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Where to stay on St. John

Mauri Elbel, Special to the American-Statesman
View of the South Shore from Destination St. John's Villa Tesori. [Contributed by Mauri Elbel]

Waking up at Calichi at Picture Point, the new eco-meets-luxury private villa enclave on St. John, is nothing short of a dream. Perched 1,200 feet above sea level on Bordeaux Mountain, I eyeball a fleet of white sailboats gently rocking in Coral Bay’s sun-kissed harbor and soak in a postcard-worthy panorama of the surrounding islands floating like emerald gems in a sparkling sapphire sea — St. Thomas, Puerto Rico and Vieques to the west, Tortola and Jost Van Dyke to the north, and St. Croix to the south.

With two-thirds of the island designated as Virgin Islands National Park, St. John boasts a raw splendor that sets it apart from other Caribbean destinations riddled with over-development. You won’t find high-rise hotels competing for shoreline space nor all-inclusive resorts splayed across the island’s protected beaches. The beachfront cottages fringing the once-luxurious Caneel Bay Resort still stand as hollowed frames on deserted grounds more than two years after back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes devastated the island. Instead, visitors have their pick of a handful of resorts and inns, vacation villas and rentals and the new stunning, self-sustaining development known as Calichi (calichi-stj.com). Boasting an eco-friendly mindset every bit as green as the islands in view, Calichi’s concept was born from what the island lacked — a luxurious yet environmentally friendly St. John getaway.

“We wanted to know how self-reliant we could be — how we could reduce our carbon footprint,” says Tom Buttermore, one of the longtime St. John visitors-turned-locals behind the project designed by Barefoot Design Group. “At the same time, we wanted to deliver a high-end experience. Eco doesn’t have to mean rustic or sacrifice. Eco can be luxury.”

Each of Calichi’s fully equipped private one- and two-bedroom villas, built with sustainable materials and outfitted with custom artwork, modern furniture and sleek finishes, gourmet kitchens, luxurious linens and expansive decks, encircles the highest and largest private pool complex on the island. Guests enjoy the privacy afforded by their villa but also have the option of gathering with a group at the palatial infinity edge pool, which features a 65-foot lap lane and stainless steel spa flanked by lounge furniture, an outdoor grill, fire pits and a putting green.

On an island that experiences frequent power disruptions and strong storms, Calichi remains completely off-grid capable. More than 240 solar panels power 18 Tesla power walls, enabling the property to produce 98 percent of the energy it requires without guests sacrificing modern comforts — all powered by the sun and collected from the skies. While we used air conditioning in the afternoons, we fell asleep each night fanned by the tradewinds, and instead of purchasing bottled waters, we refilled reusable thermoses with rainwater caught and purified on-site. Guests can pack light knowing Calichi’s villas are equipped with everything needed for a day at the beach or an evening in. Those wanting a completely hassle-free getaway can take advantage of the fully personalized concierge services on offer, ranging from private chef and spa services to grocery provisioning and sailing away for the day aboard Calichi’s flagship yacht.

Spending a week at Calichi was an undeniably magical way to kick off our month in paradise, but we also stayed at several other spots, including a sprawling resort, a multimillion dollar villa and an affordable condo — each appealing to a different type of traveler.

Relish the resort life?

Look no further than The Westin St. John Resort Villas. This 45-acre villa resort stretching across Great Cruz Bay is back and more beautiful than ever after a 16-month-long hurricane recovery and restoration effort. From our oceanview studio, equipped with a kitchenette, washer and dryer and private balcony, we were mere steps from a plethora of resort perks sprinkled around the lushly landscaped grounds roamed by resident iguanas, ranging from a quarter-acre pool and fitness center to an all-new private ferry that takes guests back and forth from St. Thomas and a fleet of complimentary kayaks and paddleboats. Book a studio or villa at westinstjohn.com.

Bunking up with a big group?

For more than 15 years, we’ve booked villas through Destination St. John, the island’s longstanding, locally-operated rental company boasting more than 40 diverse properties. When my parents and siblings joined us for a week, we stayed at the luxurious five-bedroom Villa Tesori perched above the bejeweled waters of Rendezvous Bay. For close-knit groups wanting to stay together, villas offer one of the most authentic ways to experience the island — we spent our days beaching and hiking, stopped off at the market on the way back, and enjoyed easy evenings grilling poolside or cooking together inside our dreamy home-away-from-home. Search for the perfect villa at destinationstjohn.com.

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Traveling on a budget and for the beaches?

If you plan to spend most of your time exploring the island rather than lounging inside your room, opt for an affordable, independently-owned property listed on Airbnb and HomeAway/VRBO. We’ve cherished our repeat stays at the recently-renovated, locally owned condo, Kachi Ra, kachira.com, which offers a cozy and comfortable home base for a couple or small family without the high price tag.