I have been intrigued by St. John, the Caribbean island that is mostly a National Park, for years. Back in January 2020, before the pandemic hit, I booked us a week long trip for the Christmas-New Years break to St. Thomas, at a condo near the Red Hook ferry to St. John. I couldn’t find any reasonable Airbnbs on St. John and figured we could take the ferry over a few times. Well by October 2020 it was pretty clear the pandemic was getting worse and we didn’t want to travel at that time. We were able to easily cancel our Airbnb and airline tickets.
For the original trip our airline tickets to St. Thomas were booked using a LOT of AA miles since it was the Christmas-New Years break, plus a voucher I had earned and gotten refunded (more on that later). Since I had booked the trip pre-COVID and canceled it because of the pandemic, AA redeposited all of the miles without any fees. In October I looked up tickets to St. Thomas for the end of May, hoping by then the pandemic will have calmed down and we would be vaccinated. The cash price for the tickets was only $250 for non-stop, round-trip flights out of Philadelphia! I was able to use my voucher to cover 3 of our tickets and just paid cash for the 4th, so we got 4 round-trip tickets for a total of $250!
The voucher was one I had received for $800 for volunteering my seat on an over-booked flight way back in 2018. I used it once to book two of our return flights from Belize in 2019, but we ended up canceling those flights and returning home early due to a water main break on the island we were staying on. AA redeposited the voucher and I used it to pay for one of the flights to St. Thomas for the original Christmas break trip (because that’s how expensive the tickets were then). When I canceled that flight due to Covid, they refunded the voucher again and this time I was able to use it to cover 3 round-trip tickets because they were so cheap! Not a bad deal for taking a later flight to DC one time.
When I re-booked this trip for the end of May, I decided to try my luck again finding an Airbnb on St. John, since I knew that was where we would want to spend most of our time. Luckily I found a really affordable one in a condo complex with a pool and great reviews!
Since our flights were out of Philadelphia on a Tuesday morning, when the kids got out of school Monday we drove down to the Hampton Inn Philadelphia where I got a park and fly deal for $132. The next morning we shuttled over to the airport early and the kids and my husband got to go to the Centurion Lounge without me. I have had an American Express Platinum card for years which would have gotten me in but over the pandemic I cancelled it since I couldn’t justify paying the fee when I wasn’t using most of the perks. My husband was targeted for the 100,000 point bonus offer about 6 months prior, so he did open his own Amex Platinum, which means he could get himself and 2 guests (the kids) in for free. We could have paid $50 for me to get in but even though the food is awesome it wasn’t worth it for me so I stayed out. Meanwhile I ended up paying $24 for a cappuccino and some avocado toast with egg at an airport stand, so maybe it would have been worth it after all!
We had seats in the bulkhead thanks to another Amex perk that covers airline incidentals. I used this to upgrade all of our seats to main cabin extra. Luckily the flight was only about 50% full, which eased some of our Covid-anxiety. Everyone stayed masked and the flight was great, except my seat, a window seat, had dried up orange goo all over the window, window shade, and tray table! I chose to believe a baby sat there and got baby food every where, but I had to laugh when AA did their intro video showing the “enhanced cleaning” process with some actress spraying down all of these surfaces with antimicrobial spray. “Um…AA…you missed a spot!” I didn’t feel like causing a fuss so I used my own antibacterial wipes to clean it off, followed by a lot of hand sanitizing.
We got into St. Thomas early and took a cab to the Red Hook ferry over to St. John, only a 15 minute ride. The main port, Cruz Bay, was busy and hot. We walked up to our rental car place and picked up our jeep. I was really glad I was able to get one because I waited until 2 months before our trip and every other rental place on St. John was totally booked! Currently St. John is a bit overwhelmed with tourists because it’s a tropical destination where Americans can travel to. We ate a late lunch at the famous “Woody’s” while we waited for our Airbnb to be ready. After we checked in my husband and I went to the store for groceries and then we swam in the pool, had a light dinner, and went to bed. Our Airbnb was an awesome one bedroom apartment with a pullout sofa and a back patio overlooking the water, steps away from the shared pool.
For our first day we headed over to the Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center in the morning. It wasn’t super impressive as far as NP visitor centers go, but we did get stamps in our NP passbooks. Then we headed up the windy north shore road to Maho Bay beach, where we heard the sea turtles are. After parking and setting up our stuff we donned our snorkeling gear and headed straight for the water. I swam around for about 10 minutes looking for turtles when all of a sudden I looked to my left and shouted “Holy s%*t!!!” into my snorkel. I was flanked by two sea turtles, one directly under me and one over me and right to my left. They were about 6 inches from me and seemed to be joining me for my swim. We continued to snorkel for a few hours, seeing several more turtles and some rays.
