St. John, US Virgin Islands
In 1956, tycoon Laurance Rockefeller purchased a large portion of St. John and turned it into a national park to preserve the beauty of the island. Today, the smallest of the 3 US Virgin Islands, St. John is 28 square miles - almost two-thirds of which is designated as a US national park. As other islands in the Caribbean become overdeveloped with super-size resorts and tourist attractions, St. John remains remarkably untouched - a trait that only increases its lure.
There are 2 main resorts on the island, and a number of smaller accommodations classified as eco-tourism sites, meaning they are earth-friendly and typically powered by the wind and sun. These unique resorts are affordable and comfortable, offering privacy and a sense of peace. Simplicity aside, St. John sure doesn't skimp when it comes to great food and ambiance. There are excellent restaurants both at the resorts and in the colorful town of Cruz Bay, where the tiny streets house four-star establishments offering gourmet meals in a barefoot setting - you may have the urge to dress up for dinner, but leave your shoes behind!
There are a number of beaches on St. John, from the long sandy stretch of Cinnamon Bay to the more secluded Hawksnest Beach, Lameshur Bay and Salt Pond Bay. You may wish to explore them all or to pick your favorite on your first day of vacation, leaving your station only to eat and sleep. The beauty of St. John is there is no pressure to do anything on the island, except relax and enjoy the scenery. Oh, and of course, to snorkel, as the waters here are some of the clearest on any of the islands and home to schools of bright multicolored fish and meandering sea turtles. The sister US Virgin Islands, as well as the nearby British Virgin Islands, are easily accessible by boat and make a great day trip to check out what's happening nearby.
Best on the Beach
Caneel Bay Resort
Web site: www.caneelbay.com
The Rosewood Caneel Bay Resort is a perfect Zen hideaway, blending undisputed elegance and comfort with a quiet sense of peace, right down to television-free rooms. With the resort's 7 secluded beaches and 170 acres of lush tropical fauna, the buildings blend into the background and nature takes her rightful place center stage. The service is personal and the friendly knock at the door that serves as the morning wake-up call is more than a reminder to rise - it invites guests to get up and enjoy the watercolor classes, kayak tours, an underwater session with the "snorkologist," tai chi classes and, of course, the beach.
Westin Resort St. John
Web site: www.westinresortstjohn.com
Those visitors attracted to the pristine beaches and rugged wildlife of St. John, but not interested in roughing it, will find supreme comfort in the trademark Heavenly Bed at the Westin Resort. Some may argue that this resort goes against the simple, laid-back beauty of the island, but many visitors find a piece of paradise here with golf, tennis, fine dining and spacious rooms. The Westin Kid's Club will keep the wee ones busy, and there is still plenty of time to hike, snorkel and explore the hidden beauty of St. John.
Best Beachfront Camping
Cinnamon Bay Campground
Web site: www.cinnamonbay.com
Maintained by the National Park Service, Cinnamon Bay is a true "camper's campground," featuring beachfront campsites enclosed in a border of tropical wilderness. Cinnamon provides varied levels of comfort, with a choice of cottages with twin beds, tent sites or bare sites perfect for those diehards who bring their own high-tech camping gear. The cottages and tent sites provide fresh linens and cooking supplies, making packing a little lighter, and the cottages also offer cooking facilities. The Tree Lizards Restaurant is a great place to meet other campers, as are the on-site activities that make this campground feel like an intimate village - a good thing when you're sharing a bathroom with your neighbors.
Maho Bay Camps
Web site: www.maho.org
Welcome nature lovers and enviromentalists - Maho Bay Camps proves that a Caribbean vacation doesn't have to equal high-rise hotels and lavish spending. A model of eco-tourism, the Maho Bay Camps contains 114 wood-frame tent cottages that are comfortable and uncluttered. Even non-campers will feel at home and sleep peacefully, thanks to the combination of the gentle night air that rustles the wall-size screens and the clear conscience from staying at this charming, environmentally-friendly hideaway.
