I’ve chartered in the British Virgin Islands a number of times, but until recently my knowledge of St. John, in the U.S. Virgins, had been limited to “that really pretty island we pass on the ferry from St. Thomas.” During a November charter with TMM Yacht Charters, however, a friend’s wedding in Caneel Bay put St. John on our itinerary, and I’m glad it did.
For me, the biggest drawback to visiting St. John—at least when coming by way of the BVI—has always been the fact that you have to clear in and out, and then out and back in again when coming and going. Luckily, it turns out the customs houses are all conveniently located, and if you’re well prepared, the process is a breeze. Clearing out of Great Harbour on Jost Van Dyke, for example, we were also able to fill up on provisions from a small shop ashore. Only the ship’s captain and first mate need be present to clear the entire crew’s passports, and it costs a whopping $1.
At Cruz Bay, in the USVI, things were a bit trickier. All the moorings there are privately owned, and the small, crowded anchorage is dangerously close to the ferry channel. It is better therefore to moor or anchor in nearby Caneel Bay and take the crew to Cruz Bay in a dinghy. The ride takes five minutes and is smooth and picturesque, although the dinghy dock in Cruz Bay is located in the same inlet as the ferry terminal, so enter with caution. Make sure to take your entire crew with you, as all must be present to clear in. Don’t forget to bring the ship’s papers, a couple of pens and enough cash to pay for an entrance fee (typically no more than $20). If you’re only staying for 24 hours, like we were, the customs officials will often allow you to clear in and out at the same time, saving you the hassle of a return trip in the morning.
Two-thirds of St. John is a U.S National Park, so there are enough hikes, historical sites and panoramic views to keep you entertained for days. If you have time, consider renting a car and driving to a few of the island’s more distant nature trails. They’re typically less than a mile long and many emerge at the tops of plateaus overlooking white-sand beaches. You can rent watersports equipment at Cinnamon Bay or just take a walk along the pretty beach. If you only have an afternoon, Caneel Bay is excellent for snorkeling and beach combing.
In the evening, Cruz Bay offers up a heaping dose of good restaurants and nightlife. The island feels much more American than the BVI, and the prices are a bit steeper, but the food is excellent and the locals are welcoming.
After a morning in Caneel Bay, we sailed for Soper’s Hole on Tortola’s west end. The customs house here is located on the north side of the bay, and the officers couldn’t be friendlier. You only need the captain, passports and $15 to clear in. Soper’s Hole itself is a darling community worth spending some time in. The south side of the bay is spotted with brightly colored buildings that house general stores, souvenir shops and, of course, a Pusser’s restaurant. Both Pusser’s and Jolly Roger’s (across the bay) serve up a great meal and a thirst-quenching painkiller.
As the sun began to dip lower, it was time to sail for Great Harbour on Peter Island for our last night on charter. In two days, we’d cleared out and in, and in and out of customs in a process that was not nearly as onerous as I thought it would be. Knowing this, if I had the trip to do over, I’d extend it to 10 days and allow for two solid days on St. John. I have a feeling I’ve only scratched the surface of what this island has to offer.
Photo by Dusko Djukic