– St. John –
Today is our first full day on St. John and it’s been quite a day. The beaches here are even prettier than Magen’s Bay in St. Thomas. I should know. We’ve already visited two to swim. Nice beaches are much easier to find here, too. Half the beaches over on St. Thomas were rocky or expensive. I’m pretty sure most of the awesomeness of St. John comes from the fact that 60% of the island is a national park. It’s funny how much that can protect the natural beauty of things, isn’t it?
Anyway, we started our morning at 5am, and we have been since the second day we got here. The first day we were up at 6, which wasn’t early enough to beat the miserable Caribbean sunshine. We’ve wised up now. After we’d dressed in our running clothes and brushed our teeth, we were off for our first run on this island. It was… something special, that’s for sure.
Like St. Thomas, St. John is very hilly, but unlike St. Thomas, it doesn’t have a nice, flat promenade for people from the great plains. Mark had a plan, so we tried to follow his first route, but were defeated by one of the hills. We just couldn’t run up it. We switched things around a little and tried one of his alternate routes. That second one worked out, though it is still very uphill and quite a challenging run.
There is one hill in the middle of town, next to the gas station, that is so steep that we couldn’t run up or down it all the way. When you get about halfway up the hill, you have to start walking, and you can only use the balls of your feet, because if you put your heels down you’re going to roll back down the hill. On the other side, even though you are going downhill, which is much easier, the grade is so steep that it isn’t even safe to run. Luckily, it is the only hill that big on our run.
From the big hill, we climbed up into the outskirts of Cruz Bay, to the area where they recommend 4×4 vehicles to access the driveways of some of the rental properties, since they are so steep. That’s probably why they rent so many Jeeps here. In any event, we crested the big hill on that side of Cruz Bay at about 2.3 miles one way and decided that we didn’t want to run back down the hill, since that would mean we’d have to come back up. We took the same way back to our hotel for a total of 4.6 miles with some incredible hills. It’s really fun, but also quite the workout.
Post run, we dried off and had some breakfast, piddling around the room for about 45 minutes until we were nice and cool. We decided to skip the shower this morning, or at least put it off, and go to the beach before it got hot. We would need another shower after the beach anyway.
Around 7:15, we were off to find a good beach. It was nicely overcast this morning, so we were hoping it would stay that way, so we could do just a little playing around on the beach without our rashguards and sun hats. The clouds were cooperating, which was especially nice. It was also keeping the temperature down. It was only 78 for a good part of the morning, which is about 5 degrees cooler than I would’ve expected, given the time.
Mark had already picked Cinnamon Bay to visit, but we hedged a little, trying to decide if we wanted to choose a closer beach. Hawksnest and Trunk Bay, as well as Honeymoon, are all a little closer. Cinnamon Bay is about halfway down the Northshore Road. We did pull into Trunk Bay and consider, but it wasn’t open for another 20 minutes, since you had to pay a $5 national park fee to go down there. We wouldn’t have had to pay the fee because we brought our park pass, but they wouldn’t know that if we were already down there.
In the end, we decided to go on down to Cinnamon Bay like we’d originally planned. The parking lot had one other car in it when we arrived, but it turned out to be maintenance workers working on the currently closed amenities at the beach. Cinnamon Bay was heavily damaged during hurricanes Irma and Maria, and has been closed ever since. Previously, the beach had a campground, a concession stand, bathrooms and showers, and a few bungalows. Right now, it is just a beach.
Speaking of closed beaches, we spotted another closed resort at Caneel Bay, which was also severely impacted by the same hurricanes in 2017. Looking over the hill above the bay, you can see missing roofs and damaged trees along that stretch of coast. I wonder if they will ever rebuild.
Anyway, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting the completely empty Cinnamon Bay beach. The clouds held out, so it was overcast and a little cool, and we had the whole enormous beach to ourselves. No one else wanted to be out as early on a cloudy day. It rained a little when we were leaving, but not while we were swimming and playing on the beach, so it really was the perfect morning.
The sand on all of the beaches here is soft and white. You can see through the water all the way down to the bottom without even using snorkeling gear. When you take a step, you can watch the sand explode from under your foot into an underwater cloud of dust, then gradually settle back to the ground, even when you are shoulder deep in the water. We swam and played and grabbed rocks and stick from the bottom with abandon. It was really nice. I hope the weather is like this again tomorrow.
We finished up around 9am and started our walk back past all of the closed buildings to our car. I think this beach must’ve been very popular when it was completely open. Trunk Bay, which is the most popular beach on the island and is right next door, still has its amenities, so it is generally quite busy during the day, even though this is the low season. I wonder how crazy this place gets in the high season.
Back at our hotel, we showered and dressed for the day. We finally got back into the car around 10am to go do some exploring. We haven’t driven all of the island roads yet, which is one of our favorite things to do, as you might’ve guessed. The longest stretch takes Centerline Road (which you might have guessed goes through the center of the island) out to the island’s East End. The road takes you through the only other real town on the island, Coral Bay, which is mostly closed up this time of year, according to the owner of our hotel. The east end has a few more beaches, but they are mostly rocky, she says.
