One in a series of occasional stories marking the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
Visions of red rock canyons, golden plains, and majestic mountain peaks are often what come to mind when thinking about America’s national parks, yet there’s another landscape worthy of attention. With powder white coral sands and silky cerulean seas wrapped by verdant hills, St. John surprises many with its designation as a national park, yet two-thirds of the island’s 27 square miles fall within the boundaries of the National Park Service.
The smallest, and most pristine, of the United States Virgin Islands, St. John is a lush, volcanic haven of flawless beaches, wild donkeys, and laid-back island ambience. While the throngs flock to the big guys like Yosemite, Acadia, and the Grand Canyon, opt instead to celebrate this year’s centennial with the mellow tropical trade winds of this less-visited natural eden.
Having married on July Fourth, a date my husband now likes to refer to as “loss of independence day,” we’ve made it a tradition to use the holiday as an excuse to kick off the summer with a trip. When our 15th anniversary and my 40th birthday were due to collide within a few days of one another, we figured the two events merited making some memorable travel plans. St. John, a place we’d both longed to visit, was on the docket.
For those of us in the Northeast, swapping winter’s wrath for the balm of the tropics has a plenty of allure, yet visiting St. John during the off-season comes with its own advantages. Lower prices, secluded beaches, and calm seas create a sublime summertime retreat.
We booked a villa for 10 days overlooking Coral Bay, the quieter of St. John’s two towns. Another benefit of traveling during low season is that owners are more likely to be flexible with dates. While private rentals are in abundance throughout the island, there are also two full-service resorts on St. John, the Westin and Caneel Bay, along with a smattering of smaller inns and guesthouses and a campground at Cinnamon Bay beach.
In Cruz Bay, St. John’s main town, we drove off the ferry dock in the jeep we rented at the St. Thomas airport with the intention of heading straight to the market to stock up on provisions, yet strains of reggae and a flash of turquoise prompted us to make a beeline toward the first thatched roofed beach bar we spotted.
In a moment we were perched on stools under the palapa sipping painkillers, a local concoction of pineapple juice, cream of coconut, and rum garnished with freshly grated nutmeg. Meanwhile, two of our daughters flung themselves fully clothed into the warm Caribbean, their feet and heads poking out of the water like otters, while their older sister partook of her first virgin pina colada. So much for being efficient — island time had already invaded my Type A sensibilities. The groceries would wait.
Later we made our way across the island along Centerline Road, the most direct route from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay, though not the most picturesque despite the flocks of sheep and goats that keep you company along the way. The real star is the North Shore Road, which winds along the coast linking a chain of white sandy beaches, all of which are considered part of the national park, and treats drivers to one stunning overlook after another.
We left Coral Bay on the morning of our first full day bound for Maho Bay, one of the first beaches you reach heading west along North Shore Road from Coral Bay. For beginner snorkelers and families with kids, there’s no better place to get the hang of your fins than Maho, as the mirror calm water is shallow for quite a distance out from the shore. The beach is long enough for a stroll and is lined, like many on the island, with sea grape trees that create small shady enclaves to set up shop for the day. The branches of the sea grape are also great for hanging your towel and snorkeling gear.
Though visions St. John’s postcard-perfect beaches had long danced in my head, I hadn’t been prepared for the veritable aquarium that lay just beneath the surface of the water. St. John is home to a prolific coral reef system, about 5,000 acres of which is protected by the National Park. We started at the far-east end of the bay where we carefully navigated a forest of colorful corals swarming with blue tang, silversides, grunts, and damselfish. But the best part of Maho is the turtles, both hawksbill and green, that glide above the swath of sea grass right off the center of the beach. Floating above these majestic creatures, squealing at one another through our snorkels while they munched away, was an entirely surreal experience.
Although St. John is easy to explore solo, the best way to get a real taste of it is to head out with a local. Author of the no-frills St. John guidebook, “Feet, Fins, and Four-Wheel Drive,” Pam Gaffin is a long-time expat who has walked the island’s perimeter, hiked every trail, and snorkeled every bay. She also offers guided treks to visitors. Pam met us at the Brown Bay trailhead barefoot, wearing just a bathing suit and sundress, and we were immediately captivated by her infectious enthusiasm — even more so when she taught the girls how to “fish” for tarantulas hiding in ground holes and sample the nutty flavor of the termites that crawled along the trees that lined the trail.
Pam also brought us snorkeling at Hansen Bay, diving down to show the girls how to poke feather duster worms to make them fold up at the slightest touch and pointing out various sea creatures, fans, and corals along the way.
Lunch afterward was at Vie’s Snack Shack, an east end mainstay serving up delicious portions of garlic chicken, conch fritters, and rice and peas washed down with icy bottles of Caribe. Full to the brim we walked across the street to Vie’s Beach, a stretch of powder white sand owned by the family, and whiled away a couple of hours floating in the ultramarine water.
And so it went. A new beach every day — Francis Bay, Lameshur, Oppenheimer, and Gibney; a hike along the Lind Point Trail from the National Park Visitors Center in Cruz Bay to Salomon Bay, where we spend the day completely alone lounging under the fronds of wind bent palms. The Sunday jazz brunch at Miss Lucy’s saw my husband sitting in on the keyboard while our girls gambled on hermit crab races with Ted the Crab Mon. And of course, we went back to Maho, lovely Maho, staying until the no-see-ums chased us away at sunset on our final evening in St. John.