“Hearst Magazines and Verizon Media may earn commission or revenue on some items through the links below.”
The last year has made us all appreciate travel more. With so much of the world locked down and so many of us trapped at home for the sake and safety of our health and our loved ones, the wanderlust has only grown. And while we've certainly missed the globetrotting and exotic locales, it has also reminded us that we don't need to fly halfway across the worls to experience scene-stealingly gorgeous and unique destinations. In fact, some of those places are right in our own proverbial back yard—like the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The islands, which were originally home to the Arawak and Carib peoples and later purchased by the U.S. from the Dutch in 1917, are an unincorporated territory of the United States just to the southeast of Puerto Rico and are made up of three dominate islands: St Croix, St Thomas, and St John.
While St Croix and St Thomas are the islands' population and industrial centers, St John remains the hidden gem of the USVI. That's thanks in no small part to Laurance Rockefeller (son of John D. Rockefeller), who in 1956 donated more than 5,000 acres (close to two-thirds of the island's land mass) to the National Park Service, preserving the island's natural beauty. Nicknamed "Love City", the laid-back island is home to just over 4,000 people as well as some of the most exceptional, unspoiled beaches anywhere in the world, and thanks to its status as a U.S. territory, you don't even need a passport to get there.
Here's everything you need to know to plan a decadent escape to St John.
When to Go
The island's high season starts in December and runs through March; while St John is never bustling, you can expect restaurant and accommodation reservations to be more scarce, and for prices to peak during this period. If you're shopping for a deal, late spring and early summer are the times to plan your trip—though they're some of the island's hottest months, it's still rare to see the temperatures climb over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Like much of the Caribbean, local businesses and rentals largely shut down from August through October for hurricane season.
Where to Stay
Formerly the island's premiere hotel, Caneel Bay (stationed on the former Rockefeller family getaway) shut down in the wake of the damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and has yet to reopen, however there are still plenty of options on the island.
Gallows Point is the largest hotel on St John now, with views over the neighboring cays as well as the harbor. It's also conveniently located in the island's main town, Cruz Bay, making it an easy walk of just a few minutes to some of the island's finest restaurants and shopping, making it ideal for those who don't want to rent a car.
The Westin St. John Resort Villas
Though it no longer operates as a hotel, in recent years the opulent The Westin has converted to offer time-shares. Nestled on Great Cruz Bay (not to be confused it Cruz Bay) it's one of the few accommodations on the island that includes direct beach access and also includes a number of resort amenities like a spa and fitness center as well as sports courts.
Vacation Home Rentals
By far the most popular and luxurious option for accommodations on the island, St John is rife with magnificent vacation rentals. For those coming with a group, the gated communities of Peter Bay (both Upper Peter Bay and Lower Peter Bay) on the north shore of the island offer a plethora of palatial, often Mediterranean-inspired homes with beautiful views of the British Virgin Islands and are minutes away from some of the island's most popular beaches, including the famous Trunk Bay.
If you want to feel on top of the world, head to southwest where there are horizon views galore in the Chocolate Hole and Rendezvous Bay areas (houses like Finisterre, Kismet, and Villa Cin Cin are some of the premiere spots).
To experience a real "private island" feel, there are a few rare spots tucked away mid-island, like Solenborg and Hawksview Estate, on a neighborless stretch of land overlooking Denis Bay and Hawksnest Beach that has been know to attract celebrities, but if you'd rather soak in relaxed, old school island vibes, aim for Coral Bay, the island's other (smaller) population center on the far east end where you'll feel like a local.
Where to Eat
Note: Don't let the proximity to the ocean fool you—unlike some beach towns, entering a shop or restaurant without at least cover-up is considered rather gauche, so plan ahead for your culinary outings post-beach.
Extra Vigin Bistro
"Italian" may not be the first thing that leaps to mind when you think of the Caribbean, but you won't want to miss this local- and seasonally-focused spot (for more oceanic flare, try their sister restaurant 1864) The pastas, including the fan-favorite Wild Mushroom Pappardelle, are particular stand-outs, as are hearty salads and lavish entrees like Double Cut Pork Chops. Their signature martini is not to be missed.
An icon of the St. John culinary scene, Zozo's' locale on the waterfront at Caneel Bay (the only part of the resort currently operating) makes it a glorious spot to take in a romantic sunset dinner.
For island flavors, this seafood-focused restaurant brings together a pan-Caribbean sensibility, borrowing tastes from Latin, African, and European traditions for a white tablecloth taste of modern Caribbean cooking.
