St. John Stories and Tips

Observations And Experiences

Hawksnest Beach Photo, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

Travel from a large airport such as Denver to the island of St. John is an adventure in itself. Flights from anywhere must terminate at Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, as St. John has no air facilities at all. Caneel Bay Resort has thought of that and supplies the necessary transportation across Pillsbury Sound to the hotel. Once off the plane on St. Thomas, it is only necessary to check in at the Caneel Bay kiosk inside the airport, then retrieve one’s luggage. That done, the porters transfer the baggage to vans while you relax with a cold drink in their lounge. Once all resort guests are accounted for, you load into the van for a short drive to the ferry across to St. John. The Caneel Bay ferry is privately run by the resort, so there is no need to determine which boat to board, etc. It’s all taken care of, and it’s a large enough boat to make the crossing of the sometimes choppy three-mile sound fairly comfortable.

Once at the dock, which is literally steps from the check-in desk, we were greeted by resort staff who promptly escorted us to our rooms. The luggage was delivered a few minutes later. Caneel Bay is arranged on a peninsula on the north side of St. John and is totally surrounded by ocean and beaches on three sides. At night, it is a little difficult to get one’s bearings, as the paved cart paths curve around among the native shrubbery, blocking any direct views of the ocean until you are at your room. Every block of rooms either faces the ocean directly across the beach or is a very short walk to the beach.

Our favorite location on the resort is at Hawksnest Bay, a beautiful crescent-shaped white beach facing the morning sun. The rooms are on either the ground or the second floor, and we have enjoyed both, preferring the upper level because the sound of the surf and the cooler breezes reach the upper rooms a bit more unrestrictedly. Each room has air-conditioning, which is welcome during the hottest months, but rooms also have louvred panels that can be opened to allow the sea breeze to flow through. Though Caneel Bay is a luxury resort, I can not honestly tell you that you will appreciate it as much as a luxury resort in a large city. The atmosphere is part of the resort’s ambience and could be described as more "luxury-rustic." The entire experience is one of living on the beach, yet with clean, comfortable accommodations and great food.

At Caneel Bay, you can participate in as many activities as you want, or you can choose to relax on the beach and do absolutely nothing--and everything in between. We chose to swim and sit on the beach for the most part, but the small port of Cruz Bay, just over the hill, has some neat shops. A sightseeing tour of the six-by-nine-mile island is also a worthwhile endeavor. The resort has seven beaches, each slightly different but all with excellent snorkeling. Hawksnest Beach has wonderful reefs at each end of the beach, and it is possible to swim across to the public beach at Hawksnest Bay, but why do that when you can have the beach pretty much to yourself? Beaches on the west side of the resort face St. Thomas and have complimentary kayaks, as well as sunfish sailboats, for resort guests. The one beach on the north end of the resort, Turtle Beach, faces out across the sound towards other islands, including Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands--just a six mile sail--and offers views of sea turtles, usually in the early mornings. Just offshore, the water deepens and the cold current off the ocean sweeps through, allowing the cooler water closer to shore. It is a common sight to see the island ferries making their way around that point of land on their way to and from Tortola, as well as the other islands in the BVI.

Restaurants and food service at Caneel Bay are expensive. Of course they are. There isn’t a food supplier on the island to send out a semi-truck every couple of days to restock large freezers. Everything on the island must be brought in by boat, and you can bet the freight prices are as high as the market will bear. These local people have to make a living, too, and the cost of living out there on the islands is not cheap. Enjoy the fact that the food is fresh, the service is great, and the people are friendly. I offer that to say that this island is surviving primarily on tourism, and there is no other primary industry on the island, other than building luxury homes on vertical cliff faces. It’s still worth the expense, as far as I am concerned. Bear in mind that, though the Virgin Islands are a U.S. territory and have representation back Stateside, the population does not get to vote in U.S. elections, so they still run their "nation" the best they can.

Our favorite restaurant on the resort is Turtle Bay. That restaurant has the only public air-conditioned room on the peninsula and is recommended, as nighttime temperatures in late April and May can stay as high as 95 degrees, and until June, men are required to wear a jacket for dinner there. The food is excellent. My favorite is the caper-encrusted sea bass, but other items on the menu are equally good. The other two main restaurants on the resort are the Caneel Bay Terrace, which is where the breakfast buffet is served each morning, and The Equator, which is built atop the sugar mill ruins just across from the main office. The Equator is not air-conditioned but sits atop a hill and is open to the sea breezes, making it very comfortable in the evenings. The other food service, and one of our favorites, is the Caneel Beach Bar, where a great hamburger can be had. The beach bar has covered seating on a first-come, first-served basis and is literally steps from the Big Caneel Beach, right next to the dock where the ferry arrives. There is a veranda between the beach bar and the beach, and it has a nicely ventilated second-floor level that overlooks the beach. It's a great place to relax and regroup after a trip to town or when returning from shopping over on St. Thomas.

Our experiences at Caneel Bay run the gamut from sublime indulgence to rustic survival, as it is possible for nearly anything to happen due to the remote location of the island. On one occasion, following a day-long sail to Jost Van Dyke and back, we returned to the resort only to find the water system shut down due to a failed valve at the water reservoir. The problem was repaired, and the water system was back in working order within an hour of our return, and that was about the worst of it. I do recommend, if you have a sensitive digestive system, that you ensure you have a supply of bottled water in the fridge that each room has. The local water is supposed to be purified through a filter system, but it has a definite taste to it.

As a word of warning for those who just can’t pry themselves away from work, Caneel Bay has no phones, clocks, or televisions in the rooms! There is one TV in the Caneel Beach Bar, and phone service is available through the resort office. Cell phones, however, seem to work fairly well on both St. John and St. Thomas, as long as your carrier is AT&T. Obviously, that also means there is no Internet service on the resort. One shop in Cruz Bay offers Internet service priced by the minute, should you just not be able to resist.

Should you be considering a trip to Caneel Bay, I recommend reading up on the history of St. John. Learn about the Indians and the sugar plantations before arriving, and you will have a good idea of how the population became what it is. Over 70% of the island is also national park, and there are hiking trails to explore. It is not, however, like the national parks you may be used to, so plan accordingly. The national park has a web page that tells about everything you’ll need to know. Maps of the island are also available on that web page.

I hope this has given you some insight to the Caneel Bay resort and a little taste of the island life on St. John. I can’t live out there full-time, so I am content to go to the resort and take lots of pictures so I can relive the experiences.

RW.

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