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St. John is bouncing back

Longing for the Caribbean but want to go where the hotel crowds aren’t? Aim for wild, rambling St. John.

The littlest sister of the three main US Virgin Islands, it’s dominated by Virgin Islands National Park, land which is hikeable, swimmable and very, very snorkle-able, yet unsullied by commercial property.

Like so many islands in the tropical region, St. John was ravaged by the one-two punch of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, and is still making a gradual comeback.

Country singer Kenny Chesney, who owns property in St. John, was a major aid donor and organizer of a relief fund, Love for Love City. Another nonprofit, All Hands and Hearts, has done disaster relief work on the island as well.

The island has come a long way in two years and wants you to know it’s open for your travel business.

St. John, population about 5,000, consists of two towns. Cruz Bay, on the west coast and closer to the airport on neighboring St. Thomas, is bigger and more bustling. Coral Bay is on the less-populated east side of the island.

Cruise passengers ferry from St. Thomas into Cruz Bay, and cheerful, open-air bars and restaurants line the narrow streets. Lodging options are getting back to normal as well. Caneel Bay, formerly one of the island’s top resorts, remains shuttered, but the Grande Bay Resort and Gallows Point Resort are open, as is the Westin St. John Resort Villas.

“Our numbers are getting up to where they were pre-storm,” says Carly Boudreau, manager of the Cruz Bay-based Virgin Islands EcoTours. “We were the only concession open on the beach in St. John for over a year.”

She says the wildlife in the island’s plentiful coral reefs wasn’t notably affected by the storms. “They actually tag sea turtles at Brewers Bay [in St. Thomas], by the university, and every turtle is accounted for from before the storm. At Maho Bay, there are a bunch of sea turtles, reef sharks and sting rays. “

Laurel Brannick, a supervisor at the Cruz Bay Visitor Center, recommends several top beaches and hikes for visitors, including this one. “Everybody is going to Maho Bay,” she says. “It’s the best place to see sea turtles. If you don’t see a dozen of them, you need glasses!”

Scenic hikes and snacks

The island is home to several beaches so gorgeous they regularly show up on lists of the world’s best, some with recently reopened services and some still in the process of being rebuilt. The stunning Trunk Bay has its showers and bathrooms open again, as well as its restaurant; Cinnamon Bay beach is open and accessible but its cottages and camping areas have not yet been rebuilt.

From Cruz Bay, Brannick recommends a scenic beach hike. “It’s easy to hike over to Honeymoon Beach. The bottom is called Lind Point, and the top is Caneel Hill. You can do them independently or as a big loop. If you want an hour of exercise, the Caneel Hill trail is like a Stairmaster. If you want your rum punch and don’t want to feel guilt, you can get your steps in there. Or you can just go straight out to the beach — they have paddleboards and kayaks for rent.”

If hiking’s your thing, Reef Bay trail in the center of the island is also worth exploring. “Most of St. John is dry tropical forest, but Reef Bay is almost at the highest elevation and walks you through a valley of moist tropical trees. It’s the closest thing we have to a tropical rainforest,” says Brannick.

“You can see ruins from the Danish West Indies, and the Taino pre-Colombian people’s carvings in rocks. It’s 2.5 miles one way, so bring lots of drinks and snacks.”

Other hiking wins? “Rams Head, where you hike out on a rocky exposed cliff. And Francis Bay, the wetlands, is where I take people bird watching,” says Brannick.

The less-populated east side of the island, Coral Bay, is accessible across eight winding miles of vertiginous hills.

This is where you’ll want to stay if you prefer a quieter and more locally immersive vibe. No need to try avoiding the resort crowds, because there aren’t any resorts.

“Your best bet is Airbnbs and villas,” says Luana Wheatley, director of the island’s film office. Although Coral Bay is known for its hippie vibe, camping isn’t currently available. “The campground got pretty damaged,” she says.

Two former Brooklynites are aiming to add to the handful of Coral Bay eateries, including Caribbean comfort food classic Miss Lucy’s and burger joint Skinny Legs, while cultivating sustainable restaurant practices.

John and Sarah Joyce’s pop-up restaurant, which was mischievously called TBD, took the place of a suddenly abandoned eatery until it closed at the beginning of September. The couple is expanding into a food-and-music venue called The Danforth, which is set to open on November 1.

“Our goal is to combine the quality of fine dining with the laid-back lifestyle of the islands,” John Joyce says. “The Danforth, while it sounds upscale, is actually just a common boat anchor. We love the juxtaposition, it fits with what we’re trying to create.”

The menu will intermittently include lionfish, an invasive species that happens to be delicious.

“When it’s available, we are serving lionfish tacos, as well as using it for entrees and fish and chips,” he says. “The meat is light and delicious, and it’s great for the coral reef.”

Raise a glass with the Joyces this fall to celebrate the comeback of one of the Caribbean’s most cherished natural beauties.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that cruise ships dock in Cruz Bay on St. John. Cruise ships actually dock in neighboring St. Thomas and passengers can ferry across to Cruz Bay.

CNN