Land, Sea and Sky: Explore St. John's Natural Bounty



Visitors flock to St. John primarily for one thing: the great outdoors. Whether that means lying on the beach, hiking, snorkeling, or horseback riding, it's all there for the taking.

Beaches are the most popular outdoor attraction, and Trunk Bay on the North Shore tops the list of favorites. This well-loved beach can get a little busy in winter though, so if you want a more quiet beach experience head to Salt Pond Bay on the far southern tip of the island.

The waters around St. John are best explored by boat or kayak, with companies like Arawak Expeditions or Wet Woody's. Arawak offers guided kayak tours of the coves and reefs, while Wet Woody's specializes in festive offshore "booze cruises."

Those who prefer to stay on dry land can explore the many trails of the Virgin Islands National Park, such as the Reef Bay Trail, which descends from the top of the island, through plantation ruins, all the way to the sea. If you'd rather let someone else do the work, try a 2-hour horseback ride at Carolina Corral, where you'll be treated to panoramic views of distant islands.

If you need a break from the great outdoors, spend a half a day wandering the quaint streets of Cruz Bay. Pop in and out of the boutiques, or treat yourself to a gourmet dinner at one of the many fine restaurants. Just up the hill at the Elaine Ione Sprauve Library, a range of exhibits illustrate the culture and history of St. John.



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No visit to St. John is complete without a day trip on the water with some snorkeling, bar hopping, and chillin'. Which is where Wet Woody's comes in. This private boat charter company, which is affiliated with the famous Woody's Seafood Saloon in Cruz Bay, offers half-day, full-day and multi-day captained charters to the nearby British Virgin Islands and the hidden coves and bays of St. John. All charters include a Wet Woody's beer koozie, a bottle of Wet Woody's 30 spf sunscreen, ice and drinking water, a sampling of beverages from St. John Brewers, a captain and first mate, and a complimentary drink at Woody's Seafood Saloon after the charter.


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Carolina Corral


 

Carolina Corral offers one to one-and-a-half hour horseback rides through the hills overlooking the sea. To the north you'll get beautiful views of Tortola, to the east you'll peer over Hurricane Hill, and to the west you'll get a panoramic view of Coral Bay. Trail rides do not go on the beach, but you are given the opportunity to gallop on flat ground at a nearby field. Dana, the owner, offer tons of information about island history, flora and fauna, as well as bits of St. John trivia. Groups are limited to six. Reservations are required. Located along Centerline Road in Coral Bay. Don't forget your camera.


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Elaine Ione Sprauve Library & Museum
Photo courtesy of Karen Elowitt


 

St John is home to a thriving public library, located on the old Enighed Estate. Constructed in 1757 as a plantation great house, it fell into disrepair before being restored to its former glory in 1980. In addition to book loans, periodicals, video rentals and research facilities, the library offers an extensive reference collection focused on the Caribbean. Downstairs a small museum features displays on the history and culture of St. John, including Indian pottery and colonial artifacts. The library also hosts book discussion groups, Spanish language classes, children's story hours and occasional craft demonstrations.


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Salt Pond Bay Beach
Photo courtesy of Karen Elowitt


 

This isolated beach on the southern tip of the island is popular with St. John locals and intrepid tourists willing to make the trek. It's a great place to just spend a lazy day sunning and snorkeling in the shallow, calm water. The beach itself is beautiful but there is not much shade, so either bring an umbrella or stake out a place under a bush. To get there you have to hike about 10 minutes from the main road on a gravel trail. An outhouse and several picnic tables are the only facilities available, so bring your own food and water.


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Full and half-day guided kayak excursions are Arawak's specialty. This small family-owned business offers expert-guided tours of the stunning North Shore waters or the Coral Reef National Monument in Hurricane Hole, which include stops for lunch and snorkeling. Besides kayaking, the company also offers standup paddleboarding, snorkeling, and fly fishing trips, as well as multi-day, multi-sport expeditions. Die-hard outdoorsmen love the five-day kayak-and-camping trip which threads its way around various U.S. and British Virgin Islands before heading back to Cruz Bay. Independent or experienced water enthusiasts can forego the guide and instead rent kayaks, snorkels or paddleboards and head out on adventures of their own making.


