When my girlfriend and I decided to go to St. John in the US Virgin Islands (based on your travel recommendations!), I assumed we were in for seven days of this:
I didn’t do much planning leading up to the trip. Part of it was that I tend to overplan vacations, only to end up feeling like I need a vacation from the vacation. But another part of me simply assumed that all St. John had to offer were beaches that would make a Corona ad jealous. That, and maybe some restaurants.
About a week before we left, I finally picked up a book called St. John Off The Beaten Path, by islander Gerald Singer. I started flipping through – and immediately stopped on this picture:
Holy crap…Was that the abandoned ruins of an old island estate house? Would we actually be able to explore it?? Maybe there was more to St. John than just pretty beaches…
On our first day, we took the Francis Bay trail, which passes by the structure. Except, we didn’t see it. Maybe we’d gone the wrong way? Or had the ruins finally collapsed for good? And then, we realized: we were standing right in front of it:
Literally, in the few years since the book photo was taken, the island foliage had completely overtaken the ruins, rendering them nearly invisible from the path. But they were still there, hidden in the overgrowth, waiting to be explored…
It was at this moment that I fell in love with St. John.
This particular residence, the Francis Bay Estate, once had a wood-frame second story. The porch, or gallery, was covered by a roof extending from the main building. In fact, if you look past the brush…
…you’ll see that most of the ornate tilework still exists to this day:
Though most residences in the old Virgin Islands featured detached kitchens, this one was connected…
…and contained five ovens, on the left. Note the oven hood, which leads to a chimney overhead.
Had we ventured deeper into the forest behind the estate house, we would have discovered the remains of more stone structures, as well as graves dating to the 19th century.
But to me, these ruins, hidden underneath layers and layers of jungle overgrowth, represent what St. John really is: an island of secrets waiting to be discovered.
ST JOHN – AN INTRODUCTION
If you use any other populated Caribbean island as a yardstick, St. John should look entirely like this:
And yet, 75% of the island looks like this:
And it will remain that way, thanks to the work of Laurance Rockefeller. After a stop on St. John during a cruise in the 1950′s, Rockefeller became enchanted by the untouched beauty of St John, and soon purchased over 5,000 acres of land.
After building an environmentally-focused resort at Caneel Bay, he donated the land to the National Park Service in 1956 under the express condition that it never be developed – and that included the countless ruins scattered throughout the jungles.
We passed this ancient, rusting gate off of the main island road, which I believe may date back to Rockefeller’s original Caneel Bay Resort:
If you look at the lettering in the arch, “Caneel Bay Beach” would fit perfectly. Today, only “BEACH” is left:
In 1962, Congress added 5,650 acres of submerged land to protect the coral reefs, which were designated a National Monument in 2001. With additional land donations, the St. John Virgin Islands National park grew to over 7,200 acres of land, covering over 75% of the island (though technically, only about 60% is Parks property).
Now, lest I paint the island’s main selling point to be ancient, crumbling ruins (which we’ll get back to in a minute), St. John also has a beach or two.
Some pretty incredible beaches, in fact:
Really unbelievably beautiful beaches, beaches that will redefine what you think of as a beach, to the point that what you used to think of as a beach (ahemRobertMosesStateParkahem) will simply no longer qualify.
If you go to the most touristed beaches, this is about as crowded as they get:
But if you instead take a short hike to one of the more secluded options, you’ll end up having a place like this entirely to yourself.
You know how most island vacations are spent entirely within the confines of a tacky all-inclusive resort, because if you leave, you’ll probably get kidnapped or killed? You don’t have that option on St. John, because such resorts do not exist.
Pictured above is the main town and port, Cruz Bay. Cruz Bay is small but vibrant, and has a ton of local character. The residents here aren’t relegated to the outskirts of town as is often the case in island vacation spots, and while there’s definitely an element of poverty, the real St. John is on display at all times.
At night, the town takes on an ambiance that ranges from rowdy to enchanting:
Cruz Bay also has one of the prettiest National Park Visitor Centers in the country. In particular, I love the enormous window, which allows a cool sea breeze into the main visitor’s area:
So what does all this cost? To eat my Rice Krispies with this view each morning, $170 a night (we were at the wonderful Estate Lindholm – more on that later).
But what truly enchanted me about St. John was its untouched history. While the National Parks decree prevented any future development, it also served to protect the remnants of hundreds of years of history hidden within its borders. Literally, you could be walking down a trail through the forest…
…then turn and come across the ruins of an ancient rum distillery, covered in moss and vines:
This is St. John. Shall we go exploring?
Check back Wednesday for Part 2: Ruins in the Caribbean!