Exploring St. John by Land and by Sea

Maho Bay on St. JohnI’m standing on a precipice of my own choosing. The spot isn’t a vertiginous one of height and altitude from atop a mountain, but rather an oceanic one of depth and darkness along Maho Beach on the island of St. John.

Positioned midway between land and sea, my feet sink slightly into the narrow strip of shifting white sand as the gentle waves break and swirl. Crystalline blue waters – ombré shades of turquoise, aquamarine, and azure – stretch before me, then turn inky and obscure. I feel a pulling sensation, inexorably hypnotic, tantalizing, beckoning. Even the leafy mangroves thickly lining the shore behind me, their outstretched branches undulating and arching, seem to push me forward.

With a leap of faith, I succumb to the lure of the deep and go under.

Mangroves on St. John

Maho Bay on St. John

I’m snorkeling for the first time, and the experience is magical, like swimming in an endless aquarium.

My husband, Bill, and I have traveled to St. John with seven friends – all experienced snorkelers.

St. John is the right destination for my maiden snorkeling venture. One of the three U.S. Virgin Islands (the others are St. Thomas and St. Croix), the small, rugged, volcanic St. John is renowned worldwide for its beautiful, unspoiled beaches, as well as its dense forests, wildlife, wildflowers, historical remains, and stunning views. Many of the beaches, shoreline, and coral reefs lie protected within the Virgin Islands National Park (part of the U.S. national parks system), which comprises over half of St. John.

Cruz Bay, St. John

In 1492, Christopher Columbus visited these islands from Spain while searching for a route to India. He named them ‘The Virgins’ in reference to the legendary beauty of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. In a cheeky way, the word “virgin” in Virgin Islands aptly applies to my snorkeling debut. “Virgin” also could lead you to the assumption that time and circumstance have left St. John untouched – untrue, yet even with 4,000 residents and many thousands of annual visitors, the natural beauty of this Caribbean paradise reigns supreme.

Before our trip, I conducted some snorkel research online, and this directive jumped out: “Don’t wear shiny jewelry, as it can attract sharks.” Right you are.

So, I’m appropriately attired, minus Jaws-attracting bling, with my rental mask, snorkel tube, and fins, and my just-purchased grey SPF-50 rash guard (to protect against abrasions and sun, and to offer some buoyancy), all acquired at Low Key Watersports. I soak up my friends’ helpful advice like a sponge:

“Wet your hair and push it off your face before putting on your mask. Even a few strands can create a gap that lets in water.”
“Once you put on your mask, breathe through your snorkel.”
“If water gets in your tube, blow it back out.”
“Walk backwards into the water, or you’ll trip over your fins.”

I enter the water like a pro.

Mary Gilbert and Bill Whitlatch snorkeling

My breathing reverberates in my ears and sounds foreign, deep and heavy, à la Darth Vader, which seems fitting for this new and heightened sensory experience. Initially I’m started by the flash of fish whooshing by, appearing and disappearing in mere seconds. I have a silent, excited conversation with myself. Look at that fish with split yellow fins! That one has a blue needle nose! Those are translucent! I see manta rays, conch, even what looks to be a car muffler carelessly and inconsiderately tossed onto the fragile coral reef.

The momentary rush of apprehension I feel when I spot a small shark apparently feeding on some kind of organisms on the back of a sea turtle’s shell is soon replaced with amazement as the turtle flippers its way upwards, surfaces, and dives back down, the shark riding along bareback the entire way.

Bon voyage in St. John

St. John is all about the “s” words – sun, sand, surf, saltwater, snorkel, swim, scuba, stargaze, scenery. For a different perspective, we opt for another “s” word, sail, and charter the 46-foot Jeanneau Sloop Survivan from St. John Yacht Charters for a day’s voyage around local waters.


Sailing winch on Survival

Captain Justin, attired in shorts, T-shirt and straw hat, arrives by motorized dinghy to pick us up on the beach at Cruz Bay, St. John’s main town, and take us to Survivan, serenely anchored in the harbor. She’s a beauty – sleek and gleaming white, the largest of any mono-hull charter on St. John. We climb aboard with the help of first mate Sophie. Both sun-bronzed and sporting fit physiques molded by the strenuous activity of sailing, Justin and Sophie easily react in sync to the constantly shifting wind and water conditions.

