"Hey Bro - it's time to make a plan to use my timeshare for a vacation, where would you like to go?" My response was pretty easy - "since Dallas just broke a record of 65 days over 100 and a few record days of 106 and better and since the lakes are low and warm, we need to head to some tropical cool weather. Some white sand beaches, good snorkeling, great food, lots of fun things to see and do, a room on the beach, easy flight access, and friendly people would be good!"
So he got to work on it and called back within a couple days - "pack the bags and get a ticket for a vacation in St. John in the US Virgin Islands (USVI), I got us a three bedroom villa at the Westin on the beautiful island of St. John!" No brainer, we're there! In late August, the four of us (Mrs & Mr Texas Outside and my brother Scott and his fiance, Melanie) took to the sky for a week long vacation in St John.
We don't seem to know anything about the "R" word (relax) and we are not big fans of spending more than 15 minutes on the beach (unless it is home to great snorkeling, a fun bar, water toys, or a restaurant!), so for this vacation to St John we set a few goals and objectives to make sure we keep busy and on the go. Some of our goals for fun things to see and do on St John included:
I'm pleased to report that we accomplished the majority of these goals and had a fantastic time. Turns out we didn't pick the best time of the year to visit St John - late August to the end of October is hurricane season (a small one blew through the week prior to our arrival) and it's considered the off season and several restaurants, shops, and outfitters close for two months. It also means that we weren't able to find any live Caribbean music with steel drums. The good news is it's not quite as crowded and there is still enough on the island to keep you busy.
The USVI are located about 40 miles east of Puerto Rico and just west of the British Virgin Islands and include the main islands of Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas, along with the much smaller but historically distinct Water Island, and another dozen smaller surrounding islands and cays. All of the islands are volcanic in origin, hilly, and small - the total land area of the territory is only 133.73 square miles. The population of 108,000 is mostly composed of Afro-Caribbean descent. Tourism is the primary economic activity and the islands are well known for pristine beautiful beaches, excellent sailing, good snorkeling and diving, duty free shopping, and fun beach bars. The weather is ideal - gentle trade winds, average year round temperature of 85 degrees, and sunny all the time with occasional brief rain showers.
The islands have a very diverse and rich history from Christopher Columbus's second voyage to the planting of Denmark's Flag on St Thomas, the French Flag on St. Croix, and the Union Jack on Tortola. Only sheep roamed the island for a 150 years which was followed by slaves imported to work the sugar plantations until slavery was abolished by the Danish in 1848 - which caused the planters to abandon their estates and the economy subsequently dwindled. Threatened by the German expansion during World War I, the United States bought the Danish West Indies in 1917 which included St Thomas and St John.
St John is a very small island - 19 square miles and nine miles from tip to tip - located about 4 miles east of St Thomas. The island has two main hubs of activity, which are Cruz Bay and the smaller more isolated Coral Bay. The population is around 4100 sun kissed residents that some claim is the island's biggest asset - they are island-spiced, friendly and quick to smile and great you with a "yo mon!" and a knuckle bump. The island is loaded with wildlife including igauans, wild donkeys, mongoose, goats, and natives in snorkel gear walking the streets after a few drinks.
Two thirds (over 7000 acres) of St John is the Virgin Islands National Park which was created, thanks to the generous donation of the land to the United States, in 1956 by Laurance Rockefeller. His donation created an unspoiled get-away of tranquil beaches, sleepy lagoons, underwater coral gardens, scenic roads, hiking trails, and plantation ruins - all in a lush tropical forest. The Virgin Island National Park Visitors Center is located in Cruz Bay - well worth a stop to learn about the trails, camping, and beaches.
Cruz Bay is the hub of activity on St Thomas and is home to the ferry from the other islands; the National Park Visitors Center; Mongoose Junction (historic stone and mahogany complex with tropical garden courtyards, unique shops, and restaurants); and bars; a variety of shops and stores selling t-shirts to jewelry; lots of rental car companies; several places to sign up for sailing, snorkeling, fishing, and other fun things; several varieties of lodging from B&Bs to a small resort.
