When it comes to the U.S. Virgin Islands, one thing is pretty much a given: You’ll stay on St. Thomas, where lodging is abundant and therefore a bit cheaper than St. John or St. Croix. But if you want to escape the crowds, hopping a ferry to St. John is both affordable and easy.
There are many tour companies that offer day trips from St. Thomas to its nearby neighbor, St. John. (St. Croix, located 40 miles away, is a bit more difficult to reach.) If you’re a more independent traveler, it’s easy to catch a ferry on your own, and then catch public transportation once you reach St. John.
A typical day might go something like this:
Catch the ferry early in the morning. Many tour companies leave between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. Ferries leave from Red Hook, located on the eastern side of St. Thomas, on the hour. The sun will be bright and hot. Wear sunscreen and pack plenty of water for the day.
You’ll arrive in Cruz Bay, a harbor lined with several small shops. This dock isn’t nearly as overwhelming as the one in St. Thomas. It’s located near the visitors’ center for U.S. Virgin Islands National Park, which is a good place to pick up a free map of the island since 54% of it is designated as protected park area by the U.S. government.
There are several hikes that take off from the visitors’ center, so consider starting your day with a bit of exercise if you’re on your own. Tour companies won’t build in a lengthy hike. The trails lead to viewpoints that overlook parts of the island and the surrounding waters. One trail makes its way to Honeymoon Beach, which is nearly void of visitors.
After you’ve worked up a good sweat, head into the heart of the island, but stop for views at outlooks along the way. The drive around the island is experience enough, as the roads are steep, narrow and windy. If you’re in an open-air vehicle, keep your hands inside so they don’t hit the passing tree branches.
If you are able, stop at Annaberg, which was once a large sugar plantation and today only contains the ruins of the thriving industry. Catherineburg is the site of another former plantation in the park. There are also several other trails that criss-cross the island. If you’d like to wander among the lizards and ferns, find a path that gets you off the road.
For lunch, stop at one of the cafes that you encounter on your tour of the island. There are also snack stands at many of the beaches. Food is pricey and basic. You can also pack a lunch before leaving St. Thomas.
It would be a crime to come all the way to St. John and not spend time on a beach, so after you finish your lunch, take your pick of watering holes and find a place on the sand. Hawksnest is the closest beach to Cruz Bay and Cinnamon Bay has a water sports center on site from which you can rent equipment and make arrangements for sailing and scuba diving lessons. I spent the afternoon at Trunk Bay, which I highly recommend due to its excellent snorkeling opportunities. The entrance fee is $4.00. You can rent snorkel equipment from the stand on the beach, or, if you’re with an organized tour, chances are the snorkel gear is built into the price.
Trunk Bay is part of the national park, and there is a marked underwater trail that provides information about what you are viewing when you snorkel. The reef is large and hugs a protected island that is packed with birds. On the reef, you’ll spot a variety of colorful fish, including cowfish, parrotfish and several schools of small, minnow-like fish. There are many types of coral and lots of sea urchins tucked into the crevices of the rock. Occasionally there is a large sea turtle spotted in this area. If you happen to cross a jellyfish, let the lifeguards know. Once you tire of snorkeling, spend an hour or two on the beach or soaking in the bathtub-warm water. There are public showers you can use free of charge to rinse off the sea water before heading back to the harbor.
Before leaving Cruz Bay, feel free to squeeze in a few minutes of shopping at the local boutique stores or grab a fruit smoothie for the ferry ride back to St. Thomas.
Advantages of going with an organized tour:
- Your guides can provide you with background information about what you are seeing as you pass by islands on your way to and around St. John. They know the names of all the islands, the historical context of the buildings along the way and information about the population, local industries and vegetation.
- You will pay for all fees upfront, so there won’t be any expected costs. Ask whether water and lunch are included in the tour fee when you book.
- You won’t have as many hassles when arranging transportation. Tour companies will arrange your transportation to and from St. John and on the island.
Advantages of going on your own:
- You’ll have the ability to make flexible plans. You can decide what you want to do, for how long and in what order.
- You will most likely save money by going it alone. An organized tour runs around $100.00 per person, but you should be able to piecemeal everything for significantly less. The ferry ride will be about $5.00 each way. Open air buses on St. John are just a couple dollars. Taxis cost just a bit more, but you can utilize them to reach a specific destination or hire them for tours of the island.
My day trip to St. John was sponsored by Marriott and Renaissance Caribbean and Mexico as part of the 2010 Blogger’s Paradise, but all opinions are completely my own.