Circumnavigating St. John

Ever dreamed of circumnavigating the globe? We have. But like a 10-scoop sundae topped with caramel and hot fudge, that’s a dream that’s a bit overwhelming. So we’ve taken to circumnavigating in bite-size chunks. Wye Island, for instance, is a serenely beautiful island to round or the DelMarva Peninsula for a bigger challenge. If, however, your circumnavigation bug is looking for a vacation instead of a staycation, St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands has much to offer. 

Francis Bay.

Francis Bay.

Over the course of a couple of months last winter, we circumnavigated St. John twice, enjoying several of the mooring fields within Virgin Islands National Park.

First stop was Francis Bay, with snorkeling straight from the boat and beach access to hiking and birding trails. After grabbing one of the moorings, we opted to jump right in and snorkel. Large purple sea fans and a score of parrotfish went about their business as we gawked and pointed in wonder. Bonitos fed so voraciously that we caught (and released) two in a hand-held net as they leapt out of the water off our stern.

Francis Bay serves as a great base for exploring the north side of St. John. It’s a quick dinghy ride or paddle to Whistling Cay, Cinnamon Bay, and Maho Bay. One morning we hiked to the ruins of the Annenberg Sugar Mill. The sobering story of sugar cane, rum, and slavery served as a reminder of the harshness of life in “paradise.” Another morning found us on a ranger-guided tour looking for sea creatures in the ankle deep waters of Leinster Bay.

Under the rocks, we found sea eggs, brittle stars, and coolest of all, an octopus that blended into the sand with almost perfect camouflage only to jet away in a flash to its next hiding place in the sand. What a gift! It was especially wonderful to see kids holding sea urchins and growing comfortable turning over stones to find out what else was out here in the world we share. 

Sunset on Francis Bay.

Sunset on Francis Bay.

Cinnamon Bay and Whistling Cay merit a visit as well. Ruins of a small house still stand on Whistling Cay. Rumor has it that it served as a guard house for capturing slaves who were attempting to escape to the British Virgin Islands. The British abolished slavery a few years before the Danes.

Cinnamon Bay’s human history dates back at least 1000 years. Taino artifacts have been excavated there, and some are on display in a museum at the Cinnamon Bay campground. Traces of Danish colonization still show themselves as well. Near Cinnamon Bay are the ruins of a factory that produced aftershave and “toilette water,” and fragrant bay rum trees scent the air. Park rangers also lead talks on identifying and using flora native to St. John. 

Snorkeling at Whistling Cay.

Snorkeling at Whistling Cay.

As fascinating as the north side of St. John is, the south side may be even better.

Great Lameshur Bay provides a sheltered mooring field, a dinghy dock, and access to the amazing Reef Bay Trail, where pre-Columbian petroglyphs carved by Tainos still cause pause for reflection at the base of a lovely waterfall. Late afternoon snorkeling and kayaking offer a visual treat as well. The afternoon light on the cliffs of Cabritte Horn Point stands out in my memory as the prettiest kayaking of the whole trip.

Sea turtles also like the bay, and we had a chance to swim near some. The beach is full of smooth stones, perfect for a warming massage after a cool swim. Rounding out our tour of the park and our circumnavigation was Salt Pond Bay. Like each of the other mooring fields, this one has its own distinct character as well.

This bay features sculptural pillar corals as tall as I am, large conch perfect for conch fritters, a sandy beach, access to the Concordia Eco-Resort, and hikes satisfying for the stomach and the soul. On the stomach side, we walked to the Tourist Trap and enjoyed pork barbecue while watching scores of bananaquits twitter and feed. On the soul side, we hiked up Ram Head, marveled at the dryness of the trail, and reveled in the strong ocean breezes and views at the top of the cliff. For an easily digestible circumnavigation — one that with the right weather can fit into a week-long vacation, St. John delivers. Culture, history, action, exploration, wildlife, and even delicious dining await.

It’s great to travel in circles.

By Tracy Leonard