A week in beautiful St. John can cure just about any hangup that might be afflicting you. Just a 4 hour flight from Philadelphia, stepping off the plane onto an old school set of boarding stairs you are instantly transported to a slower pace of life, swaying palm trees and the warm tropical air of the Caribbean. Located just to the east of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, St. John is the quieter, cleaner and more relaxed version of it's close counterpart. There are much better beaches and way fewer people here. There's no airport and no cruise ship dock here so everything comes over on the ferry.
Three quarters of the island is a national park (donated by John Rockefeller) so building is very restricted and wildlife abounds. We saw wild donkeys, deer, iguanas and birds aplenty. It's also more expensive on St. John, so most locals live on St. Thomas and commute across on the ferry each day if they work here. All this remoteness lends such a cool, sleepy vibe to the island. No one is in a hurry. For anything. What a perfect place to escape the frigid northeast for a week.
We stayed with friends at a house overlooking Cinnamon Bay. The house was beautiful and afforded us the opportunity to drive to one of the many stunning beaches nearby, hike the various trails criss-crossing the island, or just lounge in the hot tub or by the pool with a good book. We also got to eat out quite a bit and sample the flavors of the local restaurants. We ate at some pretty fancy places for dinner, but also some great dive joints for lunch and of course a roadside chicken shack was not going to be passed by. Eating in St. John is not cheap. Be prepared for some sticker shock when you get the menu. Just remember that you're on vacation in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and you can always make more money. At least the drinks are cheap! Well, mostly.
|Carib - the beer of the carribean|
The standard of beer in the Virgin Islands, Carib is brewed in Trinidad and close in taste to a Corona but just a little sweeter - sugar is actually listed as one of the ingredients on the label. You don't see it too often at beer distributors up here, but it's great on a hot summer day if you can score a case. We drank quite a few of these, along with Presidente & a few Coronas to appease the Jimmy Buffet gods.
The other standard of drinking in the Caribbean is rum. Lots of it. Mostly in mixed drinks like pina coladas and daquiris, but also on the rocks if it's a good one just like you would with scotch or bourbon. The rums you normally see in the states are pretty awful - captain morgan and bacardi are mass produced and taste like it. Cruzan was the most common at the bars and bodega liquor stores. It's not exactly small batch distilling, but the flavor profile is so much more complex than those other ones.
Bars in the Virgin Islands also make a slew of unique blended drinks with that Cruzan rum. Ever had a Painkiller? How about a Bushwacker? No? Perhaps a Lime-n-d-Coconut? Or a BBC? I don't know why these never caught on like the pina colada, but they are worth a shot making at home if you've got a good blender (read: VitaMix) or just get on a plane and try one at Woody's in Cruz bay. Don't mind the smell of the place - get a table outside and order your drinks thru the window, it's worth it.
Lunch at Ship Wreck Landing:
After a morning of hiking to the petroglyphs and swimming at Lamshur bay beach we trucked around the island to Ship Wreck Landing, a little bay with a no-name restaurant and a shop or two next door. That no-name restaurant serves some great food. Most everyone got grilled fish sandwiches. Lot's of mahi, some jerked tuna and even grouper with choice of fries or home made slaw. The service was a little slow, but she kept the drinks coming, so no complaints.
|there's no real sign for this place....or doors|
|a lemongrass mojito - that's the lemon grass stalk over the wife's face|
|Coconut battered shrimp|
|Blackened Mahi-Mahi sandwich|
|Grilled jerked tuna with homemade coleslaw|
|Key Lime Pie|
The desserts didn't last long enough for me to get good pictures. I suppose that's a compliment. The key lime pie was best, with a soft graham cracker crust and a tangy, rich filling. The cheese cake had a similar texture but without the lime tang and plus a chocolate ganache topping.
|Cheese cake with chocolate|
Sugar Mill - Caneel Bay Resort:
Caneel Bay resort is one of the swankiest places in the Caribbean. Private cottages nestled in the palm trees along a perfect white sand beach attract celebrities and the very well to do. The rest of us can still use the beaches ($20 for parking though, unless you buy something at the resort) and can eat at one of the many restaurants on the grounds. We had lunch at the cafe here on our first day, and I had a killer veggie burger. Their rum drinks were also tasty and very strong. If you're paying $60 for lunch, at least you get your money's worth.
We went to the Sugar Mill restaurant for dinner on the third or fourth night there (we were on island time by that point, days blur together). The dining room is situated on the second floor of - you guessed it - the remnants of an old sugar refinery from the 1700's. It's a huge round structure, slightly sloping towards the ocean and open on all sides to let the breezes and mosquitoes in. Wear bug spray.
|grilled shrimp over crisp red cabbage|
Dinner was great. Lot's of fish and other seafood dishes. They had steaks on the menu, lamb chops and some other land lubbers, but it only seem right to eat what came out of the ocean down here. An appetizer of fresh large shrimp, grilled and served over bright red cabbage was delicious. The best dish of the night was the tuna ceviche. Marinated in citrus and coconut milk, with hunks of fresh avocado mixed in, it was savory and bright and rich all at the same time.
|tuna ceviche with coconut and avocado|
|grilled mahi-mahi with sea scallops|
One of the highlights of the entrees was the tuna "roll" with a beautifully seared piece of tuna wrapped in nori and served over some grilled squash. Tuna was excellent, and the presentation was so creative.
|lightly seared tuna "rolls"|
Waterfront Bistro - Cruz Bay:
Cruz Bay, St. John
Our final dinner in St. John, on an absolutely perfect evening at Waterfront Bistro in Cruz Bay. A table right next to the beach, with the sun setting across the Caribbean. This is one of the more expensive restaurants on the island, but for good reason. The food was great, and the views are worth the upcharge.
|crab, roasted poblano & ricotta crepes|
|seared scallops with coconut shrimp risotto|
|mahi mahi served over crab smashed potatoes with citrus segments, arugula and citrus herb vinaigrette|
|tamarind glazed tofu with haricot vert & curry quinoa|
|$15 for pre-mixed uber sour margaritas. At least they get you tipsy.|
Street vendor chicken:
I do love me some street food. This is probably the best part of traveling to a non first-world country. Cheap eats that are made with heart and soul, and speak to the real culture of the place. The islands are filled with great chicken and fried fish stands where locals line up and wait very patiently for their lunch. We found a good one right by the ferry dock serving bar-b-q chicken. There wasn't really a name outside, but if you're there you can't miss it.
|BYO! - A sixer of Carib from the local store|
|View of "downtown" Cruz bay|
Cruz Bay is not even close to a city. There's not a single stop light - just one roundabout that doesn't see much traffic. The streets are very pedestrian friendly with cars rarely making it above 15 miles an hour. A great place to spend a Saturday afternoon strolling from shop to shop, bar to bar, in the warm Caribbean sun.
The bar-b-q chicken we got was great. Slow grilled over a low flame for what must have been all morning, it was near falling off the bone. Right before serving they slather it in a sweet bar-b-q sauce that gets all over you while you eat. Bring a Tide-to-Go stick if you stop here, it gets messy. And don't even try using the silverware, this is a hands meal all the way. The corn I could have done without, but the slaw was good (like most places on St. John). Add a couple Carib's and some new friends made while waiting and what you've got is a great lunch.
|bar-b-q chicken with corn on the cob and slaw|
An absolutely great vacation in St. John. Lots of great food, fantastic beaches and some good friends. Only wish it could have lasted longer.