St. John is an island where nature still rules the beaches
You come to St. John for the beaches, and it is hard to overstate how pristine these beaches are. I have come to expect, in my recent trips around the world, the muted palette of underwater life: the dying coral, the unintentional detritus, the mark of human beings everywhere. St. John has never fallen from grace in that regard, and one assumes -- if protections remain intact -- that it never will.
That’s why Trunk Bay -- the most photographed beach in the Caribbean, with its crescent of white sand and true turquoise water -- is still soul-stirring. It is also, at times, the island’s most crowded, with cruise ships sending boats of guests from St. Thomas for the day to snorkel the easy “underwater trail.” If you go to Trunk Bay, check the cruise schedule ahead of time.
The entire North Shore of the island boasts impeccable beachfront, with nearby reefs for snorkeling. For calm, protected waters and turtle sightings, Maho Bay can’t be beat. On windy days, this beach and neighboring Francis Bay have few waves or swells. Of the North Shore beaches, the only one still showing obvious damage is Cinnamon Bay, a large and unprotected swath of shoreline that took such a beating that its amenity structures were razed down to the rebar.
If you can find a parking spot at Oppenheimer Beach -- named for its former owner, J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb -- snag it. This tucked-away slice of shoreline that lies to the east of Francis, Maho, and Cinnamon, has three spots at the top of the hill, and you’ll have to walk down to get to the beach itself, but, once you do, you’re likely to have it mostly to yourself. The same is not true of neighboring Hawksnest, a broad beach fed from a massive parking lot right off the main road. Still, Hawksnest, with its amenities (bathrooms, picnic tables, covered areas) provides a more curated beach experience, and its calm waters are especially good for families with young children.
Honeymoon Beach, accessible through the gates of Caneel Bay (for a fee, since it is now operated by an independent company called EcoTours), has amenities now, too: a casual restaurant that serves frozen drinks; paddleboards, kayaks, and snorkeling gear for rent; restrooms; and a gift shop that sells, weirdly, some of the items that once lived at the resort’s gift shop and somehow survived the storm.
The reefs at Honeymoon, which jut out from the beach’s outer edges, are home to rays, turtles, and one very large barracuda. Indeed, anyone can swim these reefs. I know because I took my 3-year-old snorkeling for the first time on them. Honeymoon remains a personal favorite, in no small part, I suppose, because my father took me snorkeling here, too. Barracudas live for a little over a decade, and my dad’s life has been over for nearly that long now, so the stalking fish I saw in the misty blue sea wasn’t the same as the one I saw with my father, but it’s nice to think that maybe nothing ever really changes.
But my favorite spot on St. John is not a beach at all. It’s an offshore reef. Most recently, I hired Love City Excursions to take our group out on a half-day charter to Waterlemon Cay. Located off the island’s southeast shore, in the middle of Leinster Bay, Waterlemon is surrounded by a magnificent fringing reef. Leinster Bay also has a sloping reef further toward the shoreline, where lucky snorkelers might spy a rare and beautiful spotted eagle ray. If you can’t arrange to get to Waterlemon by boat, you can hike the modest one-mile trail that connects Leinster Bay with a parking lot. The current-heavy swim to Waterlemon from shore, however, is best left to advanced swimmers. Once, on a trip around the cay, our family got caught in a nasty current, and my dad and I tugged our motley crew of tangled limbs back to the boat and laughed about the danger later.