A family of 5 sleeps around at several of this US Virgin Island's top resorts to judge the best.
Our family of five travels often from Washington DC. We swim in rooftop pools in New York hotels and snow-fed New Hampshire rivers. We sleep on rainy mountaintops in tents and in king size beds you never want to leave. We eat on paper plates in places I’d rather forget and in fancy restaurants with killer cuisine and views to die for. That is to say, we get around.
So that when we all agree that our vacation to St. John in the Virgin Islands was our best, readers should take notice.
We spent 10 days at three resorts. Our family vacation was shaped not only by the island’s quiet forest trails and offshore aquatic life, but also by its successful effort to balance the forces of tourism and economic development with its heritage as a national park.
We flew to bustling St. Thomas, commercial and aviation hub of the USVI, in the dog days of summer. The islands are hot, certainly no hotter than the often steamy northeast, but we never stayed much on land or changed out of bathing suits long enough to notice.
St. John’s Pristine Undersea World
No matter what your ability or energy level, the beaches at St. John offer a window into a glorious and varied undersea world that it is hard to tire of. As much as it is a solitary experience, there was something particularly memorable for each of us about our snorkeling excursions— an experience we could enjoy both as individuals and as a group.
The island also offers numerous locations for snorkeling right off the beach. One day we rented a car and drove to Trunk Bay, where my 8-year-old son was determined to follow the Park Service’s Underwater Trail. So too were scores of other swimmers, a small army of whom had swum to shore from a river boat steamer-like vessel that had arrived from nearby St. Thomas for a few hours.
Some of my best snorkeling was done at the far end of the beach away from the trail, itself no more than a few plaques arranged next to the coral, an experience highlighted by following a trio of luminescent baby squid.
Checking out the Family Resorts: Westin
Here’s our family’s look at what three top family resorts, all different, have to offer.
Westin St. John Resort and Villas
Great Cruz Bay
St. John, USVI 00831
Our first stop was the Westin not far from the main harbor at Cruz Bay. After the 45-minute boat ride on a public ferry from St. Thomas, we hopped into one of St. John’s shared taxis for the short ride to the resort. The Westin offers lots of up-market diversions: jet skis, parasailing, a large, bustling pool and a beach full of kids. I let my 13- and 17-year-old girls sample these— they love the speed and the thrills… while I read on the manmade beach and nursed a club soda at the beachfront restaurant.
For those traveling with younger children, Westin has an active supervised program for potty-trained children ages 3-12 and offers babysitting for tots under the age of 3. Kid’s Club activities include such things as scavenger hunts, nature walks, and arts and crafts. Prices for full-day, half-day and hourly sessions are $60, $40 and $15 respectively. There is also an evening session, from 6-10pm, which includes dinner and a movie. Still, some families will long for their children to spend a more educational time exploring the island’s environmental assets. Many of the Westin’s visitors were not hotel guests like us, but prospective purchasers of the timeshare properties that have become the Westin’s bread and butter. Long staying families may want to call 340/714-6350 or visit the Starwood Vacation Ownership site to see if rental condos are available.
One morning I escaped for a solo hike on the nearby trail to the 719-foot summit of Caneel Hill. I stopped by the informative visitors center for St. John National Park on the north side of the harbor, chose my destination and set out, trail map in hand The path through native tropical flora and fauna rose easily from the northwest side of town. I walked alone for more than one hour but was never far from the main coastal road as I climbed to my destination. Even though I set out quite early in the morning and had plenty of water, by 9am I was wishing I could pull a Dorothy – clicking my heels and turning up not in Kansas but in the refreshing water of Caneel Bay that beckoned below. Yet this was St. John, not Yosemite. The trail was only three miles and I was down and at this full-service resort’s pool before all the chaise lounges were taken!
Checking out the Family Resorts: Gallows Point
Gallows Point Resort
Great Cruz Bay
St. John, USVI 00831
Gallows Point Resort provides more self-sufficient travelers with a different, intimate and sedate view of the island from attractive townhouse condos just south of Cruz Bay. The resort is geared towards adults, as children under 5 are not permitted here (and even children under 12 are not recommended) although warmly tolerated, as we found. (Actually, resort management is concerned about children’s welfare, as the Gallows Point rough and rocky terrain can be hazardous to inattentive kids.)
The lawn that separates the dwellings from the water is peppered with iguanas. At night, the small pool is surrendered to dive-bombing bats in search of a fresh water drink not easy to find in the parched islands. The complex’s small beach had all manner of chairs and tables, strategically located to afford privacy and serenity as well as shelter from the sun. We did some introductory snorkeling right off the beach, offering Joshua an opportunity to get his swimming legs and fine-tune his snorkeling skills before we set out on bigger maritime adventures.
The “living like a local” feel of self-catered accommodations encouraged us to explore the island. Our teen girls had discovered the harborside shops, including a vegetarian deli, in nearby Cruz Bay, a five-minute-walk from our condo, and just past the local graveyard. They were more than happy (and totally safe) spending a few hours on their own in town while my wife, son and I remained on the beach, snorkeling, reading, and running up to the pool for a refreshing outdoor shower and swim. Families can also go on bike and ecology tours, kayak, parasail, scuba dive, and fish.
One morning, we gathered some provisions and the all important snorkeling gear and sunscreen and set off in a rented Boston Whaler with a small outboard for Honeymoon Beach. We motored our way through the gaggle of yachts moored at the permanent anchorages installed to minimize damage to the sea bottom right offshore. After throwing our anchor around a tree, we donned our snorkel gear and headed for the fish.
Checking out the Family Resorts: Caneel Bay
Great Cruz Bay
St. John, USVI 00831
Famous as one of the original Rockefeller resorts, Caneel Bay offered our family a fondly remembered mix of opportunities– from the afternoon teas on an open-air veranda looking out to the sea, to the wind-whipped dinghy sailing in the protected bay. Our beach house was literally on the beach and a short walk from the restaurant and bar where we enjoyed sunset dinners. Caneel Bay has its own beaches, each ecologically different. At Hawksnest Bay there was a field full of live conches, the first I had ever seen. At Turtle Bay, after a half-hour underwater search came upon the sea turtles and rays I had hoped to find. I was alone but inside the boat-free zone that enables swimmers to snorkel without fear of a meeting with a deadly propeller.
Although we didn’t take advantage of it, Caneel Bay offers a kid’s program, “Turtle Town” for children ages 3-12. Throughout the year, it operates Monday to Saturday from 9am-4:30pm. Additionally, there is a supervised children’s dinner and a movie every night from 6:30-9:30pm. Babysitting is available during the day for children too young to participate and during the evening, for children of all ages, at a three-hour minimum charge. The friendly resort also has several rooms set aside for families with children 7-years of age and younger.
One evening we took the Caneel Bay shuttle boat to the St. Thomas dock where the mammoth cruise ships berth. Summer is off-season for the Caribbean cruise trade as well as the land resorts, so only one ship was in port.
We debarked right opposite the Duty Free shops, which with their Indian and Arab proprietors reminded me of a Middle East souk, including the bargaining. We allowed the girls a couple of hours shopping. My son and I checked out the nearby historic brick fortress but soon caught up to them.
Two hours in crowded, touristy St. Thomas was enough for all of us. It was time to get back to St. John, where we could feel the night breezes greet us at Caneel Bay.
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