A June 2004 trip
to St. John by pepperpot
Quote: In June 2004, to celebrate college graduation, the Dude and I escaped to St. John for 10 days of good old-fashioned sun, sand, and sea. Here’s what we found. (For all you landlubbers, I’ve covered St. John’s offerings back onshore in a companion journal, St. John on Land.)
Attraction | "Night Snorkel on the Ocean Quest"
Things I learned from my night-snorkeling experience:
1. Don’t get drunk in the tropics.
2. If you do, don’t go snorkeling right afterwards.
All right, I’m kidding. I wasn’t really drunk, and the snorkeling was a ton of fun. But really, I don’t understand how tourists in the Caribbean manage to guzzle down so much booze—the unwonted heat and humidity multiplies the unpleasant side effects of alcohol by a factor of at least three. So although we’d only had one beer each, the Dude and I were feeling rather hazy and unsteady as we tottered down the long stairway towards Little Maho Beach to meet up for our night snorkel on the Ocean Quest, one of a handful of tour boats that operate out of Maho Bay and can be booked through the activities desk at Maho Bay Camps.
Before long, two guys, one briskly professional and the other super-friendly, showed up to lead the excursion. In no time at all, all 14 of us were fitted out with snorkeling gear, wetsuits, and underwater flashlights. A short lecture on the buddy system, proper use of the flashlights, and other safety considerations, then we all trooped down to the water and piled into the Ocean Quest.
It turned out we were going to nearby Whistling Cay, which we’d kayaked out to just the day before for a daytime snorkel. Hey, that was fine—the snorkeling there had been awesome. We docked a ways out from the cay, splashed into the water, and amused ourselves by frothing up the surface to catch the green sparkle of iridescent plankton. Then the super-friendly guy, Bill, led us towards the reef.
For the next half-hour or so, it was all oohs and ahhs. Whenever anyone in the group spotted something cool, he would beckon the rest of us over. Ooh, a sea turtle! Ahh, a puffer fish! Look, a squid! A sea cucumber! A drumfish—that’s rare! And whoa—what the hell are those huge white spidery things? What? A kind of shrimp? No way!
The reef was an altogether different prospect at night than it had been in the daytime. There were fewer fish out, but this had its compensations: without the glaring sunlight to wash them out, all the colors were much brighter—the tiny "silver" fish we’d seen on our daytime visit now showed up bright blue and red. And the nocturnal creatures were feeding—the sea urchins were moving; the coral looked fuzzy. Coooooool.
On the way back, we were told that we’d missed seeing many of the sea creatures that are commonly spotted on night snorkels—sharks, octopi, lobsters, moray eels—but I wasn’t disappointed. The only thing I had to be unhappy about was my lingering drunkenness, which had made the whole thing pass in a sort of dreamlike haze. I sternly resolved not to have another drink for the rest of the trip… but I’m staying silent on whether I actually kept that vow!
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 23, 2004
Route 20 (North Shore Road)
Maho Bay, St. John 00831
+1 340 776 6201
Attraction | "Sunset Sail on the Allura"
And then, suddenly, a dazzling white catamaran appeared as if from out of nowhere and sailed majestically towards the beach. It was like a beautiful woman sweeping down a staircase into a crowded ballroom. People stopped what they were doing to turn and stare at it. And we were staring along with everyone else—but our jaws dropped even further when we read the name emblazoned on it: Allura. That was our boat!
After being rowed out by a friendly young couple (otherwise known as the crew), we were greeted by Jamison, the captain, who clearly regarded his beautiful boat with the delighted pride of a parent. "The Allura is made out of wood, not fiberglass like most of them these days. It’s more flexible; it’ll last longer. This boat will still be sailing the waves when I’m long gone!" The prospect seemed to please him no end.
We moored off Great Thatch Island to chill out and feast on the catered meal we’d brought with us. Drinks were passed around from the boat’s well-equipped bar, we unwrapped the food and shared it with the crew, and soon we were all talking away like old friends. Jamison told us the amazing story of how he and his two brothers had built the Allura together from scratch. It involved a miserly grandfather, their fellow citizens of Charleston, SC, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.
I was having a great time already as I lay sunning myself on a large net near the front end of the boat that was more comfortable than any hammock. And as we sailed over to nearby Mary Point for some swimming and snorkeling, the prevailing atmosphere edged its way from the enjoyable towards the sublime. A cooling breeze blew across the bay, the heat of the day was dissipating, and the water felt wonderful.
