Eco-camping on St. John
Day 1 - 6/20/14 A long and emotional day of travel
Back in January my family (husband and 22 year old twins) and I decided to plan a vacation to celebrate my daughter's graduation from college before she started a graduate program. I consulted the fodors travel forum, and it did not take us long to decide on St. John. It would be a first trip to the Caribbean for my husband and children. Shortly before the trip, my dad became very ill. I knew he did not want us to cancel this trip as it could not be rescheduled. So, we departed from Boston on a Friday morning and when I got to Miami for our connecting flight, I learned that he had passed away. I thought of the flight taking off and flying over Boston Harbor with sailboats and sparkling blue water at the time of his passing. It is said that he waited for us to get off the ground to make sure we went. It was also a beautiful scene and his presence was felt. No matter how expected something like this is, it is still a shock.
I made calls and texts from Miami airport before I boarded. That would be it for phones for me. I had arrangements in place before the trip, so there was nothing more I could do until I came home. The flights were on time and uneventful.
We arrived in St. Thomas and walked down the stairs of the plane to get outside to find a taxi. It was late in the day, humid, and I was physically and emotionally drained. We were offered a little sample of rum which we gratefully accepted. We all had carry on luggage and found a taxi quickly. The taxi driver whipped through the narrow streets of St. Thomas and dropped two other groups off at different hotels before bringing us to Red Hook Ferry Terminal. I think our stomachs were still at the airport! We purchased our tickets and found that the two suitcases with wheels were an extra charge, but they did not charge for the other two suitcases even though they were the same size. Next time, I'll leave the wheeled luggage at home as it is also a bit inconvenient to check luggage. When we bought our tickets, a little girl in the ticket booth handed me a napkin with a heart drawn on it. How did she know I needed that? ♥
It was a small ferry and we sat up on top. The mood was festive as people exchanged vacation stories and snapped pictures. Watch the birds up there - my daughter got pooped on!
We had rented a car through Courtesy Car Rental, and they were there within minutes to pick us up and drive us to the rental place around the corner. There had been discussion in the fodors forum whether to rent a car (yes), and whether to get a jeep or an SUV. As we were new to the island, we heard the handling of corners might be easier in an SUV, so that is what we went with. The SUV had plenty of dings on it which I photographed just to ensure that we wouldn't be charged for them later. After confusion with the rotary, it was a long and harrowing drive to get to Concordia Eco-Resort, and though the scenery was beautiful, we were focused on the roads - hills, curves, and staying to the left. Finally about 13 hours after we left Boston, we arrived at Concordia just before their office closed. I felt badly that the person at the desk went to break the news to me about my dad, but I told her I already knew. They were very kind to me. We spoke with a couple who was on the ferry with us, and apparently their taxi circled the island a few times with various drop offs, so even though they got the taxi before we went to the car rental, they actually arrived at Concordia after us. So I guess it's good to know that taxis don't necessarily take a direct route. It was just about dark by then, but we located our eco-tent with a view I fell in love with. We quickly changed and headed over to dinner at the Concordia Café before they stopped serving for the night. The humus appetizer and round of delicious, icy mojitos hit the spot while we waited for our dinner of grilled shrimp, veggies, and salad...and another round of mojitos. Everything was fresh and well prepared.
After dinner we had just enough time to swim in the warm pool which was pure heaven before falling into bed. Our eco-tent was very rustic, but it had solar power. The beds are made up with a bottom sheet, pillow and folded top sheet with two twin beds downstairs with a couch and a loft upstairs with two twin mattresses. They give you one set of bath towels per person for the week. (You can exchange them for fresh towels if you need to, but we found there were plenty of drying rods, so our towels were always dry.) You bring your own beach towel. I recommend buying one here - I liked what they had at their store and at the National Park Service store. You get a plastic bottle of biodegradable hair/body wash and a bottle of biodegradable dish soap. We filled the drinking water jug up with potable water. We had a small kitchen which had everything we would need. We only had breakfast, lunch, and libations in our tent - always on the deck.
The bathroom had a composting toilet which seemed pretty much like a regular toilet and a shower - which wasn't. But I will cover the shower later.