The fun part of the town is along a couple streets that run along the harbor. The entire town is only a quarter mile or so long - but loaded with locals, tourists, and cars with limited parking - taxis are the way to go.
We stayed at the Westin Resort and Villas, which is a short 5 minute ride to downtown Cruz Bay. The Westin is your typical resort with lots of amenities (restaurants, shops, pool, great beach, boat rentals, etc.), hotel type beach front rooms to 3 bedroom villas, and good service. As you would expect it's a tad pricey. There are plenty of other St Thomas lodging options - the The Westin and Caneel Bay Resort are the best resorts, there are several condominium complexes, some vacation rental homes, and some B&Bs. Or you can camp in the National Park on Cinnamon Beach. If we were to do it again, I would consider staying downtown at the Gallows Point- they are across the street from the Cruz Bay harbor and beach, a block from some good snorkeling, and it's an easy walk to all of the bars, shops, and restaurants where we spent most of the evenings and you can walk instead of taxi or drive and try and find a parking spot - or one of the other lodging options that are downtown.
You can rent cars, Jeeps, or even a motor scooters (scary!) to explore the island - the hard part is remembering to drive on the left side of the road and the roads are narrow, twisting, and turning, with lots of steep ups and downs. Plus parking in Cruz Bay is difficult. If you don't want to rent a car, taxis can shuttle you everywhere you want to go.
Coral Bay is at the eastern tip of St John and it is a small, laid back, and unpretentious little enclave that is a haven for sailors, boat builders, artists, and interesting individuals. It has a couple restaurants and bars, a few shops, and not much else along the mile long road through town. Coral Bay is much smaller than Cruz Bay but well worth a day visit to try a couple good restaurants, enjoy a fun bar, check out some beautiful scenery, and spend some time on several fantastic beaches with great snorkeling.
Our first goal was to explore the island and we set off early each day to explore the north side of St John and hit some of the beaches for sun, surf, and snorkeling. What an exciting drive along the narrow winding mountain roads toward Coral Bay and to make it worse you have to drive on the left side of the road with sharp turns, steep ups and downs, natives driving like wild men, tourists just crawling along the steep drop offs and admiring the scenery, and some unbelievable Kodak vistas. At times it felt like we were on a Walt Disney roller coaster ride with some beautiful scenery of crystal clear aqua blue water, stunning beaches, sail boats drifting in the breeze, and several beautiful islands a few miles off shore. To make it even more exciting, my brother Scott was the designated driver and he drives a fast and sleek BMW convertible and thinks he is Dale Earnhart - it felt like he set some new land speed records on the twisting and turning roads. I have no idea how he got our beat up compact car to go so fast.
I was shocked when we actually made it safe and sound to our first stop - they had to pry my fingers off the door handle.I had cinched my seatbelt to tight I had black and blue marks on my tummy and I could talk for a couple minutes because the G forces had stuck my lips to my teeth! But it was worth it when our feet hit the soft white sand on a stunningly beautiful beach (Hawksnest) with clear water lapping gently up against the sand and palm trees swaying in the breeze. I felt like we were in heaven floating with no effort in warm ocean water. Snorkeling was ok right off the shore and along a rocky side of the beach. It wasn't long after entering the water that we were swimming thru a huge school of small bait fish - in fact, so many that you couldn't see much but them. All of a sudden the fish parted and a couple huge tarpon (seemed like they were 20 feet long, but most likely they were about 2 to 3 feet long) gracefully swam by within a couple of feet of my mask - I think my heart may have stopped for a few minutes. Once it started pumping again I checked to make sure they hadn't gulped up my sweet lil wife, I tried to follow them, albeit unsuccessful. However, they swam by us three other times. After snorkeling we returned to our cooler of cold beer and to tell my brother he needed to wake up and hit the water to try and spot them! It was hard to leave a beautiful setting like this but the tummies were rumbling and we were only half way to our destination of Coral Bay..
