Flight Paths: Ten Cheep Trills to Savor in St. John

Chirped by Tina

My husband and I returned in July from a fantastic vacation with friends on St. John in the US Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands got hit by two devastating Category 5 hurricanes in 2017, Irma and Maria, and are still recovering structurally, economically, and ecologically. Despite the lingering signs of destruction, much of St. John’s flora and fauna have bounced back. Tourism is once again going strong and bringing much needed income to the island’s recovery process. And from personal experience, the snorkeling is still as bountiful as we remembered from our first visit in 2003! After a week in the Caribbean, coming home to a sweltering heatwave in PA – with no ocean or pool in sight – was a little rough. (-;  I contented myself (in our newly-repaired air conditioning) by relishing ten fond memories from our trip, in roughly chronological order…

On a Serious Note: I started this happy post back in July, when Dorian wasn’t yet a blip on the radar. Seeing the long lingering effects of Maria and Irma on St. John, two years after the fact, makes me absolutely heartbroken for the Bahamas right now… Please check out this link from Charity Watch for reputable non-profit organizations providing Hurricane Dorian relief – and consider making a monetary donation. See if your employer will match it! (I chose the American Red Cross.)

#1: Chilling at Mint Mecca

The Hubster did some research on vacation rentals in St. John and decided on a three-bedroom villa, aptly named after its primary paint color, offered by Caribbean Villas of St John, USVI. Mint Mecca looks out over Chocolate Hole, on the southeast corner of the island. It faces south and gets lovely sun during the day, but is perfectly positioned for cooler shade and breezes right around happy hour. This made our house the place to be for pre-dinner cocktails. Our friends at Jazz Villa across the hillside were in full sun and sweating at the same hour. Their house was bigger, with even better views, but like most rentals, it had A/C only in the bedrooms. They appreciated the natural cooling and screened porch at our place when it was time for a piña colada!

Pro-Tip: We’d been warned about spotty internet before we arrived, but when ours suddenly stopped working at all midweek, we contacted the rental agency. They sent a repairman out to reset it. Good customer service on the part of Caribbean Villas! Another reason to rent through them – they were great!

#2: Snorkeling! 

We love snorkeling. An all-inclusive resort course on scuba diving once certified us to go about 25′ deep. We found it too stressful! Why worry about blowing out your eardrums, getting the bends, or running out of oxygen, when you can see so much cool stuff from the surface? St. John has gorgeous beaches, and the coolest marine life we’ve seen on any of our tropical vacations. We snorkeled at Maho, Trunk, and Hawksnest Bays on the north side of the island. We also hit a couple of beaches accessible from a chartered sail boat expedition. Our friends sampled the marine life at Salt Pond on the south side. It’s hard to go wrong, wherever you go!

Pro-Tips: We wanted to avoid checking bags, so we opted to rent our snorkeling gear. We did NOT have a good experience with Low Key Watersports. They charged us $200 for a prescription mask that constantly leaked and then broke in my hands on the first day out. Three separate civil conversations with management failed to get a better resolution. (I really don’t feel bad dinging them on this.) My snorkel had a hole in it, too. It was the end of the season and the equipment had seen some wear. The good news is that there are plenty of other places to rent gear in St. John! St. John Beach Bum is located right near the ferry terminal. That makes for easy pickup and returns as you arrive from or depart for St. Thomas. It gets great reviews online, too. If you don’t mind checking luggage, bringing your own gear is probably more cost effective and possibly more sanitary? Our friends didn’t like the idea of sharing snorkels with strangers… Didn’t bother us though! c(-;

#3 Maho Bay Beach

The eastern (right-hand) side of Maho Bay is known for its population of green sea turtles, which were huge, plentiful, and often accompanied by sharksuckers. We also saw a barracuda, angelfish, jacks, grunts, trunkfish, and our new favorite: an enormous spotted eagle ray!

A white sand beach stretches into the shallow waters if you just want to float, hang out, or build sand castles. Maho Bay is sheltered, so the waves aren’t bad even when you go out to explore the reefs. Less protected is your lunch! We saw a big iguana and some very aggressive gulls prowling the area.