Day 2 - 6/21/14 Salt Pond Beach, Maho Beach, Annaberg Ruins
I'd like to say we slept well, but the wind really howls with the occasional shake of the tent. It was incredible being up there on the hill, but the wind is something that takes getting used to. This is the view that I fell in love with. Top is Ram's Head and Drunk Bay and the bottom one is looking out at the British Virgin Islands (I think).
My daughter and I initially planned to attend the morning yoga class offered onsite, but when she heard it was $10 per person, she convinced me it wasn't worth it, so we opted to just head to breakfast and find the beach. It was a good call. I think we were way too eager to get into those warm waters to focus on yoga. We had a quick breakfast at the café - it was pricey for what you got ($5.00 for a bagel), but we were happy to not have to get in our car to get food as we had arrived too late to get to any stores.
After breakfast, we picked up sunscreen from the Concordia store because we had traveled with carry on. We got ourselves ready for the 12 minute hike to Salt Pond Bay with great anticipation of our first St. John swim. First we had to walk across Concordia with its long boardwalks.
There is nothing quite like the first swim in that inviting warm sea - we just melted into the water! We spent pretty much the entire morning in the water. My son brought his snorkel set from home, so we shared with him and were just amazed at the underwater life. I felt like I was flying and looking down at underwater cities of brilliantly colored coral and fish. My husband was happy to get a break from the sun by a shady picnic table.
We hiked back to our tent around lunchtime and decided to venture out in the car for lunch, provisions, and perhaps another stop at a beach. At this point, it was evident that we would all need snorkel sets, so we rented them for the week at Concordia ($25 per person). Also, by the time we hiked back up the hill and stairs, we were ready for another swim - so we used the pool several times a day (in addition to swimming for hours at the beaches). It was very refreshing!
We headed to Aqua Bistro for lunch in nearby Coral Bay. To clarify, on a map Coral Bay and Cruz Bay look like they are similar distances from Concordia. That is not the case. There is no direct way to drive to Cruz Bay, so you need to drive through Coral Bay anyway. So for us, we did not go into Cruz Bay unless we had a specific activity planned there. Coral Bay is much smaller, but we liked how close and convenient it was. We had a terrific lunch at Aqua Bistro with excellent service, a super fresh Mahi Mahi sandwich, and a drink specialty called the Little Iguana. Donkeys passed by as we ate.
After lunch, we stopped at the smoothie stand which is the landmark for turning to Maho Bay. We decided to bring smoothies to the beach. A little girl was in the booth with her mom and said goodbye and gave a wave when we left. I am noticing that it is not uncommon for kids to go to work with their parents - the kids are also very friendly and well-behaved.
With smoothies to go, we headed straight to Maho Beach, just a few minutes away. What a beautiful beach! It was probably one of my favorites with the mountains all around.
It was great to have our own snorkels.
Towel drying St. John style
We took a short walk in to see the windmill, sugar factory, slave quarters, and the horsemill. We also had a view of the British Virgin Islands. The bright orange tree is called the flamboyant tree.
We never saw another person at Annaberg. We headed back towards Concordia. At this point it was dinner time - we did not feel like driving back to the eco-tent and then out again, so we opted to just eat wearing our bathing suits and cover ups. We stopped at Shipwreck Landing, were seated right away and had a delicious meal with a lovely view. I actually had Mahi Mahi again - I think I was sold on it because it was so fresh. I don't recall the beverage, but I can safely say it was a "rum drink." After dinner, we stopped at the Calabash Market in Coral Bay to finally stock up on provisions. Once we got past the sticker shock (basically multiply everything by 4 or 5 times what you are used to paying), we got the basics: yogurt, Virgin Islands coffee, milk, cereal, wine, rum, bread, cheese, and more sunscreen. The sunscreen prices were similar to home, but the problem I had was with the brands. I use Coppertone Sport 30 at home and have never burned. Here whatever we used, we were still burning (and two of us have dark skin). Trying a new brand did not help, so this was just something we dealt with the remainder of the trip. I never did take the time to lie out in the sun - I was always in the water.
It had been a long day, and we were ready for a swim in the pool and a good hot shower. Or so we thought. My husband had pulled the special cord to put water in the tank before we went out for the day. The sun then heats the water up. That was not the problem. The problem was that the shower was a hose with a pistol grip nozzle with no water pressure whatsoever. I knew something was off when my husband (who usually takes a two-minute shower) took awhile and said he couldn't get much water out. My daughter and I have thick hair which was impossible to rinse. We just dealt with it that night while I tried to think of another option. I figured we'd be swimming first thing in the morning anyway.