Back in the car or should I say roller coaster for a 25 minute exciting ride past more beautiful beaches, islands jutting out of the water, and colorful homes dotting the hill sides. As we pulled into Coral Bay, we were greeted by the local donkeys who seemed to not only own the road but also most of the town - and they are aren't timid or worried about you running over them. They take their time crossing the road and if you stop they'll come right up to your window and demand a toll - a pet or apple will suffice!
Several people had raved about the burgers at Skinny Legs in Coral Bay and as soon as we got out of the car the air was filled with the aroma of burgers. What a funky place with a shop (t-shirts, island souvenirs and more), an open air bar and restaurant with a few locals, a couple tourists, and lots of little chickens - in fact, one of the locals commented to the bartender that there were more chickens than customers. And the burgers were to die for - thick, juicy, and served on an excellent bun. And we started our quest for the best Pina Colada - it was so good we all had a couple of them.
At Coral Bay, the road splits with one road going to the far northeast of the island and the other going to the southeast end of the island - both of which lead to some good beaches and snorkeling.
From Skinny Legs we took a short drive to another beach - Maho- where we were again greeted by several friendly donkeys who showed us the path through the woods and a 5 minute walk to the beach. Instead of the nice soft sand, this beach was all rocks but the water was clear, no one was there, and the snorkeling was pretty good just 15 feet off the beach - several varieties of fish, some brain coral, and purple fan coral.
Snorkeling and the short hike worked off the filling lunch but made us quite thirsty, meaning we were forced to stop at the nearest beach bar for a round of dominos, another pina colada, a great view of a small cove full of sailboats, and some excellent crab bisque at Island Blues. After stuffing ourselves and winning a couple rounds of dominos and sampling some good, not the best yet, Pina Coladas, we piled in the rental to head back toward Cruz Bay.
Instead of taking the same route back along the north coast, we took the only other road that traverses through the hills and back to Cruz Bay. Just outside of Coral Bay and perched on top of one of the hills are a couple small quaint shops and a unique restaurant with a stunning view of the Coral Bay Harbor. From there it was another thrilling roller coaster ride back to the Westin for a dip in the hot tub and pool following by a dip in the ocean and another Pina Colada - wow, they were fantastic, but pricey! A clear winner.
To continue our exploration, that evening we headed into Cruz Bay for dinner and in search of some fun bars and live entertainment. First stop was the Beach Bar for some great appetizers (some kind of Ahi Tuna thing that was delicious), a few more Pina Coladas, and a couple rounds of dominos. The Beach Bar sits right on the beach on the small harbor loaded with sailboats - it just doesn't get much better, particularly as the sun was setting. At the bar, we ran into the owner of Woody's, a great guy, who said we need to stop by his place which was a block away for dinner - done!
Turns out that Woody's seems to be the hang out for the local and tourist and it turned out to be our favorite restaurant - we actually went back again. Its a small place right on the main street with an outside patio that's perfect for socializing and people watching. They serve a little bit of everything at some of the most reasonable prices on the island - no wonder it stays busy. They offer tasty blackened fish, beer battered shrimp, and scallops; excellent pasta salad (wow!); great chicken salad sandwich and a very good blackened fish sandwich. The wait staff is young, good looking, and super friendly. We could have sat here for another couple hours people watching and sipping those refreshing Lime d Coconuts. But we had a early morning date to go sailing.
From there we went in search of some live music and a fun bar. Everything is within three or four city blocks and we searched (with a few stops for drinks) every square block and no live music - kept hearing "this is off season." During our quest we stopped in the Parrot Club for a drink and discovered that they had electronic gambling and took (mostly took) and paid real money. We immediately opened the wallets and starting playing slots, roulette, and blackjack trying to win enough for a couple more Pina Coladas - didn't happen! With heads hung low and our wallets a little lighter we stopped by another bar to close out the evening with a Pina and a final round of dominos.
