In Title: At secluded Jumbie Bay, you can relax and read in a beach chair as you watch hermit crabs scamper the beach or snorkle the aquamarine water to view colorful fish.
Above: Sea island cotton blossoms decorate St. Francis Bay. Sheree Nielsen
Below: A picture-perfect end to the day on St. John island. U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism
St. John is the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, which also include St. Thomas and St. Croix. Two-thirds of St. John is a protected National Park.
“St. John is a paradise redefined,” said Luana Wheatley, film office director at the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism. “The National Park distinction has preserved the island’s lush natural landscape and pristine beaches. Unique retail stores, world-class restaurants, and the distinctive towns of Cruz Bay and Coral Bay make St. John a must on your travel itinerary.”
With so many beaches, it might be difficult to visit them all. Select four or five to begin your adventure.
Lush Lameshur Bay
Take a day to explore the island’s south side. The road to Lameshur Bay is best traveled with a four-wheel drive vehicle. Along the road, you’ll see deer, bananaquit birds, cactus, and aloe vera plants. Look for signs pointing you to the beach.
Picnic benches and trees dot the white sand beach. Southerly breezes and gentle waves make for great snorkeling, especially when water on the island’s north side becomes too choppy in the winter.
To the right of the beach, you’ll swim past sea grass. Set your course for the rounded rock jutting out of the sea and you’ll spot pink sea fans in an underwater ballet of black sea urchins, fire coral, silversides, blue tang, and jellyfish. The sun glistens through the water on ripples of sand along the ocean’s floor, forming light rays that dance with the rhythm of the waves.
On the way back from Lameshur Bay, you’ll drive through the Salt Pond Bay area, home to many donkeys. Watch out for a donkey that may pop its head in your vehicle sporting a toothy grin. Imported from Spain in the 1600s and then set free, the donkeys are a common sight here.
Easy-going on the east side
In Coral Bay on the east side of St. John, be sure to stop at Jan’s Creations by the Sea. Located in Coccoloba Plaza directly across a harbor of colorful sailboats, this eclectic shop sells seaglass earrings, watercolor paintings, and hammered copper bracelets by Jan Keisler and local artisans.
Take a day to visit Francis Bay Beach along the north shore. This beach boasts a protected cove that is dotted with hibiscus and the delicate yellow flower of the sea island cotton plant. Swimmers, paddle boarders, and boaters love the harbor’s calm waters. While snorkeling, spotted eagle rays, southern stingrays, and black durgons can be observed bottom feeding in the sea grass. To the west, there’s a black rocky coastline with picturesque verdant hills.
A west side story
After a day at the beach or exploring busy Cruz Bay, prepare to experience par excellence cuisine at Ocean 362, named for its physical address. Located on the island’s west side, the restaurant’s high-backed wicker seating, tiled floors, and mint-green tablecloths invite guests to stay awhile. Owner and Chef Shaun Brian believes in the concept “from island to table,” the freshest cuisine directly from the ocean and local farms.
The night we visited, I ordered the pepper pot and Indian pork sage tenderloin. The savory, moist pork had a crunchy sear on it and was served in a cast iron skillet surrounded by spicy cassava thickened gravy.
For dessert, I relished the orange-infused dark chocolate fudge – crafted in the shape of St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix – served with dulce de leche and toasty plantain bread crumbs. My husband savored the warm doughnut bread pudding with bacon streusel ice cream and mint coulis.
If you Visit Ocean 362 at sunset, you’ll be treated to distant views of St. Thomas against silhouetted clouds and a dramatic blood-orange sky.
Stop for dinner at The Lime Inn, housed in a quaint Cruz Bay courtyard. Green capiz shell lights hang above the bar flanked by wood beams and topped with a thatched roof. Owners Chelsea and Richard Baranowski are experienced restaurateurs. Chelsea Baranowski’s parents managed the restaurant for 32 years.
Seafood is the specialty here. Try the local wahoo, sautéed then finished in the oven with coconut rice, broccoli, and pineapple coconut coulis. The made-from-scratch clam chowder is another favorite. A popular dessert is the tart and refreshing frozen Key lime pie.
“It’s a casual atmosphere where patrons converse freely,” said Chelsea Baranowski.
While waiting for dinner, stop in the Pink Papaya gift shop located in the adjoining building. Owners Linda and John Dickson sell locally made art, ceramics, photography, and jewelry. A big seller is a coffee table book titled Living Art by local photographer Steve Simonsen.
The next morning, pick up a fresh salad or sandwich at Sam & Jack’s Deli, located in Cruz Bay’s Starfish Market, for a picnic lunch. All the desserts are house-made; try the Almond Joy cheesecake.
To work off those calories, head to pristine Jumbie Bay (near Trunk Bay) and walk the tall tree-lined path to the beach. The secluded cove’s crushed shell beach has easy entry for swimming or snorkeling. Snorkel the aquamarine waters to the left of the black rocks and you’ll spot huge porcupine fish, snapper, wrasse, and blue tang.
Hawksnest Bay offers pavilions, grills, restrooms, and changing rooms nestled in a shady grove near the beach. Buoys mark the water for swimmers. Snorkelers will delight in the shallow reef system teeming with honeycomb trunkfish, parrotfish, yellow wrasse, and Elkhorn coral.
Searching for treasure
After a day in the Caribbean sun, head back into Cruz Bay for shopping. If you’re looking for upscale jewelry and watches, visit Little Switzerland in the Mongoose Junction duty-free shopping center. The St. John Bracelet Company is owned by Terrell Carpenter and Iana Shkoda. Pick up one of Carpenter’s unique hammered-hook bracelets that’s said to show where your heart lies.
“Wear the bracelet with the open ends towards your heart and your heart is taken. Wear it away from your heart, your heart is available to find love,” said Carpenter.
But after just one visit, your heart will belong to St. John island.
Sheree Nielsen is a contributor from Wentzville, Mo.