St John USVI: First-Timers’ Travel Guide for Where to Stay, Play, and Eat
My husband and I are avid travelers. Like many of you, we had big trips planned for 2020, which quickly vanished as the pandemic spread throughout the world. We began to explore travel destinations, where it would be easy to practice social distancing and get outdoors. St John USVI fit that criteria perfectly!
It is the smallest of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands with 2/3 of the land designated as national parkland. St John USVI boasts world-class beaches, some of the best off-shore snorkeling in the Caribbean, and gorgeous hikes. Follow my travel guide to help you plan your ultimate outdoor getaway in one of the world’s most beautiful playgrounds.
How to Get to St John USVI
The journey is half the fun. You cannot fly in directly to St John but instead you first fly into St Thomas. From St Thomas, you have a few options for transportation to St John.
This is the option we chose, which was great since we were trying to avoid people due to COVID-19. We landed at the airport in St Thomas. Our car rental company met us curbside at the airport with our Jeep and off we went!
We drove around 30 minutes to get to the Red Hook Car Ferry. There are several car ferry companies, which are fairly comparable. We just took the next one available, which happened to be with Love City Car Ferries.
Before we entered the car ferry loading area, we paid a nominal $3 VI government port fee. An attendant then told us to reverse into one of the designated lanes in the loading area parking lot. Once the car barge arrived, we had to drive in reverse into a small space on the car ferry.
St John USVI car ferry
I’m glad my husband was driving! You have to be somewhat coordinated to back the car up onto the ferry inches away from the cars in the other lanes. An attendant then collected the $35 one-way fee. Cash only. They will try to convince you to save $20 and pay the round-trip fee of $50.
Do what you wish, but I would advise against that. Why?
If you pay the roundtrip fee, you must come back with that same car ferry company.
The car ferry companies operate at different times. If you happen to just miss your car ferry (with the company you paid the roundtrip fee) as you leave St John, then you have to wait for their next ferry to enjoy the savings. Otherwise, if you go with the next available (which will be with another company since they alternate), then you have to pay another one-way fee.
It will limit you to one company’s schedule. I don’t know about you, but I maximize every second of my vacation. Instead of timing my last day based on a specific car ferry company’s schedule, I was able to enjoy my last few hours in St John because it didn’t matter which car ferry company I took going back.
Another quick tip. They advise arriving at least 30 minutes prior to the departure. Allow plenty of time when going back, so you do not miss your flight. If there are local workers who need to cross, they will likely get priority over you which could mean you are taking the next ferry. Do not cut it close!
Once we were on the car ferry, we could get out of the car but we chose to stay in the car to limit any COVID-19 exposure. The trip took about 30 minutes from Red Hook, St Thomas to Enighed Pond, St John and was a fun way to get transported.
Click here for the car ferry schedule.
If you choose the passenger ferry instead, you have the option of leaving from Crown Bay, St Thomas (limited-time options) or Red Hook, St Thomas (many time options).
The one-way cost from Red Hook is $8.15. The one-way cost from Crown Bay is $20. You will need to get a taxi from the airport to get to the ferry docks.
Click here for the passenger ferry schedule.
I cannot comment on the experience of the passenger ferry since we chose the car ferry. If you choose to travel during the pandemic, I would highly advise the car ferry to limit your risk.
I was not even aware of this option until I read a fellow tourist’s trip report on how he flew via helicopter from St Thomas to St John.
How to make this experience happen? Check out Caribbean Buzz Helicopters. They have 3 and 4 passenger helicopters (not including the pilot), which will run between $495-$780.
Best St John USVI Car Rental Company
2 OPTIONS FOR CAR RENTAL
1. Rent a car in St Thomas and take the car ferry to St John. I believe all car rental companies except Hertz will allow you to take their vehicle to St John.
2. Take the passenger ferry and pick up a car rental in St John.
We booked a Jeep through Amy at Amalie Car Rental in St Thomas and absolutely loved them! Our Jeep was new and in excellent condition.
Talk about white-glove service! Amalie Car Rental truly spoiled us. As soon as we picked up our luggage at baggage claim, they were waiting for us curbside.
On the day we returned the vehicle, we received a text to ask us what time to meet at the airport. As soon as we pulled up the vehicle to the ticketing counter, a friendly representative was waiting for us. Absolutely seamless service!
