A Villa Vacation in St John
by Wendy Crum
We’d heard that St John was like no other island in the Caribbean, protected from development by the large national park that takes up the middle two thirds of the island…and by the fact that it had no airport and was accessible only by ferry boat ride from St Thomas. We’d heard about the great snorkeling, the lush green hills, and the cute town of Cruz Bay where the ferry from St Thomas docks. What we found was so far beyond what we expected – a rugged and beautiful island, with miles of pristine and undeveloped shoreline and vistas that look much as they must have when the first Europeans laid eyes on it in the 1500s.
Our adventures began once we landed in St Thomas. From there we took a small shuttle bus for Ferry goers up over the mountains that overlook Charlotte Amalie harbor, then down to the other side of the island to Red Hook where the Ferry for St John leaves from. We boarded the ferry with minutes to spare, and enjoyed a calm and quick 30 minute ride to Cruz Bay. We were met at the docks by WIMCO’s local representative Bob. He led us to our rental car, parked near the ferry dock, then we followed his car out to our villa.
Our trip had come together at the last minute, so our first choice of renting a villa close to the village of Cruz Bay was out, everything was booked. We ended up booking a villa on the eastern end of the island – in Coral Bay. To get there we drove out of town, then up into the National Park created when Laurence Rockefeller donated the thousands of acres he had purchased when he developed his famous Rock Resort at Caneel Bay. We drove up and over a series of coastal hills, each crest revealing another stunning stretch of lush green undeveloped shoreline. We passed beach after beach, seemingly untouched by man, with no houses, hotels or restaurants on them– amazing.
The road finally wound its way out of the National Park and delivered us to the eastern end of the island – Coral Bay. Aside from a smattering of private villas on the hillsides, and a few shops and restaurants along the waterfont, it too was largely undeveloped and in a native state. Our villa, the newly completed 2 bedroom villa MAS RET was located high up on the strangely named Calabash Boom hill, 700 feet above sea level. It commanded a view straight down Sir Francis Drake Channel. We could see all of Tortola, nearby Cooper island and Peter island, and distant Virgin Gorda. It was almost like being in a plane. The villa belonged to two famous musical sisters who live in New York, and they had left CDs of their music in the villa for guests to enjoy.
We fell into a comfortable daily routine of breakfast in the villa, games or reading by the pool, then a morning excursion to some corner of Coral Bay. We especially liked the beach and snorkeling at nearby Salt Pond cove. We tried a different water side restaurant each day, our favorites being Lucy’s and the Blues Bar. Each was right on the water, served good burgers, chicken fingers and fries, and made excellent rum punch. Everything in Coral Bay had a very relaxed vibe, not too many tourists made it over to this side of the island, and those who did were not in a hurry. One day we drove over to the extreme east end of Coral Bay, a very remote and undeveloped area with stunning turquoise colored coves. The undulating road revealed stunning views around each corner, and we didn’t see another car all afternoon.
Most afternoons after lunch we would drive over to the famous North Shore beaches. While Trunk Bay Beach with its underwater national park trail was our favorite, we also enjoyed the beaches at Horseneck and Cinnamon bays. The water at Trunk Bay was impossibly clear, we felt like we could see 100’ ahead. My son and I were snorkeling around the small island right offshore and came across a beautiful brown green sea turtle gliding effortlessly through the clear waters. Over the course of our week in St John we snorkeled in a dozen different beaches and coves, spotting sea turtles, sting rays, barracuda, conch and more types of colorful tropical fish than we could ever list. All this was done directly from shore, we never had to hire a boat to take us anywhere, although we were tempted to charter a boat to get out to some of the uninhabited islands nearby.
We discovered that you can also swim at the beach at Caneel Bay resort, home to a perfect protected crescent shaped cove and powder white sand. There is an outdoor restaurant there that we had lunch in, and we saw a more formal dining room in a renovated sugar cane mill, probably not a bad option for a gourmet dinner.
We got a babysitter one night and went to the fantastic Waterfront Bistro in Cruz Bay – it felt like being in an upscale eatery in Boston or New York. The appetizers and entries were perfectly prepared, and wine list was impressive. We sat along a guard rail overlooking the small beach and harbor at Cruz Bay, it was magical. On our last day, after squeezing in some body surfing at Horseneck Beach, we had lunch at a good all family café right near the ferry terminal. There were no shortage of good places to eat despite the small size and uncrowded nature of the island. We prepared a lot of meals in the villa, and found a great supermarket in Cruz Bay that met all our shopping needs. There were a few small markets in the Cruz Bay area too for picking up the odd item at the last minute.
St John is also home to several well preserved Sugar Cane plantations which you can take a self guided tours through. While it is fascinating to learn about the early history of Dutch and English settlement and Sucar Cane farming in St John, the slavery associated with this industry is clearly a dark stain on the history of the island. John Mitchner’s novel “Caribbean” also covered this era of St John’s history in great detail, and is worth a read sometime when you are vacationing in the Caribbean.
Our week in villa MAS RET went by far too quickly. We treasured our leisurely dinners at the long wooden dining room table that overlooked Sir Francis Drake channel far below, and the games of Yahtzee that often followed. There was a flat screen TV at one end of the living room, and we had two “movie nights” using the villa’s own DVD library. While the kids did spend a lot of time in the pool splashing around, they also naturally fell into reading, which gave my wife and I some valuable down time too.
As we hopped on the late afternoon ferry heading for St Thomas, leaving Cruz Bay in our wake, we vowed to return soon to check out the backcountry roads, hidden beaches, waterfront restaurants and cute shops that we hadn’t managed to see on this vacation. St John island a repeater!