My husband and kids played some cards while I read up on activities. I loved being unplugged, the quiet hours of the place (something like 9 pm), and the fantastic stargazing. Even though there are stairs and boardwalks, they have it lit just so you can see where you are going but without creating any light pollution. We saw some shooting stars - my dad blowing a kiss?
Day 3 - 6/22/14 Hike to Ram's Head
There is no sleeping in - between the wind and the sun, we were always up early. I marveled at the view the second I woke up. We made coffee with the drip cone and large ceramic mug provided by Concordia. It was peaceful to sit on the deck enjoying breakfast and coffee.
By 7:30 am, we were screened up, packed up for the beach, and ready to hit the trail for the hike to Ram's Head. We wore our bathing suits under our shorts with sneakers. I think I could have done any hike wearing Tevas, but I will address that later when I cover packing.
We filled our water bottles up and set off on the hike. We had to pass the beautiful Salt Pond Beach to reach the trail and then it was uphill passing cacti along the way. They seemed so out of place in such a lush place. On the top, there was organ pipe cactus growing. We took tons of pictures and just took in the spectacular view.
At the end of the hike, we quickly dove into the water for a refreshing swim and more snorkeling. The snorkeling was so great we kept going along the rocks, and before I knew it, we were much farther out than I intended to be. I was facing an island - oops! After that I remembered to look up more often. My daughter noticed something she called a "really big fish." It turned out it was a barracuda nearly four feet long. I will admit I was a bit afraid to swim for a few minutes until I heard someone say that they are harmless.
After swimming, we hiked back to Concordia for lunch hitting the pool on our way to the tent. It was nice to not have to go out or get in a car. We used the provisions in the tent (bread and cheese) and had a very simple lunch on the deck followed by a siesta. I think the hiking, swimming, and heat wiped us all out.
We spent the afternoon back at Salt Pond Beach for more snorkeling. At this point, the 12 minute hike each way is making us start to feel more fit. Later on I could feel the stair workout on my calves. Despite all the stairs and hiking, it was a "break even" with the sugary rum drinks, so I did not gain or lose weight which was fine by me!
We headed back to Aqua Bistro in Coral Bay for dinner. They had a singer which was nice, but service was pretty lacking which was a completely different experience from our lunch visit. Again, I did notice little girls hanging out while their moms worked - they seemed sweet and well-behaved. Given our service (or lack of), we were done eating at Aqua Bistro. Coral Bay was very scenic at night. If this was in New England, it probably would have been cold, so it's hard to grasp that this was a warm balmy evening.
Before bed, my daughter and I decided to wash our hair. We scooted over to the pool area (a five minute walk on the boardwalk) with plastic bottle of biodegradable soap in hand. The shower was cold and you had to hold the faucet to keep the water flowing...but there was water. Our hair was about as clean as we could expect on this trip. It goes without saying that eco-camping is not for anyone with a high-maintenance beauty routine!
Day 4 - June 23, 2014 Early visit to Trunk Bay and a sail on Cloud 9
We woke up to a beautiful sunrise...
I think it would be impossible not to feel at peace with the world when you look out at this - which was followed by a rainbow as we set out for the day. All the beauty gave me such comfort as I thought of my dad and felt his spirit smiling upon us.
There are perks to being up at the crack of dawn with the wind and sun - and that is being one of the first to arrive at Trunk Bay! (about 8 am). I think we all laughed out loud when we saw how beautiful it is.
We spent a couple hours snorkeling and followed the underwater snorkel trail. It was a novelty to read signs underwater, but the snorkeling was pretty much the same as the other places.
The floating balls are the snorkel trail.
We loved the silky sand, warm water, islands, and palm trees. We were sitting next to a friendly couple from New Hampshire, so we chatted with them before we headed out. We only stayed until mid-morning because we were heading into Cruz Bay for our afternoon sail. I appreciated being able to shower before we left. The person who took our parking spot at 10:30 am looked like he had just won the jackpot!