CAR VS. SUV
St John has ALOT of hills to navigate. If you choose to stay in Coral Bay, you may have to drive up multiple steep turns to get to your villa rental high up in the hills. I highly advise renting a Jeep.
Also, if you have an adventurous spirit and like to explore places off-the-beaten path (such as Little Lameshur or Grootpan), you will need a vehicle with high clearance to navigate the bumpy, pot-holed roads.
However, if you are staying in Cruz Bay and mainly sticking to North Shore beaches, a car would suffice.
Remember, drive on the left! The car rental will even have a big sticker that states “Keep Left” as a reminder.
Our Jeep rental from Amalie Car Rental
Why you rent a Jeep in St John
Driving a Jeep on the steep hills up to our villa rental in Coral Bay, St John
PRO TIP #1: I would highly suggest getting a car rental with a backup camera. It is super helpful when you are trying to reverse your car onto the car ferry or backing up on a steep hill from your vacation rental.
PRO TIP #2: Download an offline map of St John USVI before you arrive. Cell service can be spotty depending on where you are on the island.
Where to Stay in St John USVI
Since St John is 2/3 national park, there’s not much room for resorts. This fact makes it incredibly unique compared to other Caribbean destinations. With only 2 resorts (Westin and Gallows Point Resort) and a handful of inns and B&Bs, where do people stay?
There are hundreds and hundreds of them, which gives you plenty of fantastic options to choose from. When you go to some of the vacation rental sites like VRBO.com and type in “St John,” you will notice the vacation rentals are mainly clustered around Cruz Bay or Coral Bay. Which is best for you?
CRUZ BAY VS. CORAL BAY
I did not stay in Cruz Bay, but I can tell you why we chose Coral Bay.
Most of the vacation rentals in Coral Bay are perched high in the hills, which allows for incredible panoramic views. The higher, the better!
CLOSER ACCESS TO THE TOP SNORKELING SPOTS
After snorkeling all over St John for a week, we found our favorite spots were much closer to Coral Bay than Cruz Bay (Waterlemon Cay, Little Lameshur to Yawzi Point, Haulover North, etc).
LESS BUSY AND MORE ISOLATED
Coral Bay is much quieter and more “chill” than Cruz Bay. It kinda had a laid-back, hippie vibe. There are a lot of goats and donkeys walking around, sometimes even creating a temporary roadblock on the roads. We loved it especially since the purpose of this vacation was to stay in our own travel bubble since we traveled here during the pandemic.
Coral Bay, St John USVI
Some reasons you may want to consider Cruz Bay …
MORE RESTAURANTS, BARS, NIGHTLIFE, AND SHOPPING
If you stay right in Cruz Bay, all the restaurants and bars are at your fingertips. The close proximity to all the action means you do not have to worry about driving back long distances on hilly roads at night. Have dinner and a few cocktails and then walk back to your rental.
Because of its location on the western side, Cruz Bay offers some stunning sunsets as you sip on that cocktail and start planning your next trip back.
BETTER GROCERY STORE
I think my husband and I checked out almost every grocery store on the island: Starfish Market, Pine Peace Mini Mart, Dolphin Market, Calabash, and Love City Market. Starfish in Cruz Bay by far had the best selection of produce, bread/pastries, everyday items, and alcohol.
Love City Market
Since we were planning on cooking most meals in our villa rental due to the pandemic, access to a good grocery store was important. If you are staying in Coral Bay, I recommend loading up on groceries at Starfish Market in Cruz Bay after you get off the car ferry. It makes for a long travel day but is worth it.
Starfish Market was basically a full-sized grocery store! The other markets were quite small in comparison.
OUR ST JOHN USVI VILLA RENTAL PICK: ANCHORAGE AWEIGH IN CORAL BAY
Our criteria for selecting a villa were as follows:
- Private pool
- Spectacular views
- Full kitchen to cook meals
The 2 bedroom 2 bath Anchorage Aweigh villa fit our requirements perfectly! The view from this villa almost looks like one of those fake tropical Zoom backgrounds. You think to yourself how can this view be real? But it is!
Anchorage Aweigh upper balcony
Anchorage Aweigh pool
Our friendly lizard friend hung out with us by the pool. I love these guys because they ate the mosquitoes.