The next day we hatched a plan to hike up to Caneel Hill from the spur trail next to our Airbnb, then hike down to Solomon beach and back home. We packed all of our gear with us and hiked a little ways up hill to an amazing lookout. We then hiked down for about a mile, eventually reaching an almost deserted beach, Solomon beach. It was so pretty but there was some loud construction noise from a building next door. I think the construction project was to rebuild the famous Caneel Bay Resort which was destroyed in Hurricanes Irma and Maira. We hung out there for a while and then hiked over to the next beach, Honeymoon Beach. Also beautiful but more crowded.
I was pretty nervous about the steep hike back up in the sun, but we had no other options. We packed our things and headed back. It was pretty brutal. I had just hiked a high peak in the Adirondacks the weekend before, but this hike in the sun and humidity made me feel like I was going to pass out. We took lots of breaks and drank lots of water and finally made it back! We spend the rest of the evening recovering in the pool.
The following day we had booked a boat tour which left from the opposite side of the island in Coral Bay. We left a little early to check out that part of the island and stopped to have a picnic lunch at Salt Pond Bay. After this we caught our boat, which was a double-decker pontoon boat with a slide! The captain took us to some cool snorkeling spots, including a shipwreck, a WWII anchor, and snorkeling next to mangroves. Despite the weather report predicting sun, we caught in a rain shower that lasted about an hour. It was kind of nice not to have the sun beat down on us so hard as we had all gotten pretty crispy in the sun the past few days.
That evening we went home and the kids ate dinner while we went out to an anniversary dinner at a Spanish restaurant called La Tapa. We love having Spanish food for our anniversary as we went to Spain on our honeymoon. It was delicious!
The next morning we picked up some local food – patès (like Jamaican patties) and fried chicken and ate it picnic style at Peace Hill, overlooking Hawknest and Trunk Bays. The food was delicious and the views were incredible!
Afterwards we headed over to the Annaberg historic district to see the ruins of a sugar mill. We found a little path nearby and decided to take it and do some snorkeling from the beach. This was some of the best snorkeling of the trip and it turns out this was Leinster Bay. Next we spent the late afternoon at Trunk Bay and found out why this beach is so popular. Powder white sand and gorgeous blue water, and they they the famous snorkeling trail with signs underwater about some of the aspects of the coral reef. My son and I saw two rays and lots of other fish.
The next day we headed over to the other side of the island to check out Hansen Bay. Although all beaches are open to the public in the Virgin Islands, the lady who owns the strip of land between the beach and the road asks for a donation to park there and use their paddle boards, kayaks, and chairs. It was great to be able to paddle around and they also had great snorkeling where we saw some Caribbean reef squid. Because it was Memorial Day Weekend they had a local caterer come by and grill lobsters on the beach. We bought one to try and it was so good! That night my husband and I had reservations for a new restaurant in Cruz Bay called Shaibu’s garden oasis which had received some great reviews and had vegan food for my husband. It was delicious!
The next day we tried Hawksnest bay in the morning and went back over to Maho bay in the afternoon. We needed more sea turtle action and they did not disappoint! We had several more sightings.
For our last full day we woke up early and drove back over to the other side of the island to do the iconic Ram Head hike. I highly recommend this 2.4 mile out and back hike to a peak lookout. It’s not too strenuous, has incredible views and really cool cacti.
After the hike we cooled off in Salt Pond bay for our last beach swim and then headed back stopping at a bar/restaurant called Shambles for lunch. We worked on packing and cleaning up the Airbnb and then we took the kids back to Shaibu’s for our last dinner.
The next day we got on the ferry, headed over to the airport, and waited for our flight, which took off on time, and bonus, I got a whole row to myself. One of my kids came and sat with me so we all got to spread out between two rows of three.
Our first trip in 17 months and it was damn near perfect. We LOVED St. John! We are huge national park fans so the fact that most of the island is a National Park with hiking trails and natural beaches was so nice. It was great exploring one or two beaches each day and seeing how they are all different. The snorkeling was some of the best I have ever done. Swimming with sea turtles at Maho bay was pretty magical. In fact, although we liked the boat trip, I don’t think it was necessary as there was so much great snorkeling right off the beaches. I have been to so many places where you really need to take a boat out to the good reefs, but St. John is not one of those places.
Our Airbnb was awesome. We loved having the pool right there and even though it was for the whole condo complex most of the time we had it to ourselves. The food in St John was expensive but that’s pretty typical for islands. The town of Cruz Bay was small and there wasn’t a lot to do there, but that was totally fine with us, more beach time! I’m also really glad I switched our plans from staying on St Thomas and taking the car ferry over to St John a few times to just staying on St John. This is a place I for sure would like to come back to one day!