We did learn to avoid popular beaches on cruise ship days, but it is also worth noting that even if a cruise ship is in town, they bring people to beaches in the middle of the day. I was glad we saw this beach early in the morning.
We did not find any free parking in Cruz Bay, so we just negotiated a deal at Slim Man's Parking. It worked out great for us because we were back and forth to the car dropping off bags and later picking up our towels for the boat ride and we were also able to keep the car there through the evening so we could have dinner in town.
We walked around the town, checked out a couple stores, and I purchased more sunscreen in a little shop. Again the mom had two little boys in the store with her, also cute and well-behaved. I asked her when school got out, and it was interesting that they got out when I did, but we had snow days!
Little friend near the parking area
We stopped for lunch at High Tide overlooking the bay. The food was average, but service was excellent and it was a perfect place to relax and look at the harbor while we waited for our sail.
We waited on the beach (right under the tree above) with another couple to be picked up in a small boat to get over to our sail with Cloud 9 Sailing Adventures. I read about them on St. John online, and I have to say, this was one of the high points of the trip. We only booked the three hour afternoon sail because we didn't know how we would all "fare," but the next time I am on St. John, I will definitely book a full day sail. Captain Jason and his first mate, Leslie were personable, skilled, and very knowledgeable. The 40 foot sailboat was stunning as we cruised through local waters. We stopped to snorkel which was spectacular. I could not begin to count the numbers of fish I saw or the colors of the fish and coral. They provided a snorkel set with a very effective anti-fog solution and Leslie led us all around. It was unbelievably clear and one of the most magical things I have ever experienced! After that, we sipped Leslie's rum cocktails on the deck while we sailed back into Cruz Bay. Again, my dad's spirit was very much with us because he was an avid sailor.
It was hot in town, but we walked around a bit more, and then changed our clothes in the public restroom so we could go to dinner, tossing our wet towels and bathing suits into the car. I had hoped to have dinner at Spyglass, upstairs from High Tide, but I learned that they had temporarily closed due to change in ownership. We ended up going to happy hour and having dinner at the Lime Inn.
My sister-in-law had just been to Lime Inn and recommended it. No view, but the fan did the trick and it is well decorated with bright colors and plants. The food, drinks, and service were excellent. I did not write down what I ordered, but it was the seafood special of the day - probably Mahi Mahi! We ran into the couple from New Hampshire at the next table - small world! We told them about our incredible sail, so I think they might try it out too. And they took our picture.
Back at the camp, we had a dip in the pool followed by our hair washing routine. We are getting good at this!
Day 5 - June 24, 2014 Kayak, Hike & Snorkel Ecotour and a relaxing afternoon on Honeymoon Beach
I have to admit I was a tad hesitant about booking two "scheduled activities" back to back, but we were getting close to the end of our vacation and my sister-in-law just went on the Virgin Island Ecotour and raved about it. The day started with heavy rain and a long, slow drive to Honeymoon Beach. It did not look good. We finally made it to the departure point, Caneel Bay with the $20 parking fee (which we were to be reimbursed for). We parked in their lot and walked about 10 minutes to get to Honeymoon Beach. Another beautiful beach. When we signed up, I had paid for the photographer so we would have some pictures as I was not going to risk bringing my camera on a kayak. I left my camera locked up by the hut. It was great to have that option as I worry about my camera when it is not on me (particularly the memory card of photos)!
The seven photos from this segment of the trip were taken by Joshua. The trip departs from Honeymoon Beach in ocean kayaks for two.
Led by Nathan, we kayaked past two coves to get to the Caneel Bay resort. This starts the hiking portion of the trip. From here we hiked through Caneel Bay (gorgeous) over a lawn with tarantula holes and over to Mary's Trail. You hike along a jungle-like path with spectacular views, learn about plant life, and end back on the beach where the snorkeling begins.
Because you are on national park property, you must snorkel wearing a life jacket. I don't dive under so it didn't affect me, but it does make it harder to dive down. We saw two young green sea turtles who seemed pretty unfazed by swimmers. They are endangered, and unfortunately people still go after their eggs.
The poisonous sea urchin is in the photo above. I was always nervous about swimming too close, so I tried to stay in deeper water as the water was so clear it was hard to estimate the depth. After the snorkeling, it was a quick kayak ride back to the beach. The guide, Nathan and photographer, Joshua had been very enthusiastic and informative.
