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The Virgin Islands National Park on St. John isn't the only U.S. park that can be reached just by ferry, but I believe it is the prettiest. Proving again that even robber barons (or their progeny) have a heart, Laurance Rockefeller donated most of the land that is now the park, giving (with others) thousands of acres to the government for that purpose back in 1956. There are no designated entrances to the park, though the island's main road (Route 20, aka North Shore Road) runs past the Visitors Center to the most contiguous part of the property, including the best beaches and the campgrounds as well The park is shaped like a porous sponge, moreover, with large and small pieces of private land within the authorized boundary of the park. Fully 60% of the island is national park, comprising more than 7,000 land acres. Temperature ranges from the low 80s in winter to mid 90s in summer.

Before setting out to see the park, drop by the Cruz Bay Visitor Center, opening daily from 8 to 4:30, with its own program of activities and information on all aspects of the park. Most of the park, of course, is open 24/7 round the year. Unless you want to rely on taxis, you must have a car, and remember to drive on the left, by law. Bicycles are not recommended because of steep and winding roads, the park authorities state. The bus service starts at 6 in the morning but ends at 7:25 in the evening. Of course, ultra marathon runners are welcome to hike everywhere if they have the time.

Highlights

There are three park areas with beautiful beaches, each a bit different from the other. Trunk Bay has an underwater snorkeling trail, for instance, as well as bathhouse, snack bar, souvenir shop and snorkel gear rentals. Lifeguards are on duty daily, facilities close at 4pm. The bay got its name from the Leatherback turtle, which the Danes (owners of the island from 1694 to 1917) claimed resembled a large leather trunk. There are plenty of prehistoric sites around the island, some dating to as early as 840 BCE, culminating with the Taino culture that greeted Columbus.

At Cinnamon Bay, there's a sports center renting snorkel gear and windsurfers. They can also arrange day sailing, snorkeling and scuba diving lessons. There's a campground with bare tents sites, prepared sites and cottages, all next to the beach, as well as a camp store. For camping reservations, phone 340/776-6330 or 800/539-9998.

Hawksnest is the closest beach from Cruz Bay, and has changing rooms, picnic tables and restrooms.

There are over 800 species of plants here, 140 species of birds (such as the pelican), 302 to 500 species of fish, 7 species of amphibians, 22 of mammals and about 50 species of corals, not to mention sponges. The land mammals are all imported except for the native bat.

Activities

You come here mostly for water sports, including swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, kayaking and windsurfing. But look also for camping, hiking and bird watching, as well as visiting historic ruins. Archeological research is ongoing at Cinnamon Bay, see Friends of the VINP website (below). One of the island's largest sugar plantations in its heyday, Annaberg now sports remains of the windmill and horse mill, the latter used to crush the sugar cane to extracts its juice. There are cultural demonstrations, including baking and basket weaving, Tuesdays through Fridays from 10am to 2pm.

Private operators offer charter day-sail or boat snorkeling out of Cruz Bay and Coral Bay.

Beware the spiny sea urchin, whose long spines can penetrate the skin easily and cause weeks of pain. On land, don't touch the Machineel tree, which produces deadly fruit called the Death Apple. Even the sap of the bark can cause an irritating skin rash. And there's a bit of danger in the air, too. Look out for the Jack Spaniard wasp, which will sting repeatedly if disturbed, the discomfort lasting three days, usually.

There are 20 hiking trails here, ranging from 15 minutes to two hours in length, each way.

Rangers

Rangers lead field trips for school groups if you plan in advance. The park does not provide guided tours except for scheduled guided hikes and other interpretive programs. Private safari bus (taxi) drivers offer such in two- or three-hour segments, starting from the public ferry dock at Cruz Bay. There are no events listed on the park's website from April through December 2009 as of this writing, so any events must be prepared on relatively short notice.

New in 2009

The park has drafted its Centennial Strategy for 2016, when the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary. It's available on the park's official website (see below).

Entrance Fees

There is no charge for entering the park. But there is a same-day user fee at Trunk Bay, said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Adults $4, kids 16 and under are free. Annual pass $10, family annual pass $15. Other park pass holders admitted half price.

Visitors

The NPS site says that in 2008, there were 469,033 visitors.

Lodging

There are facilities ranging from rented tents to deluxe luxury palaces. The commercial website mentioned below has a good sampling.

Contacts

Cruz Bay Visitor Center, a short walk from the ferry dock, tel. 340/776-6201, ext. 238, or check out www.nps.gov/viis. The latter is also the official web site of the park.

The Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park website is www.friendsvinp.org.

A good commercial site for the park is www.virgin.islands.national-park.com.