– St. Thomas to St. John –
Today was both an interesting day and a quiet day. We took our ferry across to St. John, which was neat, but we also spent a lot of time waiting around, since traveling around makes it a little harder to do cool things during the day. No big deal. We still have three full days on St. John to explore Virgin Islands National Park and the rest of St. John.
We started with our usual run this morning along the promenade in Charlotte Amalie. It was a popular spot at 5:30 this morning. We saw six other walkers/runners out this morning. Most mornings we see two regulars. I wonder if those two will notice we are gone tomorrow morning. It was a little cooler this morning, and nicely cloudy until almost the end. I think it rained just a little last night, so that was probably what kept the air nice. Just as we were finishing, we spotted a cruise ship pulling into the bay. Just another day in Charlotte Amalie.
After our run, we went back to our hotel and sat around for a while before we had our breakfast and showered. After we were clean, we packed up our bags to load into the car. We didn’t have to pack them up too tightly (or airport-ready, as I like to think of it), just enough to get it all downstairs into the trunk in some semblance of order. We took the car ferry, so everything just came with us across the water.
We took our time this morning, since we didn’t have any concrete plans for what we wanted to do before lunch. We knew we wanted to eat over on St. Thomas, so we wanted to stay until at least noon, since restaurants are harder to find over in St. John.
Once we’d finally packed up, turned in our keys, and left, we decided to drive up to the mountain top again to look down at the island and cruise the big gift shop one more time. Once we reached the top, we discovered that there really was only one cruise ship in port today. The deep water port was empty, and no other ships had shown up since we finished our run. Maybe Wednesday is just a slow day. I know this is the slow season, since it is hurricane season. No one wants to meet a hurricane out on their cruise. No one wants to meet a hurricane in the Virgin Islands. There’s really not much to protect you out here.
It was much busier at the mountain top, despite the smaller number of cruise ships. The ice cream and food stands were open, and while only a few personal vehicles were parked there, we saw a ton of the people-haulers and little buses. The shop was full, and the line to check out was long. We didn’t buy anything last time, and since we have a couple of people to find little souvenirs, we spent a bit more time checking things out. I know I want a Virgin Islands National Park T-shirt, but they’ll be over on St. John, so I’m not too worried about me yet.
We tootled around for a while, checking out the view and the shop and dodging tourists before we got bored and decided to move on down the road. A little before noon, we stopped for lunch at one of the other vegan places on the island, in the town of St. Thomas: Ma’s Vegi Deli.
Ma, which is what the other customers called her, was very sweet and helpful, and when she heard that we had never visited the island before, she urged us to try some of the local vegetables. She had steamed sweet potatoes, plantain, unripe bananas, and pumpkin with onion. We ended up getting some of that, a tofu steak chunk dish, rice, and some eggplant dish. It was all good, but still nothing compares with that barbecue tofu we had at Veggie Plus on Sunday. I may have to figure out how to make that one.
After lunch, we filled up on gas, which is lucky, since we now know there are only two gas stations on St. John. We shouldn’t need to fill up again until it is time to turn in the car to the rental place when we are flying out. We only used half a tank cruising around St. Thomas for four days, and St. John is even smaller.
Finally, we turned towards Red Hook, the town on the eastern end of the island, and drove out to meet the car ferry. We didn’t really know what to expect, and still we were a little surprised by how things worked. So, the first thing we did was pull into the gate, where we were met by a gate agent, who said they had a port fee of $3. That wasn’t the price we were expecting, but we paid it. Then, she told us to hurry, and we could get right on the next ferry that was leaving in just a minute.
We drove over to the ferry, which was one of the smallest (but not the smallest!) ferries we’ve ever been on. Mark had to back the car up onto the ferry, because they don’t have a way to turn around and let cars off the opposite side, like many other ferries do. We were right at the front, and as soon as we were on the ferry, they started raising the ramp that we’d driven up to get onto the boat.
