Ahhh, the sun-kissed Caribbean. Is there a better place for a mid-winter's getaway than a place with sugar-sand beaches lined by palms and washed by warm turquoise waters that provide habitat for sea turtles the size of trunks, colorful fishes like blue tang and parrotfish, and menacing barracudaIf you don't think so, then Virgin Islands National Park is your destination. Here's Traveler's Checklist to negotiate a visit to St. John and the park.
I fell in love with this tropical gem during a too-short one-week stay on St. John. It was too short because there were more reefs, beaches, ruins, and restaurants to explore. Too short because it was still snowing back home and on St. John the sun was warm and the trails and waters inviting. If you manage to find your way down to St. John and the national park, we've got some suggestions for you:
* To 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.
* 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. It's not a large visitor center, but the information is good to have.
* Fancy yourself a modern-day Robinson Crusoe? Pitch your tent at Cinnamon Bay, the only beach in the park with a campground. Here you'll also find kayak rentals, a restaurant and...limited parking, so don't expect to drive up at noon and easily find a spot.
* Want something a little roomier and without all the sand? Consider renting a house, which marketers refer to as “villas.” Time your visit for the off-season and you can find a nice one for about $200 a night. When you consider the full kitchen, the laundry room, and the two or three bedrooms, and more than likely the deck and BBQ, you’ll appreciate being able to flee the resort life and save a little money cooking for yourself when the mood strikes.
* 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."
* Learn to snorkel. It's not hard, and it's the best way to explore the treasures that lie below the surface. With snorkel, mask, and fins in hand you'll be able to slip into another dimension, one that us air-breathers don't spend a lot of time in. You can spend a lot, or a comparative little (in the $100-range), for this gear. How much you spend should be measured against how likely you are to get wet again after leaving the park.
* If you already love to snorkel, or are bitten by the bug once you arrive at St. John, don't overlook a day-trip to Salt Pond Bay. This arguably is the best beach for snorkeling, lying about, and fleeing the crowds. Get there before 10 a.m. for a prime selection of shaded spots, some with picnic tables, to serve as the day’s base-camp. Swim either out to the rocky point below Ram Head or out to the nearly submerged rock outcrops near the bay’s mouth for great coral displays – Elkhorn and Staghorn corals, as well as brain corals, which look like, well, brains.
* Another great spot for snorkeling I'm told is Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument on the far east side of St. John. (This was one of the reasons a 1-week stay wasn't enough. We didn't have time to swim here...) The 12,708-acre monument was designated in January 2001 and encompasses "submerged lands within the 3-mile belt off of the island of St. John. These waters support a diverse and complex system of coral reefs, and other ecosystems such as shoreline mangrove forests and seagrass beds that contribute to their health and survival." The only part of the monument accessible by land is in Hurricane Hole. To get to Hurricane Hole, follow route 10 from Curz Bay to Estate Hermitage.
* If you have the time, and the budget, consider a "snorkeling tour" of the waters surrounding the islands. These can be arranged through private outfits that typically use sailboats to carry you to off-shore reefs. These reefs could be more colorful than those closer to shore, as I'm told the waters off-shore aren't quite as warm and so aren't "bleaching" the corals.
* Do check out Trunk Bay. True, it's the best-known of the national park's beaches, and arguably the most-crowded, but how can you travel all the way to St. John without visiting it? In the warm waters of the cove there's an underwater trail of sorts that makes it easy for you to identify some of the corals and fishes to be found in the park's waters. And while there's no campground, there are changing facilities and showers, picnic tables with BBQ grills, even a gift shop. To avoid the crowds, arrive early (before 9-ish) or late (after 4). The light is great both times of the day, and you'll be able to enjoy a little more elbow room, whether you're simply sitting on the beach with a book or trying to navigate the underwater trail.
* Venture off the beaten path. While the Annaberg ruins definitely should be on your to-do list, the Catherineberg ruins off Center Line Road provide another rich perspective of the 18th century plantation life on the island. As do the Reef Bay ruins, which require a hike down the Reef Bay Trail, but it's a welcome walk through a dense tropical forest and takes you past more ruins the forest is steadily taking over. Just don't forget to carry some water and munchies.
* 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.
* Learn to relax. Yes, the island and park both are small enough to rush through in a handful of days and come away with some great memories, but at least one or two of those memories should be packing up a picnic lunch, your snorkel gear, sand chairs or mats, and beach umbrella and heading to one of the great beaches to spend the day moving between the water and your spot on the shore.
* Take a hike. While the Reef Bay Trail is one of the more popular paths, a shorter trail that pays off with some great views of Trunk Bay and out into the Caribbean is the roughly 10-minute walk up Peace Hill. Found just short of 3 miles from Cruz Bay, the trail leads to the top of a bluff where there's an old sugar mill tower. There used to be a larger-than-life statue of "Christ of the Caribbean" across from the tower ruins, but Hurricane Marilyn destroyed it in 1995.
* Check with the park (Visitor Information: 340-776-6201, ext. 238, Headquarters: 340-776-6201) about visiting the archaeology lab at Cinnamon Bay. There you'll find artifacts from digs in the park.
* Admire, but not too closely, the "death apple" that you can find around the island.
Virgin Islands National Park truly is one of the gems of the National Park System, and offers much in terms of natural and cultural resources.
Traveler's tip: If you do snorkel, consider wearing a T-shirt. With all that time bobbing face-down near the water's surface, you're likely to toast your back without adequate precaution, and a tee is much more reliable than sunblock that could eventually wash off.