St. John is a hugely pleasing anomaly in the United States Virgin Islands. Most every modern amenity, from over-the-counter cough medicines to gourmet cheeses and fine wines, are readily accessible. Yet, remarkably, this 19 square mile island of under 5,000 people retains a charm redolent of the old West Indies. Undisturbed by an increasingly homogenized world, two-thirds of St. John is a national park.
The only way to get to the island is by your own boat or hourly ferry service from St. Thomas, three miles to the north. It takes 20 minutes to reach Cruz Bay, the main hub of St. John, affectionately known as Love City, which has an easy, breezy, friendly feel. Directly off the dock is Wharfside Village, a winding maze of shops, bars and restaurants set amongst cobblestone streets. It blends with the brightly painted houses, pink, yellow, lime, with wood shutters draped in bougainvillea.
Three blocks away is three-story Mongoose Junction, built out of recycled stones from old sugar mill plantations, here you will find restaurants, clothing and jewelry stores. An art gallery, Bajo el Sol, showcases the work of local artist Avelino Samuels, whose wood-turning pieces, created out of mahogany, lignum vitae, white prickle and other native trees are palpably beautiful. Oil paintings by his sister Karen Samuels, portray the faces, landscapes and history of St. John in all its intonations.
St. John was settled in 1718 by the Danes whose plantations flourished on the backs of African slaves. Emancipation did not come for more than a century until July 3 1848. Their descendents make up the majority of the population today. In 1917 the United States bought St. John from Denmark. Later in the century, in 1956, American philanthropist Laurence Rockefeller, the original owner of the renowned Caneel Bay resort, donated 5,000 acres of land to establish a national park. Today the park covers over 12,000 acres, 5,650 of which are aquatic lands.
There are 200 mooring buoys inside the National Park, these are available at a cost of $15 per night. The registration fee, good for 30 days each year, is limited to boats under 60 feet. Day moorings are free.
"Not dropping a hook into the sea every day helps," says park ranger Deanna Sommerville.
Information about moorings and anchoring, along with guided ecological tours, are available at the National Park Visitors Center (340-776-6201) in Cruz Bay.
Reef Bay, among 21 trails, is a must-do albeit a somewhat arduous trek through three miles of both shady, moist forest and semi-arid scrublands. Herons, hummingbirds and frigates soar over bay trees, anthereums, bromeliads and pipe organ cactus. One side trail leads to a waterfall and petroglyphs; farther down towards the beach is the old steam-driven rum factory.
The best snorkeling is at Water Lemon Cay, a one-and-half mile flat, breezy trail along the water's edge from the Annaberg Plantation ruins. It can also be reached by boat. At the powdery white sand Trunk Bay – the most popular tourist beach – there is a marked underwater trail identifying coral and fish. Sadly, at Trunk, there seems to be more signage than fish.
Safari taxis at the ferry dock run full-day and half-day tours. Rental cars are for hire. But driving on the left – in vehicles with American left-side steering – can be somewhat daunting over mountainous roads with switchbacks. The $1 bus that runs from Cruz Bay to sleepier Coral Bay, home to salty sailors and left-over hippies, is yet another option. The bus travels east past Bordeaux Mountain, at 1277 feet the highest peak on the island, with horizons of sparkling sea and views of Coral Bay and the British Virgin Islands. Goats, donkeys and roosters amble across the roads while lizards scurry and iguanas slither around the brush.
Out east is the venerable Miss Lucy's, fine dining as it was in the days before upscale resorts: conch fritters with a picante sauce, callaloo soup, avocado snapper as entrÃ©es; banana pancakes for desert. Miss Lucy passed away, and her son now runs the restaurant. At 'full moon parties' there is suckling pig. Sunday brunch features Sambacombi Latin Jazz with Rich Greengold and Eddie Brice. St. John has a lively music scene including reggae bands, cabaret-style singers and more.
Farther east is Vie's Snack Shack serving up Garlic Chicken with Honey Johnny Cakes for $7.50. For $2.50 you can spend the day at her beach across the street, a narrow ribbon of sand and tranquil blue-green seas.
On the west end of St. John, past Cruz Bay, there is an equally agreeable local place, P&P’s By-The-Sea on windswept, rocky Moorehead Point.
Make sure to visit Mooie's, the only authentic rum shop on the island. Frequented both by locals and tourists, it is Politics Central. Murals on the walls document the way of life in the old days. Ms. Theodora, an engaging woman with a mellifluous voice, presides.
Welcome to St. John.
Patricia Burstein, a journalist and author of eight books, has written about the Caribbean for The New York Times, Newsday and All At Sea. She currently divides her time between New York City and St. John.