Tranquility Base: St. John
Lazy days spent on quiet beaches can be followed by lively nightlife at the tiny Caribbean island of St. John
CRUZ BAY, St. John – As we bounce along the Caribbean version of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, our rented Jeep Wrangler's off-road prowess proves worthy of the mile-long kidney-kicking ribbon of lunar-like landscape pocked with formidable rock-strewn "twisties."
Locals call it John Head Road and it takes us to the 18th-century Danish sugar-mill ruins of remote Catherineberg, the ignored cousin of the highly touristed Annaberg sugar-mill ruins just across the island.
It helps to pack a good imagination to visit the modestly restored Catherineberg to envision the prodigious amount of slave labour required to produce St. John's one-time chief export and economic cash cow. On two visits we had the place all to ourselves. There were no milling tourists in cargo shorts and logo T-shirts walking in and out of the picture.
In St. John, we’ve found it helps to know where to escape the madding crowd.
Following a late night, the breakfast den du jour in Cruz Bay, the only town on St. John, (population 4,100) is Hercules, a long-time purveyor of the island staple called pates.
Pronounced like the French word but bearing no resemblance to the goose-liver indulgence, Caribbean pates are turnovers typically stuffed with spicy ground beef, curried chicken or vegetables. Our pit stop at Hercules is a morning ritual before heading out to wiggle our toes in the cool morning sand of St. John's necklace of best-known and hands-down beautiful beaches: Hawksnest, Cinnamon, Trunk, Caneel and Maho, strung out in that order as one drives east along Northline Road. What keeps this island on the GPS of naturalists, snorkelers, sun worshipers and honeymooners is that about 70 per cent of St. John is preserved as part of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. Yet it's precisely why beaches become congested afternoons during the December-to-April peak tourist season and when cruise-ship day trippers from neighbouring St. Thomas drop anchor and turn otherwise idyllic sandscapes into crowded kaleidoscopes of colourful swim wear.
Our favourite tranquility base is Leinster Bay near the Annaburg ruins, requiring a short hike along a dirt path once part of the old Danish road. From here, we paddle a short distance to tiny Waterlemon Cay while savoring what may be the best snorkeling on St. John, as we swim over colourful fringing reef and brain coral and past green turtles and schools of starfish and parrotfish.
Another cherished outpost on our radar is the private spit of Hansen Bay Beach owned by 11th-generation St. Johnian, Violet "Vie" Mahabir. It's a 45-minute drive from Cruz Bay that offers breathtaking vistas of surrounding seas and neighbouring British Virgin Islands, as well as chance encounters with St. John's wildest residents: small herds of roaming goats, cows and donkeys that occasionally take over the road.
Admission to Vie's private beach is $2.50 per person. Typically, we are the only guests. After a few hours of wading hip-deep in the Windex-coloured waters, feeling free and unencumbered by the realities of life, our noses follow the aromas of Caribbean soul-food specialties Vie was preparing across the street at her no-frills roadside kitchen for a likewise hungry couple from Coral Bay a few miles away.
"We've been coming here since we moved to Coral Bay from the states 25 years ago," said the 60-ish American woman. "Not too many places left on the island to get genuine local cuisine."
We nestled into a picnic table under an old tamarind tree to savour every forkful of the West Indies-style garlic-fried chicken, rice and peas, and johnnycakes (New Orleans-style beignets drizzled with syrup instead of dusted with powdered sugar). Vie has been churning these out since she opened in 1979.
Cruz Bay, with no stoplights, airport or sense of urgency about much of anything, is a sleepy hamlet where tourists ferried from St. Thomas land. They're the ones hauling oversized luggage up the town's slightly sloped streets, perspiring in the tropical humidity, and scanning the landscape for one of the several car-rental joints.
And when the sun goes down, Cruz Bay jumps to life. Jumbles of pungent aromas from village eateries mingle with the sound of West Indies music pouring out of the bars. Twice a week, the Virgin Islands' hottest reggae and calypso bands kick out the jams at Fred's Disco that, during the day, is a covered concrete patio festooned with potted plants for sale.
On our night there, Woody's Tavern cordoned off the street for a block-party fund-raiser for breast-cancer awareness that included live steel-drum music and dancing till the wee hours.
For more information, contact the U.S. Virgin Islands Tourist Commission at visitusvi.com or call 212-332-2222.