CRUZ BAY, St. John (Reuters) - The tiny island of St. John is the smallest, most pristine of the U.S. Virgin Islands, with two-thirds of its land mass given over to national parkland thanks to a 1956 donation from philanthropist-conservationist Laurance Rockefeller.
The verdant, volcanic isle attracts all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts, from hikers and scuba divers to beach lovers and sun worshippers, while steering clear of major development, fast-food chains and hordes of tourists seeking out raucous bars.
But there is no airport, so visitors must arrive by boat - either ferries, which run hourly, or private charter.
Eco-travelers saddened by the recent announcement that St. John's popular Maho Bay Camps will shutter in May, can still stay at its sister eco-resort, Concordia (www.concordiaeco-resort.com/), on the island's south side.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help you get the most out a short stay on this island paradise - whether it’s your first or 40th visit.
6 p.m. - After flying into St. Thomas, visitors heading to St. John will need to take a taxi to the ferry docks at either Charlotte Amalie or Red Hook, which is more popular because of its hourly departures (www.varlack-ventures.com). Once on St. John, pick up your pre-reserved rental car in Cruz Bay, unless you don’t plan to leave the beach. Taxis are pricey and you’ll want wheels to see the most of this bucolic isle.
Check in, or get settled at your weekend rental. While the Westin is the lone major resort (www.westinresortstjohn.com/), various short-stay options include condos, guest houses, villas and the luxurious yet rustic favorite of honeymooners, Caneel Bay (here).
8 p.m. - Time for dinner. There are plenty of choices, from seafood baskets and fish tacos to burgers and salads, at the Beach Bar in Wharfside Village, right on the water in Cruz Bay (beachbarstjohn.com). Join locals and tourists at the open-air bar. Sip a rum punch or quaff a bucket of beers and watch the ferries plying the picturesque harbor.
10 p.m. - Stroll Cruz Bay's compact "downtown" and check out the shops. A good bet for little gifts for the unlucky ones left behind is St. John Spice (www.stjohnspice.com/), one flight up from the ferry dock. Coffee, spices, local salt, hot sauces and the usual T-shirts and local crafts are available.
11 p.m. - If a nightcap is in order, many places offer live music.
9 a.m. - Start the day in Cruz Bay with breakfast at Jake's (18-38 Estate Enighed in the Lumberyard Complex, www.jakesstjohn.com/). Order its famed Bloody Mary, and tuck into a hearty portion of corned beef hash with eggs over easy, or a breakfast burrito, omelet or waffles while taking in the sweeping views over the channel to neighboring islands such as Jost Van Dyke.
10 a.m. - Drive to crescent-shaped Salt Pond Bay on the island’s south side to nab a space under the sea grape bushes, as shade here is at a premium. Snorkeling in the large, placid and shallow bay is first rate, with sea urchins, parrotfish, rays and turtles putting on an underwater show.
Noon - For an exhilarating workout, capped by a splendid view, hike the Ram Head trail. The walk leads past a blue cobblestone beach up a wind-swept promontory, past pope’s head cacti until you are hundreds of feet high, taking in sweeping views of the British Virgin Islands and Sir Francis Drake Channel, which is popular with sailboat charters. After the far-easier trek back down, indulge in another cooling dip.
2 p.m. - What's an exotic holiday without a stop at a tourist trap? Luckily, St. John has one, but that really is the name of this colorful hilltop shack surrounded by picnic tables, which is a far cry from the image conjured by its name. (16368 Concordia, here). The waitress, Mary, will suggest "anything pork, or anything Mexican" (and ideally, both). Her recommendations are spot-on.
4 p.m. - Compare the morning’s first-rate snorkeling with some afternoon exploring below the surface at some of St. John’s gorgeous north shore beaches, which include Trunk Bay, Hawksnest and Francis Bay. Crowds will be the thinnest at Francis Bay, where there is a good chance of spying turtles, which generally feed late in the day.
8 p.m. - What nightlife there is in St. John happens in Cruz Bay. The Lime Inn (www.limeinn.com/) has been a local dining favorite operated by the same couple since 1984, with tables spread about a charming, illuminated patio garden. The fresh catch of the day is a best bet and be sure to save room for some tangy key lime pie.
9 a.m. - Have breakfast at your lodgings or whip up something quick and easy with provisions from one of the local bakeries or the supermarket (starfishmarket.com/), to take full advantage of your last day in paradise.
10 a.m. - Drive the island’s spine along the Bordeaux Mountain Road down steep, sharp curves towards the island’s East End and second settlement, Coral Bay. Pull off at a turnout heading down to Coral Bay to photograph the scenic views. Once the road levels out and hugs the sea, drive cautiously and pause as donkeys, herds of goats and no small measure of hens and chicks suddenly block the road.
11 a.m. - Stop for a quick swim at Hansen Bay and a refreshing beer at the Vie's Snack Shack (here). Vie's conch fritters are legendary.
1 p.m. - Discover old St. John ambience and an authentic island vibe at Miss Lucy's (misslucys.com/), where Sundays feature a jazz brunch that includes a bounty of seafood, johnnycakes and bison.
3 p.m. - St. John is sprinkled with ruins from its sugar cane-producing past. Take the short hike down to the Annaburg Plantation ruins just off the Leinster Bay Road, where another short hike leads to ruins of one of the Caribbean’s oldest public schoolhouses. Take in the beautiful views of Mary Point, Leinster Bay and Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands.
5 p.m. - Just enough time for one more island cocktail at any of the open-air harbor side bars before catching the 6 p.m. ferry back to St. Thomas, ahead of your flight back home.
Editing by Patricia Reaney and Eric Beech