Captain Justin

Survivan mast

Gloriously briny breezes, postcard-perfect views, and the powerful gliding and swaying of Survivan at full mast set an exhilarating mood.

Snorkeling is on tap, made easy with the boat’s open stern and swim ladder. We drop anchor at three spots –  Little St. James Island, Christmas Cove (where Columbus reportedly spent the holiday during his discovery), and Lovango Cay. The story goes that in bygone days a brothel on the island was such a hot spot with passing seamen that they dubbed it “Love and Go.”

Little St. James Island

Sophie squirts liquid soap on our masks and swishes them in the water to keep them from fogging up. We step down and slide into the sea, again taking in the wonders of the underwater world. Justin motors out in the dinghy, at the ready should we need assistance.

Snorkeling works up an appetite. Back on board we refuel with sandwiches, salads, and cookies served beneath the shade of the bimini. Sophie mixes painkillers, the region’s signature drink, for those in need of alcoholic libation – a tropical concoction of rum, pineapple juice, cream of coconut, orange juice, and grated fresh nutmeg.

Lunch on Survivan

Steps back in time

Our alphabetical exploration expands to incorporate the letter “h” for hiking.

We choose the Reef Bay Hike, the park’s most popular guided program. The three-mile trail, much of it under a protective tree canopy, descends down a high, steep, and verdant valley to the sea at Reef Bay, where a boat will ferry us back to our starting point at the National Park Visitors Center in Cruz Bay.

Start of Reef Bay hike

Not overly strenuous, given we tackle only the downhill, it is backcountry, and sure footing and balance come into play on roots and rocks still damp from the early morning rain. Some supplies are essential – sturdy walking shoes, sunscreen, water, and bug repellent.

Our guide, Goldie, thankfully sets a leisurely pace given the more humid air inland, stopping occasionally to point out historic and natural features. We pass a kapok tree, with a “face” on the wrinkled, gray, elephant-hide tree trunk, and a century-old mango tree. Genip trees, native of South America, produce a tartly sweet fruit. An enormous termite nest looms above in a tree. We steer clear of the thorny, saw-toothed wild pineapple, once used for living pasture fences to corral livestock.

Elephant hide tree trunk

Termites nest on St. John

Wild pineapple on St. John

An offshoot trail leads to a pool with petroglyphs, carved around 900-1500 AD by the pre-Columbian Tainos. The pool and symbols were sacred dwelling places and ritualistic sites.

Petroglyphs on St. John

Near the end of the hike, we come upon the ruins of the Reef Bay Sugar Mill, which produced brown sugar, rum, and molasses from the 1860s to 1916. St. John’s plantation system, we learn, lasted from 1700 to 1850, and changed the landscape and culture. European colonists used slaves from Africa to cut down the virgin forests, construct the plantation infrastructure, and plant crops.

Reef Bay sugar mill ruins on St. John

From turbulent past to tranquil present on St. John.

Reef Bay on St. John


4 thoughts on “Exploring St. John by Land and by Sea

  • March 26, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    I always enjoy hearing about your travels, Mary. These pictures are especially beautiful! We were there several years ago as a day trip from St. Thomas. We rented a jeep and immediately backed it into a tree, so it wasn’t the idyllic day we had planned! Next time maybe we’ll go your way and charter a boat!

    • March 26, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      Hi, Marsha. Thanks for your kind comment. How unfortunate to have your day on St. John begin that way! Hope you can make a return trip that’s all fun and no worries!

  • March 24, 2016 at 8:55 pm

    Mary, that was such a great commentary on a special voyage! The islands are so very beautiful and you captured all the nuances of the sea, the shore, the tropical forests, and the true island life! I felt I was there with you on each enjoyable excursion! Thanks for sharing! Beth

    • March 25, 2016 at 9:39 am

      Hi, Beth. So glad you enjoyed the read and that you felt transported! Agreed, St. John’s scenery is lovely.


Leave a Comment