Our villa, Anchorage Aweigh in St John USVI
PRO TIP: This is super important. When deciding on a vacation rental in St John USVI, first check out the selection on VRBO.com. When you have made your choice, Google the name of the vacation rental. The owners will likely have a website with contact information.
As long as the owner has many great reviews on VRBO, email the owner to see if you can book with them directly. You will literally SAVE hundreds of dollars on the VRBO fees if you book with the owner directly. We saved $357 by booking with the lovely owners directly.
Best St John USVI Beaches & Snorkeling Spots
Alright, so your car and villa rental are booked. Now the fun part!
What are the top things to do?
With 2/3 of the island being designated as national parkland, this gorgeous island offers endless outdoor activities. Our goal for this trip was to get fresh air, enjoy the warmer weather, and find all the top beaches and snorkel locations.
My husband and I have snorkeled all over the world such as Australia, Belize, Hawaii, Bora Bora, and the Maldives. For a lot of these locations, you must hire a private boat or join a group tour to enjoy these amazing underwater experiences. One unique aspect about St John USVI is you can snorkel out to some amazing reefs right from the shore.
Below is an overview of the 11 amazing beaches and snorkeling spots we visited over the course of 6 days. Check out my article below on all the top St John snorkeling sites if you want the full details. It includes my snorkel rating system for all the snorkeling sites we visited.
SALT POND BAY BEACH
Salt Pond Bay Beach
This location offers some great snorkeling. It does require about a 7-minute downhill walk along a rocky, dirt path that is uneven in some places. The crescent-shaped beach is beautiful with amazingly clear water.
Because of the short vegetation, there is no shade here. You will be exposed to full sun, so wear sunscreen SPF 50 with zinc oxide or better yet, wear a sun shirt. There are a few picnic tables and a portable bathroom.
The best snorkeling is on the right side along the rocks as you face the water and out to the rocks in the middle. Be aware there is boat traffic, so be VERY careful if you decide to make the long swim out to the rocks in the middle.
Turtles and rays often frequent Salt Pond Bay due to the seagrass beds. The highlight here was seeing a family of squid (technically called a shoal which I found out later).
Waterlemon (not Watermelon as I kept wanting to call it) is one of the top snorkeling spots on St John USVI! Because of the fact that it is a little off-the-beaten path and takes a little effort to reach, it is usually not very crowded. When my husband and I went around 9 am, there was only one other couple there.
Waterlemon Cay requires about a 20-minute easy hike along the flat rocky coastline to the far end of Leinster Bay, which is adjacent to the Cay. Entry into the water can be tricky because of the numerous sea urchins. Once you are in the water though, the snorkeling is fantastic! We saw beautiful coral, sea fans, a shoal of squid, many tropical fish, and even two nurse sharks!
Waterlemon Cay was our FAVORITE snorkeling destination in St John USVI.
MAHO BAY BEACH
Maho Bay Beach
Maho Bay boasts a beautiful narrow white sand beach, calm protected waters, and plenty of shade. Most people will say this is the #1 place to see turtles. We did see a few turtles in the seagrass beds snorkeling in the middle of the bay, but we saw much more at Francis Bay (which we’ll discuss later).
We also snorkeled on the right side of the bay as you face the water. This section had patches of beautiful coral and tropical fish.
This parking lot fills up quickly, so get here early. There is also a pop-up village across the street from the beach which has a food truck, tiki bar, water sports rentals, and bathrooms. The beach is very popular with families due to its easy access and shallow, calm waters, so expect more crowds.
HAULOVER BAY NORTH
Haulover Bay North
This is not a beach where I would lounge around all day, but it is a snorkeler’s dream! Haulover Bay North comes in as a close second to Waterlemon Cay as one of our favorite places to snorkel in St John USVI.
The pebbly beach is located a short 5-minute walk off of East End Road. Find the part of the beach where the sandy bottom meets the shore to allow for easier entry. We did have to navigate through some sargassum (seaweed) but once in the water the snorkeling is gorgeous!
Expect beautiful coral, big purple sea fans, and many schools of fish if you snorkel on the left side of the bay as you face the water. This bay is subject to wind and waves, so use your best judgment. There are no amenities.
