St. John offers some of the best snorkeling, scuba diving, swimming, fishing, hiking, sailing, and underwater photography in the Caribbean. The island is known for the Virgin Islands National Park, as well as for its coral-sand beaches, winding mountain roads, hidden coves, and trails that lead past old, bush-covered sugar-cane plantations. Just don't visit St. John expecting to play golf.
The most complete line of watersports equipment available, including rentals for windsurfing, snorkeling, kayaking, and sailing, is offered at the Cinnamon Bay Watersports Center, on Cinnamon Bay Beach (tel. 340/776-6330). One- and two-person sit-on-top kayaks rent for $15 to $30 per hour. You can also sail away in a 14- or 16-foot Hobie monohull sailboat for $30 to $50 per hour.
Boat Excursions -- You can take half- and full-day boat trips, including a full-day excursion to the Baths at Virgin Gorda. Cruz Bay Watersports (tel. 340/776-6234) offers trips to the British Virgin Islands for $150, including food and beverages. Note: Be sure to bring your passport for any excursions to the British Virgin Islands.
Sail Safaris (tel. 866/820-6906; www.sailsafaris.net) offers guided tours with a captain, sailing lessons, and rentals of their fleet of Hobie catamarans. Right on the beach in Cruz Bay, just down from the ferry dock, this outfitter answers the often-asked question, "Where can we rent a small sailboat?" These catamarans, capable of sailing to the remote and wilder spots of the Virgin Islands, carry four passengers and feature a range of destinations not available by charter boat or kayak, including trips to uninhabited islands. On guided tours, passengers can go island-hopping in the B.V.I. Sail Safaris also has sailing lessons for those with an interest in sailing as a hobby. Half-day tours cost $70 per person; full-day jaunts, including lunch, go for $110; a 1-hour sailing lesson is $95.
Fishing -- Outfitters located on St. Thomas offer sportfishing trips here -- they'll come over and pick you up. Call the Charter Boat Center (tel. 340/775-7990) at Red Hook. Count on spending from $550 to $750 per party for a half-day of fishing. Fisherman can use hand-held rods to fish the waters in Virgin Islands National Park. Stop in at the tourist office at the St. Thomas ferry dock for a listing of fishing spots around the island.
Scuba Diving & Snorkeling -- Cruz Bay Watersports, P.O. Box 252, Cruz Bay, St. John (tel. 340/776-6234; www.divestjohn.com), is a PADI and NAUI five-star diving center. Certifications can be arranged through a dive master, for $385. Beginner scuba lessons start at $120. Two-tank reef dives with all dive gear cost $100, and wreck dives, night dives, and dive packages are available. In addition, snorkel tours are offered daily for $60.
Divers can ask about scuba packages at Low Key Watersports, Wharfside Village (tel. 800/835-7718 in the U.S., or 340/693-8999; www.divelowkey.com). All wreck dives offered are two-tank/two-location dives and cost $90, with night dives also going for $90. Snorkel tours are also available at $75 per person. The center also rents watersports gear, including masks, fins, snorkels, and dive skins, and arranges day sailing trips, kayaking tours, and deep-sea fishing.
The best place for snorkeling is Trunk Bay. Snorkeling gear can be rented from the Cinnamon Bay Watersports Center for $5, plus a $25 deposit. Two other choice snorkeling spots around St. John are Leinster Bay and Haulover Bay. Usually uncrowded Leinster Bay offers some of the best snorkeling in the U.S. Virgins. The water is calm, clear, and filled with brilliantly hued tropical fish. Haulover Bay is a favorite among locals. It's often deserted, and the waters are often clearer than in other spots around St. John. The ledges, walls, and nooks here are set very close together, making the bay a lot of fun for anyone with a little bit of experience.
Beginning swimmers can experience a snorkel-like adventure with Virgin Islands Snuba Excursions (tel. 340/693-8063; www.visnuba.com) at Trunk Bay. Divers use special equipment that allows them to breathe easily through a tube attached to an air tank above water. You'll see and experience everything as any other snorkeler would. Children ages 8 and up can participate; the fee is $65 per person.
