The Virgin Islands offered a vacation both my wife (Melissa) and I were looking for. She likes relaxation on beautiful beaches, and I wanted adventures beyond the beach. She likes the water, and I like visiting national parks. The Virgin Islands, especially St. John and Virgin Islands National Park, fulfilled both of our desires and outdid our expectations.
Of the places we visited in the Virgin Islands, St. John was hands down the best. (See Part 1 for more on St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands.) Nearly two-thirds of the island is Virgin Islands National Park. Other than Cruz Bay (the main spot on the west end) and a sliver for Coral Bay on the east end, the park is much more secluded and undeveloped than St. Thomas. Resorts and restaurants are far and few between—other than Cruz Bay—and when you get beyond the beaches, you’re as likely to see the local wildlife of iguanas, deer, chickens, and a stray donkey as you are to see a tourist. The National Park includes hiking trails, beaches, coral reefs, sugar mill artifacts, petroglyphs, and “mountain” overlooks. The park rangers offer numerous activities, including guided hikes, night-sky viewings, and historical tours. You can find maps and information at the park’s visitor center, as well as some park souvenirs and swimwear.
The park offers a lot, but what it’s known for is its beaches. Most of the hikes either lead to a scenic overlook of the water or down to it. And the beaches are spectacular. Trunk Bay is easily the most beautiful beach Melissa or I have seen. There’s much more to see than we could in a couple days, but we spent time on Trunk Bay, Honeymoon Beach, Maho Bay, and made a quick stop at Cinnamon Beach. While Trunk Bay is far and away the best, all the St. John’s beaches we visited were beautiful. Thankfully, these beaches and reefs are well-cared for and protected as part of our national parks system, “America’s best idea.”
Trunk Bay is the most well-known of the St. John beaches (see the featured image at the top and on the left). It’s consistently ranked as one of the top beaches in the world (and, might I add, much easier and cheaper to get to than others on the list). The sand is soft, thick, and white. It’s as comfy to lie on as it is enchanting to look at.
When you stand where saltwater and sand meet, the first few yards of crystal clear water allow you to see everything below. The water is mesmerizing, even for a half-hearted beach-lover like myself. The aqua colors stretch from the white sand out into the turquoise waters slightly darkened by the reefs underneath.
The beach beckons you to stare, gawking at its natural created beauty. I wanted to read or take a nap with the rhythmic sounds of the rolling waves and squawking birds in the background, but it was difficult to take my eyes off the wondrous water. As you drive towards the beach, descending the steep hills, you glimpse the water and anticipate an undistracted view when you’ll arrive. As you sit on the beach, debating whether to swim in the glimmering water, you look for a while and then look some more. As you leave and walk to the car, you glance back trying to lock in this amazing view you don’t know when you’ll see again.
Islands hover on the horizon at varying distances, some tiny and others large, most looking nearly uninhabited and a few speckled with hotels and homes. In this secluded paradise, it was easy to imagine those lost-at-sea books I loved as a kid like Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island.
Another rare thing to Trunk Bay, and part of the education benefits through it being in the National Park, is the underwater trail. The trail is close to shore and just off of the west side of Trunk Bay Cay, a small piece of land protruding from the water (off limits to people but welcome to birds). For beginners, which I was/am, the trail was fantastic. It guides you along with underwater signs pointing out some of what you’re seeing, such as the various kinds of coral.
While I would later snorkel at Guana Island in the British Virgin Islands—another great snorkeling spot—and Maho Bay, where the turtles love to feed, Trunk Bay offers an excellent snorkeling spot with its clear waters, vibrant reefs, underwater trail, and diverse species of fish. I discovered that I love snorkeling. As I’ve said, I enjoy beaches for a little while but my wife loves to just lay in the sun. I need adventure, and so snorkeling gave me a nature-based activity (win-win) while she sunbathed. I’ve watched countless shows where you see underwater life and the complex ecosystems working together, but it was such a neat experience to watch it under me as I floated above.
You uncover the variety of coral, the caverns and hiding places within the reef, the size of sea urchins (don’t step on them), and the way fish interact with this environment. I can’t recall all the variety of fish I saw, but my favorites were a few large parrot fish with exquisite, bright rainbow colors. You’d see the fish chomping on the corals—which if you haven’t watched the kids PBS show “Splash and Bubbles,” you’ve missed out on this video about how they make sandy beaches—ducking in and out of hiding spots, swimming in groups, or fleeing from one another. They seemed purposeful and yet playful.
The Virgin Islands are a great place to snorkel because of the temperatures of the water suitable for coral reefs and fish, the clear waters making for great viewing, and the safety as few of the scary sharks make regular visits—though a nursing shark we saw freaked Melissa out. (We bought a set prior to the trip for cheap on Amazon and took them wherever we went. They worked perfect, saved us money, and gave us comfort we weren’t breathing in someone else’s sweat and spit from rented gear. This is the way to go if you plan on snorkeling at the Virgin Islands, which you must do if you’re there.)
My wife and I also spent the bulk of a day on Honeymoon beach. You can only get there with a water-taxi dropping you off in the distance, or through a one-mile hike of semi-rugged terrain from the visitor’s center. We like hikes and didn’t want to shell out money for a quick boat-ride, so we took the hike (the work always makes the arrival more rewarding, and the heat makes the water even more inviting).
It was another gorgeous beach and even less crowded than the others. There were some nice shaded places from the trees—something this sunburn-prone body always looks for—and enough amenities to make staying put doable (bathrooms, food, gear rental, etc.). You could rent a pass and get access all-day to lounge chairs, snorkel gear, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards. It’s a great deal and a place worth at least a half-day stay.
Melissa and I had wanted to stand-up paddleboad (SUPs) for a couple years, so we were excited to give it a try. It was harder than I anticipated. With some gusts of winds and larger waves in this smaller bay, you’d go from confidently saying “I got this” to humbly falling onto your knees or tumbling into the water—which felt great every time. The local guide at the rental hut said women were usually better than men at the SUPs, which made me feel better as she glided back and forth across the bay like a pro and I slowly scooted along. My inferior balance skills weren’t helped by my added height, which turned me into a sail easily shaken when the wind turned up. It was fun, and I’d love to try it in calmer waters like a Colorado lake. We liked this beach’s combination of pretty waters, uncrowded but not completely isolated feel, and the water activities to break up soaking up the sun.
Maho Bay isn’t on the same level as Trunk Bay but that’s hardly a fair comparison. It’s still a beautiful beach. Its shore is a bit rockier with washed up shells and black granite stones. It has a little more of a party feel near its huts serving drinks and food, and then around Maho Point you’ll see quite a few snorkelers.
The water in this bay is shallow and you only have to go in a few yards to arrive at the underwater grass the turtles love so much. Finding green sea turtles feeding on the vegetation was no problem here. I spotted five in less than fifteen minutes of snorkeling, most of that time going towards staying put and watching them feed and then swim to the top for a quick breath. If you didn’t move they don’t mind you watching, and with a bright sun above you have no problem seeing how they feed, turn their necks to get a better bite, and slowly graze around only a couple of feet below or in front of you. It’s worth the price of the trip to swim with these turtles in their own environment, finding them on your own and with no one else around.
If we ever returned to the Virgin Islands—something I struggle to do with vacations since there are so many other places to see—we would probably stick with St. John. St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands were great to experience and worth the trip, but once was enough for me. Virgin Islands National Park would be worth a trip again one day since there’s so much we didn’t get to do and since their beaches are unrivaled. But then again, I have fifty-four more national parks to visit.
(All photos taken on my iPhone XR.)