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Trip Report St. John Trip Report: February 2009

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Okay, so here it is – my first ever trip report from our recent trip to St. John. This was our first trip to the USVI, having previously visited the BVIs, and a host of other Caribbean islands. We chose the island mainly for its beautiful scenery and snorkeling opportunities.

We decided to rent a villa in Coral Bay. We had previously rented a villa on Tortola (Casa Luna in the West End) and greatly enjoyed the freedom and privacy a villa allows you. We chose Coral Bay for the obvious reasons: more laidback than Cruz Bay and a chance to get a taste of the real St. John. We rented with Destination St. John and selected Drake’s Lookout which worked out perfectly for our family. The house was high enough in the hills to afford great views of the harbor, Drake’s Passage, and surrounding islands, but only about a five minute drive into “downtown” Coral Bay. The only drawback of the house was the pool – it was located in a shady spot of the deck and thus did not get much sun. It was quite cold and we only went it in twice for a few minutes both times. Next time we’re definitely going to look for a villa that has a pool with more direct sunlight. Other than that, the house was great and we plan to return to Coral Bay on our next trip.

We rented a jeep from Spencer’s Car Rental. We waited until the day before our departure to make the reservation. Do not try this – Spencer’s was my fifteenth phone call and we had to take whatever they had. We were lucky that they had a 4WD vehicle, as we definitely needed it on the roads and, in particular, on the road leading to our house.

We spent the first day at Maho Bay, which I personally loved because of its accessibility. Having grown up on Long Island, I am used to very deep beaches, which require some walking. At Maho, you can park right across the street from the beach. I’m sure that some people don’t like hearing or seeing cars drive by as they lounge on the shore, but I thought it was fine. The snorkeling wasn’t all that great at Maho, though. We dined at Aqua Bistro the first night. I probably wouldn’t go back, except for the bar scene. The food was just okay – very thick New England-style chowder and very thickly coated pecan Mahi Mahi.

The second day we went to Cinnamon Bay. We had lunch there, which was pretty good and enjoyed the beach. The snorkeling at Cinnamon was better than at Maho, however, this wasn’t one of my favorite beaches. It was very busy (perhaps because of the campground right there). We had dinner that night at Shipwreck Landing. The food was very good (large portion sizes!) Definitely order the Down Island Chowder if they have it on the special board – it was fantastic!

The third day we moved farther along the North Shore Road and visited Trunk Bay. It lived up to its reputation. We were greeted by a very friendly lifeguard (say hi to Richie when you’re next there) and enjoyed the snorkeling trail and the amenities at the beach. We were worried that the beach might be overcrowded because of its popularity, but it wasn’t. Later that day we drove farther along to see the public beach at Caneel. We weren’t impressed – it was very busy and there were many boats docked close to shore. We dined that night at Miss. Lucy’s. The callaloo lived up to its reputation, as did the paella. I would skip the conch fritters here. Though okay, they didn’t live up to Miss Vie’s or those served at Shipwreck. But it was great to be able to eat outside by the water. Keep your eyes peeled for the bats circling the large tree at Miss Lucy’s.

Next day: Francis Bay. What a nice beach – we had a private spot all to ourselves with a picnic table. We packed lunch that day because there aren’t any places that sell food close to Francis. After our morning at the beach, we spent the afternoon exploring the Annaberg sugar plantation ruins. We used the book, St. John: Off the Beaten Track, to supplement the signs posted by the Park Service to guide us through. The book has lots of additional details and I would highly recommend getting a copy. After returning home for cocktail hour on the deck overlooking the BVIs (what a fantastic view!), we decided to venture into Cruz Bay for the first time. Since the sun had not yet set, we took the North Shore Road to enjoy the views en route to Rhumb Lines. The food there definitely lived up to the hype. The salmon was delicious, as were the special scallops that night. The pu pu platter concept worked well for our family for appetizers, affording everyone a little taste. There was also a great singer performing that night – we greatly enjoyed the opportunity to see live music at Rhumb Lines and other restaurants on STJ. We returned to Coral Bay via Centreline Road. We’re still not sure which road is better for the Cruz-Coral nighttime commute, but from all of our trips to the beaches we had a lot more familiarity with the curves and twists of the North Shore Road.

