st john, usvi

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Most Caribbean cruise ships of any size stop at either St. Thomas U.S.V.I. or Sint Maarten/St. Martin (Dutch/French). Most of our itineraries have taken us to St. Martin, one of our favorite islands. But sometimes, as was the case this year, we visit St. Thomas. It is a shoppers mecca. U.S. residents, for whom it is duty free, go nuts for the shopapalooza of designer brands. (St Thomas (L) and St John (R) harbors)

On a big cruise day, six or more ships and 20,000 or more cruisers might descend on Charlotte Amalie, the capital and largest city in the U.S.V.I. This is the down-side of cruising: you won’t go far without a few thousand of your closest friends. Classy shops from beautifully repurposed old stone buildings set on a grid of narrow streets become a congested maze of bargain hunters, elsewhere known as outlet shopping. Sigh. When in St. Thomas, we look for something else to do. Sometimes that is a beach break or catamaran cruise. This week we realized we were long past due to visit neighboring St. John U.S.V.I.

Our St John tour made use of comfortable ferry service with an interior AC option that sure came in handy on the return trip. The entire crew were Caribbean transplants. Their spokesman was an aging, bleached-blond sailor dude from Florida. He enjoyed hearing himself talk but his local knowledge as we sailed also made for pleasant company.

We were split into smaller groups upon arrival in Cruz Bay, St John, some heading off to snorkel and others for the island tour. We boarded a comfortable open air safari style vehicle for the next couple of hours. Our tour guide was an older man with great pride in his island home and culture.

A well kept primary road forms a continuous loop around the island. It takes more than an hour to complete the loop. There are many sharp turns, each limited to one-way traffic. The on-rushing vehicle beep-beep-beeps it’s way through and everyone else patiently stops or at least slows and waits their turn.  Entirely civilized, eh? On the one occasion where a near miss occurred between safari vehicle and jeep resulting in a long angry beeeeep from jeep, our driver’s reaction was classic, laid-back Caribbean: “There’s no damage…” <big smile>.

St. John has 27 beaches, all of which are public.  We saw several on our loop, a good way to get the lay of the land for a return trip. Good luck finding parking at any of them in high season, though. Cabbing from Cruz Bay is probably the best bet unless you have a rental car and are staying awhile.

Accommodations do not come cheap, however; Caneel Bay Resort runs several hundred dollars per night and a meager cottage at the Cinnamon Bay campground costs $150 a night. (For $90 a night you may pitch a tent!) Kenny Chesney has a place at Upper Peter Bay Estates, and Carol Burnett, who filmed Four Seasons at Hawks Nest Bay with Alan Alda, also purchased a home. Much of the island is preserved through a national park, including surrounding reef; a portion of the island is privately owned. Land is especially precious as a result. Oh, and there is no airport service on St. John. Well, I suppose that’s why this island seems so sane.

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The famous Trunk Bay (above) and snorkeling trail was every bit as beautiful as promised and the sea seemed relatively calm. I would like to return with a snorkeling buddy. From all accounts, I should do so soon as the reef is threatened by the invasive lion fish and other environmental hazards.

IMG_1177Sugar plantation ruins dot the landscape and wild donkeys, descendants of cart labor days, roam free.We did not see any donkeys but observed plenty of flora and fauna as we made our way around the loop. Our guide stopped to point out a plant that requires only air to grow, developing roots, buds and leaves from tiny spikes at the edge of the leaves. And we learned, as we often do in the Caribbean, how fruits of the land cure various ills for which no self-respecting local would consider taking medication. Did you know papaya is the “Caribbean prune”? But wait, there’s more! In addition to being a great source of fiber, it aids blood pressure and inflammation. Pass the papaya, please. (In this photo, a papaya tree overlooks Maho Bay — where you can drop anchor for up to a week for a mere $15 a night. Best buy on the island, if you bring your own boat!)

IMG_1185We returned to the lovely little community of Cruz Bay with time to shop and relax. There is a nice collection of shops and restaurants there. I enjoyed browsing a bit while the Hubs found a friendly watering hole. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try a couple of Virgin Island brews. The Tropical Mango IPA, I am pleased to say, is perfectly fruity — in other words, not the least bit sweet, which is quite a feat. The Hubs enjoyed the Island Summer Ale. I carried the refreshing daily special back to the ferry — a local concoction called coconut and lime.  All in all, a very pleasant and low-key day in St John. This was not our most adventuresome tour but it was an easy launch to a long week of port of calls. No complaints!

~ René Morley

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