A man came over with a clipboard and told us the ferry was $35. When he came back, we asked some questions, and it turns out that the ferry is $35 one way. If you want to make a round trip, which you can do on a different day (for us, Sunday), it’s only $50. We booked a round trip ferry ticket, got our slip for the second leg of the journey, when we return to St. Thomas, and finally turned off our car.
Since it was pretty hot with the car off, we had the windows rolled down, but the ferry worker told us we didn’t want to do that, since our car was so close to the front of the ferry. We were very likely to get ocean water into our windows as the ferry splashed along during the crossing. So, we rolled up our windows decided to see if we were allowed to walk around the ferry while we were underway. We got the go ahead, so we clambered out of the car and headed for the back of the boat to watch St. Thomas disappear. I kid. It doesn’t actually disappear. It just gets a little smaller. The islands aren’t very far apart at all.
From the back of the ferry, we took the stairs up to the top, where we were allowed to sit on the upper deck in front of the cabin where the captain steers. I was a little nervous going up. The ferry was small enough that it moved quite a lot, and I’m not exactly great with boats on the best of days. Still, I made it up the stairs and into a seat, where at least I felt a little safer.It was lucky for me that the seats were mostly in the shade, since I couldn’t keep my hat on in the wind. The crossing here is actually very calm water for the ocean, since the islands sort of block the heavier surf for one another. It wasn’t too rough, but since the ferry was so small, it was still tossed about.
It wasn’t long before we had company at the top. Another couple and a few others joined us, and we all watched as the ferry cruised into St. John. The whole trip took about 25 minutes I’d say, and it wasn’t terrible at all. I didn’t even start to feel seasick, for which I am eternally grateful. That would’ve ruined at least part of the rest of the day.
The town where we landed, Cruz Bay, is the largest on the island, and it is much smaller than Charlotte Amalie and St. Thomas. The population over on the island of St. Thomas is 50,000-ish, while St. John has fewer than 5,000 residents. Our ferry lowered the ramp before we even hit the dock, and Mark had to drive off almost immediately afterward, since we were at the front of the line. They mean business when they are loading and unloading passengers over there.
The visitor center for Virgin Islands National Park is actually in Cruz Bay, and it is the only one, so we decided to make that our first stop. We drove through most of downtown Cruz Bay on our way there. There’s not a lot of it to see. They have a handful of restaurants and gift shops, a couple tiny grocery stores, and ice cream and smoothie shops. That’s really it, aside from real estate agents and construction offices and such. It’s cute, though.
Everything on St. John is just a little cleaner and nicer than St. Thomas. There’s more greenery, fewer people, and its a much nicer island overall. I already like it better than I liked St. Thomas. Since someday we will need to come back and visit St. Croix, we might just skip St. Thomas next time and come here directly from St. Croix. St. Thomas was fine, but it doesn’t necessarily merit a second visit, especially since we spent so much time there.
The visitor center was small and only had one ranger on duty. First, we got our national park stamp for our stamp book. Obviously that’s the most important thing. Actually, there are two here: Virgin Islands National Park and Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument. The coral reef is accessible from Hurricane Hole, which is a tiny sliver of land over on the southern shore of the island, in the east end. The rest is further out in the water. Most people take boats out to scuba or snorkel, from what I can tell. It’s going to be tough to visit, but we will probably try, either by snorkeling over by the east end of just driving out to Hurricane Hole.
We cruised around the visitor center, looking through the gift shop, then, when the ranger finally got off the phone, we talked with her for a few minutes about all of the things we could do in the national park. She pointed out a bunch of hiking trails, and the park is full of ruins and beaches. Almost everything to see is along the North Shore Road, and since we had some time to kill before we could check into our new hotel to drop off our stuff, we decided we would drive out that way to see what we could see.
Before we left, we took some photos around the visitor center. It’s an open-air visitor center, as a lot of things are here. It’s generally somewhere between 87-92°F during the heat of the day here, but the sun is the worst part of the heat. The humidity isn’t great, but once you are out of the sun, the heat is at least tolerable. It’s especially nice if you can find a breeze. I suppose the people that live here are used to it. I’m glad I won’t have to get used to it. Our little villa/apartment thingie is air-conditioned.