The following day we headed to Miss Lucy’s for the jazz brunch. We arrived at 10 on the dot and by 10:30 all of the tables were taken! The jazz was great and the food was pretty good too, although the wait staff was definitely a little overwhelmed by the crowds. We dined with another couple we had met at Francis Bay a few days earlier and they told us that after years of visiting St. John, they had never seen Miss Lucy’s brunch this crowded. From there we went to Salt Pond. I have to say that this was the biggest (and only) disappointment of the trip. The walk from the car to the beach would have been tolerable if there was a great beach at the end of it, but we didn’t find one. It was impossible to find shade on the beach and we wound up being surrounded by gnats. I would recommend only visiting Salt Pond if you’re heading out on the Ram Head Trail. (One other note: two members of our family came to face to face with a turtle while snorkeling at Salt Pond which was a very nice surprise for them.) On our way home we stopped to check out Estate Concordia. The cabins have a spectacular setting and we definitely want to try dinner when next on St. John. Also, we drove past Estate Zootenvaal several times on our way out to the East End. If anyone has any comments or history with the place, we’d love to hear more. It looked like a great little spot with a nice, if small, beach. We ate at Skinny Legs that night – great burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches. I also have to mention that despite the chaos and noise inside Skinny’s, we had some of the best service from the wait staff during our whole stay on STJ. Our waitress was pleasant and attentive. There was also a great cover band performing that night – good times were had by all – and we returned a few days later to purchase some Skinny’s tee shirts.

We spent one day at sea on Breath. Breath sails out of Coral Bay so it was a better alternative for us than many of the other day sails out of Cruz. The price was also much more reasonable than some of the other charters. Breath is the only? Or largest? ( I can’t remember) sailboat to be built on St. John. Its owner and builder, Peter Muilenburg, a resident of Coral Bay, sailed it across the Atlantic several times with his family, as well as to Africa and South America. The story alone was something. We were lucky to be joined only by another couple so it felt like a private charter. Banana bread and fresh oranges were served as we cruised out of Coral Harbor in advance of our first snorkel stop at a bay on the other side of Ram’s Head. We were then served lunch and had a chance to snorkel in the mangroves at Hurricane Hole – something we found to be very unique. The water was full of conch, starfish, and hundreds of fish. For those who like snorkeling in calm waters, this is the place to be. That night, we returned to Shipwreck after discovering that Sweet Plantains was closed. We had heard such good things about the restaurant from locals in Coral Bay and were disappointed to have not had the opportunity to eat there. I guess it’s just one more reason to return to STJ. Dinner at Shipwreck was good again, but we had forgotten how large the portion sizes are. I would definitely recommend skipping appetizers or sharing a main dish there.

Our last day: we ventured out to Miss Vie’s beach on the far East End of St. John – a $2.50 fee gets you entrance to her beach, complete with lounge chairs. What a great find! We were able to find a shady spot and enjoyed some very good snorkeling. One member of our party wound up hitting his foot into a sea urchin while snorkeling, though. Miss Vie recommended lime juice and it worked! The other benefit of going all the way out to Miss Vie’s is the food. We had the garlic chicken with honey Johnny cakes (a couple with whom we shared our table told us that they remembered the chicken being more garlicky last year, but we thought it was just delicious), rice and beans topped with meat sauce, and conch fritters. An absolutely fantastic meal and probably the best during our entire stay on STJ. We were forced to retreat home, however, after the rain came. That night we returned to Cruz Bay for dinner at Paradiso in Mongoose Junction. We had a wonderful waitress and the food was very good (definitely try the frutti di mare appetizer), but the overall atmosphere at the restaurant was a little too formal for our taste when on vacation in the Caribbean. Paradiso was also the most expensive restaurant we ate at.

A fantastic vacation and we can’t wait to return to STJ very, very soon. If anyone has villa recommendations in Coral Bay or Ajax Peak area, we’d love to hear about them. We’re looking for a 2 or 3-bedroom villa with a sunny pool.

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