Before our cruise ship docked at St. Thomas, we knew we wanted to escape the island. Of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas is known as the touristy one, cluttered with duty-free jewelry shops, kitschy markets selling t-shirts and lots of traffic.
No thank you.
So we hopped the first ferry over to St. John, where most of the land is protected as Virgin Islands National Park and a lot of the surrounding water is considered Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument. The difference between St. Thomas and St. John was immediately obvious.
St. John is green and covered with trees, and the visitor’s center is just a couple minutes walk from the ferry station. There is a great round-trip, approximately 4-mile trail that leaves from the ranger station. We opted to go counter clockwise up the Caneel Hill Trail then down the Water Catchment Trail, along Honeymoon Beach and back to the ranger station via Lind Point Trail.
The Caneel Hill Trail goes straight uphill—think Stairmaster on steroids for over a mile. We pushed up the isolated trail, stopping to point out lizards that scampered out of the way and take pictures of these huge green plants that looked like oversized fans. With all the extra desserts and rich meals we’d been eating on our cruise, a strenuous hike that left us soaked in sweat felt unbelievably refreshing. And all that uphill walking was definitely worth it once we reached the overlook on Caneel Hill, which stands 719 feet above sea level.
From this viewpoint, we could see water on three sides of the island. The water was vivid, deep blue, and sailboats drifted from island to small island out in the ocean. Among the trees sat small houses, which were tucked among the arid greenery of ferns and cacti. I don’t think any one of them would have had a bad view from the front porch.
Past this overlook there is a dip in the trail, then another picturesque viewpoint from a rock; this is Margaret Hill, and it is 840 feet above sea level. We rehydrated, took a few more pictures and admired the view. It’s no wonder Americans want to buy property in the U.S. Virgin Islands and specifically on St. John. With just a few small towns, shops, homes and relaxing wilderness, it would be nearly impossible to be stressed out living there.
We headed northwest on the trail toward Honeymoon Beach, and as we started down out of the hills, one unusual thing we noticed was an overabundance of hermit crabs. It turns out the males head up into the hills to live but come down once a year to look for a mate on the beach. Seems to me that would be a lot of work, but you’ve got to give it to the little guys … those shells were not small!
Our plan was to eat our picnic lunch on Honeymoon Beach, but I thought we were running a little bit behind on time and there was a specific ferry we had to catch, so we only stopped for a few minutes. Gentle waves lapped up on the soft white sand. Small boats slowly drifted in the open water. Only a few people were scattered along the beach.
The final overlook on the trail gave us a different perspective of the island. From Lind Point we were able to see the ferry station, the ranger station, and several pastel-colored shops and homes on the shore and perched in the hills. We rested for a moment and gazed at a lonely hermit crab scratching his way along the sand. A fat black and yellow caterpillar hung lazily on a branch above us.
As we ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches back at the ranger station, we started chatting with a guy who worked with the maintenance crew in the park. “If St. John wasn’t protected, it would look like St. Thomas,” he said, picking his teeth with a toothpick. “People from the mainland want to come down here and build houses and stores, but when they do that, they ruin the island.”
He’s right, of course. We can admire islands like St. John as travelers, but as soon as the world decides to turn it into “home,” it becomes another commercialized location that was once a beautiful place to visit. Because of that, I’m thankful for the National Park Service and what it’s done to protect gorgeous St. John from becoming another St. Thomas.
We wiped our crumbs from the table, dropped a donation into the box and turned from the park to catch the 2:00 ferry.
The Cruz Bay Visitor Center is open daily 8:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Entrance into the park is free.
Top photo taken by me. Bottom three photos courtesy of my sister.
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- A Day on St. John | U.S. Virgin Islands
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