Hansen Bay Beach
Hansen Bay has a gorgeous soft white sand beach and beautiful calm, protected waters. There is a very friendly lady named Thalia. I believe she owns the land in front of Hansen Bay and very kindly upkeeps the beach with donations. There is not a lot of shade, so she has planted numerous palm trees which will eventually change that.
Thalia has chairs, kayaks, and paddleboards for guests to use. There are also picnic tables and portable bathrooms. She does ask for donations, so please bring some cash and leave some love in the donation box.
Snorkeling was fairly easy in this protected bay. We saw several turtles in the seagrass beds. When we snorkeled to the left of Hansen Bay as you face the water, we saw tropical fish, coral outcroppings, and some larger Jacks.
TRUNK BAY BEACH
Trunk Bay Beach
Trunk Bay beach is the most famous beach in St John USVI, and you will quickly see why. It was rated as #15 of the Best Island Beaches in the World 2020 by readers of Conde Nast Traveler.
The white sand is super soft, and the waters are a mesmerizing aquamarine color. There are plenty of facilities including a snack shack, a bar, beach and chair rentals, snorkel gear rentals, showers, and restrooms. A $5 fee per person is required to enter Trunk Bay. This is the only beach in St John USVI with an entrance free.
There are little pockets of shade along the beach to set up shop. Arrive early to get one of those spaces! The beach fills up quickly.
We snorkeled the underwater snorkeling trail around Trunk Cay, which requires a fairly easy swim out. We saw some beautiful coral and fish, but I would not consider this a top snorkeling spot. Go for the gorgeous beach but not the snorkeling!
See my full review of Trunk Bay below.
CINNAMON BAY BEACH
Cinnamon Bay Beach
This gorgeous beach is similar to Trunk Bay Beach but with slightly fewer crowds and is bigger. It is made up of soft, powdery sand, clear beautiful water, and plenty of coconut palms to offer some shade. It is the longest beach in St John USVI, so there’s more room to spread out.
You can even stay right on the beach at Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground in an eco tent or cottage.
You will notice a small cay straight out from the beach. The snorkeling is excellent around the reef of this cay. There are plenty of beautiful corals and tropical fish. The highlight was seeing a lemon shark, who quickly swam away from us as we approached. Use caution when you snorkel in this area because the current can be strong.
BLUE COBBLESTONE BEACH
Blue Cobblestone Beach
This beach is appropriately named due to the numerous grey, blue, and white rocks that line its shoreline. This is not a sandy beach where you want to lounge for hours. However, if finding another snorkeling pocket in St John USVI is your goal, then this quiet location fits the bill.
This beach was part of our hike to Ram Head. The Ram Head hiking trail actually starts along the shoreline at the far left side (as you are facing the water) of Salt Pond Bay Beach. The path eventually cuts inland over a few hills before it dumps you onto Blue Cobblestone Beach.
Snorkel the right side of the beach as you face the water along the rocks. The snorkeling was average and offered some coral outcroppings and tropical fish sightings. It was incredibly refreshing after our hot and sweaty hike to Ram Head. Please be aware there can be strong currents.
LITTLE LAMESHUR BAY BEACH
Little Lameshur Bay Beach
This beautiful quiet beach has soft white sand and beautiful clear teal water. Getting to it is an adventure! I would only attempt it IF you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle. There were a few sections in the road I was a little nervous to keep going even in a Jeep! I would probably not attempt this road after a big rain.
There is plenty of parking. A few sections of the beach offer some shade and picnic tables. This beach has a wonderful sandy bottom, and the waters are calm.
Snorkeling is absolutely fantastic if you snorkel along the left side as you face the water out to Yawzi Point. Be aware the water does get choppy as you make your way out to the point. The underwater life is incredible, and there are a lot of deepwater canyons and crevices to explore.
Although we did not have enough time for hiking, there are quite a few excellent trails in this area.
GROOTPAN BAY BEACH
Grootpan Bay Beach
This is an excellent snorkeling spot but not a “let’s lounge all day on the beach” kinda place. Its rugged location and challenging access road seem to deter visitors. I would only drive the road if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
When we went to Grootpan Bay Beach, there was only one other car in the parking lot. Even better! We love off-the-beaten-track places.
