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Medicine for the soul: Why St. John is an ideal island paradise

Mauri Elbel, Special to the American-Statesman
Take the short, steep hike to the 19th-century America Hill Great House Ruins and reward yourself with a dip in Cinnamon Bay upon return. [Contributed by Mauri Elbel]

I bob atop translucent turquoise waves on a magenta float beneath the Caribbean sun with my 4-year-old, watching her older brothers dive down to get an up-close look at a sea turtle munching on the seagrass below. Our boys keep a respectful distance from the graceful green turtle, and she doesn’t seem to mind. Instead, she slowly rises up next to them at the surface to steal a few gulps of air before returning to her midday snack below where she’s joined by two others.

“Sixteen!” our 8-year-old excitedly shouts. “No, it’s 18!” exclaims his 11-year-old brother as they race back toward the sunbaked shores of Maho Bay.

Keeping tally of our sea turtle sightings has become a daily beach ritual during our monthlong return to our favorite place on earth: St. John, the smallest and most pristine of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands. Spending an entire month on this laid-back island where we lived, worked and began married life 15 years ago seemed like a far-fetched fantasy when we pondered it six months ago. But if there’s any place capable of encouraging you to escape from busy lives and jam-packed schedules, it’s St. John — the island’s powder-white beaches and crystal-blue waters are like medicine for the soul.

Since moving away we’ve returned regularly, now braving the full-day travel from Austin to St. John with our three kids — a trip requiring at least two flights, a taxi ride through the traffic and switchbacks of St. Thomas and a ferry from bustling Red Hook to the quaint wooden dock of Cruz Bay. But this was our first trip back since two back-to-back Category 5 storms, hurricanes Irma and Maria, ravaged the island and upended the lives of those who called it home.

Two years later, the scars from the storms still remain. Towering palms that once shaded our favorite beaches are snapped in half, exposed hillsides still bear the scratches and bruises of the catastrophic winds they sustained and bright blue FEMA tarps serving as temporary roofs still dot the landscape, reminders of what’s still left to repair. But what is more obvious on our return trip are the constant reminders of hope and healing that serve as a testament of the island’s unwavering resilience. Hillsides and trails are lush and green again. Colorful fish dart in and out of reefs just below the Caribbean’s calm cerulean surface. The familiar cacophony that’s returned to Cruz Bay: the rumbling hums of the ferries that come and go regularly from the dock, the melodic rhythms of the steel pan drums rising from an afternoon performance and the laughter that spills into the streets from the open-air restaurants and bars that are abuzz once again.

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Despite all the island has endured, St. John possesses an unbreakable, timeless beauty that immediately captivates you, whether it’s your first visit or 50th return. It’s one of those places that grabs a traveler’s heart and never lets go. No matter the length of time that’s lapsed nor the changes that have unfolded since the last visit, you remain tethered to the fabric of what makes it so special and when you return, as if you never left. If you’ve ever considered a trip to St. John or just haven’t been back in a while, now is the time to go. Here are a dozen island experiences that will make you fall head-over-heals with this tiny slice of Caribbean paradise.

Beautiful beaches

St. John boasts dozens of breathtaking bays considered to be some of the most beautiful in the Caribbean. Pack your sun-blocking rash guards and reef-safe sunscreen and start by exploring the spectacular pearly white beaches hugging the island’s North Shore. Capture solitude at secluded Solomon and Honeymoon Bays, which can only be reached by foot or boat. Spend a lazy day on handsome Hawksnest Bay, then swim over to gorgeous Gibney Bay. Or venture past the crowds to tranquil Francis Bay, where you can enjoy a private swim in Mother Nature’s pool.

Heart-pumping hikes

Twenty-plus trails weave through the V.I. National Park, which covers two-thirds of the island, and many of them come with a complimentary cool down at a nearby beach. Set out on the steep hike to the 19th century America Hill Great House Ruins, where efforts are rewarded with sweeping views at the top and a post-hike dip below in breezy Cinnamon Bay, St. John’s longest beach. If you’re up for the challenge, trek the 5-mile Reef Bay Trail where you can explore mysterious petroglyphs carved around 900-1500 AD by the pre-Columbian Taino and their ancestors, wander past the Reef Bay Sugar Mill ruins that produced brown sugar rum and molasses until 1916, and catch waves in Reef Bay running along St. John’s southern shore. Hike to Ram Head’s summit for endless ocean views before cooling off in Salt Pond Bay below or meandering to windswept Drunk Bay to make your own artistic creations from beach rocks and driftwood.

