Ten years ago in April, Jesse and I got married on St John in the US Virgin Islands. We planned an intimate wedding ceremony with just the two of us (and the officiant and a photographer). It was the perfect type of wedding for a couple of introverts who don’t care to be the center of attention. We both look back on that trip fondly and not just because we got married. St John was a quiet little island that felt special to us.
I think we always knew we’d be back for our 10th anniversary.
And this time we brought our daughter.
A lot of changes can happen in 10 years, but one of the biggest things happened in September of 2017 when the Virgin Islands were hit by Hurricane Irma and Maria within 2 weeks of each other. We knew that a lot of recovery had happened between now and then, but the island was hit really hard so we didn’t quite know what to expect. We hoped that we could at least contribute by visiting and I’d read a lot of articles encouraging tourists to come back, but that didn’t seem to be an issue, really. One of the things we didn’t take into consideration was that St John was ‘discovered’ since we’d last been there. Before it was this sleepy little island in the shadow of St Thomas, but apparently people discovered how awesome that could be. It was way busier than we remember it being before. Trying to find parking was a little insane and discouraging, but on the other hand it’s nice to know that others love this island as we do. Even though it was way busier, we were still able to find the peace and quiet we were looking for.
Last time we stayed on the quieter side of the island (Coral Bay) in a private villa that was amazing (Windwardside), but they aren’t set up for kids so we looked elsewhere. I’ve read that about 60% of the rentals are gone or being repaired due to the hurricane, but we were still able to find a nice selection to choose from. This time we decided to stay in town (Cruz Bay) at Cruz Views #10. We thought it might be nice to stay someplace where we could easily walk to all the shops and restaurants. Turns out that wasn’t really the case as our villa was on a very steep hill and we had no desire to walk it in the scalding sun or in complete darkness after the sun went down. We also picked this place because we wanted Riley to be able to have her own bedroom (instead of a couch or a blow up bed as some places offered) and we wanted a pool.
While it wasn’t nearly as private as Coral Bay, I have no complaints. We loved the place over all and since we were the end unit, it was the most private of all the units. It was also nice to have a place with a kitchen which we utilized multiple times. Riley was beyond excited for her loft bedroom, the pool, and the resident cat, Sam, who came to visit us multiple times a day. Jesse enjoyed the air conditioning, and I was amazed with the huge shower. I never wanted to leave.
We tend to keep busy on vacation. We’ll go hiking, go to attractions in the area, walk… go, go, go. But this vacation we intentionally wanted to keep it slow and relaxing and I feel like we totally succeeded at this in the best way possible. Most days we woke up by 7 am, ate, got dressed, and headed to the beach by 8:30 or 9:00. That may seem early, but once the sun was up it was hot. Lows tend to be about 74 degrees, while highs are around 85 - EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR. It was nice for a week, but not sure I could have that weather ALL the time.
So, it would warm up fast and we wanted to beat the crowds. Since we went early, would could secure a parking spot and a shady spot on the beach. The hurricanes took out a lot of the trees that provided shade on the beach so these spots were highly prized. Jesse isn’t a beach fan, and with his bald head he was always concerned about getting a sun burn. Riley and I, on the other hand, love the beach. I could spend all day cooling off in the water, sitting in my beach chair reading, snorkeling, and then warming up on a beach towel in the sun. I just find it peaceful and relaxing. Jesse on the other hand will sit in the shade most of the time, and will only go out to the water to snorkel.
Throughout the week we visited multiple beaches. There are so many beaches to choose from and they vary in their ease to get to. Some have parking lots, some you have to hike to get to, some are well maintained and others are not.
The first beach we went to was Cinnamon Bay which was one of my favorite beaches from our last visit. Cinnamon Bay also had a campground, but everything has been pretty much destroyed since the hurricanes. Buildings at this beach are shut down and there are many piles of debris along the edge of the beach (as you can see in the picture below). Overall this is still a beautiful, clean beach that I would highly recommend. I’ve also read that the company that manages this beach and Trunk Bay was recently bought and renovations will start soon.
We visited Salt Pond beach a couple times, but the first time was a quick one where we didn’t get into the water. Instead, we followed a short trail to the salt pond between Salt Pond Beach and Drunk Bay. A woman walking by suggested the short hike to Drunk Bay so we decided to come back later to explore that area.
In between beach trips, and napping/reading/swimming at our villa we would often stop for an ice cream treat of some sort. You don’t have to walk far when in Cruz Bay as they are all over. We wandered around town a few times to check out the stores and rent snorkel gear. We rented from a couple different snorkel outfits and preferred one to the other (better quality, but slightly more expensive as well).
We spent two mornings at Truck Bay beach. This is the beach we got married on and, in my opinion, looks the most pristine. We hadn’t planned on visiting this beach twice, but Riley enjoyed it so much she asked to go back. I’m glad we did because I saw multiple deer on the second visit. One came up on the beach behind me (about 100 feet away) and the other swam in the ocean while I was sitting on the beach. I didn’t get a photo of either as I was too in the moment to even move.