Pro-Tips: There are apparently bathrooms on the western side and a snack shack across the street. We’d packed a picnic and missed all that. Styrofoam coolers were hard to come by this late in the year (July-October is considered hurricane season). If you have room, might want to stow a cooler bag in your luggage, or use one as your carry-on? Also worth noting: beach parking fills up, so getting there before 11:00am, even in the off-season, was key.

#4 Sailing on Thin Air

My hubbie has taken a few sailing lessons and loves being out on the water. We arranged a private day sail through Morningstar Charters with Captain Mike on his boat, Thin Air. His first sailboat was demolished during the 2017 hurricanes. Thin Air is his new baby (not to be confused with his actual little boy!) and ongoing labor of love. He continually restores and improves it, particularly during the off-season. Captain Mike let my husband take the rudder, and coached him through some of the finer points of sailing close to the wind (without luffing), tacking, and navigating. He tailored our journey to take us to snorkeling spots we hadn’t already explored from the land.

Photo highlights included a four-eyed butterflyfish munching on brains (of the coral variety), and a southern stingray with a bar jack tagging along for an easy meal…

Our second stop brought us up along the beach of the ruined Caneel Bay Resort, where we stayed in 2003. Due to an expiring 100-year lease with the National Park Service, the owners have done nothing to repair the hurricane damage. What was once a gorgeous, high-end retreat is now in shambles. Hopefully they’ll be able to negotiate a new deal soon!

In between stops, Captain Mike turned out to be an excellent bartender. He introduced me to his own “Lime in d’ Coconut” concoction that I’m still trying to replicate. Lunch was also delicious, ordered through North Shore Deli the day before we sailed. All in all, a delightful way to spend the day!

#5 Trunk Bay Beach

Trunk Bay was the only beach that charged an entrance fee ($5 per person over 16). It was also the only one where we could easily get a piña colada! Amenities included an underwater marked snorkeling trail, snack bar, bathrooms, showers, gift shop – I think they even rented snorkeling equipment there. As at all the beaches we visited, the snorkeling was awesome! We lost interest in the marked trail pretty quickly, preferring to explore on our own. We enjoyed seeing two little squid hanging out by the buoy that marked the start of it, though. Marine life for our running check list also included parrotfish, damselfish, blue tangs and trumpetfish. Particularly cool were the coordinated swarms of little fish that parted around giant 4-5′ long tarpons. Our friends discovered them on the far eastern side of the rocky cay, just off the beach. The waters on that side were a little rougher, with less coral and colorful fish, but it was worth it to see those big monsters!

As it turns out, Trunk Bay is also a gorgeous setting for a barefoot wedding! Not everyone can arrange for their friends to get married in a tropical paradise… but if you can, I highly recommend it! (-;

#6 Shopping in Cruz Bay

Once I’d managed to get a good sunburn on my backside from all the snorkeling, we took a break and spent a day in town. Cruz Bay has lots of cute shops where you can find beachwear (i.e., a long-sleeved water shirt and pair of men’s swim trunks to protect my burned bits), hand-crafted souvenirs, locally made jewelry, and more. We had a yummy lunch at the only bar we could find that had air conditioning: The Tap Room, on the second floor of the Mongoose Junction shopping compound. Parking is tricky in town, but Mongoose Junction does have its own lot in the back for customers. We found ourselves frequenting Slim Man’s Parking across from Wharfside Village when we ventured further into town. My most-prized purchase? A pair of stingray earrings from Caravan Gallery made with Larimar – the healing gemstone of the Caribbean. What better way to remember that spotted eagle ray? (Well, maybe my latest painted rock! #TwoFlewOverTheEmptyNest, #EggshellsAndFeathers)

Pro-Tip: if you plan to rent a car, be aware that they drive on the left in St. John, with the steering wheels on the left as well. And it’s hilly in places! Very hilly…  And there are chickens and iguanas in the road sometimes… Just sayin’… We didn’t try the shuttle services we saw at some of the beaches and around town. They might be worth exploring?! c(-;

#7 More Snorkeling – Hawksnest Bay

Just another lousy day in Paradise… featuring a southern stingray and another green sea turtle, more tropical fish, and impressive elkhorn and other coral formations in the shallow reef near the center of the bay. With a little more chop in this area, be careful not to get too close to the reef. You may get pushed uncomfortably close by the waves!

