St. John, with its low-key development and gorgeous underwater marine parks may be our favorite of the Virgin Islands for the active family.
Nobody doesn’t love St. John. This island, in my opinion anyway, is one of the crown jewels of the Caribbean. The half-hour ferry ride from the sister U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas alone is very a peaceful passage. Don’t bother taking your car. If you must, you can rent one when you’re there. As the boat pulls into St. John’s Cruz Bay, you’ll feel the seaside resembles a movie set of a Caribbean island with many-hued, open-air, nearly ramshackle huts huddled beneath palm trees.
Perhaps the best thing about St. John is the fact that it’s a National Park. Virgin Islands National Park (340/776-6201) has a wide range of day and evening programs presented by Rangers. There are snorkeling trips, archaeology tours to the Taino Indians sites, tropical forest trips and a very informative water’s edge walk, where you learn about coastal plants and marine life. The park also has campgrounds, guest houses, homes for rent and other accommodations.
St. John has some exceptional beaches, like Cinnamon Bay, which also has a campground (340/776-6330). Trunk Bay is considered one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere in the world and Maho Bay offers beauty and a unique “luxury” camping resort.
Living Ecology at Maho Bay
The entire island is really given over to ecological concern and nowhere perhaps is this more evident than in Maho Bay Camps/Concordia Estates (800/392-9004; 340/715-0501).
Begun by Stanley Selengut, the reputed father of eco-tourism, it is a “Swiss Family Robinson” arrangement of tree-top fixed tents, canvas tent-cottages and open pavilions for families and individuals. Located virtually in tree tops and connected by a series of wooden walkways, the entire complex is an ecologist’s dream come true. Nature is undisturbed, water is solar heated, every component is recycled material (bath and floor mats are made from recycled tires) and the restaurant is outdoors. This is “crunchy” at its most authentic. The views are, as you might imagine, spectacular, and the watersports are included in modest room rates.
Considered one of the world’s finest nature lodges, Maho Bay has worked to spread its environmental message to guests – and beyond – since 1976. One of my favorite inventions is their Maho Bay Recycled Art Center, offering several classes each weekday to introduce adults and children to the visual arts. For example, Monday and Thursday have Pottery Pit Firing Classes; Tuesday and Wednesday feature clay work; photography and mosaic workshops are held at other times. Children’s Craft Classes in particular use recycled paper, sawdust, leaves and other debris to create wonderfully imaginative take-home souvenirs. Rates per class vary, with some requiring a minimum age of child participants. Adults taking classes with young children are only charged the child’s rate.
There’s also a free “help-yourself” center where departing guests leave books or peanut butter or salt or whatever so guests who are staying can enjoy them, and they don’t get thrown away. Now there’s a novel idea! Overall, a very unique and deeply satisfying family and nature experience.
The Westin & its Kids Club
For those seeking a bit more creature comfort but still within a family budget, the classy and well-designed Westin St. John Resort & Villas (888/627-7206; 340/693-8000) offers both a creative kids program and family prices. The Westin, once a lovely, unpretentious property of 262 guest rooms, has added 92 villas and 13 townhouses built as timeshare properties.
However, the acres of manicured palm trees and graceful, white-sand beach still make it a delightful family resort. Water sports are featured here and the non-motorized kind are free for guests, including kids. The Kids Club has some fun and challenging activities including iguana hunts and sandcastle contests. Of course there’s snorkeling and swimming, pool time, board games and movies. Private in-room baby sitting is available with a 24-hour advance notice.
As I board my ferry back to St. Thomas to catch my plane, I contemplate how much the United States Virgin Islands offers. In addition to their obvious beauty, there is commitment to family values that seems evident in the attractions and in the sunny smiles of the staff I have met everywhere throughout my travels.
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