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Looking down on Coral Bay and the harbor from atop a nearby hill. Photography by Dean Barnes
Looking down on Coral Bay and the harbor from atop a nearby hill. Photography by Dean Barnes

Destination: Coral Bay, Saint John

If your idea of paradise is a laidback destination where boats likely outnumber cars, street signs signaling a dip in the road are irreverently scribbled with ‘clam’ or ‘crab’, and formal attire means dressing up in flip flops and a T-shirt, then visit Coral Bay.

Located on the southeastern side of St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the sheltered harbor, protected hurricane hole and easy four-mile tack to the British Virgin Island of Tortola once made this settlement the busiest port on the island. That was in the 1700s and 1800s when Denmark owned what would become the U.S. Virgins and sugar ruled as king of the cash crops. Fast forward to the 1950s. An increase in tourism and regular ferry service between St. Thomas and St. John led Cruz Bay to the west to take over the busiest port status and for Coral Bay to settle into a slower pace of life. The draw to this type of lifestyle, a sailor’s nirvana, enticed a wave of U.S. expats to drop anchor—or in the case of the Cowhorn Project in the late 1970s—build their own boats here, and call Coral Bay home.

Entrance Sign to Coral Bay. Photography by Dean Barnes
Entrance Sign to Coral Bay. Photography by Dean Barnes

Today, the easy-going atmosphere endures. There are no traffic lights and a ‘traffic jam’ means a herd of goats or a couple of donkeys are crossing the road. It’s easy to skinny dip or sunbathe nude (although not officially legal) in complete privacy on many of the surrounding beaches. Perpetual ‘happy hours’ and live local music at Skinny Legs Bar & Grill or across the bay at Island Blues Seaside Bar & Grill means there is always somewhere to hang out with beer in hand, tap your toes and lime.

Longtime cruisers at home in Coral Bay. Photography by Dean Barnes
Longtime cruisers at home in Coral Bay. Photography by Dean Barnes

Yet while there are no marinas, many modern conveniences are here. There’s free WiFi at Island Blues, an ATM at Love City Mini Mart and cell phone service if you have AT&T. Coral Bay Marine is great for parts and repair. Love City Mini Mart, a convenience-size store by stateside standards, sells frozen poultry and meats, canned and boxed foods and a small assortment of refrigerated goods like milk, eggs, cheese and luncheon meats. There’s ice available here, beer and wine too. Lily’s Gourmet Market, in the Cocolobo Shopping Center, offers basic groceries, some fresh produce and a small deli. Sticker shock can be especially brutal. Consider that after a week-long voyage from Florida, food must be trucked across St. Thomas, ferried to St. John and then driven across island to Coral Bay. Coral Bay Garden Center is a real find and sells locally-grown organic produce. Depending on weather and season, greens such as kale, arugula, collards, tatsoi and bok choy may be available as well as eggplant, hot peppers, green beans and okra.

Emmaus Moravian Church, Coral Bay. Photography by Dean Barnes
Emmaus Moravian Church, Coral Bay. Photography by Dean Barnes

There are some great sights to explore in Coral Bay and its environs. The rich history of the area comes to life at the Emmaus Moravian Church. Built in 1782 and listed as a registered historic place in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the masonry building with its picturesque Danish-style red roof overlooks the harbor in Coral Bay. Services are still conducted here each Sunday morning. One of the Virgin Islands National Park hiking trails leads right past the church and up over the hill to Waterlemon Cay and the historic Annaberg Plantation. This is the Johnny Horn trail and it’s a steep 1.8 mile rocky trek. There’s other nearby hiking trails at Salt Pond Bay, about four miles south of Coral Bay. One short trail leads to the beach, another is an easy jaunt to Drunk Bay where locals use coral to create human-like shapes during Full Moon parties, and a third is up to Ram’s Head Point where the view west along the south shore of St. John is spectacular.

Finally, Coral Bay is the destination for a couple of cool annual events. Nearly 1000 runners dash 8.3 miles from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay each February for 8 Tuff Miles, the Coral Bay Festival takes place the first weekend in September, and the annual Coral Bay Thanksgiving Regatta happens in November. Sail in for a few days and you might find you’ll be one of the many who’s stayed for a lifetime.

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