#8 Dinners in St. John

Even at the beginning of the off-season, Cruz Bay offered a wide variety of great restaurants. We loved our meals at Extra Virgin Bistro (now closed until mid October) and Morgan’s Mango. A peacock settled in to roost for the night in a tree just off the deck at Ocean 362 – and you couldn’t beat the view over the bar! We didn’t eat out every night, though. Our villa was new to the rental business, and was not well-stocked with spices. We left a parting gift of all those we purchased, so hopefully their collection will build as they go along!

Pro-Tip: Our two go-to grocery stores: Starfish Market and the St. John Gourmet Market were well stocked with all the necessities, including a nice wine selection. Prices were pretty high, but you’ll find that at most island destinations. The larger grocery store, Starfish Market, charged $0.25 per reusable grocery bag, and encouraged you to remember to bring your own. If you’ve got kids, or a creative streak of your own, bring along some permanent markers. Decorating your bags is a fun afternoon activity – maybe during a passing rain shower!

#9 Ranger-Guided Bird Walk

If you don’t mind getting up a little earlier (for a 7:30 start time), be sure to check out the free Friday morning bird walk around the Francis Bay Salt Pond Trail. Unfortunately our mid-July visit came on the heels of a several-month-long drought. The salt pond was mostly mud, and the usual inhabitants and migratory visitors were scarce. Still, our ranger, Laurel, was very knowledgeable, and had a good eye and ear for the birds that were there to be found. They included a mangrove cuckoo, pearly-eyed thrasher, American kestrel, brown booby, and great egret. (Not to mention a curious doe blocking our path!)

Over 150 bird species can normally be found on St. John over the course of a year. It saddened us to hear how the smaller birds were affected by the hurricanes. When you depend on seeds and nectar for food, mass defoliation is just devastating. Larger birds like egrets fared better, as the lack of leaves made it easier to find the lizards that they feed on. Our guide was pleased to spot a hummingbird, one of the hardest hit species. She also told us that 20,000 years’ worth of sand washed away from some beaches in 2017! )-:

#10 Drunk Bay and Salt Pond

For a totally different beach experience, check out Drunk Bay near the southern tip of the island. I have to admit – our friends did this expedition without us, the day we went into town. Now that I’ve seen the photos, I wish we’d joined them! Visitors have created all kinds of temporary rock and coral cairns and artwork from materials they find on the rocky shore. No soft white sand beach here! Get your inner artist on, and make your mark.

Note: My wildlife veterinarian and conservationist friend says pulling rocks up from stream beds can disrupt delicate ecosystems. He’s generally uneasy about the rock cairn craze… I’m hoping that stacking loose rocks and washed-up coral is pretty innocuous – particularly when it’s constrained to one area like this?? Maybe he’ll let me know in the comments… c(-;

A short hike from Drunk Bay is Salt Pond – yet another great white sand and snorkeling destination. Our friends’ photo highlights included a smooth trunkfish and a small “fever” of three stingrays.

Pro-Tip: If you’re wondering about all of our underwater photos, they were taken on a combination of devices: a FujiFilm FinePix XP120 waterproof camera, and a variety of iPhone models, ranging from 6 to XS, usually encased in a FitFort waterproof pouch. The quality of the iPhone photos surprised me. They corrected for the underwater blue tones even better than my waterproof camera in some cases. The pouches were great, too, with pretty easy phone control through the touch sensitive clear plastic. I found out (the rather frightening way) that my iPhone XS, in a Tech21 case, was waterproof on its own… It is very disconcerting to hear an “upcoming event” alert sound coming from behind you when snorkeling! Turns out men’s swim trunks have these pesky pockets that I’m not used to worrying about… Yikes!

In Conclusion…

Particularly in the wake of yet another huge hurricane crushing the Caribbean, we would probably think twice before scheduling more trips during the off-season. We were fortunate to have beautiful weather in July. It was also rewarding to be part of the recovering tourist trade in St. John. It’s a beautiful island, well worth the extra effort of ferrying over from St. Thomas (which is more built-up, and has the airport). If you just can’t resist those off-season rental discounts, go early – and maybe look into vacation insurance, just in case? And if you’ve never snorkeled before? St. John is the perfect place to get your feet wet! And your face, and the rest of you… Just don’t forget your sunscreen!

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