At this point, we were pretty hungry for lunch, but we did not want to leave the beautiful beach. We were pleased to discover that the ecotour shack can call your lunch order in and someone brings it down to the beach in a little cart. We went with veggie paninis and were quite content to just stay on the beach for the rest of the afternoon. My lips had started to blister from the sun so I frequently reapplied the zinc oxide I had just purchased that morning - the salt water started to sting. Wish I thought of that earlier in the trip!
We snorkeled here too and noticed a stingray with a little friend, a fish that hung out on top wherever the stingray went - I'm sure it was a camouflage technique, but it was pretty cute to watch. As the afternoon wore on, we decided an icy libation was in order, so we walked up to the bar at Caneel Bay. We were able to order the beverages outside in plastic to go cups. I had a refreshing mojito. Glass is not allowed on the beach, but a beverage in a to go cup is acceptable.
Caneel Bay Resort
Caneel Bay was gorgeous, but I really was perfectly content to return to the quiet and unspoiled beauty of Concordia.
The drive back offered spectacular views.
For dinner we thought we might try Skinny Legs in Coral Bay. We walked in and lasted about 10 seconds before we walked out. Maybe it was the TV blasting in surround sound, but after a nearly a week in our peaceful environment, noise had little appeal. As we drove out, we noticed that Island Blues appeared to be serving food. It looked like a great view and atmosphere, so we stopped in and were seated next to the water. The chef came out to discuss the menu, and they were also able to put together a vegetarian meal for my daughter while we went with the fried shrimp (which turned out to be one of their specialties). Our server was a lot of fun - super friendly, a bit scattered - she said something about long shifts because they had just opened.
They had set a table up on the stage since they thought it might rain. We ended up coming to eat inside because we did start getting sprinkles. It had been a long day and back at the camp, we were all asleep early. We never stayed awake past 10 pm - usually earlier. There were some nights when I felt like Dorothy Gale of Kansas - like the tent might have been picked up although I know the tent was secure. It was always windy! Needless to say, heat was not an issue since we could keep flaps partly unzipped.
Day 6 - June 25, 2014 East End, Vie's, and Angels Rest with Capt. Peter
This was our last vacation day, so we wanted to relax without a lot of driving. After discussing it with the staff at the Concordia desk, we decided to check out the East End. I had thought about Lameshur Bay, but Courtesy Car Rental was pretty specific when we rented our SUV that we could not do any off road driving - and we heard the roads to Lameshur were rough. The beach at Vie's was recommended, and not only that, I learned that Capt. Peter would be in the area with his floating bar, Angels Rest. It sounded like a full day to me. I was told at Concordia to expect to pay to park at Vie's but that it was well worth it for the lovely beach.
In our usual fashion, we were up at the crack of dawn, breakfasted, sunscreened, and out the door early. If driving in St. John had been a challenge, driving in the East End really put my husband's skills to the test with steeper roads and hairpin turns. We drove around to check it out - one no trespassing sign after another. While the rest of St. John gives a friendly vibe, the East End does not. I did notice a group of workers building a house and with a young boy cheerfully working along with them. Another example of kids working with their parents - not just the moms. We finally arrived at Vie's parking lot (see tree in the road) to see the sign about her hours and paying, but no one was around.
So we took a walk and met a very friendly dog who hiked to another bay with us.
Snack Shack for cats near Vie's
Beach we walked to.
Short hike to the other side. The dog knew the way.
Beach across street from Vie's Snack Shack where we paid to park.
Shade and chairs made it a very comfortable stay.
Too tempting for my son to resist.
In the afternoon, we caught sight of Captain Peter chugging into the harbor on his floating bar, Angels Rest. Hooray!
Captain Peter anchored in front of the beach next to Vie's in Hansen Bay. We took note that parking is free at that beach although when we were driving around early in the morning it did not appear to be a public beach. My recommendation for finding Angels Rest is to check out their facebook page or go to rumtherapy.com. Anyway, we were disappointed to learn that my husband had miscalculated the amount of cash he had on him, and we only had $8.00 left! And with Captain Peter anchored right in front of us! The kids and I still wanted to visit Angels Rest, so with my waterproof case, we went out in our snorkels (even brought a credit card - you never know!) and met Captain Peter. He took great care of us! We enjoyed our beverages on the upstairs sundeck. That is the life! We even saw two green turtles right from his boat. So if you are reading this and will be meeting Captain Peter, please say thank you from the three snorkelers with no cash.
