St. John - low budget trip report

Jun 24th, 2007, 01:00 PM
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St. John - low budget trip report

We just returned yesterday from an amazing week in St. John, thanks in large part to the STJ posters on this forum. I was primarily attracted to STJ because of the Virgin Island National Park & b/c as a US territory we could forgo the expense of getting new passports. (We haven't traveled internationally for many years.)

We were able to make this trip using AA Advantage miles & attempted to make our trip as low budget as possible without actually camping.

Here goes...

This part sucked real bad. To make a long story short, we arrived in STJ at about midnight & almost missed our flight when we left STT. Here is what I would do differently: Allow for more time during layovers (at least 2 hours?) & leave Cruz Bay for Red Hook at least 4 hours before departure time in STT. Incidently, we only needed to show our drivers licenses in STT customs; I had our birth certificates with raised seals and voters registration cards as additional ID but we weren't asked to show them. Of course I'm not recommending only taking your DL, but maybe this will make those without passports less nervous.

We rented a 2 door Vitara from C&C Car Rental & were provided with OUTSTANDING customer service from the owner, Charlie Marsh, who delivered our keys to us when we arrived after midnight. That got our actual start on STJ off to a nice start after a very long & stressful day. Our vehicle was the smallest we saw available, and with the 10% discount we got through our condos was the best price we found. The Vitara was small & small was good while navigating the roller coaster roads of STJ. We totally enjoyed independently exploring the island.

We chose Serendip Condos (the Juliette studio unit) because the on-site managers Tom & Nancy gave timely & thorough responses to all my inquiries by email & phone when I was "shopping around". We wanted a condo with a kitchen as we planned to primarily eat in & make sack lunches. Although we're pretty low-maintence, we decided to splurge on a/c and hot water vs. doing the high-end camping thing. Serendip was the least expensive of the condos we compared, and honestly I was a little nervous that it might be a dump, but it exceeded all our expectations and was a PERFECT fit for us! It was a very clean, comfortable & cute unit. It was nothing fancy, but we were very happy with our choice & would stay there again in a heartbeat. The view from our large veranda, where we ate most of our meals in STJ, was nothing short of spectacular! We felt like we got a great deal staying at Serendip.

Eating out was, as a rule, overpriced. We are not fancy eaters & there was lots of fancy eatin' on STJ! The tastiest meal for a great value that we had was Caribbean Night at the Maho Bay Ecoresort. The curried mahi mahi was awesome! This may have turned my husband into a seafood eater! The other great deal was Uncle Joe's BBQ - yummy! We actually canceled dinner reservations elsewhere to take BBQ to the beach for a sunset dinner our last night in STJ. Other enjoyable meals were dinner at the Fishtrap & afternoon appetizers at Miss Lucy's. I enjoyed the conch fritters & the rural ambiance. I know the goats are a love/hate thing - we loved them! All & all, we could have left our dining experiences to those restaurants. Most of the dining options weren't really our style.
gechter is offline  
Jun 24th, 2007, 02:05 PM
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I packed a selection of groceries from home in my checked suitcase, mostly breakfast items, lunch spreads, condiments, etc. We bought most of our groceries at the Dolphin Market, reported to be the less expensive grocery store. Their selection was adequate for our needs & there was always a parking space available when we stopped by.

We signed up for a Snuba excursion, a cross between snorkeling and scuba diving. We met our guide Frank & his cute daughter Kaitlyn at Trunk Bay & went diving on the west side of the bay. We really enjoyed the chance to dive down for an extended period of time to see the coral & fish up-close. We both really enjoyed this activity.

Great views, great experience, great upper-body workout! We left from the beach at Low Key Watersports (where we also rented snorkel gear for the week), paddled to Honeymoon Beach for a swim, then to Henley Cay for excellent snorkeling. Our guide Sarah showed us a nurse shark hiding under a rock that we never would have seen ourselves! This turned out to be one of our favorite activities - we even survived the "divorce boat" aka tandem kayak!

This trip marked my first time snorkeling & man was it fun!! Aside from Henley Cay the best snorkeling we experienced was at Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Cay & especially Waterlemon Cay. At Waterlemon the coral was so amazing - we felt like we were watching a National Geographic special! Through a website linked on this forum ( we printed out a coral reef map which was very helpful at zeroing in on the good snorkeling spots. My favorite thing to do was follow the stoplight parrot fish - I quickly found that I have snorkeling ADD!
gechter is offline  
Jun 24th, 2007, 03:00 PM
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We took some awesome hikes! It was a fun way to get out of the hot sun for awhile to check out the flora & all of STJ's historic sugar mill ruins. The Reef Bay Trail/petroglyphs was a great hike - about an hour to get down to the beach & a couple hours back up. Yet again, we used a tip from this forum and read the educational signs on the way UP, when we really needed the breaks. ("Isn't there another sign yet?") Take a snack and plenty of water - we took a liter & wished we had a little more. The Cinnamon Bay Loop Trail was shady & relaxing, and the Annaberg Ruins may have been the single most beautiful part of our trip. Breathtaking view!

