiking (we don't walk when we can swim) are your thing, you could spend a week exploring the north shore.
Route 10 or Center Line Road takes you to the tiny community of Coral Bay and right over the top of the island to the East End. The route offers some "interesting" driving
(especially on the left hand side), but offers some incredible views, like this one taken from the highest point on the island. Coral Bay is the first real crossroad you come to. It's hard to call the gas station, school and small collection of stores and bars a town, but here it seems to qualify.
Lots of sailboats with live aboards dot the harbor and the entire community seems to be centered around a combination bar, tee shirt shop, telephone, copy and mail drop center called Skinny Legs. It's something of an institution on the island, and it was mentioned by almost every entry in the visitor's journal in our condo.
They bill themselves as a pretty "ok" bar and grill that offers "same day service." And you can have anything you want as long as it's a hamburger, hot dog or fish sandwich served with potato chips. They do, however, have the best beer selection on the island and they make a mean rum punch. And yes, that's a real donkey... when the natives no longer needed them as pack animals they went feral and prospered. You will see them and their babies, or what they leave behind, all over the island.
On the Water
You don't have to drive...if you are so inclined you can rent a skiff and go from bay to bay via the water. Or you can take a day sail or a motor yacht to Tortolla or the Baths at Virgin Gorda. There are plenty of charter captains available to take you almost any where you want to go.
Linda is prone to motion sickness and has always been very leery of boats. This time though, I finally lured her out on a day sail. Or, as she might say, I seduced her by using words like "sailing on the Caribbean is like sailing on a bathtub of smooth, turquoise water" to get her onto the evil boat. The marks she left on my arm after the first combination of big wind and big swells were almost gone by the end of the day.
We went out with Captain Jason on his 46 foot sloop Survivan, a name inspired by the fact that his boat was one of the few that survived hurricane Ivan on Grenada back in 2004. You can see the pictures at his web site, they are pretty cool. Thirty-something Captain Jason has the kind of background you expect from a charter captain... a degree in Anthropology, time as a mountain guide in Alaska, managed a snowboard shop in Colorado and finally caught the tropics bug in Thailand and has been a charter captain on St. John for six years. Like most live aboards I have met, he runs a tight, clean, well organized ship and treated us to an excellent day.
We were his only two customers, so Jason's first mate Heather brought along her roommate and their girl friend who was visiting from Maryland. So, here we are, sailing north from Cruz Bay with three attractive, string-bikini-clad 23 year olds. I can only think that I must have started humming "A Pirates Life For Me" when Linda leaned over and whispered "gosh, you probably remind them of their grandfather." That pretty much quashed my awakening desire to retire and become a charter captain.
We wound up just off the island of Little St. James where the snorkeling was perhaps the best of the trip. We even had some entertainment from two of Jason's "trained fish" — a large grouper and a three-foot barracuda that danced for our lunch scraps. The leisurely trip back involved two long tacks that left Linda wondering why sail boats can't travel in a straight line. She was back on dry land by 4:30 and while I have not stopped hearing about the "bathtub," she has to admit that I never said that the boat wouldn't lean over or splash around while it was in the tub. You can check out Jason at http://www.stjohnyachtcharters.com/
For such a small island, St. John has more than its share of good restaurants. One really stood out and would hold its own in any major American city. In fact, Zo Zo's was so good we went back a second time. And, while good lunches were not hard to find, there was one exceptional beach bar that offered good food and great views in an appropriately tacky atmosphere. Also worth of a try were The Stone Terrace for dinner and the Ocean grill at Mongoose Junction for lunch or dinner.
Zo Zo's Ristorante
Not only did Zo Zo's have great food, it had great views. They are so popular with the locals that we called on Monday morning for reservations that night, and the best I could do was the bar. The food was truly excellent, with Osso Bucco as good as I have ever had in Manhattan. On our two visits, we sampled our way through the menu and never found a dish we didn't like. The crisp calamari with pesto aioli was so good we ordered it twice. And Linda sampled the pasta twice, once with lobster and saffron cream and again with giant prawns and a gorgonzola sauce. They were so good that she had to defend her dish from me. The wine list was extensive and reasonably priced, even by Indianapolis standards. We chose some old favorites. The Allegrini Palazzo Della Torre 2004 did wonders with the Osso Buco for only $45. And an Altesino Brunello at $65 was a complete puzzle to me on our second visit since we sell if for $59. The real prize was a wine we restrained ourselves from ordering, a Caymus Special Select Cabernet 2003 that we sell for $139, available at an amazingly low restaurant mark up...$175!
The Banana Deck
Any visit to an Caribbean island has to include a visit to a beach bar and the Banana Deck in Cruz Bay really filled the bill. Picnic bench seating on an open deck overlooking the harbor complete with the obligatory twinkle lights, peeling paint and restrooms you're not sure you want to visit. Even the staff was just what you would expect. Our server was a personable, talkative college dropout from North Carolina who had only been on the island two weeks. He had found a job the first day and a girlfriend the second, and was definitely enjoying himself.
The menu is pretty typical pub grub but you really don't have to look past the grouper sandwich or the cheeseburger, both served with crisp, deliciously bad for you, french fries. And, if you're tired of rum punch they can actually produce a reasonably decent bottle of wine. We had a bottle of LaCrema Chardonnay the was just perfect fit for a long, lazy lunch watching the boats come and go in the harbor.
Pack Light — There is almost nowhere you can't go in tee shirts and shorts.
Bring Binoculars — The yacht watching is more fun when you have them.
Buy or Rent Good Snorkel Gear — There is a good shop at Mongoose Junction.
Rent a Real Jeep — The Jeep SUVs look more comfortable, but when you hit those hills, smaller is better.
Buy the Book— I cannot tell you how helpful St. John – Feet, Fins & Four Wheel Drive by Pam Gaffin was to our trip.
February 13, 2008