After a while, I ditched my snorkeling gear and just backstroked in lazy circles around the boat, gazing up at the clear blue sky and craning my head back to look at the surrounding islands. The late-afternoon sun threw them into sharp relief; they glittered like jewels all around me. After 10 days among all this tropical glory, I’d been growing blasé; but now, on the last evening of my trip, my sense of wonder was revived at finding myself in such a paradise. I was seized by a crazy urge to quit my job, get a captain’s license, and spend my days sailing the islands, just like this.
But until the day comes when I have my own sailing company to plug, take my advice and take a sunset sail on the Allura. I guarantee it’ll be the best experience of your trip.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 23, 2004
Attraction | "Kayaking to Whistling Cay"
Chalk it up to the urge to conquer. Every morning, as we looked out over Francis Bay from the outdoor dining pavilion at Maho Bay Camps, our gaze would inevitably fall on a small cay at the bay’s outer edge. Squinting at it, we thought we could see a beach, and something else—could it be a building? We were tantalized.
So when we heard that Whistling Cay, as it was called, could be reached by kayak and was supposedly a great place for snorkeling, we marched straight to the equipment-rental stand at Little Maho Beach and paid $45 to rent a two-person kayak for 3 hours. The rental guy took one look at my spaghetti-like arms and instructed the Dude to sit in back, then gave us a 2-minute crash course in kayaking. "It’s pretty calm right now," he informed us, looking out over the bay. "Should be smooth going on the way out. But there’s a breeze blowing up, so hug the shoreline on the way back—don’t try to go straight across."
OK. So far, so good. We dragged the kayak across the sand, pushed it into the water, and proceeded to amuse everyone back on the beach with our attempts to get into the kayak and start paddling in the right direction. Finally, I managed to master the left-right-left-right coordination, and we were off, making straight for the cay.
At first, it wasn’t so bad, and we were almost enjoying ourselves. But as we got further out, the breeze began to get stiffer, and we realized with rising panic that we were being blown off course. Not only that, rolling waves began to crash against the nose of the kayak, opposing all forward motion and drenching us and all our stuff in the process. I thanked heaven that I’d thought to put everything important in a plastic bag.
By now, we were both a little hysterical. The Dude, practically killing himself in the back, began to bark orders: "Paddle left! Left, I said! Harder!" But I was in no shape to comply. My arms were already exhausted; they hadn’t been worked this hard in years. Desperately, I kept paddling—for dear life, I thought, as we zigzagged back and forth like a drunken stiltwalker.
Finally, we staggered ashore, pulling the kayak to a safe position high up on the beach. That’s when I glanced down at my watch—and my mouth dropped open. Only 15 minutes had passed since we’d set out!
But after all that, Whistling Cay was awesome, and on the way back, we had the sense to hug the coastline, which made the going easier. We returned exhausted and hungry, but with an unfamiliar sense of exultation—the thrill of discovery!
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
The promise of great snorkeling was ostensibly what had brought us here, but in reality, it was sheer curiosity more than anything else. As we looked out at Francis Bay every morning from the outdoor dining pavilion at Maho Bay Camps, Whistling Cay, sitting at the bay’s outer edge, would inevitably draw our gaze. Squinting at it from afar, we thought we could see a beach and—could it be—a building? But why would anyone put a building there?
We had to get a closer look at it. So here we were, and our eyes hadn’t deceived us: the ruins of a small stone house were perched at the top of the beach. Eagerly, we began to speculate. When had the house been built? Who had lived here? An outcast? A prisoner? A hermit? Whoever it was, how did he get his food and water?
Answers were not forthcoming, so we finally turned away from the house (which we later found out was just a customhouse—how disappointing). Grabbing our snorkeling gear, we scrambled down the rocky beach, yelping in pain as it burned and bruised our bare feet. Hastily, we pulled on our water shoes—and good thing we did, because the rocks turned slippery as soon as we stepped in the water. We swam to our right from the beach—the best snorkeling was supposedly in that direction, and we’d been warned that the currents on the other side were dangerous.
Keeping a watchful eye out for passing boats, we made our way to the reef—and looked at each other in astonishment through our face masks. "Great snorkeling" was an understatement. This was the best reef we’d seen so far on our trip. Visibility was great, and there were fish everywhere we looked—parrotfish, squids, trumpetfish, and scores of others. An enormous school of tiny silver fish stretched as far as the eye could see in either direction—try as we might, we couldn’t find the end of it.