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This Danish Colonial plantation was built in 1721 and produced sugar, rum and molasses. Today it's a museum where you can learn about all phases of plantation life and sugar production. You can tour the old slave quarters, factory, and windmill by following the marked historical walking trail. Spectacular views of the sea and other islands are visible from the plantation, which is located on the northeast side of the island, near Leinster Bay. An admission fee is charged, and there are often National Park staff on hand to provide information. After touring the ruins, consider a hike on the Leinster Bay trail, one of the most scenic on the island.


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Reef Bay Trail
Photo courtesy of Karen Elowitt


 

This popular hike can be undertaken on your own (with the help of a park service map), or you can join a guided tour led by a park service ranger. The distance is 2.5 miles each way; the trail is mostly shaded by jungle vegetation but is quite rocky so sturdy shoes are required. The trail starts at the highest point on the island and winds downward toward the sea to Reef Bay in about two hours. A slight detour takes you to the ancient petroglyph site, with ancient rock carvings. The remains of a sugar plantation can be found at the end of the trail, as well as the lovely Reef Bay beach, which offers good snorkeling. If you opt for the ranger-led tour, an experienced guide will identify the trees, plants and animals along the way, and give a history of the Reef Bay Plantation and the petroglyphs. The guided trip also features a boat ride back to Cruz Bay. Self-guided hikers are on their own as far as getting home. You either have to hoof it all the way back to the top, or take a nearby trail to Lameshur Bay, where you can hitch a ride to your hotel or call a taxi. To reserve a spot on the guided hike, you must call Friends of the Park well in advance, as spots fill up quickly. The cost is $30 per person, and the meeting point is in front of the National Park visitor center in Cruz Bay.


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Trunk Bay Beach
Photo courtesy of Karen Elowitt


 

Trunk Bay is sort of the Holy Grail of St. John beaches, offering a wide expanse of pristine white sand and azure water marked by a small offshore cay. The gentle surf and reefs around the island make it a great spot for beginning snorkelers, and the marked underwater "trail" offers a lesson in Sea Life 101. The beach can get a bit crowded in peak season (especially on cruise ship days), but this somehow doesn't detract from its awesomeness. The facilities are excellent too: In addition to a snack bar and bathrooms, there is a changing room, showers, a picnic area, a gift shop and lockers. You can also rent watersports equipment. Snorkeling is best here in the morning, when the water is at its calmest. Since this beach is in the National Park, you have to pay a small entrance fee to get in.


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Cruz Bay
Photo courtesy of Karen Elowitt


 

This lovely little town, known locally as "Love City," is the heart of St John. The streets are lined with shops, restaurants, and bars, which are all within easy walking distance of each other. You can easily spend an afternoon lazily wandering around soaking in the mellow, laid-back vibe and charm of the town, then spend the evening noshing in one of the numerous restaurants. After dinner, head to one of the beachside bars at Wharfside Village and down a brew or two with your bare feet in the sand. Cruz Bay is also the transit hub for the island: ferries to St Thomas and the British Virgin Islands leave from the two docks, and safari bus tours of the island depart from here as well.


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Virgin Islands National Park
Photo courtesy of Dr. Caroline Rogers


 

The Virgin Islands National Park is St John's largest and most popular attraction. It covers 3/5 of St John's landmass and includes 12,624 land and marine acres that encompass pristine beaches, coral reefs, hiking trails, wild donkeys and 800 types of plants. There are also ancient artifacts from the pre-Columbian settlers and remnants of colonial sugar plantations. Twenty-two hiking trails cover more than 20 miles; the park visitor's center has maps. Guided walks are open to the public - ask at the visitor center for details. Rangers also offer evening sky watch programs where they teach you about the constellations at the Cinnamon Bay Amphitheater, then take you on a nighttime beachside sky tour.


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Meet Karen Elowitt

Karen worked for several years as a newspaper reporter and copy editor before becoming a travel writer. She worked for renowned  travel expert Peter Greenberg before going freelance, and now...  More About Karen

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