The beach is pebbly, and the water is clear which allows for some excellent snorkeling. We snorkeled along the left side as you face the water all the way over to Kiddel Bay. There is a lot of beautiful marine life. We saw large schools of fish, beautiful hard and soft coral, and numerous waving sea fans. Waves can be choppy. I would highly suggest wearing a snorkel vest.
FRANCIS BAY BEACH
Francis Bay Beach
This little gem of a beach is located adjacent to Maho Bay Beach. Francis Bay Beach offers fewer crowds than Maho, a nice long wide stretch of white sand, and calm protected waters. There are a few picnic tables and a portable restroom.
Everyone told me to go to Maho Bay Beach to see turtles, but it was at Francis Bay that I saw at least 10+ turtles. I began to lost count. Everywhere I turned, I saw another turtle. They love hanging out in the extensive seagrass beds. We even saw a few stingrays too.
There are also some patches of reef on both sides of the bay, but the right side of the beach (as you face the water) is supposed to be slightly better. We snorkeled on the right out towards Mary’s Point and saw beautiful coral outcroppings, schools of tropical fish, and even a lionfish.
My snorkeling gear
Having the right properly-fitted snorkeling gear is imperative for an amazing underwater experience. After snorkeling to 13 different destinations around the world, I have learned what works from trial and error. Looking for the right gear? Check out my Top 10 Snorkeling Gear Items I always bring on our trips now.
Best Hike in St John USVI
RAM HEAD HIKE
Panoramic views from Ram Head
St John USVI offers quite a few beautiful hiking trails. We were told, if you only have time for one hike, this is THE hike to do on St John. Ram Head requires moderate effort and offers stunning panoramic views at the end. You can also combine it with snorkeling or a beach day after you complete the hike in the morning.
The trail starts from Salt Pond Bay Beach and winds its way to Blue Cobblestone Beach before climbing upward to Ram Head. You will see cool-looking Turks Head Cacti along the way.
The views are incredible at the top with a nice breeze to dry off all that sweat from your workout. FYI, the trail does not offer a lot of shade. It is hot! Prepare accordingly.
If you want to know all the details on how to make this hike happen, where to park, what spur trails to avoid, etc, check out my article below.
Turks Head Cacti on Ram Head
Best Places to Eat in St John USVI
Outdoor seating at Miss Lucy’s
We loved this gem of a restaurant located on the Coral Bay side! It offers fresh traditional island cuisine in a beautiful setting right on the water.
My husband and I split the crunchy fish and grouper reuben. I know what you are thinking … grouper reuben? Yes, and it was our favorite dish by far! The grouper reuben is served with coleslaw and Swiss cheese served on toasted rye bread with a remoulade sauce. Ah, so good!
Grouper reuben at Miss Lucy’s
Our tasty sides included okra fungi (local cornmeal cake with okra and garlic) and sweet potato stuffing with spices.
Sweet potato stuffing at Miss Lucy’s
Okra fungi at Miss Lucy’s
We were introduced to our first Lime ’N Da Coconut cocktail while at Miss Lucys. I am hooked! This delicious Caribbean cocktail is a frozen blend of rum, fresh lime, and cream of coconut.
Lime ‘N Da Coconut at Miss Lucy’s (pictured left), Painkiller (pictured right)
Of course, we also had to get the Pusser’s Original Painkiller. This classic cocktail is made with Pusser’s rum, orange and pineapple juice, and cream of coconut sprinkled with nutmeg. You can read all about the painkiller story.
Skinny Legs Restaurant
This Coral Bay restaurant has been around since 1991, when it was opened by two best friends Moe and Dougie. They decided to name it after their own legs since Moe always wore white sneakers, and Dougie always had knee-high socks on.
This friendly laid-back restaurant has the most amazing juicy burgers, and some of the best cocktails we have had. Order the painkiller. They never use a fryer to make their food, and they never use a blender to mix their drinks. Esquire Magazine has even rated them in the Top 100 Bars in America.
Juicy burger from Skinny Legs
Drive-Thru Brew at Oasis
I grew up going to the beach for vacations at the Outer Banks in North Carolina. One of the highlights was going to the Brew Thru to pick up any snacks and beverages.
The Oasis has just that! This incredibly friendly restaurant serves up some amazing homestyle southern comfort food and cocktails that all can be ordered through the Drive-Thru Brew. An interesting fact in St John USVI … you can drink and drive but obviously cannot be drunk and drive.
