Find Your Park: St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

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A view from St. John’s Bordeaux Mountain area overlooking the British Virgin Islands

My kids and I are underwater chasing sea turtles. It is winter break, and we’ve escaped to the Caribbean island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Back home, folks are braving the cold wearing boots, coats, hats and gloves. But here in paradise, another warm sunny day beckons us under the sea to the magical world below the surface.

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Sugar Mill Ruins on St. John in the USVI

You can get to St. John on a three hour nonstop flight from Washington to St. Thomas, the closest airport. Travelers must take a ferry from St. Thomas to land on the island of St. John. It’s a long day of travel, but those obstacles make this American outpost feel like worlds away from life as we know it. As you embark from the plane on an open-air stairway, your senses are beguiled by the salty  winds, the wild growth of tropical foliage, and from almost every view, the azure sea.

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The view from St. John’s most famous resort Caneel Bay overlooking St. Thomas

Early the next morning, we’re at the beach on Jumbie Bay where an enormous circle of pristine coral awaits us. We don our masks, flippers and snorkel tube, then slide into the only ocean that’s ever been warm and clear enough for me to feel completely comfortable. I follow my daughter as she gracefully moves through the transparent turquoise water, and watch in wonder as she points out a stingray speckled with neon purple polka dots. Next, spotting four bobbing squid above the sea anemones is a reward for the slow and patient swim along the coral. She pokes up her head and asks, “You see how cute they are?”

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Getting ready to snorkel in Jumbie Bay

Two-thirds of St. John’s land was donated by Laurence Rockefeller to the National Park Service in 1956. The Park Service maintains miles of hiking trails and most of the public beaches. Rangers offer educational tours for adults and children to sites like the ruins of the ancient sugar mill or to learn about the natural flora and fauna.

The most popular trip is to go star gazing on a moonlit hike, because on clear nights you can see the Milky Way and Saturn burning brightly in the sky without a telescope. These seminars are very popular, and some people plan their vacation around the dates, so be sure to sign up in advance.

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There are so many excellent hiking trails in St. John since most of the island is a US National Park.

The most famous St. John beach is Trunk Bay, often pictured on covers of travel magazines when they rank the most beautiful beaches in the world. With water tepid as a Roman bath, Trunk’s coastline remains startlingly clean and crystal clear with visibility up to ten feet deep. The popular snorkeling trail is disturbed by heavy traffic, but a good place to learn. Actually, you don’t need a mask in Trunk Bay, because you can plainly see anything that happens to swim past you. As you walk along trails to the beach, keep your eyes out for chickens, lizards, hermit crabs and iguanas perched in the banyan trees. If you’re looking for less crowded beaches, continue along the north shore road toward Cinnamon Bay, Maho Bay, Hawksnest or any of the other magnificent destinations along the coast.

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Native wild goats, iguanas and donkeys are all part of the scenery in St. John

In some parts of St. John there is a feeling of time standing still, and that the original inhabitants still own the place. That would be the donkeys and the goats of course. The wild livestock do not have official owners and are free to roam about eating any vegetation or handouts they find. On my last visit, I watched them devour the athletic field of the local school, and turn around and eat grass in a graveyard.

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There’s a lot of island traditions in St. John including worshipping at the beautiful and historic Nazareth Evangelical Lutheran Church

A vacation in St. John promises to bring you and your children close to nature, both above and below the sea. Whether you prefer an eco-lodge on the edge of the world, like the Concordia eco-tents, upscale luxury at Caneel Bay and the St. John Westin, or the privacy and spaciousness of having your own villa, like Odessa House, our family’s home, you will find both adventure and peace on the shores of St. John. And good luck chasing those turtles.

View from Odessa House in St. John


You Can Go Hiking at Hart Bay in front of Odessa House


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Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.

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