By RICH GRANT
The U.S. Virgin Island of St. John is only three by five miles – the size of Manhattan – but for such a small place, it is ringed with some of the most famous beaches on the planet. A full 60 percent of this green, mountainous paradise is protected from development as part of the Virgin Islands National Park.
Today, St. John looks much the same as it did when Christopher Columbus sailed by – the first European to ever set eyes on this tropical Eden.
Located a thousand miles southeast of Miami, the three U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John) are at the northwest tip of the Lesser Antilles, that circular band of islands that separates the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic.
Compared to the larger islands of Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Cuba, the Virgins are just specks in the sea. They look like lush green mountaintops sticking up in a tranquil turquoise ocean.
Many of the peaks rise 1,700 feet in the air, making all of the islands visible from each other. This is deep Caribbean – the dream everyone has of a get-away-from-it-all island, exotic but safe, easily negotiated, hassle-free and, as a result, expensive and crowded. St. Thomas and St. Croix have airports and cruise ship harbors and can be packed in the winter season.
But little St. John, though only three miles from St. Thomas, is a world away in both ambiance and mood. There is no airport, so the only way to get to the island is by ferry or private boat. Only 3,500 people live here and there is only one town, the lively little village of Cruz Bay.
The center of town is a palm-shaded plaza surrounded by boutiques and restaurants painted a rainbow of pastel colors – peach, lime, rose and purple. Strands of pink bougainvillea climb up walls, while a string of popular bars line the town’s small beach and harbor.
At sunset, the bay is filled with the silhouette of bobbing boats, while in the distance, just three miles away, you can see the twinkling lights of St. Thomas.
There are very few places to stay on St. John, so by evening, the island population is small, giving Cruz Bay an “end-of-the-world” feel. The hourly ferry to Red Hook is the only connection to civilization.
From Cruz Bay, it’s an easy walk to dream-like beaches. Head to the National Park visitor center on the edge of town for a copy of the “The Hiker’s Guide”and from there, it’s a 15-minute walk to idyllic Honeymoon Beach or snorkeling at Salomon Bay.
In 1956, millionaire Laurence Rockefeller, who was an avid fan of St. John’s natural beauty, saw that development could destroy St. John, so he bought two-thirds of the island and gave it to the U.S. government to become a national park. Today the park preserves 13,000 acres of land and underwater coral, 140 species of birds and 740 types of plants.
Of course, St. John also has some of the Caribbean’s most photographed beaches. Trunk Bay makes every top 10 beach list and is even on a U.S. postage stamp. Lying just offshore of this too-good-to-be-true strip of white sand are two tiny islands and a coral reef offering superb snorkeling.
The national park has put in a 225-yard underwater snorkeling trail here, which consists of signs sunk in 10 to 15 feet of water identifying fish and plant life. Here and in equally pretty Cinnamon Bay next door, the national park has fresh water showers, lockers and snorkel rentals.
You can get to the beaches from Cruz Bay by open-air taxis, but to really explore the island, you need to rent a car. The roads are crazy, incredibly steep and have lots of blind curves. Driving is British style on the left, but the rental cars are American, made to drive on the right. No worries. No one goes over 20 to 30 miles per hour, and usually the terrain means that they go much slower.
There are pull-offs and drop dead views every half-mile. Once you park, the island is covered with national park hiking trails. The Leinster Bay Trail is an excellent one, following an old Danish road around the sea to Watermelon Bay, one of the best snorkeling areas known for sting rays and sea turtles.
Another hike is the short trail to the Annaberg Sugar Mill ruins. Here, there are gorgeous views of all the islands. It’s also a good place to learn about the sad and brutal history of this island “paradise.”
For about 150 years after Columbus sailed by, St. John remained deserted, but then everything changed quickly when Europe discovered the simple pleasure of putting sugar into tea.
Between 1660 and 1725, the per capita consumption of sugar in Europe increased eight times, unleashing a mad scramble to secure Caribbean islands for sugar plantations. The profits to be made from sugar were unimaginable; contemporaries likened it to a gold rush. Every European country sent ships to take and seize different islands.
By 1650, there were 75,000 people living on sugar plantations on Barbados alone – more than the entire population of all the original 13 colonies at this time.
It was the Danish, of all people, who raised the flag on St. John in 1718. By 1733, there were 109 sugarcane and cotton plantations on the island.
Growing sugar was wildly labor intensive and the only way to make it profitable was to use a small army of slave labor. Hundreds of thousands of African slaves were transported to the islands to live in miserable conditions, working backbreaking days stooped over in hot, sunny cane fields. Throughout the 18th century and half of the 19th century, the number of slaves brought by force to the New World was greater than the amount of immigrating Europeans.
Because of its isolation, St. John became an especially harsh place, an island where difficult slaves were sent or where slaves fresh from Africa were brought to be broken. In 1733, a group of male slaves from Akwamu, a warlike nation in Guinea, revolted on St. John and for six months, the island was awash in a bloodbath, which ultimately ended with the death of one of every three people on the island, black and white.
The Annaberg plantation ruins date from 1780 and include a former windmill that was used to crush sugarcane, as well as the ruins of a distillery used to make rum. In addition to sugar, rum became one of the biggest exports from the islands.
Today, one of the finest rums in the Caribbean, Cruzan, is still made on nearby St. Croix. To try it, go to one of the many Cruz Bay bars. Along the waterfront, there’s The Balcony, Beach Bar or Hide Tide Bar & Grill, or in town the Quiet Mon Pub and the popular Woody’s. For dinner, the Banana Deck and the Fish Trap have great seafood.
For information on the U.S. Virgin Islands visit the webpage http://www.usvitourism.vi.