Above: A perfect day on Gibney Beach, along St. John’s Hawksnest Bay.
A laid-back outpost in the eastern Caribbean, St. John is as remarkable for what it lacks (nightlife, an airport) as it is for what it has—scenic natural beauty, a blithe spirit, and a colorful cast of residents
By Christopher R. Cox
Photographs by Steve Simonsen
From the overlook atop Flag Hill, St. Thomas’s snug harbor looks like a tourism- board postcard: a fleet of blindingly white cruise ships anchored besides a bustling duty-free shopping complex; the narrow streets and historic buildings of Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, crowded with tourists; the flanking mountains covered with condos and villas.
Less than five kilometers to the east, how- ever, there exists an alternate Caribbean real- ity. Sleepy St. John can’t claim an airport, let alone a traffic light or more than a single gas station or supermarket. And that’s just the way its 4,200 year-round residents—a mix of “born heres” and “continentals”—like it. To paraphrase a popular St. John bumper sticker, these folks are all here because they’re not all there—“there” being any other Caribbean island with casinos, golf courses, mega-resorts, a cruise-ship terminal, and other de rigueur tourist facilities.
There are no such facilities on St. John, which ambles to the old rhythms of island time. But there is mesmerizing scenery, and a near- perfect climate kissed by constant trade winds. This, plus world-class sailing, has attracted both artists and active, outdoorsy free spirits who often share the same back story: they came here on holiday and then returned repeatedly as St. John’s small-town vibe and slack pace worked their subtle, inexorable magic. In time, completely enchanted, they found a way to move here for good, damn the cost of living and the inevitable hurricane.
For such a singular place, St. John has a history not unlike that of almost every other Caribbean island: a sighting by Columbus, an indigenous people quickly eradicated, marginal sugar and cotton plantations enabled by slavery. Less than 50 square kilometers of moun- tains and dry forest, St. John is distinguished by its quirky patrimony: It was settled by Den- mark, a third-tier colonial power whose choic- est overseas possession was Iceland. During World War I, the United States bought what became the U.S. Virgin Islands to keep them out of German hands and to secure sea-lanes leading to the brand-new Panama Canal.
With less than 1,000 residents at the time, St. John was an afterthought of an American territory. Bay-rum aftershave was its only industry, and the population dwindled. But the island’s fortunes changed forever in 1952, when Laurance S. Rockefeller came calling aboard his sailboat, Dauntless. A philanthropist of the old school, the multimillionaire quickly and quietly bought up land and then donated more than 1,800 hectares to help create the Virgin Islands National Park in 1956. That put St.
John on the map and in the American consciousness, while also neutering widespread development. Expanded several times in the ensuing decades, the park now occupies about two-thirds of the island. The protected lands and offshore reefs are the engine of the island’s tourism-based economy, and the source of its unshakable serenity.
An ecotourism visionary, Rockefeller also built Caneel Bay resort on a beach-scalloped peninsula, arranging small clusters of rooms —just 166 in all—around the elegantly landscaped 69-hectare property. To help his citi- fied guests experience a natural sanctuary with perfect grooming, rooms contained no telephones or TVs, a ban that endures to this day. The sonic fast is liberating. More than 50 years on, Caneel Bay still serves as a near-perfect portal to St. John’s natural bounty. When I arrive by boat from St. Thomas, I’m greeted by a chorus of birdsong, not ring tones. The resort’s broad, manicured grounds, with their just-so trees and flowers and grazing herds of white-tailed deer, suggest an English-estate aesthetic—though the feral donkeys and mongooses lend a distinctly Caribbean touch. And with seven different beaches on the property, who needs cable?
Thanks to the national park, which holds nearly every Caribbean habitat except rain forest, I discover within the space of a week that St. John deals a full house of day-trip diversions—everything from flat-line loafing to full-on adventure. One day I beach-hop the north coast’s lineup of bleach-white sands—Hawksnest, Trunk, Cinnamon, and Maho bays —each more dramatic than the last. On the way, I take a short detour to explore Annaberg, a 200-year-old sugar mill overlooking the hills of Tortola, British Virgin Islands, just across the narrow Sir Francis Drake Channel. To slake my thirst at the ruins, I buy a cup of bush tea from Miss Olivia, an islander hawking a local brew made with pungent “sweet scent” leaves; a machete-toting farmer tending a nearby garden plot kicks up the flavor further by slicing me a stalk of lemon grass.
