ST. JOHN, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS — Some sojourns seem designed specifically for 21st century social media consumption. Duck-lipped selfie with the Mona Lisa? Mais, bien sûr! Piccie of the Leaning Tower of Pisa supported by one carefully placed finger? Perfecto. Instagram of an Egyptian pyramid in the palm of your hand? Absolutely.
Then there are those rare holiday havens that feel less like fleeting, frenzied snap-and-go destinations … and more like destiny. The most magical places aren’t about bagging bragging rights, they’re about feeding a hungry hole in your soul.
For me, St. John, the smallest of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands, is my vacation unicorn — the one place in the world where I can switch off and fully relax. With more than 7,000 acres of forested hillsides and pristine coast protected by the Virgin Islands National Park, it has remained a truly “virgin” oasis.
On St. John, the sandy North Shore beaches are not backed by high rise condos, but by snarls of sea grapes and tangled greenery. Sunbathers share silky crescents with chickens and iguanas, while offshore, snorkelers splash among sea turtles, stingrays, and schools of brightly hued fish, with rarer appearances by inquisitive squid or an elusive octopus.
Above: Long-time residents Kim Templeton, left, Thalia Reyes and Chuck Seibert, right, see a bright future for St. John.
Free-range donkeys, deer and cattle amble along the switchback roads that connect St. John’s only two towns. In Cruz Bay on the isle’s western tip, there’s a ferry port, an array of shops and buzzing bars and restaurants. In Coral Bay to the east, you’ll find, well, mostly just peace and quiet. Crucially, across the whole island, I’ve never encountered any establishment where flip-flops are not considered entirely appropriate attire, and I can think of no higher praise than this.
The island’s greatest asset may be what you can’t see, though — an indomitable and generous spirit. I’ve visited at least a dozen times over the past 20 years, and I’ve always been struck by St. John’s laidback bonhomie. There’s a reason the locals call St. John Love City
Neighbourly love was stretched to the limit in September 2017, when the isle endured a sustained attack by the category 5 Hurricane Irma and was sideswiped by Hurricane Maria two weeks later. My husband and I watched the weather reports with increasing concern, eventually turning to horror, praying for the safety of the folks we had met there on our holiday just two months before.
I particularly recalled one hot, boozy afternoon we had spent at Cruz Bay’s Gecko Gazebo Bar, fantasizing about throwing in the towel and throwing down our towels, permanently, on St. John’s wave-tickled sands. All around us, we discovered kindred spirits who had done just that.
The sun wasn’t quite over the yard arm, but this al fresco watering hole, nestled among the clothing and jewelry shops at Mongoose Junction, was already open for business. As I sipped from a sweating bottle of Virgin Islands Pale Ale, I struck up a conversation with the tanned blonde bartender, Kim Templeton, who originally hailed from Newport Beach, CA.
Above: Tourists and residents share the beaches and roads with the local wildlife and everyone seems okay with it.
Thirty years ago, Templeton arrived here on a 2 p.m. ferry for a brief holiday. “By 2:45, I was standing on the deck of a villa and I said, ‘Oh, hell yeah! Why not?’” she laughed. “I went home, sold everything, and came back six months later.
“It’s not easy to get here,” she admitted, noting that the closest airport is on St. Thomas. “But if you do, you’ll be back.”
Templeton paused when she spied an approaching customer — a regular, apparently, because she opened an ice-cold bottle for the fellow before he even bellied up to the bar.
The newcomer was actually an old-timer: Chuck Seibert, who, with his white beard and twinkly blue eyes, resembled a sun-baked Santa.
“What brought me here?” Seibert said, echoing my question.
“Sailboat!” boomed the New York native, who came to St. John to deliver a boat in 1978 … and that was that. Today, he’s the owner of St. John Savvy property management, “but my mother still thinks I’m a piano player in a bordello in Reno. She’d be heartbroken if she knew I’d ended up here,” he added, unsuccessfully suppressing a smile.
So why did he stay?
“The ambiance. The people. I like the pace of life, basically. It’s easier,” Seibert shrugged.
“But then again,” he added, after a moment’s consideration, “it’s more difficult than stateside in some ways.”
Many islanders, for instance, head to the mainland U.S. when faced with life-threatening medical conditions, while on a day-to-day basis, there's the challenge of simply filling the fridge.
Above: Lounging on a beach all day soaking up the sun or watching the sun dip into the ocean each evening is the way many spend a day here.
"Groceries!” Siebert groaned. Having just shelled out quite a lot of dough ($8 U.S.) for a meagre loaf of bread at the Starfish Market, I felt his pain, although the relatively cheap cost of rum (also $8 for 750ml) did rather numb the sting of a rapidly emptying wallet … and pretty much everything else, besides.
