CORAL BAY, U.S. Virgin Islands — They call this collection of three tiny islands “America’s Paradise.”
Hawaii certainly could dispute that claim, but for those who live in the eastern half of the U.S. mainland, it’s hard to beat these U.S.-owned islands: St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John: the U.S. Virgin Islands.
These volcanic jewels possess a combination of natural characteristics that enable them to claim the paradise label: forested mountains that come down to white sand beaches the texture of confectionery sugar and emerald seas so clear you can see through to the kaleidoscopic world of the coral reef below.
Add to that the cooling trade winds, almost constant sunny weather and average temperatures that range from the mid-70s to low-80s year-round.
If all that seems over the top, it’s not by much, especially on the pearl among the three, St. John.
To get to it, you have to fly or take a cruise ship to St. Thomas and then ferry over.
If you decide to spend the bulk of your vacation on St. John, make sure to spend at least one day and an evening on St. Thomas.
It’s the most developed of the three islands and its main town, Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, can be quite crowded with tourists, especially when several cruise ships dock or anchor in its harbor.
But Charlotte Amalie is one of the top shopping meccas in the Caribbean because it’s a duty-free port. Just be sure to check the prices of things you want before you leave home. That way you will know whether you’re getting a deal.
The nightlife in St. Thomas is also a plus with several exceptional restaurants and many resorts and hotels offering live entertainment.
On our trip this spring, my wife, Judy, and I spent a few days on St. Croix, something we had never done before. We stopped on the island a couple of times in transit on previous trips, but never stayed, thinking it couldn’t compare to St. John or St. Thomas.
Indeed, it did come up short by both comparisons. It doesn’t have the shopping or nightlife of St. Thomas or the natural beauty of St. John.
The main city of Christiansted is worth the visit, especially a tour of the old waterfront Danish fort built to protect the town from pirates or invading fleets.
We also enjoyed one of the best meals we had in the Virgin Islands at Kendricks, a romantic and popular restaurant in Christiansted. The chef here works with as much locally produced food as he can find.
But my favorite memory of St. Croix is of a snorkeling expedition I took in the waters in front of our hotel, Tamarind Reef, on the island’s east end. As I swam out to a point, the coral grew more varied and the fish more numerous and colorful.
As I observed the underwater world, something dark and big began to rise from under and behind me. A large sea turtle appeared with its left rear flipper missing. I held still as it swam close, unafraid and curious.
When Judy and I first honeymooned on St. John 24 years ago, we did so at the recommendation of a friend. We’ve returned about 10 times since, using the island as a base from which to explore other Caribbean destinations.
Since more than two-thirds of St. John is national park, it hasn’t changed much over time, except that the twisty, narrow roads are better paved.
We stayed this time on the east side of Bordeaux Mountain overlooking Coral Bay, where nearly 100 sailboats rested at anchor. From our wrap-around deck, with a swimming pool hanging as if on the edge of the horizon, we could watch the sun peek over distant Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands and rise above the Sir Francis Drake Channel.
In addition to all of the sailboats, Coral Bay plays host to a tiny town that has an equally tiny but well-stocked grocery. We didn’t require much anyway, just some breakfast and snack stuff and the necessities: wine, beer and orange juice (the latter for tequila sunrises).
We used the house’s patio grill just one time, preferring to spread meals among the several quite nice restaurants in Coral Bay. None of them would classify as fine dining by Charleston standards, but it’s hard to beat the charm of dining outside with the Caribbean Sea as your dinner guest. And I don’t care where you dine, you can’t enjoy a better lunch sandwich than the beer-battered grouper at Shipwreck Landing, which was one of our favorite restaurants and night spots 24 years ago.
For Caribbean fare, it‘s hard to beat Miss Lucy’s, which sits waterside in a hamlet of mostly local residents near where Coral Bay joins the Caribbean.
If you want to rub shoulders with the ex-patriots who use Coral Bay as a watering hole while toughing out a living crewing boats or slinging food and suds at the island’s restaurants and bars, there’s no better place than Skinny Legs. This rustic bar and grill was named by a couple of guys with, well, skinny legs.
For those with an athletic interest, St. John is made for water sports and hiking. Numerous trails crisscross the national park, taking hikers to old sugar cane mills, the foundations of long-gone plantation houses, ancient Indian carvings, spectacular views and hidden coves.
Climbing the trails, sometimes at angles approaching vertical, makes it hard to believe that much of this island, like many in the Caribbean, once was covered with sugar cane fields. St. John shares the same sad legacy of slavery, which powered the sugar industry. Indeed, one of the most violent, and long-lasting, slave revolts in the Americas occurred on St. John in 1733. About a quarter of the island’s population died during the revolt, in which slaves took control of most of the island. They held it for most of a year until French troops from Martinique were brought in to defeat the slave army.
St. John owes its beauty today to Laurence Rockefeller, an heir to the Standard Oil fortune, who in 1956 donated some 5,000 acres he had purchased on the island to the park service under the condition that it be protected from development. That formed the bulk of what is now the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John and surrounding waters.
Rockefeller set up about 170 acres of that land for an environmentally sensitive resort named Caneel Bay. The high-end resort continues today with rooms designed to fit in with the land and minimal modern electronic amenities. The rooms have no phones or televisions.
Natural beauty remains St. John’s main appeal. Nowhere is that more on display than at its many beaches. One seems to exist for every mood. The North Shore, which looks out at two of the British Virgin Islands, Tortola and Jost Van Dyke, boasts some of the world’s most acclaimed beaches.
The most famous of those beaches is Trunk Bay, a stunningly beautiful, palm- and sea grape-rimmed strand of sand, curled in a cove at the base of a mountain ridge. A reef encircles the beach, creating water as calm as a swimming pool.
Unfortunately, Trunk and a few of the other popular North Shore beaches, such as Hawksnest and Cinnamon Bay, are not the isolated places they used to be. Parking lots filled with buses and maxi-taxis for day-trippers now sit between the North Shore road and some of the beaches. But for those willing to get up early, it’s still possible to be the only person on Trunk Bay.
Judy and I prefer the beaches on St. John’s harder-to-reach south coast. Our favorite there is Lameshur Beach, which used to be accessible only with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Now, pavement covers the rutted and steep sections of the road to the beach.
When we arrived this time for our first outing on Lameshur, we were stunned to see it filled with people. In the past, it would be just us, a few scavenging chickens and, at most, another couple or two.
We learned that rare, strong winds out of the north had driven people from the North Shore beaches with high waves that crested the protecting reefs.
Pleased to know that St. John had not become overrun, we plopped into our beach chairs, opened a cool drink and gazed out at the emerald water of Lameshur Bay — paradise.
Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558 or follow him on Twitter @dpardue1.