We were all very reluctant to get out of the water as this would be our last swim in the sea. We headed back to Concordia, making some friends along the way.
At Concordia, we took a last refreshing swim at the pool, showered (outdoor shampoo), and had libations on the deck - enjoying the wine and cheese we had purchased earlier in the week. We returned to Shipwreck Landing for dinner - unfortunately we never made it to the Tourist Trap which is next to Concordia. We never seemed to be near it when we would have eaten, but I heard they have great food. For dinner, they were already closed. Shipwreck Landing was a good choice - great view, reliable service, and fresh food. I went with the wahoo which was quite good. Another place was passed that looked lovely was Miss Lucy's - we just weren't near it when we would have eaten there. After this, we'd have to get used to driving on the right side of the road again!
It was sad to know that this was our last night. We enjoyed just sitting on the deck and looking out at the stars. I knew I would miss this.
Day 7 - June 26, 2014 Leaving : (
We were up at the crack of dawn and got packed up. We stuffed our wet things into plastic grocery bags. I had contemplated doing laundry the night before, but my daughter convinced me that my time would be better spent enjoying the deck. Sometimes you just need a reality check! We had to leave the place clean - which meant dropping the linens off into a bin, emptying the trash and recycling, a good sweeping, and wiping down surfaces. Considering all our beach time, we really didn't get sand into the place at all - we would always hit the pool (with shower and foot rinse) after a day at the beach.
We donated to the Help Yourself shelf - unused sunscreen and some food items - even a leftover beer. They were gone immediately. We shook sand out of car mats as I have read about car rental agencies charging to clean sand out. We drove straight to Courtesy Car Rental. It was a little overcast, but that burned off quickly. Courtesy Car was efficient in checking our car in and dropped us off at the ferry. It was early, but we just got on the ferry over to St. Thomas.
Cloud 9 is on the right.
We should have waited for the next ferry, but I didn't know how much time to allow in getting the cab, printing boarding passes, and going through security. Well we were there ridiculously early - even by my standards. Usually that is fine since I don't mind shopping and dining, but the only restaurant is a cafeteria and the shopping was also pretty limited. We did some reading and had an uneventful trip home.
Because we were newbies on St. John, I would like to mention that I got extremely helpful advice from fodors travel forum as well as St. John online.
- If you are concerned with how a jeep handles corners and will not need to drive off road, go with an SUV.
- Driving on the left - take your time and pull over so others can pass.
- Know where to get gas.
- Make sure you do your first drive in the daylight.
- Greet people before you ask for something. This is common sense, but I read they start with good morning etc. Not sure about that or if it was written for tourists, but it is nice to start with a greeting.
- You can bring alcohol to the beaches but not glass.
- Don't expect to find trash cans at all beaches, so be prepared to carry out what you carry in.
- Don't over plan. Book one or two special things in advance and then decide what you want to do when you are there.
- Carry cash (we locked some up) since many places do not take credit cards.
- When you do need to get someplace, allow extra time. Who needs to be stressed on vacation?
- If you check your luggage, bring plenty of your favorite sunscreen from home. I also recommend zinc oxide or something for your lips.
- If you do not check your luggage, consider shipping a box of sunscreen and coffee if you will be brewing your own.
- A sport sandal can replace sneakers for hiking so that is one less thing to pack.
- Unless you plan to go to a dressy restaurant (like Zozo's at Caneel Bay or Waterfront Bistro), you really don't need anything too dressy unless you want to.
- Pack a hat.
- Pack an empty water bottle.
- If you have a drawstring backpack, it is easy to pack and perfect for getting to the beach.
- You need less than you think. We lived in our bathing suits, so we didn't touch half our clothes.
- Sport clothes such as Coolmax are great for hiking and quick drying.
- An LED clip-on reading light doubles as a flashlight and is very tiny to pack.
- I brought a battery operated travel clock and actually set the alarm for the travel day since Concordia recommends keeping cell phones off to avoid international roaming charges.
- At a place like Concordia, I would not bother with a computer. We checked our flight on the office computer.