It takes about an hour to get from one end of the island to the other, maybe a little more. It’s only about 10 miles, but the roads are windy and slow, and the speed limit never exceeds 20mph. Don’t get me wrong- I’ve seen locals do 40mph around hairpin turns like lunatics, but I’ve also noticed that a ton of the locals have vehicles with bent fenders and caved in sides, so I don’t exactly trust the decision-making skills of anyone going over that 20mph.
Along the way, we debated stopping at one of the other sets of ruins, Catherineberg, but we thought we would see how we felt on the way back instead of trying to do it on our way out to East End. We drove past the hospital along Centerline Road, which is small and looks busy. I imagine they mostly treat more minor health issues and medevac anyone with something more serious, either to St. Thomas or maybe one of the other, bigger islands, like Puerto Rico.
The hills down at East End were something to see even in the car, and we kept coming across spots in the road where you literally couldn’t see over the nose of the car when you were cresting a hill. It isn’t a great experience, and I was pretty nervous going down some of those hills. Trusting in the brakes of a rental POS is a little tough to do. We survived though.
We also came across a bunch of roadside “wildlife.” Really, I mean feral, for the most part. We’ve seen a bunch of deer here on the island, and we saw a few on St. Thomas. They have no natural predators here besides the car, so the populations are quite healthy, according to an article I read on the subject. We also came across a herd of goats, and multiple groups of large white donkeys.
The donkeys are a remnant of the island’s sugar mill days, when the animals were used to help grind the cane at horse mills. They’ve had a feral population here since the sugar mills closed, and the donkeys are a staple of the island. They are featured on stickers and postcards, and can be seen in many photographs of the place available online. Apparently they even used to make a menace of themselves at Cinnamon Bay, where they would steal drinks and snacks from tourists out enjoying the beach. We didn’t see any in that area of the island.
One set of donkeys we took pictures of, which you can see above, had some kind of strange health issue. I’ve been googling for quite a while now, and I still can’t tell for sure exactly what seems to be wrong with the donkeys. If you look closely at the photo of them, you’ll notice large, raised nodules along the back and hip of the donkey in front, and a few like them on the hip of the donkey in the back. I know a reasonable amount about horse diseases, and the knowledge usually transfers, but I can’t figure out what those are to save my life.
Google tells me my best guess is Glanders, which isn’t usually seen in the United States, but it doesn’t entirely add up. Glanders is supposed to cause the nodules to burst, and those donkeys didn’t have any broken skin. It’s also supposed to cause a runny nose, and the donkeys look perfectly healthy in that regard. So, if anyone knows, please comment. The curiosity is killing me. Maybe its a parasite? Weird protein bumps (since I assume they can’t have been caused by tack, like the usual ones)?
Anyway. We drove out as far as we could, until we hit a private road. We made it almost to the edge of the island. It seems like a lot of roads in the Virgin Islands end in private housing developments. After we finished East End, we drove back to the mostly closed town of Coral Bay and took another road down to a little section of the national park called Salt Pond. It’s basically a little inland pond with ocean water in it. There’s a little hiking trail out to it. It isn’t far.
A little further down the trail, at the edge of the island, is Ram’s Head, which has an interesting history (supposedly). The slaves that worked the plantations here under Danish rule had a revolt in 1733. The slaves took over the island, and the Danish had to have help from the French to regain control of the island. That part is all true. Supposedly, when the slaves were defeated, a number of slaves threw themselves off of the Ram’s Head cliff rather than face capture and possible torture by the conquering soldiers. You can read a little more about this here. This article estimates that 300 people jumped to their deaths, but the Wikipedia article about the slave revolt doesn’t mention any of this at all, so it is possible that it is a myth. If anyone knows for sure and has a good source, I’d love to see it.
After our visit to Salt Pond (we didn’t really hike anywhere because of the heat), we drove back to Cruz Bay for a late lunch. We ate at Sam and Jack’s, which is a deli above our grocery store. It was cash only, and for $32, we had a tofu wrap and a falafel wrap, both mediocre, with a decent bag of house-made chips and some lemonades. It wasn’t worth it. The sandwiches down in the grocery store are $7 and taste a little better, actually. How could we know?
We hung out in our hotel room for a couple of hours during the heat of the day, then ventured back out around 4:00pm for our second beach adventure of the day. It was hot and sunny by this time, so we decked out in full rashguard and hat sun protection to go play in the water at Hawksnest Beach, which is only about 2 miles from our hotel. Two miles is a long drive here and takes time, but not as long as Cinnamon Bay. There were other people there, but it wasn’t too bad at all, and the beach was as beautiful as the rest here on St. John.
It was after six when we made it back to the hotel. We showered again, then cooked our dinner. I made potatoes and onions with garlic and butter, which I felt like was quite an accomplishment in our lacking kitchen. Mark was the star of the show though, with his chopping skills being severely tested by a shitty knife and the total lack of a cutting board. He managed to make pieces of roughly even size for me to cook. I’m proud of him. The stuff was delicious, and we had some cantaloupe with it, which I guess makes a complete meal.
Tomorrow, we will go to our beach again in the morning after our same (challenging!) run up the hill. We haven’t decided exactly what to do with the bulk of our day, but we do have several options. Plus we still have multiple beaches to visit!