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A Guide to the island of Saint John

Saint John is a tiny island, approximately 20 square miles in size, that is a part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, a territory of the United States. The smallest of the inhabited islands (the other two being Saint Thomas and Saint Croix) of the U.S. Virgin Islands in both size and population, Saint John may still be the most desirable of the three. With only a few seedy sections of town and a couple spooky locals out in the countryside, Saint John is relatively safe and one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean that will satisfy both those looking to relax and those looking for adventure. Should you decide to travel there for the first time, let this be your rudimentary guide to the island.

First and foremost is getting there, which is no easy feat. Those hoping to travel to Saint John will have to fly into Saint Thomas, a relatively small airport with flights in from locations in the southern United States. Because of this, multiple flights are necessary if coming from the northeast. Once on Saint Thomas, one must take a taxi to a ferry boat on the other end of the island. This ferry boat will travel to Saint John and once there a car may be rented or another taxi taken to one’s resort. It should be noted that driving is done on the left side of the road on the islands and things operate much slower than back at home. To make it to the islands requires patience, but once there it is well worth it.

The main attraction of Saint John is its white sand beaches and crystal blue water. These beaches are certainly fabulous but just know they are very different than the beaches on the mainland with no waves or surf and a very small strip of sand to make camp on. Many visitors, and perhaps rightly so, flock to the north shore beaches on the western end of the island, as they resemble what we think of as beaches with sand as opposed to rocks and coral. The beaches of Hawksnest, Trunk, Cinnamon, Maho, and Francis Bay fill up relatively quickly and can be crowded. These beaches are great for relaxing and swimming and also offer fairly decent snorkeling with shallow reefs where sea turtles and rays can be spotted as well as plenty of tropical, colorful fish.

One of the greatest things Saint John has to offer is snorkeling. To find the best snorkeling on the island, to see larger fish and bigger coral, one must venture off the beaten track. As a rule of thumb, the harder to locate or get to that the spot is, the better snorkeling it will be as less people snorkel it and potentially ruin it by stepping on coral or scaring off wildlife. Much of the island’s best snorkeling can be found on its sparsely populated east end. Leinster Bay, which takes a ten minute hike to get to, offers a small island, Waterlemon Cay, off its east point which is full of large coral and starfish. Haulover Bay is another great spot to check out, with a little rock scrambling required to get to it, it is rarely visited and you are likely to get the beach to yourself. Kidder Bay, located on the east end, is another great spot for snorkeling as its west side is characterized by rocks and canyons under the sea where just about anything can be expected, even nurse and reef sharks. This is a rock and corral beach and is only reachable via dirt road, but well worth the adventure to find it. Furthermore, if you are snorkeling on the east end, you can hit Vie’s chicken shack for lunch, a fried chicken joint also serving conch fritters that is run by a local Saint Johnian.

Another great thing to do on Saint John is to hike. A large part of the island is a part of the Virgin Islands National Park, and as such the park service maintains many trails throughout the entire island. Trails generally either take you to remote stretches of beach, scenic overlooks on the mountainous island, or ruins from the island’s sugar and rum plantations. Some great ruins and overlooks can be hiked to from both Leinster and Cinnamon Bay. There is a hike to Bordeaux Mountain, the island’s highest point at 1,200 feet above sea level, and the National Park Service offers a guided trip down the Reef Bay trail, which passes through the jungle, waterfalls, and petroglyphs in the rocks etched in by the island’s first inhabitants hundreds of years ago. The hike ends on a secluded beach and the park offers a boat trip back to its headquarters from there. Any hike really is worth it as it gives one a new perspective of and way to view the island. It is also worth checking out the Annaberg Plantation, another old slave plantation that has been restored beautifully.

The beauty of a place like Saint John though is, while there may be plenty of opportunities to get out and be active, there is also the option to lounge in a hammock or at a beach bar all day. One can do one, the other, or both. There is a great variety of people to be found on the island from natives to tourists to people staying for one or two year long stints to work and enjoy the tropics.

If you do decide to visit Saint John, be sure to be prepared to spend lots, simply because it costs a lot to get things to the island (gas is five dollars per gallon). As mentioned before, things often operate on island time, or much slower than we are accustomed to. However, driving is somewhat of a dangerous undertaking with winding and narrow mountain roads that are steeper than one would think possible for a car to drive up. Four wheel drive is an absolute necessity, and jeeps and other similar open-aired vehicles make up a majority of the automobiles on the island.

All in all, Saint John is a wonderful place to vacation. It is great for those seeking adventure as well as those looking to relax. The sea breeze and warm sun generally have a calming effect on all those exposed to it. Worries slip away within a few days of arrival and before you know it you too are on island time. I recommend to you and to anyone looking to get away the island of Saint John.

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