All those concerns would pale in comparison, however, when shell-shocked islanders emerged from their homes on Sept. 6, 2017 to face Irma’s aftermath. Remarkably, there was only one human casualty — a man who had tried to escape the storm in a boat.
As I learned on a return visit to the island in 2019, the devastation was heartbreaking.
“It looked like a bomb had gone off,” recalled Jackie Harrison, owner and manager of Vacation Vistas, with a slow shake of her head. “There were no leaves on anything.”
I nodded, recalling photographs I’d seen which looked like the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.
We were chatting at the Gecko Gazebo Bar, nearly two years to the day since I was there last. Templeton was still behind the bar, cracking open bottles of beer, and Seibert was on his stool at the end, cracking jokes. I felt like I had sat there with them only yesterday, but listening to the harrowing tales of my companions, it was clear they had been to hell and back before returning to their familiar perches in the heat-parched shade.
Templeton’s home was destroyed, and the salon she runs next to Mongoose Junction was barely salvageable. She had only managed to grab her two cats, one change of clothing, and some spaghetti from the freezer before Irma hit; a friend would later help her retrieve her mother’s ashes from the wreckage of her house.
Seibert’s home fared well, but others on his street lost everything. He shared electricity from his generator with neighbours, running extension cords as far as they would allow, and stored friends’ food in his freezer to prevent it from spoiling. For some residents, it would be up to five months before power was restored.
By mid-2019, life had largely returned to normal. Mongoose Junction, built from sturdy volcanic stone, was relatively unscathed. Some houses still bore scars — missing roofs and walls, or indeed, missing everything, with only concrete foundations left behind.
The Westin St. John Resort & Villas reopened, but the island’s only other sizeable resort, Caneel Bay, founded in the 1950s by St. John’s ecologically minded benefactor, Laurance Rockefeller, remained closed, perhaps permanently.
Along the roadsides, occasional stands of spectral grey stumps resembled zombie forests, dead but eerily preserved by saltwater storm surges. Thousands of palm trees across from Maho Bay were wiped away, as well, and there was noticeably less shade on the beaches. But mercurial Mother Nature was rapidly regrowing the lush, leafy green mantle she had so recklessly ripped out in her devastating tantrum two years before.
Seibert credited “guardian angels” like the singer Kenny Chesney, who owns a home here, and philanthropic billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Secunda for helping St. John get back on its feet. But its recovery is largely due to the resiliency and determination of the residents themselves.
“St. John helps itself,” Seibert said proudly, “and that’s the beauty of this island.”
In the island’s more isolated East End, Thalia Reyes shared her own tale as we stood in the shade of a sprawling, wild-limbed tamarind tree on the shores of Hansen Bay. The New York native moved to St. John in 2009, but her family lived here from the 1700s until her great-grandmother emigrated to Puerto Rico. Reyes makes a living by looking after rental properties and by hiring out water-sports equipment by the bay, where the teal waters offer some of the island’s best snorkelling.
“I don’t have a home right now, unfortunately,” said Reyes, who was staying in a rental until high season. “But I can always have a couch, wherever I want to go. I’ve got a lot of friends.”
She had lost almost all of her possessions in Irma, “but you learn how to live with some stuff — and live without. You have your life, and that’s the most important thing.” Reyes pointed to another tree, one which was toppled by the storm. “It turned over completely and landed on its limbs,” she explained. “But the limbs took root, and finally, it did give me tamarind again.”
I can’t think of a more fitting metaphor for the people of St. John. You can take away their homes and their livelihoods, but you can’t extinguish their spirit. Knock them off their feet, but they’ll put down roots again.
They don’t just “get by” with a little help from their friends. They bear fruit and flourish.
JUST THE FACTS
General tourism info: https://www.visitusvi.com/st-john
News of St. John is a great resource for updates on what’s happening around the island, including the latest on how Covid-19 may be affecting St. John:
Where to stay:
I rented a villa from https://www.destinationstjohn.com. If you prefer to stay in a resort atmosphere, take a look at Westin St. John Resort & Villas.
Where to eat and drink:
Gecko Gazebo Bar, say hello to Kim and Chuck if you see them! http://mongoosejunctionstjohn.com/stores/geckogazebobar.html
The Longboard, set on a wide covered porch, serves up Mexican fare. http://thelongboardstjohn.com
Two of my favourite casual restaurant bars: The Beach Bar, http://beachbarstjohn.com and High Tide, https://www.hightidevi.com.
Skinny Legs is a burger joint that bills itself as “a pretty ok place.” It promises, and unfailingly delivers, “same day service.” http://www.skinnylegsvi.com