The many faces of St. John

Snorkeling, sailing, and negotiating steep roads

'Ah, St. John!" was the typical response I got when I began announcing my vacation plans last year. Stories about traveling to St. John in the US Virgin Islands were shared like secrets by those who had already been there. "You'll love it," I was told. "You won't believe how blue the water is," murmured my hairdresser. "There's no other place quite like it," remarked the mother of a friend.

I imagined that traveling to St. John would be like discovering a small, out-of-the-way urban cafe that was still enough of a dive to keep the fashionably self-conscious at home.

In a way, that proved to be true. St. John lacks the commercial bustle of neighboring St. Thomas and St. Croix. It's smaller, and people tend to turn in for the night when darkness falls (and it falls fast and hard; no lingering sunsets near the equator, I discovered).

And getting around is no island breeze, either. Not only does everyone drive on the left side of the road, English-style; the roads are unsettlingly steep and winding. Chickens roam free, mongooses wander, and wild goats graze under the trees along the steep road banks. Donkeys show up looking for handouts at the most unexpected moments.

But traveling from one end of the island to the other gives meaning to the words of my friend's mother: "You won't believe what you are looking at is real."

The white-sand beaches (39 total) rendered the coarse sand of the New England shore, where I live, a distant memory.

It is paradise minus the paper umbrella in a frosty drink.

St. John, a Dutch sugar plantation in the 1700s, is now more than 50 percent national park.

A visit to the Annaberg ruins - remnants of one of the Dutch sugar plantations - provided some historical context. A self-guided tour wound around the site, explaining the sugaring process once used in the shadow of an impressive windmill.

Occasionally, the National Park Service will host cultural demonstrations and guided tours here.

The ruins also whisper of the island's more somber history. The West Indian skipper who ferried us over to the British Virgin Islands one day pointed out the legendary, jagged cliffs where slaves threw themselves to their deaths rather than face horrible lives spent working in the blistering-hot mills.

St. John's main "city" is Cruz Bay, where the Red Hook ferry drops off those arriving from St. Thomas or day-tourists from cruise ships. Coral Bay - a mere 7- 1/2 miles away, but a good 30 minutes of tricky driving - is the other, smaller hub.

With a jeep borrowed from our hosts, our adventuresome group of four was able to avoid relying on the steady fleet of open-air taxis that transport tourists to beaches from Cruz Bay.

But that meant maneuvering the roller-coaster ride of endless hairpin turns on our own. The roads were so steep, we would often stop at the top of some stomach-dropping bend to make sure the way ahead was clear. (I took up a permanent position in the back seat.)

But our pluck and mud-covered jeep earned us a coveted compliment by week's end: Tourists were asking us for directions.

Beyond negotiating bends in the road, our greatest mental challenge those first few days was to stop feeling guilty for spending the entire day wallowing in the surf.

I suppose I should mention that we arrived on the island just in time to participate in the annual "Eight Tough Miles," a road race that stretches from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay, winding upward 5-1/2 miles and then plunging down again 2-1/2 miles.

It was the social event of the weekend with everyone from 9-year-olds to barefoot and saronged runners turning out to participate.

In the days following the race, we recovered by visiting four different beaches a day.

A wide variety of tropical fish and the occasional shy stingray kept us belly-down in snorkel gear for hours on end. The variations of coral that washed up from the sea brought continuous moments of simple wonder.

If bathrooms, showers, a snack bar, a gift shop, and the attention of a lifeguard are necessities, spend every day at Trunk Bay, arguably one of the most scenic beaches on the nine-mile-longisland.

Be forewarned, however, that this is the most common destination of day-trippers from neighboring islands and cruise ships. It gets crowded quickly, and the lazy fish may nibble on your fingers, expecting to be fed.

When lounging on the beach became tiresome, we headed for the trails. Ram Head trail leads out beyond Salt Pond Bay Beach to the southernmost point of St. John.

The hot, dusty hike - among cactuses and a bleating goat or two - took about 45 minutes one way. But the view at the end - where the orange and brown cliffs seem to tumble into the swirling sea below - was breathtaking.

When we grew weary of hiking, we set sail. For about $50 a person, we took a guided half-day sail on one of the many sailboats moored in Cruz Bay and Coral Bay (full-day sails are also offered). If you're pinching pennies, be aware that the captain and crew generally expect a tip.

All food is expensive on the island. Cruz Bay offers a number of Caribbean-themed restaurants, but an average dinner for two can cost about $50.

Local flavor is easy to find at Skinny Legs in Coral Bay, an open-air restaurant/bar that boasts of being a "pretty OK place with same-day service."

Located nearby is another open-air restaurant, Shipwrecked. A number of wild kitties live in the wooded lot next door and sometimes surprise diners. When I inquired about the furry bandits at my bare ankles, the hostess begged me to take one home.

Vie's Snacks and Drinks - "two hills over" from Hurricane Hole - serves up some delicious barbecued chicken and black beans and rice from a shack alongside the road.

Of course, the best ending to a Caribbean vacation is reliving your warm memories later, as whena co-worker breezily stopped by my desk the other day, looking fresh, rested, and full of stories about a trip to the Virgin Islands.

"Ah," I said as I listened carefully, "St. John!"

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