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St. John: the siren of the US Virgin Islands

World renowned Trunk Bay has a snorkeling trail.Amy Laughinghouse for the boston globe/Amy Laughinghouse

ST. JOHN — The world is too big, I once thought, to vacation in the same place twice.

Some of you may say, “Got to see the world. All of it. Like, yesterday.” Others likely have realized what I’ve come to understand: Some places are just special, and if you’re lucky enough to find them, they’ll lure you back.

For me, St. John is such a place.

I originally visited this Caribbean oasis — arguably the wildest and most pristine of the US Virgin Islands — in 2001. The first time I sank my toes into the sugary sands of one of its 30-plus beaches, I couldn’t have predicted that I’d return more than a half dozen times over the next 12 years. But the day I took a taxi ride with James Penn, the “unofficial mayor of St. John,” it did dawn on me that I had found my favorite place on earth.

Penn — a tall, jovial man with a ready grin — revealed a lush, undulating landscape covered in tangled jungle, tumbling down to white crescent beaches lapped by a crystal blue sea. Donkeys, deer, and goats occasionally crossed our path, meandering out from roadside foliage. From the highest hilltops, it was possible to look out over huge swaths of green, punctuated only occasionally by a house here and there.


It felt like paradise — and it still does. That is due, in large part, to philanthropist and conservationist Laurance Rockefeller, who first arrived on the island in the ’50s. He grew so fond of this rugged, unpolished gem that he bought up huge swaths of land, which later formed the basis of the Virgin Islands National Park. Today, the park covers 7,000 acres — more than half the island — and 5,650 underwater acres. St. John will never be overrun with wall-to-wall condos and shopping malls.


Peter Bay is one of St. John’s exclusive developments.Amy Laughinghouse for the Boston Globe

I brought my husband and a few friends here in 2002. Since then, we’ve made the trek at least every other year with some of our best buddies, all of whom have returned themselves.

Sure, some things have changed. Ditleff Point, which used to be a quiet, undeveloped peninsula with a hike down to the sea, is now a gated community. Traffic in Cruz Bay, the main port and a colorful hub for shops, restaurants, and bars, has gotten more congested. And some of the smaller beaches, which we used to have all to ourselves, have added more parking and bathroom facilities, drawing more people to what once felt like our own private playgrounds.

When we heard that had named Trunk Bay — a long, creamy stretch that has an underwater snorkel trail — number 48 on its list of the world’s best beaches, we heaved a collective sigh. The word was out.

Yet, despite the fact that St. John has been “discovered,” its essence remains the same. Hens still herd their chicks along Cruz Bay’s maze of narrow roads and iguanas remain as common as squirrels on the mainland.

A snorkeler toted his gear to Hawksnest Bay, one of the pristine beaches that ring St. John.Amy Laughinghouse for the Boston Globe

As stunning as St. John’s coastline is above water, more surreal scenery lurks beneath the waves. At Trunk Bay, I’ve spotted eels, reef squid, and a stingray hovering above the sandy bottom.

At remote Waterlemon Cay, while swimming in a cloud of shiny silversides this past July, I noticed a long, missile-shaped creature patrolling just yards away. Fortunately it was only a harmless tarpon. (Well, harmless to humans, not to silversides.)


One of my most memorable snorkeling experiences was a kayak’s ride away from Haulover Bay. As I floated in brilliant blue waters, a pair of butterfly fish engaged in a courtly dance just below, and rainbow-colored parrotfish crunched loudly on the reef. Our guide pointed out evocatively named corals, from bulbous brain and antleresque Elkhorn to columnar pillar coral, where she spied a spiny lobster hiding inside a stalk.

The climax of our afternoon was a sea turtle that emerged like a shadow from the deep-blue fathoms. Gliding through the sea, he seemed the very essence of serenity.