Rather than bore you with day by day details, I'll cut to the chase. The rest of the week was more of the same - off in the morning in search of the perfect beach, snorkeling, white knuckles from Scott's driving, Pina Coladas, appetizers and some ok meals, dominos, and lots of laughs - with some variations and highlights each day like renting a dingy to explore the island; racing sailboats against Scott around the harbor; snorkeling with a turtle, sea ray, and some squid; a round of golf at Mahogany Run; and a day sail with Sail Safaris. More on some of the highlights below.
If you like beach time, St John is the place to vacation. The beaches are stunning - crystal clear blue warm water, gently lapping surf, soft white sand, and palm trees swaying in the gentle Caribbean breeze. You can choose from popular drive up to beaches or more isolated beaches that require a short to strenuous hike to get to them. Most of the beaches are good for snorkeling. The water is warm and during our visit the visibility was over 75 feet. Here's our comments on the St John Beaches we visited:
There's a few other things to see and do besides spending time on the beach and snorkeling, some of which include:
Here is our vote for the best of St John and some of the winners of our quest:
Be aware - everything is very expensive in St John from $12 hamburgers to $8 drinks to $25 entrees - we spent a fortune on food and drinks, but who cares, we were on vacation. And the food is average at best with some notable exceptions. There are some smaller local places off the beaten path with more reasonable prices. The Westin and some of the other accommodations have kitchens but groceries are not inexpensive.
The larger airlines fly into St Thomas and from there you can take a boat, ferry, or airplane to other islands. As a part of our vacation in St John we spent a day and one night before we flew home on St Thomas. St. Thomas (USVI) is a 20 minute ferry ride from St. John and it is 32 square miles of rolling hills surrounded by crystal clear aqua blue Caribbean water. The top ten things to do and ways to enjoy St Thomas are:
When we visited St Thomas all the major resorts were booked or closed for the off season so we ended up at a funky small hotel up on the hill next to Blackbeard's Castle called The Green Iguana. After arriving on St Thomas from St John we immediately proceeded to Mahogany Run Golf Course for lunch and round of golf.
Food was good, the golf was outstanding, and all three of us survived Devil's Triangle. What a fun and unique golf course! Designed by Tom Fazio, Mahogany Run offers tight fairways, plenty of dramatic elevation changes, dog legs, risk reward opportunities, and elevated small and well guarded greens. Just playing Devil's Triangle is worth the price - three holes, a couple of which are 200 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, that can eat you and your golf balls for lunch. If you survive the Devil's Triangle without losing a ball, the pro shop will give you a "I Survived The Devil's Triangle" certificate. Fun 18 holes - read our review of Mahogany Run Golf Course to learn more.
After golf, we snuck into Magens Bay Resort for a dip in their pool and a couple Lime 'd Coconut drinks. A couple locals recommended that we head up to Paradise Point for sunset and then to Iggies - both of which we did. Wow, what a panoramic majestic view of St Thomas, several islands, and a stunning sunset at Paradise Point. Plus they had some good Nachos for us Texans and a variety of frozen drinks including excellent Pina Coladas, Pain Killers (a couple of these "Official Drinks of the Virgin Islands" will kill any possible pain you might have) and Bush Wackers which is cream of coconut, Kahlua coffee liqueur, Bacardi black rum, dark creme de cacao and milk - they sneak up on you and whack you on the back of the head!
We closed the evening at Iggies Beach Bar with some more drinks, some munchies, dancing to the local band (finally found some live music but no steel drums and just a touch of reggea), and watching Scott fall out of the hammock and then drinking and laughing with the local pirate. What a fun bar right on the beach with hammocks, picnic tables, volleyball, ok food, fun crowd, and live music.
The next morning we staggered out of bed, had a hearty breakfast, and shopped along the waterfront of Charlotte Amalie - hundreds of shops in a small 5 to 6 block area selling everything from liquor to jewelry to cameras to dresses. And lots of great bargains thanks to duty (up to $1600) and tax free!
All to soon it was time to head back to reality and finding a way to get rid of sunburn, sand, and extra weight!