But the best part was the reef itself. All kinds of coral were thriving, resulting in a wonderfully varied reef, with high ridges and valleys in between. It was thrilling to swim through—we must have spent an hour underwater just marveling at everything.
It was clear that Whistling Cay’s relative inaccessibility was its saving grace—though I should mention that you don’t have to kill yourself in a kayak to get here. It’s a popular destination for boat tours and snorkeling excursions, and in fact, we ended up going back just the next evening for an equally fantastic night snorkel.
Trunk Bay is run by the Virgin Islands National Park Service, which charges a $4 entrance fee. As we rummaged for change in our beach bag, the Dude and I agreed that this was bogus—but we were soon forced to admit that the money wasn’t exactly going to waste. Convenient concrete walkways leading down to the beach (we’d been to some others that practically required hiking boots to get to) were just the beginning: we passed a snack bar, an equipment-rental place, and real bathrooms—and showers, too! What luxury!
And then we finally stepped out onto the sand and were greeted by two amazing sights: the most beautiful beach I’d ever seen… and 10 gazillion American tourists swarming all over it. Children shrieked. Parents hollered. A lifeguard (the first we’d seen on St. John) barked warnings from his lofty perch.
We were in shock. We’d just spent five days lying on beaches where a megaphone would have been required to politely pass the time of day with the other visitors. This place could have passed for Times Square on a Saturday night… and this was the off-season!
We managed to stake out a 6-square-foot patch of sand and sat for a moment to take in our surroundings. Trunk Bay really was stunning, featuring, yes, powdery white sand and crystal-clear turquoise water, and nicely enclosed by imposing cliffs, one with a ruined stone building perched majestically atop it. A tiny cay about 50 feet offshore further enlivened the prospect.
But then a braying female voice cut across our reverie. "JUNIOR, YOU ARE GETTING ON MY LAST NERVE! DON’T MAKE ME COME OVER THERE!" We looked at each other and sighed. "I went on vacation to get away from all this," the Dude grumbled.
Wading into the water, we agreed that it was suspiciously warm—even for the Caribbean—and looked askance at all the little kids around us. After halfheartedly splashing around for a few minutes, we made our way over to the much-touted snorkeling trail. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a disappointment.
As we rinsed ourselves off in the showers and made our way back up the concrete walkways, the Dude and I shook our heads sadly. It was the same old story: Trunk Bay’s fame had been its undoing. The lifeguard and facilities might make it a good choice for families with young children, but for the rest of you, save your four bucks for a smoothie.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on November 23, 2004
Trunk Bay, St. John 00831
+1 340 776 6201
Attraction | "Trunk Bay Snorkeling Trail"
When I read about this, I was immediately intrigued. What a neat idea! I had to see it for myself. And so the Dude and I made our way to Trunk Bay one afternoon to try out the trail (read about the rest of my Trunk Bay experience here).
When we found our way to the snorkeling trail, the first thing we noticed was that it was much shorter than we’d expected. We’d read that it was about 200 yards long, and though 200 yards is not a whole lot, I’d pictured it at least spanning a respectable distance. Instead, the trail zigzagged and doubled back on itself, only covering one small reef in all its contortions. It wasn’t very well marked, either—the so-called "trail" just consisted of one or two dozen plastic-enclosed informational signs mounted on the seafloor, demarcated at key points by buoys. The signs gave basic information about the fish and corals in the reef. They were illustrated by drawings, but since the drawings were in black and white, they weren’t a whole lot of help in identifying the sea life surrounding us. Too bad, because we needed all the help we could get—visibility was terrible. Hundreds of swimmers kicking up sand all along the beach made for extremely murky water.
Most depressing of all, though, was the poor condition of the reef. The coral was badly damaged, and there were far fewer fish than I’d seen in most other snorkeling spots around the island. There was an underwater sign about damage to the reef, and the park service was obviously concerned about it—the lifeguard kept yelling at people not to step on the reef (they still did, of course). And yet, some of the signs on the trail were in very shallow reef with only a few feet of water above it, making it hard for even an experienced snorkeler to swim over them without grazing the coral. Bad planning on the part of the park service, I thought—despite all their fretting and scolding about the condition of the reef, the placement of the signs showed a careless disregard for the safety of reef and snorkelers alike.
So do yourself and the reef a favor—skip the Trunk Bay snorkeling trail. Only if people stop flocking to see it might it one day become worth seeing.
