Things to Do in St John
Honeymoon Beach is both convenient and out-of-the-way, a good choice for those who want to avoid the crowds at spots like Trunk Bay, but still appreciate a few on-site amenities. The beach is accessible by trails and serves as an area for watersports enthusiasts. Travelers can grab a kayak for a paddle up the coast before diving in to snorkel alongside the tropical fish that school around the rocks.
The U.S. Postal Service put it on a stamp, Condé Nast Traveler called it one of the top 10 beaches in the world, National Geographic declared it without equal: Trunk Bay. The talc-soft sands, turquoise waters and lush green backdrop of this earthly paradise inspire superlatives in all who see it, while its location within the Virgin Islands National Park ensures it remains free of unsympathetic development.
Just off-shore, a marked-out underwater trail is a popular snorkeling spot, and you can hire equipment if you didn’t bring your own. In the late afternoon, as visitors drift away, stick around for a perfect tropical sunset.
Maho Bay, perched on St John’s northern shore, is named after the Maho tree, which you can identify by its heart-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers. The coconut palm-lined stretch of sand allures with its calm, shallow waters and a coral reef just offshore popular for snorkeling.
The tiny island of Waterlemon Cay on St John is a favorite among snorkelers. The sandy beach of Leinster Bay serves as the starting point for a 10-minute swim to Waterlemon Cay; it's less than a mile to the island and worth every breaststroke. The cay is home to a wealth of coral and marine life, which is what ranks it so high with travelers. Sadly, the island has seen a recent reduction in coral and reef fishes, attributed to high rates of erosion and run off from local construction.
During the swim, keep watch in the sea grass for the first glimpses of marine life in the area. It’s not uncommon to see turtles, stingrays, sea cucumbers and giant starfish 20 feet below.
The south- and east-facing sides of Waterlemon Cay are bordered by the region’s shallow fringe reef, whereas the west and north sides are deeper. The reef is the best spot to look for the main abundance of colorful fish and other marine life; look for large parrotfish and schools of bright blue tangs. Some snorkelers swear they can hear the crunch of parrotfish “teeth” as they grind their beaks on rocks and dead coral at the surface. Turns out parrotfish digest coral and algae that are ultimately excreted as fine coral sand, helping build the beaches we love so much.
Snorkelers will find a lot of colorful coral, sea fans, sea plumes and other colorful fish on the deeper side of the reef. Keep your eye out for eels in deep holes and you may even luck out and see an octopus or two.
The majority of St. John is covered by the Virgin Islands National Park, a stretch of preserved wilderness all the more remarkable when you consider how much of the island was once cleared for sugar plantations.
Get the most out of this natural wonder on hiking trails which crisscross the island. None takes more than two hours to complete, but they cover a surprising range of topography and vegetation as well as historic sites such as the eerie plantation ruins of Annaberg. And there’s no better way to end your walk than a swim at one of St. John’s superb beaches, such as beautiful Trunk Bay in the island’s northwest.
The park also protects the island’s reef, with public access allowed at the mangrove bay of Hurricane Hole, east of Coral Bay. Snorkeling is a popular activity all along the coastline.
Back in its heyday, the Annaberg Sugar Plantation was one of 25 facilities on the island producing sugar, along with molasses and rum. All that remains today are ruins, but they are an important reminder of St John’s past, and visitors can walk a trail that leads them through important structures such as slave quarters, windmills and factory remains.
Learn about 18th- and 19th-century sugar production and the importance of Annaberg, where slaves were brought in to clear the dense hillsides and terrace the slopes, allowing for farming. Slaves were also involved in actual sugarcane production and completed tasks like planting, harvesting and processing. When slavery was later abolished, the plantation was subdivided into small farms.
Evidence suggests there were at least 16 slave cabins at Annaberg, each constructed using branches woven together with a mud, coral and lime mixture called daub. Visitors can see placards depicting the areas where these slave cabins once stood and also view Annaberg's windmill, a key structure from the 1800s and one of the tallest windmills on St John at 38 feet tall.
Several factors contributed to Annaberg’s ultimate demise, including its steep and rugged terrain, which provided only marginal growing conditions; the introduction of the sugar beet, which could be grown in a multitude of climates; and the end of slavery in the British West Indies. The final nail in the coffin for Annaberg was the 1867 hurricane, earthquake and tsunami.
Caneel Bay is one of the first beaches you come to as you drive up North Shore Road out of St John’s main port, Cruz Bay. Much of the coastline here is monopolized by an extensive resort, but they guarantee access to Caneel Bay and their restaurants adjacent to the beach are accessible also.
The area was once a plantation and the ruins of the old sugar works make an atmospheric detour. The beach itself is a three-dimensional postcard, while snorkelers will delight in sting rays, barracudas and other sea life.