Between the snorkel trail, Snuba & making use of our family pass, we spent a lot of time at Trunk Bay. Everything I've read warned of the crowds but we didn't think it was any more crowded for its size than any of the other beaches we visited. On our last full day we scored a great spot on the far east end of the beach under two trees taht created a little cave of shade for us. There was good snorkeling on the east side's reefs too. In my opinion, the only other beach that rivaled the beauty of Trunk Bay was Solomon Beach. It was worth the hot but enjoyable hike on Lind Point Trail, which also includes a good spot for taking pictures of Cruz Bay - better than the pull-off on the N Shore Road. We went to several beaches but concentrated our time on thoses beautiful soft-sand beaches on the N Shore.

Packing groceries, reading the Reef Bay Trail signs on the way back up, wearing UV shirts while snorkeling (buy the long sleeved, not the short sleeved, they really aren't hot & will protect you well from the sun.) The hinking trail & coral reef maps, reading the book St. John: On Foot and by Car by RS Koladis.

(1) Plan for an expensive trip between STT & STJ. It cost us about $90 round-trip using the taxis & Red Hook ferry for two people & one suitcase.
(2) Packing - we packed a suitcase, one carry-on & a backpack. I think we packed the right amount, but next time I'd pack differently. I'd pack less skirts & capris & more shorts, less tank-tops & more short sleeve shirts. I found myself wanting to protect my shoulders from the sun & I thought I'd be able to re-wear some shorts, but everything I wore got nasty-stinky-dirty fast from the sand & sweat of the heat & physical activity. And again, it's worth getting a long-sleeved UV shirt if you're pasty-white like my husband & I are! The sun is intense.
(3) On that note - sunscreen! We went through an 8oz bottle of SPF 45 & a spray-on SPF 50 and ran out in the middle of our last day. Next time I'd get a 2nd bottle of the spray-on. This stuff was so convenient for re-application at the beach. Really sunscreen you butt, back, calves & ankles well if you're snorkeling. I got a nasty burn/heat rash on the backs of my ankels even though I tried to be very careful with sunscreening.
(4) Make drinks at home - we bought a bottle of rum, juices & soda at the market & brought coconut cream from home - cheap after-dinner every night of the week for a grand total of about $20! And no worries about driving tipsy!
(5) We kept a bottle of Off on the veranda & a bottle in the beach bag & didn't have too much trouble with bug bites. You remember to reapply when you start getting bitten - just have a bottle handy.
(6) We ate out for one meal a day & prepared the other two meals at home. This helped keep our expenses down & next time I'd be happy only having 2 or 3 meals out and saving the money or spending what we saved on activites. But this is just our personal preference.

Thank you thank you thank you for all the valuable info you STJ posters have provided - you helped make our vacation a 10 out of 10! We travel frequently within the US, and both of us feel it's the best vacation we've ever had. We really loved St. John and hope to make it back someday. If anyone has questions, I'd be happy to answer based on our trip. Ask me while everything's still fresh in my head!