Trunk Bay has a self paced snorkeling tour around a small island not far from the beach, and we checked that out on our first visit here. The coral is damaged and the signs that guide you could use some maintenance, but it’s still interesting enough to explore. This beach is also a lot more renovated than others and you can rent beach chairs and snorkel gear, order food from a food truck and buy a t-shirt or drink from another beach side shop.
Much of St John is a national park. There are many trails to hike, and while they aren’t super long, there is the heat and the incline. We decided to start at the Cinnamon Bay trail and take the America Hill trail from there at the recommendation of a local. We started early, but it was still a humid, and sweaty hike. We were grateful to get to the top which provided ruins to explore and beautiful views.
On the way back down we stopped at the Cinnamon Bay Loop trail. It’s a short trail, but weaves through ruins with guided signs. Most of the trail is paved so its fairly accessible to all. And one of the best parts of this hike is that you can walk over to Cinnamon Bay beach and cool your sweaty self off.
We also spent time driving from one side of the island to the other. Coral Bay really is my favorite as it’s less crowded and seems to have a slower pace. As you wind through the mountain roads, you’ll also see more wildlife on this side of the island in the form of goats, chickens and donkeys. Being spring, we got to see a lot of baby animals as well. My favorite were probably the donkey’s who seemed to like to take naps on the road as we had to drive around a number of them.
The damage from the hurricanes was also a lot more obvious on this side of the island. Later in the week we returned to Salt Pond and took a short hike to Drunk Bay. Most of the houses on the hill side were gone - stairs and other debris being the only signs that there were buildings once there. One of our favorite restaurants was totally demolished and another sat as a skeleton waiting for renovation or removal. Demolished cars also peppered the roadside, often covered in vines and other greenery. The island was also very brown, which I initially thought might be because of the storms, but I discovered that they are in a drought which is causing this instead.
When we were last here, I remember reading that there was a dispute about who owned Maho Beach. It was supposed to be a public beach, but some lady claimed that her family owned it and would run people off it. I’m not sure if that was true and I can’t find anything written about it, but this beach seems like a completely different one than I remember. Ten years ago, we stopped here for a brief moment and were the only ones there. I remember a short stone wall and a thick line of palm trees as if the jungle grew right up to the long, narrow beach. Nowadays this beach pretty much as no shade, no wall, a gazillion people, and a food truck and game area across the road.
We decided to stop there later in the day when it wasn’t as crowded and were rewarded with views of turtles. Apparently, this is one of the guaranteed places to see turtles and we watched as they would peak their heads above water. Jesse was bummed that he didn’t bring his snorkel gear with, but he still swam out with the GoPro to see one of them. This was a nice beach, but a bit rocky and filled with boats. We were turned off by the crowds during the day so I’d recommend visiting later in the day - and don’t forget your snorkel gear if you want to swim with the turtles.
On our anniversary, which also happened to be Easter, we spent the morning at Salt Pond Bay beach and hiked over to Drunk Bay. There is a bit of a hike down to the beach from the parking lot, but it’s worth it because this beach doesn’t get as crowded as some of the others on the island. Jesse and Riley went snorkeling and saw more turtles while I made some fish friends that followed me around in the shallow area. I also spent time reading in my beach chair and was probably already on to my third book of the vacation at this point.
On our last full day on St John, we went back to Trunk Bay beach. The end of our vacation was within reach and I was starting to equally feel eager to get back home, and wishing this trip could last forever. It’s aver a month later as I write this and I am certainly missing the clear blues of the water, the slower island pace, and the fish tacos.
Our last day in St. John involved spending some time in town, eating lunch, and then hopping on the afternoon ferry where we decided to spend a night in St Thomas.
We were all ready to go home and ended up at a hotel that was horrible and really nice at the same time. When they said there was ‘no view’ in the room, it didn’t mean that you didn’t get an ocean view - it meant that there was NO window. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t pass code in MN, but this is island life and it was only one night. The staff and other guests we met were super nice so this helped, but I’d rather not stay there again. Sleeping was a challenge as Riley’s bed creaked every time she moved, we could hear people in the lobby right next to our room, the metal gate outside our room also slammed a couple times in the middle of the night and early morning, and my favorite… some creature sounded like it was trying to gnaw through the ceiling to our room starting at 4:30 am. Somehow I still got a decent amount of sleep that night.
While in the town of Charlotte Amalie, wandered around by the nearby shops (imagine mostly jewelry shops for the cruise boat tourists) and everyone was really nice there. They will do what they can to hook you and get you into their shops to buy something so beware. We were given a couple small free items to lure us in, and one shop actually got us… “I usually sell this for $40, but for you I will only charge $20”. Yeah, ok. Of course we bought it because it was a turtle necklace with amethyst - both things Riley loves. In the end the shop owner, Shaka Zulu, walked us a block and a half to a local restaurant he recommended.
And then, the next day we headed back to Minnesota, back to our regular life without tropical beaches, without chickens at our feet while we dined, without a shower that was the size of a bed, but with memories that will firmly plant a smile on our faces.