One of the most beautiful and convenient beaches on St. John, Hawksnest Bay is a favorite for families with children and visitors coming from the ferry docks at Cruz Bay. Swaying palm trees and sea grapes line the narrow beach, which has restrooms, grills, and a shaded picnic area.
Perched on the scenic southeast coast of St John, Salt Pond Bay shimmers with crystal clear waters fronted by a rocky, white-sand beach. The beach offers an escape from the crowds of Cruz Bay, with calm waters for swimming, tide pools filled with marine creatures, and a coral reef in the middle of the bay for snorkeling.
St. John's Coral Bay prides itself on being the raffish alternative to the island’s main point of arrival, Cruz Bay. Its few dozen houses are haphazardly sprinkled on the green slopes tumbling down to Coral Harbor, a beautiful, protected cove.
The red-roofed Moravian Church dates from 1750 and serves as a local landmark. Otherwise the town’s charm lies in its laid-back bars and restaurants where – unlike some Caribbean locations – tourists won’t necessarily outnumber locals.
A short way out of town there is great snorkeling to be had at nearby Salt Pond Bay, or there’s always the secluded haven of Lameshur Bay, further round the twisting coastline. Alternatively, charter a boat and head for the nearby British Virgin Islands.
More Things to Do in St John
Off the shores of the stunning island of St. John, Henley Cay is a short boat ride but seems worlds away. Comprised of 11 isles, its crystal clear turquoise waters make it a draw for water activities such as snorkeling and kayaking. Much of the reef is located in shallow water (from 3 to 15 feet,) so visibility is often best just off the shore. Though it has a history dating back to the 18th century, it’s uninhabited today.
Its bay and cove are protected and receive fewer visitors than other snorkel spots on the island. Colorful corals, sea fans, and tropical fish are easily seen, and many consider the snorkeling at Henley Cay to be world-class. Angelfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, and wrasse are a few of the common fish species spotted often. Tours of the cay typically leave from Caneel Bay and combine kayaking and snorkeling the reefs.
If you are after shopping on St John, Mongoose Junction is the place to go. Considered to be the island's premier shopping and dining destination, Mongoose Junction is home to a number of stores selling local Caribbean products such as furniture and textiles. Check out Bamboula, which offers primitive art, clothing, beads, baskets and old-style Caribbean furniture, or Best of Both Worlds, which sells locally made artwork, including sculptures, glass, pottery and designer jewelry.
Other standouts include St. John Brewers, Island Fancy and Island Cork, each selling a variety of goods from apparel and toys to locally made beer and crafts. Island Cork is the spot for oenophiles looking to bring a few bottles of wine back to the hotel or cruise ship.
When it comes to eating at Mongoose Junction, visitors may have trouble choosing where to stop. Beef aficionados will want to head to the Tap Room, the island’s microbrewery and bar, home to St John Brewers. Even non-beer drinkers can try some interesting concoctions here, such as homemade root beer and ginger beer. Virgin Fire is a great stop for local, but more contemporary, cuisine, as they source many products, including their Coral Bay honey and St Thomas peppers in their sauces, from the surrounding area.
One of the smaller snorkel spots in St John, Whistling Cay is only accessible by boat, and with its depths of 40 feet or more, it is considered a deep-water snorkeling area. The clear waters allow visitors to see down into the deep to see large coral formations; they can either snorkel the surface and admire the coral from afar or free-dive down to explore them up close. This prime spot means that snorkelers often spot large fish such as tarpon, uncommon at shallower snorkeling spots.
Whistling Cay is located off the north shore of St. John, near Mary Cay. The island has small pebble beaches on the east side, while larger cobblestone beaches are commonplace on the western side.
There is an old stone structure on the east side of the small island that is commonly referred to as the “Old Customs House.” Some do not believe it is in fact the old customs house for St. John given its location, and it has been suggested that perhaps it was once an old guard house in the 1800s when slavery was abolished in the British Virgin Islands. Because slavery was still continuing in the Danish West Indies, slaves along St John’s north coast were trying to escape to nearby Tortola.
In between Whistling Cay and St John is the Fungi Passage, where you can find prime snorkeling. Be cautious, however, about venturing too far out since boats do use this area. The flow of water through the Fungi Passage attracts a wide variety of colorful fish, and the underwater landscape with its deep canyons, steep grooves and rock formations is home to coral, sponges and tunicate.
A walk along Reef Bay Trail uncovers the history and culture of St. John. The 2.2-mile (3.5-km) trail descends through shady forest and through several sugarcane estates before finishing at the Reef Bay sugar mill near Genti Bay. Keep an eye out for Taino petroglyphs carved into the basalt rock along the way.
Sun, soft sand, and warm, shallow waters characterize Leinster Bay—a favorite among beach lovers seeking solitude. It’s also one of the best snorkeling and scuba diving spots on St John thanks to the colorful coral reef of Waterlemon Cay, where it’s possible to spot sea turtles, stingrays, starfish, and schools of blue tang and parrotfish.