Food & Drink
Best Oceanside Fine Dining
Caneel Bay Beach Terrace Dining Room
Web site: www.caneelbay.com/dine4.cfm
Mere steps from the beach, this is just one of the restaurants at Caneel Bay Resort that serves up supremely tasty food in a striking setting. The terrace serves a daily lunch buffet, but the grande dame of this eatery is the Grande Buffet, which is offered once a week. It's hard not to stuff yourself on the fresh seafood, elaborate entrees and decadent desserts - and the perfect finale is simple; just sit back and watch the waves roll out to the bay.
Best Caribbean Food
Where: Salt Pond Road, near Estate Concordia, Coral Bay
Miss Lucy plays a hard-to-forget role in the interesting cast of characters around the island. Not only is she the legendary "first female taxi driver" around town, today she is certainly the "host with the most" at the restaurant that bears her name. Specialties include a spicy West Indian stew of okra and greens called callaloo, conch fritters and fresh fish, all enjoyed with a classic side dish of cornmeal and okra known as fungi. Miss Lucy puts together an unforgettable Sunday brunch, and for those lucky enough to be around for a full moon, she also throws mysterious full-moon parties to celebrate the gleaming Caribbean moon with a roast-suckling pig.
Best Casual Bar
Web Site: www.shipwrecklandingstjohn.com
Celebrate happy hour with a frozen tropical drink and burger or fresh blackened snapper sandwich at a table overlooking the sea at Shipwreck Landing. Nothing is fancy here - from the food to the atmosphere to the clientele - and it offers a great taste of island life. Wednesday nights feature live entertainment, with local bands playing old favorites or peppy jazz.
Best Elegant Dining
Where: Cruz Bay
Situated atop a hill overlooking Cruz Bay and the neighboring British Virgin Islands, Asolare is the best choice for an elegant meal in the center of St. John. While the French and Asian cuisine is so tasty it could come straight from an upscale New York kitchen, this is not your typical city restaurant - Asolare maintains the island's leisurely vibe, allowing diners to enjoy their meal in an unrushed, relaxed setting.
Best Activity for Kids
Caneel Bay Turtle Town
Web site: www.caneelbay.com
Though only available for families staying at the Caneel Bay Resort, Turtle Town seems to achieve the impossible - keeping kids entertained and happy even in the absence of television and video games. The secluded Children's Center makes kids feel like they have access to a magical clubhouse, one where nature is exciting, culture is fun and recycled goods become fantastic artwork.
First-time snorkelers and pros alike can follow the colored buoys that mark the unique underwater snorkel trail at Trunk Bay. Since you can't bring a map in the ocean, this watery trail posts signs that identify the inhabitants of this underwater world, including coral, fish and other aquatic life. Snorkel equipment is available for rental at the kiosk. A post-snorkeling nap on the white sands of this renowned beach is a great way to end the day.
Best Day Trip
Only a 20-minute boat ride from the Cruz Bay dock, nearby St. Thomas offers a change of scenery and pace from laid-back St. John. Bring along your credit card as the tax-free shopping is an activity in itself on this island. St. Thomas features great deals to be found on perfume, jewelry, local handcrafts and art, pottery and crystal. While the shopping is fantastic, there are also a number of activities to keep the family entertained, including local bus and walking tours of the various neighborhoods, the former pirates' lairs at Blackbeard and Bluebeard's castles, and the Estate St. Peter Botanical Gardens.
Hike St. John
Virgin Islands National Park
Web site: hikestjohn.com
Hikers can choose from a selection of more than 20 trails, ranging from beginner to advanced. While most are easy to navigate and safe to hike without a guide, organizations like Hike St. John arrange guided trips that educate hikers about the history of St. John and the significance of the land, from the dense forests to the historical ruins of plantations. Combination snorkel-hike trips are also available to give a comprehensive land and sea view of this lush national park.