White sand beaches and sparkling turquoise waters have long drawn travelers (and pirates, and Christopher Columbus) to these islands, but it's the friendly locals and unexpected adventures that have kept so many coming back
Author Grant Stoddard Photography Peter Frank Edwards
DAY TWO | Drawing back the curtain, you’re left speechless by the scenery. Just steps from the patio of your single-story guesthouse is a palm-lined white sand beach, kissed by a crystal-clear bay. Traipsing across the sand are three magnificent white-tailed deer, which, along with donkeys, mongooses and iguanas, were introduced to St. John several hundred years ago. On this 170-acre property, they’re a common sight.
You eat breakfast at Caneel Bay’s oceanside restaurant before driving east. Passing a succession of alluring beaches and the picturesque ruins of Danish sugar mills, you arrive at the head of the Salt Pond Hiking Trail (1), where you follow inconspicuously placed arrows around the shoreline to the rocky outcrop known as Ram’s Head. The payoff is at the summit, some 200 feet above the blue-green water below: a superb view of St. John’s southern bays and coves, as well as the islands and cays that are part of the nearby British Virgin Islands.
Back in the car, you detour past Coral Bay — where apparently every sailor in the Caribbean takes an extended shore leave and forms an attachment to Cruzan rum — and wind your way through St. John’s rolling interior. You arrive on the western shore at P&P By-the-Sea (2), where Patricia Moorehead cooks West Indian delicacies such as shrimp fritters, johnnycakes and conch-stuffed grilled lobster in a converted van and serves them in a gazebo in her backyard overlooking Turner Bay.
After waving goodbye to Moorehead and the neighborhood guys who’ve arrived to drink beer and play dominoes in her yard, you catch the car barge back to St. Thomas, drop off your rented wheels and board a flight at the Seaborne Seaplane terminal in Charlotte Amalie. You splash down in the waters off Christiansted on St. Croix and cruise toward Altoona Lagoon, where your next mode of transportation is a kayak — specifically, a glass-bottom one belonging to Craig and Bryce Scott, the father and son behind Sea Thru Kayaks (3).
Though they offer tours during daylight hours, too, you’re setting off on a nighttime adventure. Featuring mounted flashlights that illuminate the water below, the tour begins in a shallow river that many locals believe to be haunted, and you find yourself gliding just inches above puffer fish, crabs, poisonous jellyfish, spiny urchins, giant ink-flinging sea slugs and many more creatures of the not-so-deep. You follow Bryce into the open harbor and several larger fish turn sideways to get a better look; you lock eyes with a barracuda, which Bryce assures you is good luck. The trip culminates with a hover above a shipwreck, the rusting hulk only a foot or two below you.
The Scotts inform you there’s no need to dress up for dinner at Singh’s Fast Food (4) in downtown Christiansted, so you throw on a T-shirt. Served in what amounts to little more than a shack, Singh’s roti is consistently voted the island’s best. You order the curried goat and are presented with a volleyball-size portion, which you devour. Sated, you thank the proprietor as you waddle out.
It’s around 9 — high time to check into your next hotel, the Buccaneer (5), where you enjoy yet another alcoholic concoction made of too many tropical ingredients to fully comprehend. Serenaded by a frog chorus, the moonlight reflecting off the water, you end the evening with a dip in the surf. The tranquil environs are like something from a dream, so you take this as your cue to head off to bed.