the island of St. John, US Virgin Islands

St. John: Virgin Islands' Natural Paradise

If the characteristic personality of each United States Virgin Island could be captured in a word, the flurry of activity, premier resorts and world-class shopping districts of St. Thomas would likely bring "energetic" to mind. Considering its rolling green hills dotted with centuries-old sugar mill ruins and the Danish-inspired architecture of its two towns, "historic" aptly describes a more quiet St. Croix. But what word does one lend the 11,560 acres of largely undeveloped sparkling beaches, private lagoons, nature trails and lush foilage that both complement these two larger sister islands and complete this beautiful Caribbean trio? It is "serene," and that is the hallmark of the island of St. John. Just a 45-minute boat ride from St. Thomas' Charlotte Amalie, this smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands was once a thriving agricultural society established in the early 1700s by Danish settlers attracted by the island's lucrative prospects of cultivating sugar cane. More than 100 cotton and sugar plantations flourished throughout all three U.S. Virgin Islands during the 18th and 19th centuries, but the emancipation of slaves in 1848 led to the plantations' eventual decline. What remain are the ruins of St. John's now-famous Annaberg Sugar Mill and other smaller plantations.

St John national parkSt John is renowned for the beauty of its well-preserved natural environment.
Once known for its sugar cane and farming industries, St. John today is recognized for its pristine beaches and conservation-minded residents who dedicate themselves to preserving the island's natural and cultural resources. Diminutive in size but not in natural splendor, this 19-square-mile island offers a glimpse of what life is like unfrettered by commercial development and the trappings of a more modern lifestyle. Since philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller deeded two-thirds of the island - plus 5,000 offshore acres - to the federal government as national park land more than 40 years ago, St. John has retained a tranquil, unspoiled beauty that leaves visitors vowing to return for a longer stay.

For a vacationer with a mind to escape life's faster pace, there is snorkeling, scuba diving and sailing on St. John's calm, clear waters, and sunning on one lovely beach after the next. More than one-third of the national park land is underwater and home to brilliantly-hued coral reefs, plant life and tropical fish. Some of the best snorkeling in the Caribbean is at Trunk Bay, where an underwater trail with submerged markers leads visitors on a fascinating journey amidst the island's colorful marine life.

Coming ashore to soak in what St. John most abundantly affords visitors - peace and quiet in the realm of gorgeous scenery - vacationers have 40 numerous beaches on which to spread their towels for an uninterrupted day in the sun. Beginning at the island's western end, three of St. John's most famous beaches are strung together, fringed with tropical palms and sea grape trees. Hawksnest, Trunk and Cinnamon Bay beaches are likely to be the most crowded of St. John's sunning spots, but only relatively-speaking, considering the privacy and seclusion offered by the island's countless other bays and cays. Maho and Francis bays and Watermelon Cay are just a few more of the beaches encountered as visitors continue eastward along St. John's gently curving coastline. Powdered with sugary-white sand, the beach at Leinster Bay is a haven for those seeking the solace of a more private, sunny retreat. If not solitarily soaking up the sun's rays, vacationers can swim in the bay's shallow waters and snorkel in the company of an occasional turtle and stingray among spectacular, colorful coral.

Virgin Islands national parkOver 60% of St. John is preserved as Virgin Islands National Park.
Vacationers who don't take to the sea for recreation or spend day after day on the beach may instead choose to explore any of the 22 self-guided nature trails managed by the National Park Service. In sharp contrast to its white sand beaches, St. John's woodland trails wind through subtropical vegetation, keeping determined hikers occupied for miles - and hours - at a time. The three-mile Reef Bay Hike, offered by the National Park Service, leads nature enthusiasts past ancient Arawak Indian carvings called petroglyphs.

After touring the island on foot, visitors may also choose to wind their way along the island's scenic but narrow roads in a rented car or jeep, making sure to drive on the left as is the law in the USVI. Or, for those not interested in exploring the island on their own, two-hour safari bus tours, colorfully narrated by guides full of both West Indian folklore and first-hand knowledge of the island, take visitors to key observation points around the island.

After taking any one or all of these numerous forays into St. John's flora and fauna, visitors to the island still should save time to explore Cruz Bay, once a bustling port serving the sugar and rum industries and now home to most of the island's residents. Here, visitors won't find fast-food chains, discos or movie theaters; rather, an eclectic mix of interesting boutiques, art galleries, bars and fine restaurants populate what's considered the island's social and business center. Just north of Cruz Bay, vacationers will find one of the prettiest shopping areas in the Caribbean, Mongoose Junction. Cruz Bay is also home to Wharfside Village, another shopping area in town located right on the beach. Both Mongoose Junction and Wharfside Village offer everything from funky local crafts and fashions to elegant jewels and exotic imports.

snorkeling in St. JohnThe nature on St. John is amazing above and below water.
Valued by many for the slower pace it affords its visitors, St. John has everything to offer in terms of rest, relaxation and recreation. Whether coming to this tiny island for sunning, snorkeling, or even shopping, vacationers will find ample opportunities to enjoy all three and more on St. John.