We left the visitor center and started up the national park road. We immediately noticed that pretty much every other rental on the island is a Jeep. They are everywhere. It’s like they have a breeding program here. Mark was so jealous, since he really wanted a Jeep, but it was cheaper to keep our previous rental car, and we didn’t know that all of the rentals on St. John would be Jeeps. Mark has an unusual attachment to them since that time we rented one on the Big Island in Hawaii. Poor baby is stuck with his POS car.
Like St. Thomas, St. John is covered in large hills, so the North Shore Road is littered with pull-outs where you can look down at the many white-sand beaches that pepper the bays along the North Shore. This island is simply gorgeous. St. Thomas was pretty, but this is much, much better. If I were planning this trip again, I’d probably plan at least one of the days we spent in St. Thomas over here instead. It’s that much cooler, and the beaches are that much better. If you decide to visit, listen when I tell you that St. John is way better than St. Thomas. Way better.
Our first drive out took us all the way to the end of the North Shore Road, where we had decided to visit Annaberg Plantation Ruins, which is one of the many ruins sites in St. John. The ruins are from a time when St. John was heavily into sugar cane production and processing, and the sites are all long abandoned. Annaberg is a large, well-preserved ruin, and is one of the major features of the park that isn’t beach-related.
The Annaberg Plantation was once a large sugar mill, beginning in the 1700s. The sugar mill was also considered a plantation, and was staffed with slave labor. The ruins include a windmill, a sugar boiling room, slave quarters, and a few other small buildings. The windmill was used to crush the sugar cane, to extract the sweet juice necessary for making sugar. In the boiling room, the juice was concentrated and purified by boiling, then settled into wooden pans, where the final liquid would dry and crystallize into sugar. Can you imagine being in the boiling room? And those poor people had no choice.
To get to the ruins, you park at the bottom of a little hill and hike up some stairs to the top. Given that it was midafternoon in the Caribbean, it was hot as blazes, and Mark and I ducked under the first shade tree we saw as we entered the ruins. That was really the theme for our visit. We would duck out from under one tree to take some photos and read a sign, then move a little ways down the path and take shelter under another tree for a couple of minutes, until we were ready to move forward again. The shade makes all the difference. The ruins are interesting, at least, and we finished them up without dying of heatstroke before heading back to our car.
We took the North Shore Road back towards our hotel on St. John when we finished, stopping at only one other ruin along the way, though there are several we will get over the next couple of days. The second ruin was the Cinnamon Bay Plantation ruins. These ruins were a little smaller, tucked back into the trees and away from the water. This area had a horse mill, which is the mill that would be used when a windmill wasn’t getting any air. The mill was powered by horses or mules instead.
After our last adventure, we drove back into Cruz Bay and met the hotel’s proprietor at our little villas. Our room has a kitchen and large refrigerator, and includes a range and an oven. That’s especially good here on St. John, since we won’t have too many restaurants to go to. There aren’t as many, and many won’t have any vegetarian options. Also, many restaurants are not opening their full hours or at all at the moment, since this is the off-season. But I think cooking will be fun. It feels like a challenge to cook without any of your own pans or spices. I kind of enjoy it. Anyway, the hotel’s proprietor told us were are her last guests before they begin renovation work, which is a little funny. It sounds like she is really looking forward to it.
Given our dinner options, we decided to go to the grocery store and stock up on things we might need, and pick up some things for dinner. For today, we just got sandwiches made at the deli, but we also picked up some fruits and vegetables to make dinner tomorrow night, and some new breakfast things. I rather like eating our own food anyway. It feels healthier, and I know exactly what went into everything I’m eating.
After we had some sandwiches and chips, we were done for the day. Tomorrow we will try to figure out where we can run in this cramped little town in the morning, then head out to a beach early, before the sun becomes too much of a issue. We’re also looking at doing some driving around the island. I think it will be a lot of fun. St. John is already the best part of the trip.