Play at Maho Bay

While sea turtles can be seen swimming in various bays on St. John, a sure bet for spotting them is at Maho Bay, where they feed on seagrass just off the shore (just remember to keep your distance and never touch or grab them). Maho Bay’s calm, shallow waters also make it a favorite among little ones, and beachgoers can now refuel at Maho Crossroads — the new Tiki bar and red VW bus food truck tucked away at the east end of the bay that opened earlier this year.

Eat tacos at sea

Austinites can get their taco fix at sea by paddling out to Lime Out, the Caribbean’s first floating taco bar, which opened off St. John’s bucolic East End last year. Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from remote Hansen Bay to reach the solar-powered, eco-friendly green dot floating in a bright blue sea, then take a seat on a submerged bar stool and sink your teeth into tasty gourmet tacos while sipping craft cocktails served in reusable tumblers.

Snorkel or scuba

Known as one of the best snorkeling spots in the Virgin Islands, the waters around St. John teem with giant rays, green and hawksbill sea turtles, and vibrant angels, blue tang and parrotfish. Beginners can get their fins wet exploring the underwater snorkeling trail at Trunk Bay, consistently ranked as one of the top beaches in the world, while the more adventurous can check out remote reefs found along the island’s south shore. Considering scuba diving? Low Key Watersports offers a Discover Scuba course featuring same-day skill sessions and the chance to go out on the boat for two shallow dives with an instructor.

Try Caribbean lobster

Make a reservation at Morgan’s Mango for Caribbean Lobster Night on Tuesdays and Saturdays. For more than a quarter-century, owner Carlos Di Blasi has met the same local fisherman at the dock across from his restaurant twice a week to load his truck up with more than 100 pounds of freshly caught, spiny, clawless Caribbean lobsters that he plates the same evening, grilled to perfection and served with drawn butter, seasoned rice, black beans and sweet plantains.

West Indian food

Sample the West Indian flavors found on St. John by filling up before a day at the beach with a beef or saltfish pate from Hercules Pate Delight. For lunch or dinner, indulge in authentic Caribbean dishes like chicken roti, oxtail stew and whelk sauté at De Coal Pot. For a memorable Sunday jazz brunch or oceanside lunch, drive out to Miss Lucy’s on Friis Bay, where you can tuck into piña colada pancakes and authentic island favorites like Johnny cakes, callaloo soup and conch fritters while sipping a rum punch.

Explore St. John’s past

Revisit St. John’s past by touring some of the well-preserved ruins dotting the island, including Cinnamon Bay Ruins, Peace Hill Ruins and the Annaberg Sugar Plantation Ruins, which give you a glimpse into the 18th- and 19th-century Danish plantation era as you wander past the windmill tower and the factory where sugarcane was processed into molasses and rum.

Keep left, brake for donkeys

There are no traffic lights on St. John, where folks drive on the left side of the narrow, switchback-riddled roads that hairpin through the hills. But expect frequent roadblocks — and occasional beach company — from the non-human residents that call St. John home including donkeys, iguanas, goats, chickens, deer and mongooses.

Happy hour

Happy hour is an afternoon ritual on St. John. While the island is known for its rum-laden libations spanning potent painkillers, gourmet bushwackers and creamy lime and coconuts, if you’re craving a local craft, head to happy hour at the Tap Room to sample St. John Brewers’ made-on-island brews like Island Hoppin IPA and Coconut Toasted Brown Ale while kids sip home-brewed root beer and ginger beer. Have happy hour on the sleepier side of the island in Coral Bay at Skinny Legs, a longstanding, laid-back spot with a sailcloth for a ceiling, an open-air bar that proudly serves drinks made without a noisy blender, and the best burgers and mahi-mahi sandwiches found on St. John.

Sail away

Pack your passport, because the British Virgin Islands are just a boat ride away. We booked a private trip with Blue Line Yacht Charters and spent the day cruising to the awe-inspiring Baths of Virgin Gorda, where majestic beachside boulders create a series of pools and grottos you can wade through, snorkeling favorite spots like the Indians near Norman Island, and sipping painkillers at Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke’s White Bay.

Private paradise

My very favorite way to start any day on St. John is with a beach run and swim in complete solitude, listening to nature’s playlist of crashing waves and rustling palms. By mid-morning, tourists start to trickle onto St. John’s most popular strips of sand, but if you arrive before 8 a.m., you’re likely to have paradise all to yourself before the crowds arrive.