Beaches sparkling white and palm-lined. Warm Caribbean waters tinted turquoise and flecked with darting blue tangs, schools of yellow sergeant majors, and luminescent green parrot fish. Coral reefs swaying in the currents with their fans and given depth and texture by brain, staghorn, and elkhorn corals. These make this national park a tropical paradise.
It is one with a rich, at times dark, history with chapters that delve into slavery and pirating, a history whose stories reside in the ruins of sugarcane plantations that once covered the island of St. John, in bays and coves that were visited by pirates, in rock faces into which petroglyphs were hammered by ancient cultures. These are vignettes from the past that, when threaded together, help tell the story of European domination of paradise, of lost cultures and their beliefs, of a landscape that might have been found in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.
Today the island with its national park is a fount of relaxation and rejuvenation, with more than a little fun mixed in. While nearby St. Thomas might be the cruise capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John is where you head to flee most of the throngs of tourists.
Though it covers only about 7,000 acres on St. John, an island that itself covers only about 20 square miles, the national park seems to go on and on, no doubt in part because of the lack of roads. Cruz Bay is the "big city" on the island, and where your ferry ride from St. Thomas ends. It's a small town with narrow streets crowded with tourists and locals and their rigs. It's also where you'll find park headquarters with its maps, guidebooks, and other tools for orienting yourself, and some great restaurants.
At the park's visitor center in Cruz Bay you can orient yourself through natural and cultural resources exhibits, including some on coral reefs and the fishes that inhabit them. Here, too, you can pick up field guides and other interpretive materials.
Beyond Cruz Bay, the park with its sparkling beaches and densely forested mountainsides awaits.
Traveler's Choice for: Snorkeling, swimming, sea kayaking, beaches, archaeology.