The menu of craft cocktails, sushi, poke bowls, and creative tacos, at this evenings-only spot in the heart of Cruz Bay wouldn't look out of place in any buzzy shoreside town (indeed, they're opening a second outpost in Charleston) and makes it a refreshing spot to hang out for happy hour or casually sophisticated dinner.
If you don't feel like trekking into town, Shambles is a perfect mid-island stop off for surprisingly elevated yet fuss-free fare. The fried cauliflower bites and on-site smoked chicken wings are a must, as is a delightfully light and fresh rum punch that will convert doubters.
Skinny Legs Bar and Grill
This beloved burger joint has become something of a Coral Bay attraction and is justifiably busy most days at lunch. Despite the hubbub, the burgers (and surprisingly tasty turkey ruben) remain delectable, to cocktails delightfully unfussy (there's no blender here), and the atmosphere full of charm.
Where to Drink
For a drink before dinner in town or a relaxed wine and cheese night, head to Greek wine bar Kati Ligo (also known as Island Cork) in Cruz Bay for a delicious selection of international bottles and outstanding charcuterie (the shop also doubles a s a gourmet grocer and wine shop during the day if you need to stock up.)
The Tap Room
Grab a brew (or a six pack or two) at the local St John Brewer’s restaurant and bar. In addition to a wide selection of craft beers, hard seltzers, and sodas on draft.
A lunchtime favorite, this oceanfront bar is an ideal stop-off for day drinking, as well as unexpectedly fresh takes on seaside bites.
The Windmill Bar
It's hard to think of a better place to take in the sunset than this hilltop bar which looks out over the island's north shore.
What to Do
Far and away St. John's most famous beach, Trunk Bay is regularly voted one of the most beautiful in the world. It's currently operated by the National Park Service, also making it the only beach on the island you have to pay for entry to, but the silky white sand and stunning water certainly make it worthwhile. Trunk Bay is also home to an underwater snorkel trail just offshore that makes for an easy and beautiful adventure for even beginner snorkelers.
Just around the corner, Cinnamon Beach has many of the coveted good looks of its lauded sister (the crystalline sand, the cerulean waters) and is often easier to get into, as is Hawksnest, where you can be on the sand within 30 seconds of pulling in to a parking spot.
If you crave services like equipment rentals or a bar, head to Honeymoon Beach on the Caneel Bay property or fight for a parking spot at Maho Bay, the latter of which is also the number one place for turtle spotting (remember: look, don't touch!) on the island. Prefer some privacy on the beach? Take a cue from the locals and head to Francis Bay or Salt Pond Beach, both of which require a short hike to get to but make up for it with spacious sprawls of beautiful shoreline.
St John is filled with dozens of hiking trails for all sorts of experience levels. Reef Bay Trail is the can't miss (and, conversely, the most crowded) as its path takes you past a rare example of petroglyphs—ancient rock carvings left behind by the Taíno tribes who once inhabited the island—as well as the ruins of a Danish sugar planation.
If you like ruins, you can also scope some out on other trails as well, including L'esperance Trail Annaberg Hiking Trail, and American Hill.
At the opposite end of the island, Ram Head Trail (known locally as Ram's Head) is a winding but picturesque and wonderfully breezy hike out to the island's southernmost point—it also starts and ends at Salt Pond Beach, for a refreshing cooldown.
Whether by sail or motor, boats make for a perfect way to pack in the exceptional vistas and experiences in and around St John. Midnight Sun Boat Charters and the new luxury charter Voodoo will both fulfill your need for speed if you want to enjoy multiple beaches or snorkel spots, or set sail with a catamaran like the black-sailed Kekoa or Kindred Spirit for a more leisurely day on the water. Stop in for a real lunch experience at a boat-based eatery like Lime Out for the best tacos on the island, or Pizza Pi at Christmas Cove (yes, they bake the pizzas on a boat), or get a little more upscale at Lovango Resort and Beach Club, which can only be reached by boat.
Though the British Virgin Islands have been closed to visitors for much of the pandemic, when tourism reopens they offer plenty of entertainment opportunities as well. Jost Van Dyke, home to the famous Soggy Dollar Bar, is just a few miles north of St John, while a low-key climb through The Baths national park at Virgin Gorda is a must.
Mongoose Junction is the place to go if you need to scratch your shopping itch, with boutiques like Lulee, Bamboula, and Big Planet. The island is also home to several specialty jewelry shops; Bamboo and R&I Patton Goldsmithing both make artisanal pieces locally for one-of-a-kind finds.
And if local artistry is your yen, the galleries of Katia Moltisanti and Bajo el Sol both display works from island-based artists, while St. John VI Pottery not only sells ceramics made on-site but also offers classes if you want to embrace your inner Demi Moore a la Ghost.
What to Pack
You Might Also Like