While winter is the slow season for many national parks, it is the very best season to visit Virgin Islands National Park.
What's not to like about leaving the cold and snow behind for sugar-sand beaches lined by palm trees, great snorkeling, scuba diving, and sailing, or exploring trails and their vestiges of ancient civilizations? And if you're a student of history, even if it's dark, the island of St. John that holds the national park also features remnants of European domination of paradise.
What type of weather might you expect?
The Tradewinds (the Easterlies) dominate the weather in the Virgin Islands, blowing east to west across the tropical Atlantic. The winter tends to bring stronger winds and less rain, and the summer tends to bring more rain and lighter winds.
In winter, cold fronts moving off the continent sometimes bring the Christmas winds down from the north. The fronts do not bring cold air as far south as the Virgin Islands, but they can create large waves breaking on the north shore beaches -- which is great for surfing, but can also pose some danger if you're not paying attention.
If you can manage a trip to this national park, now is the time to start planning for it. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
* Depending where you live, one of the downsides to visiting Virgin Islands National Park can be that it takes a while to get there. From Salt Lake, we spent a good, full day traveling to St. Thomas before proceeding to St. John the next day.
The Virgin Islands' main airport is in St. Thomas, and from there you take a passenger ferry to Cruz Bay, the main entry point to St. John and where the park headquarters is located. The Red Hook (St. Thomas) ferry runs hourly (departing St. John) from 6 a.m. to midnight (departing Red Hook).
The Charlotte Amalie ferry in downtown St. Thomas leaves less frequently. It is closer to the airport, but the Red Hook ferry is slightly closer to Cruz Bay. It's basically a toss-up that likely comes down to what fits best with your schedule.
* There are no lodges within the national park. As a result, most visitors either stay at a resort or rent a house.
On St. John rental houses are referred to by property managers as “villas.” Time your visit for the off-season -- roughly mid-April 2012--mid-December 2012 -- and you can find a nice one for about $200 a night...or go all the way past $700 a night, depending on location and amenities. (Depending on how the season is shaping up, you might be able to negotiate an off-season rate near the end of the high season. It never hurts to ask.)
But when you consider the full kitchen, the laundry room, and the two or three bedrooms, and more than likely the deck and BBQ, and maybe a pool, you’ll appreciate being able to flee the resort life and save a little money cooking for yourself when the mood strikes. And if you can split the cost with friends, it becomes even more affordable.
To find a list of property management agenicies, just Google (or Bing, or Yahoo!) "St. John's villas" and you'll quickly be overwhelmed by the possibilities.
There is a resort -- Caneel Bay -- just outside Cruz Bay if you want to splurge.
* Cruz Bay is the main resort town on St. John. Here you'll find a nice collection of restaurants, as well as some shops and stores where you can load up on momentos of your visit as well as fresh fish for your grill.
* You can save money by camping, and this doesn't necessary mean sleeping on the sand in a tent.
Cinnamon Bay is the only beach inside the park with a public campground. But it's a nice one. You'll find kayak rentals, a restaurant, 15-by-15-foot cottages (with twin beds and electricity, central restrooms are a short walk away), wall tents with cots, and...limited parking, so don't expect to drive up at noon and easily find a spot.
Maho Bay offers a privately operated lodging operation that consists of 114 "tent cottages" and condo-type units. There's also a restaurant here, a store where you can stock up on those beach items you might have forgotten, a beach cafe, and a watersports shop. Condition of these cottages and condos are commensurate with their age, and you'll pay more than if you pitched a tent at Cinnamon Bay, but these are a tad more substantial.
* To help prepare for the trip, study the park's website, pick up a guidebook or two (I found the St. John Tour Guide by Pam Gaffin to be a great resource, and she can even be hired to lead you around St. John), and don't forget to toss your National Park Passport into your bag. It can be stamped at the park's visitor center right there in Cruz Bay, where the ferry docks.
* If you truly like to explore, rent (in the weeks before you reach the island) a Jeep to give you some freedom on the island. True, there are bus-like open-air taxis that will take you from Cruz Bay all the way out to Cinnamon Bay and even, I believe, the Annaberg Sugar Plantation ruin. But if you want to check out other places -- say Coral Bay or Great Lamshur Beach -- you'll need your own wheels.
While there are plenty of two-door Jeep Wranglers and similar SUVs to be had, you’d probably be better off with a four-door model if there are more than two of you and if you have more than a couple bags. If you're not comfortable driving on the left side of the road or on steep, rutted two-tracks, though, you might want to forego the rental and ride the taxis.
According to the park, "VITRAN buses travel between Cruz Bay and Salt Pond Bay along Centerline Road. The buses leave from the public ferry dock at 20 minutes past the hour beginning at 6 a.m. and ending at 7:25 p.m. daily."
* Touch bases with the folks at Friends of Virgin Islands National Park. Not only can they provide more pointers on how to enjoy the national park, but they invite volunteers to join them on Tuesdays and Thursdays (November through April) to work on projects around the park, such as clearing vegetation from ruins and trails and picking up garbage from beaches. You can check out their winter activity schedule at this site.
For more information on the park, check out Traveler's webpage on Virgin Islands National Park.