On another morning, an open-air “safari” taxi climbs up sinuous Centerline Road to deliver me to the start of the 3.5-kilometer Reef Bay Trail, one of the island’s best-known hikes. From the trailhead I descend nearly 300 meters in elevation to the sea, down a narrow valley of moist tropical forest. Bananaquits, known locally as “sugar birds,” flit along the steep track, an old cart road that passes the vine-choked stone ruins of several Danish-era plantations and a small waterfall where the rocks are carved with pre-Colombian petroglyphs. At trail’s end, the rusting machinery and moldering brickwork of the island’s last great sugar mill stand like a forgotten sentinels near an empty, coral-rimmed bay. It’s almost impossible to imagine that less than a century ago this jungle-cloaked valley held a thriving community.
As for lively communities, no place on the island has more spirit than Coral Bay, a village of about 500 individualists and iconoclasts on the out-of-the-way east end of the island. Though founded in 1717, making it St. John’s oldest settlement, it long ago ceded commercial and administrative prominence to Cruz Bay, situated just five kilometers across Pillsbury Sound from St. Thomas.
Coral Bay has few regrets about the bypass; the town still limes with a blithe, old-timeCaribbean spirit. Generations of West Indian families have sent down deep roots here. Recent arrivals who’ve fled the relative bustle of Cruz Bay revel in a tranquility where the loudest noise is the braying of wild donkeys. The harbor, one of the biggest and best protected in the Virgins, is dotted with scores of live-aboard boats and their eccentric skippers. One islander half-jokingly compares the town to Amerigo, the fictitious U.S. Caribbean territory of Herman Wouk’s comedic 1965 novel Don’t Stop the Carnival, famously populated with a sideshow collection of expat “frauds, fakes, failures and freaks.”
“Coral Bay’s a little more ragged around the edges, a little crustier than the rest of St. John,” says Jeff Donnelly, who moved there from Montserrat after that tiny island’s Soufriere Hills Volcano erupted in 1995. According to his wife, Jen, the town’s “chill-out vibe” makes Coral Bay an ideal base camp for living the island life. Once, after sitting down for dinner at a local restaurant, they watched a woman dive off a nearby sailboat and swim ashore; she soon reappeared in the waterfront grill—as their waitress.
“There’s a saying,” relates Jeff, who owns Coral Bay’s Jolly Dog clothing shop. “St. John: Home of the Wanted—and the Unwanted.”
Having that many self-styled dropouts in such close proximity breeds a strong sense of community. Just check out a bulletin board at a Coral Bay restaurant, or the ads in the local paper. You’ll see announcement for events like 8 Tuff Miles, a Cruz Bay-to-Coral Bay road race to assist island charities; Wagapalooza, an offbeat dog show that supports the animal shelter; or a benefit for a resident who needs expensive off-island medical care.
Whenever there’s a noble cause, chances are that Maurice “Moe” Chabuz is involved. Chabuz, who bailed from a Massachusetts factory town in 1979, greets me at Skinny Legs, his affable Coral Bay bar and grill, which is renowned for its blue-cheese hamburgers and backyard horseshoe pit. He proudly shows me around the shack-like space, decorated with New England sports paraphernalia, hand-drawn thank-you notes from local schoolkids and The Island of Lost Soles, a sculpture fashioned from discarded sneakers and flip-flops.
“If you want nightlife, go to St. Thomas or San Juan,” says the teetotaling barkeep, who recently retired and sold the joint to his long- time manager. “To me, the beauty of St. John is the day life: the beaches, the hiking, the park, the people. We don’t export anything but good memories.”
When to go
Like most of the Caribbean region, St. John experiences a rainy season from May to November, with the greatest potential for hurricanes in September and October. The island celebrates Carnival in the first week of July.
Where to Stay
Caneel Bay (340/776-6111; rosewoodhotels.com; doubles from US$450) has seven beaches, just 166 guest rooms, and every five-star amenity imaginable. Six kilometers beyond Coral Bay and adjacent to Virgin Islands National Park, Concordia Eco-Resort (340/693-5855; concordiaeco-resort.com; doubles from US$190) offers solar-powered tents with stunning vistas of the Ram’s Head promontory.
Where to Eat
Set in a century-old Danish-era building in Cruz Bay, La Tapa (340/693-7755; latapastjohn.com) changes its bistro-style menu daily. Acrossthe island in Coral Bay, Skinny Legs (340/779-4982; skinnylegs.com) serves up great burgers with plenty of atmosphere.
What to do
The most popular pastime is hitting the north shore’s white-sand beaches. Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay have amenities; the former also features a 100-meter snorkel trail with underwater tablets explaining the reef system. As well, the islands has 20 marked hiking trails, all easily accom-plished in half a day or less.
Considered one of the world’s finest cruising grounds, the virgin islands can be explored on a day sail with Calypso Catamaran Charters (340/777-7245; calypsovi.com); stops include the famed Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost van Dyke, B.V.I., birthplace of the lethal painkiller cocktail. –CRC
Originally appeared in the June/July 2012 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“My Blue Heaven”)