Sea Kayaking -- Arawak Expeditions, based in Cruz Bay (tel. 800/238-8687 in the U.S., or 340/693-8312; www.arawakexp.com), provides kayaking gear, healthful meals, and experienced guides for full- and half-day outings. Trips cost $100 and $75, respectively. Multiday excursions with camping are also available; call their toll-free number if you'd like to arrange an entire vacation with them. These 5-day trips range in price from $1,250 to $1,450.
Windsurfing -- The windsurfing at Cinnamon Bay is some of the best anywhere, for either the beginner or the expert. The Cinnamon Bay Watersports Center rents high-quality equipment for all levels, even for kids. Boards cost $25 to $65 an hour; a 2-hour introductory lesson costs $80.
A Water Wonderland -- At Trunk Bay, divers and snorkelers can follow the National Park Underwater Trail (tel. 340/776-6201), which stretches for 650 feet and helps you identify what you see -- everything from false coral to colonial anemones. You'll pass lavender sea fans and schools of silversides. Rangers are on hand to provide information. There is a $4 admission fee to access the beach.
More Outdoor Adventure
Along St. John's rocky coastline are beautiful crescent-shaped bays and white-sand beaches -- the interior is no less impressive. The variety of wildlife is the envy of naturalists around the world. And there are miles of hiking trails, leading past the ruins of 18th-century Danish plantations to panoramic views. At scattered spots along the trails, you can find mysteriously geometric petroglyphs of unknown age and origin incised into boulders and cliffs. The terrain ranges from arid and dry (in the east) to moist and semitropical (in the northwest). The island boasts more than 800 species of plants, 160 species of birds, and more than 20 trails maintained in fine form by the island's crew of park rangers.
Thanks to the efforts of Laurance Rockefeller, who purchased many acres of land and donated them to the United States in 1956, the island's shoreline waters, as well as more than half of its surface area, make up the Virgin Islands National Park. The hundreds of coral gardens that surround St. John are protected rigorously -- any attempt to damage or remove coral is punishable with large and strictly enforced fines. Visitors must stop by the Cruz Bay Visitor Center, where you can pick up the park brochure, which includes a map of the park, and the Virgin Islands National Park News, which has the latest information on park activities. It's important to carry a lot of water and wear sunscreen and insect repellent when you hike.
St. John is laced with clearly marked walking paths. At least 20 of these originate from Northshore Road (Rte. 20) or from the island's main east-west artery, Centerline Road (Rte. 10). Each is marked at its starting point with a preplanned itinerary; the walks can last anywhere from 10 minutes to 2 hours. Maps are available from the national park headquarters at Cruz Bay.
One of our favorite hikes, the Annaberg Historic Trail (identified by the U.S. National Park Service as trail no. 10), requires only about a .5-mile stroll. It departs from a clearly marked point along the island's north coast, near the junction of routes 10 and 20. This self-guided tour passes the partially restored ruins of a manor house built during the 1700s, and signs along the way give historical and botanical data. Visiting the ruins is free. If you want to prolong your hiking experience, take the Leinster Bay Trail (trail no. 11), which begins near the point where trail no. 10 ends. It leads past mangrove swamps and coral inlets rich with plant and marine life; markers identify some of the plants and animals. Scattered throughout the park, and sometimes hidden by plants, are mysterious petroglyphs incised into boulders and cliffs. Their ages and origins are unknown.
Near the beach at Cinnamon Bay, there's a marked nature trail, with signs identifying the flora. It's a relatively flat walk through a tropical forest, eventually leading straight up to Centerline Road.
The National Park Service (tel. 340/776-6201; www.nps.gov/viis) provides a number of ranger-led activities. One of the most popular is the guided 2.5-mile Reef Bay Hike. Included is a stop at the only known petroglyphs on the island and a tour of the sugar-mill ruins. A park ranger discusses the area's natural and cultural history along the way. The hike starts at 9:30am on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday and costs $21 per person. Reservations are required and can be made by phone (at least 2-3 weeks in advance).
Another series of hikes traversing the more arid eastern section of St. John originates at clearly marked points along the island's southeastern tip, off Route 107. Many of the trails wind through the grounds of 18th-century plantations, past ruined schoolhouses, rum distilleries, molasses factories, and great houses, many of which are covered with lush, encroaching vines and trees.