Member Rating 1 out of 5 on November 23, 2004
Francis Bay is curiously neglected by guidebooks and tourists alike—though admittedly, the beach is a bit of a challenge to get to. If you’re staying at Maho, you can easily swim around to it from the eastern edge of Little Maho Beach. Otherwise, your only choice is to descend from the North Shore Road by a hiking trail, which takes about 15 minutes.
I can understand why the casual tourist might be reluctant to don hiking boots just for the sake of visiting a beach that’s not, after all, particularly popular or well known—but boy, are they missing out. Francis Bay was easily my favorite beach on the island. The trail down to the beach was easy—you didn’t really even need hiking boots—and enlivened by lovely views down to the water. Emerging at the bottom of the trail, we found ourselves on a gorgeous crescent of white sand that gave way to rocks at its eastern end. Utter glory—and hardly a soul about. We shook our heads in amazement.
It turned out to be the first of many visits to Francis Bay, and with each visit, our wonder at its lack of prominence only grew. There are wonderful reefs at both ends—the one on the western end is great for beginning snorkelers, while the one at the eastern end offers a worthwhile challenge to the more experienced, with a noticeable current as you swim out towards Mary Point (no lifeguard here, so snorkel at your own risk!). Both of these reefs are teeming with sea life. Besides the usual suspects—anemones, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, parrotfish, damselfish, angelfish, and a slew of others—we saw two barracuda, one of them over 4 feet long. Whoa.
Not only that, the snorkeling is excellent throughout the bay. Without even swimming too far out, we saw two sea turtles, several stingrays, and zillions of fish. The exceptionally calm waters and abundant sea life make Francis Bay a great place to bring children (as well as a popular anchoring spot for yachts—but don’t worry, the swimming area is enclosed by buoys). And despite its lack of visitors, Francis Bay even has bathrooms, picnic tables, and barbecue grills. So what are you waiting for?
Off Route 20
Francis Bay, St. John 00831
+1 340 776 6201
Attraction | "The Beaches of Maho Bay"
But as we looked around, it seemed that maybe we should have held off on praising the Lord. The beach we were standing on was OK, and seemed to be popular, but it wasn’t the beach I’d been picturing to myself during the long weeks preceding the trip—a long strip of virgin white sand fringing a wide sweep of sparkling aquamarine bay. Here… well, the sand wasn’t exactly virgin with all these people on it, the beach was quite small, and the view of the bay was blocked by several boats docked just offshore.
We were crushed. This was Maho Bay Beach? Well, yes and no—consulting the camp information sheet I’d brought with me, I discovered that this was just "Little" Maho Beach. The bay’s main beach, "Big Maho," could be reached via the Goat Trail, a 10-minute trail that started back near the top of the stairs. Great. We huffed and puffed our way back up the endless stairway and started down the trail. It turned out to be a nice walk (though not so easy in flip-flops).
And then suddenly we emerged on the beach, and it was just like the one I’d dreamed of: a long, narrow strip of white sand, fringed by trees and looking out on a bay that might have been a giant swimming pool with its clear, bright-blue water. We threw down our stuff and jumped into the water for a swim. It was deliciously cool and calm, and we could see schools of fish swimming near us.
On our subsequent visits, we found that it was much easier to skip the Goat Trail altogether and just swim around from Little Maho—the two beaches are only separated from each other by a slight outcropping and a small but snorkel-worthy reef. If you’re not staying at Maho Camps, never fear—the North Shore Road runs right alongside the back of Big Maho, and there’s plenty of parking.
Big Maho Beach is an especially nice place to bring children, because the water is shallow and dependably calm even when other beaches on the north shore are choppy. Also, it’s not a bad place for snorkeling—we saw damselfish, angelfish, sea urchins, and small eels there, and the seafloor is also covered with turtle-grass beds, where sea turtles are often spotted in the early morning and late afternoon.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 23, 2004
This struck us as awfully unfair. Undemocratic. Hell, almost un-American. Where did this… this… exclusive resort, this playground of the rich and famous, get off keeping all the best ruins to itself? The Dude’s populist sensibilities revolted; and from that moment on, he was a man obsessed. We knew that the resort’s grounds—along with its main beach, one of no less than seven, if you’ll believe it—were open to the public. So we’d come back one day to hit the beach, do a little snorkeling—and get a closer look at the ruins.