We ordered several painkillers and rum punches to take back to our villa rental, which was a short drive away. You must order the mac ’n cheese. Hands down, some of the best mac ’n cheese we have ever had.
Mac ‘n cheese, painkillers, and rum punch from Oasis
UPDATE: I am so sad to report the Oasis has closed. Hopefully someone else takes it over and keeps it running offering the same delicious food.
NORTH SHORE DELI
North Shore Deli entrance
Grab-n-go sides at North Shore Deli in St John USVI
If you are visiting some of the North Shore beaches in St John, please check out the family-run North Shore deli for lunch. They have delicious roasted meat sandwiches, smoothies, fresh salads, and great grab-n-go beach food choices (like chicken salad, hummus, potato salad, coleslaw, shrimp pasta salad, etc).
We shared a delicious Pastrami Tsunami Sandwich that was thinly sliced, seared in jus, and served on a fresh sub roll. The Superfood Salad we also had was super fresh and delicious. It consisted of local mixed greens, hearts of palm, candied walnuts, craisins, sunflower seeds, blue cheese crumbles, and a house-made balsamic vinaigrette.
Pastrami Tsunami Sandwich from North Shore Deli
Superfood Salad from North Shore Deli
SHAIBU’S GOURMET GRAB & GO
Shaibu’s Gourmet Grab & Go entrance
This wonderful vegetarian restaurant located near Starfish Market in Cruz Bay serves up some delicious, fresh vegetarian food, smoothies, and fresh juices.
It was started by Chef Shaibu Abdulai, who was originally from Ghana and then later migrated to North America to get trained by the Culinary Institute of America. He also runs his own private catering service called Oasis Private Chefs.
We ordered a cold noodle Thai peanut salad and a fresh veggie panini made to order that was incredibly flavorful and delicious.
Cold noodle Thai peanut salad from Shaibu’s
Veggie panini from Shaibu’s
Also, you must order the Sea Moss Smoothie. I know, sounds kinda weird, but it was so good. The ingredients were sea moss, cashew, almond milk, agave, and spice. I also had a local turmeric ginger juice, which I really think helped my inflamed, sore muscles after all that hiking and snorkeling. I might have to start drinking this juice post-workouts!
WHERE I WISH I HAD TRIED: From the balcony of our villa rental, we saw boats approach Lime Out in Coral Bay every day to enjoy their delicious tacos. The next time we come to St John USVI (hopefully not during a pandemic), this floating taco bar is on our list!
17 Top Travel Tips When Traveling to St John USVI
Start a conversation with a local with a warm greeting first before asking for something (Good morning, afternoon, evening).
Rent a Jeep to truly enjoy all of the nooks and crannies of this amazing DIY island.
Yes, St John is part of the U.S., but you drive on the left.
Leave plenty of time to take the car ferry back before your departing flight.
You can drink and drive but obviously cannot be drunk and drive.
Be aware of the Christmas winds when planning your winter snorkeling getaway.
Never leave valuables in your car.
Never snorkel alone and do not overestimate your swimming ability.
Watch out for sea urchins and mosquitoes.
Book vacation and car rentals early as reservations fill quickly.
Bring that little blue passport in case you decide to head over to Soggy Dollar Bar in the British Virgin Islands (BVI).
Pack 1/2 of what you think you will need since 90% of the time you will likely be on the beach or in the water.
Download an offline map of St. John USVI because certain networks like Verizon are spotty at best.
Grocery stores are the best places to stock up on liquor.
Save some money by cooking at least a few meals in your fabulous villa rental with a killer view.
Be aware of the donkeys, goats, and mongooses who may try to steal your picnic lunch.
Buy the local rum (Botany Bay and Bones) and make some amazing tropical cocktails.
Enjoying the local rum, Botany Bay
Another great local rum choice, Bones
St John USVI surpassed my expectations. I absolutely loved staying in Coral Bay and enjoyed the laid-back, hippie vibe. It reminded me a little of Kauai. If you love finding your own adventure and enjoy the beautiful outdoors, you are going to fall in love with St John!
St John donkeys
Let me know your favorite St John beaches, restaurants, and hikes in the comments below!