U.S. Virgin Islands: Travel Guide to St. John Island
Trunk Bay is known for its guided underwater snorkeling path
Big Maho Bay, Cruz Bay and St. Thomas
What to see and do on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Here's what to see and do on St. John Island, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. John is known for being relatively unspoiled; much of the island is preserved as a park, which means the ratio of pristine beaches and untouched tropical forest is higher than most island vacation destinations.
If you're looking for an island getaway, consider visiting this garden island. There's no airport, so you'll need to land at nearby St. Thomas. But here's all you need to know to get there, and to enjoy St. John. First - A few highlights:
Places to see on St. John, and how to get to St. Thomas:
Trunk Bay: St. John's most famous swimming beach is Trunk Bay, which is just a short ride on the taxi service that serves Maho Bay (Frett's Taxi). Trunk Bay is well worth seeing for the underwater snorkeling tour you can take. If you're not a strong swimmer, take an inflatable raft (leave it behind at the end of your trip) and use it to support yourself as you follow the submerged markers that point out coral formations and places where various types of fish or sea life commonly hang out. Trunk Bay can be crowded on days when ships are in the port, and it's usually more crowded than Maho Bay anyway, so check the schedule if you want a quieter visit.
Big Maho Bay: Although it's literally the next bay over from the campground, and it's bigger, this beach is much less frequented than even Little Maho Bay. If you ask the camp staff how to get there, they'll tell you to take the Goat Path (yes, really). After a pleasant walk on a not-to-strenuous path through the trees, with glimpses of the beach peeking through the leaves and brush now and then, you'll be at this gorgeous beach. It is sometimes almost deserted! Take bug repellent, though, and check yourself later for sand fleas.
The Virgin Islands National Park: Much of St. John is preserved as a park. You can get day tours on open-air taxis that will take you to various spots on the island (often stopping at a beach for snorkeling) and the guide will explain the sites along the way. If the guided tour includes a beach stop, ask whether there are stingrays or other dangerous sea creatures at that destination. Some tour guides stop at places where you may not want to swim.
Annaberg Sugar Plantation: About 200 years ago (in 1718) the island was settled by the Danish West India and Guinea Company, which founded a sugar plantation (staffed by slaves from Africa). The remains of the sugar plantation are still visible, and are easily accessed by the main road frequented by taxis.
Cruz Bay: The port where the ferry from St. Thomas docks at this little town, which has grown to include several restaurants, shops, grocery and drug stores and other amenities. Frett's Taxi (from Maho Bay) makes several daily trips back and forth from the campgrounds to Cruz Bay, so it's easy to take a quick trip to town if you want to shop or get dinner.
St. Thomas: Spend at least one day in St. Thomas (which is probably where your plane arrived before you caught the ferry to St. John). There are several daily ferry trips back and forth from St. John to the town of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, where you'll find a larger selection of shops as well as interesting dining. St. Thomas is the better island for finding bargains in jewelry, cameras and other purchases you might want to make while on the islands. Prices are often lower for these items, and there's no sales tax.
Sunsets on St. John Island
Caribbean Beach on St. John | U.S. Virgin Islands
How to Get Around on St. John Island
There are several ways to get around on St. John, and the island is easy to navigate, either by land or by water.
Car Rentals: Many people rent a car for their stay on the island. The roads can be narrow and winding in some spots, but having your own car makes it easy to pull over and take the hundreds of photos you won't want to miss. You might even find a spot for a picnic!
Bike Rentals: If you're an experienced cycler and don't mind a few hills and curves, the weather and scenery are perfect on St. John. Bikes can easily be parked in the town, if you're shopping or grabbing a bite to eat, and you can chain them to one of the many trees if you park along a trail or roadway to have a look around.
Horseback Riding: You can also rent horses and ride some gentle trails on the island. Check at your hotel or resort desk for information on local stables and how to arrange a steed for the day.
Sailing: Island? Water? Sailboat? This is a no-brainer! You can either rent a boat to pilot yourself, or rent one with a captain, who will take you around the perimeter of the island, or even to another island nearby. On one trip, we rented a boat with the captain (who was an amazing young woman ; she and her husband and toddler lived on the boat) and sailed to a deserted cove on St. John for some snorkeling. We found a giant sea turtle stranded on the beach, caught in fishing net, and were able to free the poor creature and watch it lunge toward the sea the minute it was loosed from the net. Had we not decided to go to a 'remote' beach, it likely would never have been found in time to save its life.
Map St. John Island, U.S. Virgin Islands
Maho Bay Campgrounds
Trunk Bay has an underwater guided tour for snorkelers
Annaberg is the site of a 1700s sugar plantation on St. John Island
Virgin Islands National Park makes St. John one of the most preserved and protected spots in the Caribbean
Cruz Bay has shops, restaurants, and ferry rides to St. Thomas
Charlotte Amalie shopping and restaurants are about 45 minutes away from St. John by ferry.
Pavilion Overlooking Maho Bay, St. John U.S. Virgin Islands
Sea Crab on St. John Island
IT Luggage | Lightest Luggage for Flying
How to get to St. John Island What to Bring
If you decide to make Maho Bay your Eco Vacation destination, you'll want to fly into St. Thomas, since St. John has no airport. You'll generally fly into St. Thomas from either Miami or Atlanta (for most flights), or from Puerto Rico. From St. Thomas, you will either the Charlotte Amalie Ferry (closest to the airport) or the Red Hook Ferry.
The Charlotte Amalie Ferry is the slower of the two, but its proximity to the airport makes it the logical first choice for many travelers. Ferries depart regularly, all year round, and many workers on St. John live on St. Thomas and commute by ferry every day. The Charlotte Amalie Ferry takes around 45 minutes or so, and can often be quite full.
The Red Hook Ferry is a bit of a ride from the airport but it's much faster. The ferry itself is newer and slightly more modern. The trip is only about 15-20 minutes on the Red Hook Ferry.
What to Bring: In addition to beach clothes and swimwear, bring bug repellent, a lock for your cabin door (combination locks are good - no key to lose), at least one flashlight, and mostly casual clothes. Women might want one skirt or sundress for dining or a trip to town.
The island is one big photo op, so you'll want to bring your camera. Although I've never heard of a theft in the cabins, I'm sure it's happened before, so keep an eye on anything of value and carry your camera with you at all times.
Getting to Maho Bay Camps from the Ferry: You will see a taxi stand in Cruz Bay that has open-air vehicles (with canvas tops). Each hotel and resort is usually served by one taxi, and the one for Maho Bay is run by a gentleman named Mr. Frett (Frett's Taxi). It might be nice to take him a gift of chocolates or some other memento; he works very hard and has served Maho Bay for years. If you miss the usual Maho Bay taxi, you can usually hop on one of the others that goes that direction. Taxis (and the ferry to St. John) don't run 24 hours a day, so if your plane arrives late in St. Thomas, you'll need to find a hotel for the night and catch the ferry the next day.
Important Tip: Never leave your cabin without your flashlight! It is far too easy to be out past dark, and you will have great difficulty getting your lock open without the aid of a light (although I've used my cellphone lighted screen in a pinch).