And now here we were, approaching the first of the ruins—and to our astonishment, we saw that instead of the KEEP OFF and DO NOT TOUCH signs that had been posted all around Annaberg Plantation, we were being practically invited to walk all over it by a wooden banister that had been added to its crumbling stairway. This time, it was my own preservationist instincts that revolted—but with such an invitation, I couldn’t resist slowly climbing the stairs to the main level to look and admire.
This was the first of many embellishments we saw, as, for the next hour, we scrambled all over and through the ruins like kids on a playground. Another even more fetching complex of ruins had flowers planted all around it, and we also spotted lights, tables, and chairs (which made sense when we later found out that resort guests could arrange to have romantic private dinners in the ruins, the lucky bastards). One large, circular building even had a restaurant built into it. In any case, shameless disrespect for the island’s heritage notwithstanding, it was all very lovely; and the Dude, an avid photographer, was in heaven snapping photo after photo.
Finally, spent from our orgy, we staggered over to the beach—and that didn’t turn out to be too shabby, either. Backed by the resort’s dining terrace, furnished with a large boat dock, and facing built-up St. Thomas, it wasn’t exactly an ideal of picturesque seclusion. But it was still rather pretty, with a few shady spots and plenty of beach chairs scattered about (with big signs everywhere warning that they were for resort guests only, but how were they going to enforce that?). And we were practically the only ones there, with all the actual resort guests presumably enjoying the privacy of the other six beaches, safely tucked away from the unwashed rabble.
Bagging ourselves a pair of "for resort guests only" beach chairs, we put down our stuff and headed into the water to swim and snorkel. It wasn’t a very good place for swimming, we found—there were rocks and beds of turtle grass on the seafloor, and also patches of coral scattered all over, so you could never be sure if you were safe putting your feet down.
Well, no matter. We swam to our right, heading for the eastern side of the bay, where we’d heard there was a nice reef. And the reef did turn out to be nice, with plenty of fish and coral—all the kinds we’d seen already on our trip, plus a few we hadn’t, which was exciting. Unfortunately, most of the reef was in somewhat shallow water, and as it was also fairly bristling with sea urchins, we found it more prudent to swim alongside it instead of over and through it. And the water was awfully murky as well. So our view of the sea life was rather limited—but still, we were tempted enough by what we saw to keep swimming along the reef, further and further out, towards the open ocean…
That was when I saw it. Just a fleeting glimpse—an outline—a flash of movement—but I froze. Slowly, I turned my head and looked around, and it was like suddenly seeing the picture in one of those Magic Eye things.
We were surrounded by jellyfish.
Just then, the Dude caught my eye and motioned for me to bring my head up out of the water so he could tell me something. He started to say that he thought we were too far out and we should start back, but I cut him off. "Yeah. Let’s go back. Right now. Because…"
"OK, dude, don’t get freaked out, but… we’re surrounded by jellyfish."
"Are you serious?"
Another pause. And then we both simultaneously dove underwater and swam for our dear lives back towards shore.
We surfaced, panting, in shallow water a few yards out from the beach. After making sure we were both OK, we decided to confine our snorkeling henceforth to the shallow part of the bay, nice and close in to the beach.
And, to our surprise, we found that the snorkeling was quite good here as well, thanks to those treacherous patches of coral scattered around—each one was like its own miniature reef, with a few fish swimming around it. We also caught sight of a live conch and some sea snails. But the most exciting moment was when we glimpsed a sea turtle feeding on one of the turtle-grass beds. The visibility out here in the middle of the bay was very good—much better than around the reef. We finally trooped out of the water feeling satisfied—until the Dude let out a yelp of pain as he realized that he had pulled a muscle during our mad swim towards shore.
That’s when we found out what the other advantage of Caneel Bay was—its convenience. We were able to spend a little time resting on the beach chairs, then, leaving the sand, we could wash our feet clean at the little spigot the resort had thoughtfully provided. And after we discussed the rest of our afternoon and it became clear that the Dude was in no shape to press on and hit another beach as we’d planned to do, we were able to go to the nice resort bathrooms to get out of our wet swimsuits and get dressed. And finally, there were comfortable chairs and couches on the resort’s terrace where the Dude could sit and rest before we went to catch a ride back to our accommodations. If we’d been so inclined, we could even have had a bite to eat at any one of two or three overpriced resort restaurants that lay within a 50-foot radius—because, naturally, those are open to the unwashed masses as well!
Brooklyn, New York