gechter is offline  
Jun 24th, 2007, 03:00 PM
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Thanks for a great report and some good tips. I was especially interested in the Caribbean night at Mahoe. How much was it pp? How did you find out about it? Thanks, Owa
Jun 24th, 2007, 03:36 PM
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Susan, thank you! GREAT trip report. Love the details.
Yes, aren't the C and C folks terrific?! We were so glad we used them --after the first rental place let us down.
Maho Bay dinners--great setting, isn't it?
Thanks for the link for the snorkeling map. I'll be on StJ in two weeks--can hardly wait to try the map, and to go to your recommended Solomon Beach.
Again, thanks for writing this so quickly after your trip, while the details and wonderful memories are still fresh in your mind.
CaliNurse is offline  
Jun 24th, 2007, 04:23 PM
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Thank you for the great TR. We have not been to STJ for 2 years (except for a 2 hour ferry stop) and I really miss it. The STJ trip reports are a nice way to relive the memories!
And great for you to do it without all the extra fancy meals, etc. We tend to do all our meals in as well and stop out for the occasional appetizer and drink. If I had the chance of 2 trips to STJ camping out at Cinnamon or 1 trip at a fancy villa, I would be at the campground in a heartbeat!!
mahobaygirl is offline  
Jun 24th, 2007, 04:29 PM
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Hmm... I think my reply is lost out there in cyberspace somewhere. Testing...
gechter is offline  
Jun 24th, 2007, 04:41 PM
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OK, well let me recap. Owa, I found out about Maho Bay's Caribbean night (Mondays) on their web site. Google Maho Bay, then click on meals & menus. They have 4-5 dinner options on the board, you order it at the counter, make yourself an iced tea & before you can get to the all-you-can-eat salad bar they're calling your name from the kitchen window with your tray of food ready. I had the curried mahi mahi and my husband had jerk chicken (and a sizable portion of my mahi mahi, to the amazement of both of us...this from someone who consistently turns his nose up at any form or fashion of seafood!) The sides were rice & plantains with raisins. Very generous amounts of food - we were hungry after a full day of Snuba & hiking & could still barely finish our food! Our total came to $37, no tip necessary as there's no waiter. When you're finished eating you put up your tray & separate your dishes for washing. We watched the sun set from the pavillion that is the seating area of the restaurant, then checked out the cabins & made our way down the maze of stairs to see the beach. It's a really unique & special place - lots of families - reminds me of Girl Scout Camp in paradise! -Susan
gechter is offline  
Jun 25th, 2007, 04:48 AM
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Thanks for getting back to me. I appreciate it. Owa
Jun 26th, 2007, 06:43 AM
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Awesome trip report. Very helpful reminder that STJ can be experienced and loved on a budget. Miss Lucy's is our favorite for dinners. Next time, you'll have to splurge a bit try it for dinner. Less goats then. But I love the goats anyways. Glad you had a great time.
Tuxedocat is offline  
Jun 26th, 2007, 03:05 PM
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I thought of one more tip with packing groceries. Watch the weight of your checked suitcase - the airline will charge you if your bag weighs over 50 pounds. Let's just say I packed a little too efficiently between the groceries & liquids in my checked bag & had to do some last-minute re-arranging at the airport before we left! -Susan
gechter is offline  
Jul 4th, 2007, 11:31 AM
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I loved your trip report - so well organized and informative. We (husband, son and in-laws) just reserved a place on STJ for Thanksgiving 2008 (a very long way away, I know). The 5 of us have been twice before, although it's been a few years now.

Glad to hear you had such a good time. Do you think it was worth the trouble to bring food with you? We never have in the past, but it would be nice to save few bucks wherever possible.
Devonmcj is offline  
Jul 4th, 2007, 02:00 PM
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If I had it to do over again I would probably pack the lighter foods and buy the heavier ones in STJ. For instance, trail mix, Fig Newtons, packets of Instant Breakfast, instant oatmeal, tea bags, breakfast bars, etc. - those are the types of things I was really glad we took & we finished them all off. I also took small containers of mustard, mayo, peanut butter, jelly & coconut cream. They ended up being heavy & we didn't use them all up anyway. However, there were only 2 of us, for 5 of you it would probably be worth it, plus you could spread them out between different people's luggage so the weight burden isn't all on one suitcase. All & all, I think that taking some groceries saved money and time during our vacation.
gechter is offline  
Jul 6th, 2007, 11:57 AM
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Devonmcj: If you're going over there for Thanksgiving and want to have any of the traditional Thanksgiving foods, I'd suggest you think about bringing some of these with you. For example, if you want to do a turkey, and if your villa has a big enough oven, I'd suggest you bring a frozen, vaccum sealed turkey breast, or a ham, etc. These are at a premium if you can even find them on the island even when it's not a holiday. It may make the trip there a little heavier, but you will save money and have the kind and quality of food you want.
Tuxedocat is offline  
Jul 16th, 2007, 02:54 PM
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Hello, I am new at this, so please bear with me. I came across this site by accident because our family of 4 is taking a trip down to St. John this month. My jaw dropped when I read your trip report and you'll see why... We will be staying at the Serendip, we will be renting a car from C & C, and we were very concerned about traveling to the USVI without passports. One of the reasons we picked the USVI was because all of the travel sites advertise no passport needed. After reading all of the reports about the delays in getting passports because of the new travel initiative, we picked a destination that did not require a passport. (We didn't think we would have them in time; we booked in May). However, after reading other forums, I was practically jumping out of my skin thinking that trying to get back to the mainland from STT would be difficult. I was even wondering about the condo we chose since there weren't many reviews about it. But, thanks to your travel report, my nerves are much calmer now, and maybe I'll be able to sleep tonight. This has really been bothering me. We haven't really taken a "big" vacation since our honeymoon 25 years ago and I wanted this to be really special. I hope our trip goes as well as yours did. I'll let you know how things go. Also, thanks very much for the information about how early to get to the airport for our return flight. I really was not sure how long it would take to get through customs and I certainly do not want to miss our flight home. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

bluejeans is offline  
Jul 17th, 2007, 05:08 AM
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Tuxedocat, I just now saw your advice about bringing a turkey or ham for Thanksgiving. Thanks for the info. That's something to think about.
Devonmcj is offline  
Jul 17th, 2007, 07:17 PM
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Bluejeans, What a coincidence! I am so glad my report was helpful. I know you and your family will have a great time!
gechter is offline  
Jul 18th, 2007, 04:15 AM
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Great report, Susan. Thanks for posting.
cmcfong is offline  
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