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ST. JOHN US VIRGIN ISLANDS BY SAFARI BUS

Story and photos by

Every year, cruise ships visit St. Thomas more than a 1,000 times. Passengers who've seen the busy island on previous trips have a serene alternative: St. John.

The smallest of the three major US Virgin Islands is only a 45-minute ferry ride from Charlotte Amalie, the capital of St. Thomas. But is it possible to experience the highlights of this 15-kilometre-long island in just a half-day?

Cruz Bay, capital of St. John, USVI
Cruz Bay, capital of St. John, USVI
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Undoubtedly yes, especially if your guide is Wesley. He'll not only introduce you to the sights, but also to bush medicine, island lore and local wildlife.

Virgin Islands National Park

Wesley's safari bus tours begin by the ferry dock in the capital, Cruz Bay. A dozen of us scramble into the open-sided vehicle and sit on four padded benches. Wesley greets us with a broad smile, then climbs into the driver's cab and talks to us through a loud speaker.

"Our first stop is the bathroom," he says, stopping a minute later in front of a large, clean public washroom. "St. John is two-thirds National Park. Once we leave Cruz Bay, you'll find only outhouses and big trees."

Cruz Bay tour

Business done, we begin our tour of the capital. "There are nine churches, three gas stations, two banks and an elementary school in Cruz Bay," explains Wesley. We note he's driving British-style, on the left-side of the road, but the steering wheel is on the left, as in North America. "It's easier to talk to pedestrians, this way," he adds, waving to friends as he speaks.

The population, he tells us, is 3,500 and many of them are driving or walking on the town's narrow streets. "Our island is about the same size as Manhattan," he notes, "but when we're stuck in gridlock, our view is better than theirs."

Termite nests and calabash trees

Wesley shows calabash bowls to Safari Bus passengers.
Wesley shows calabash bowls to Safari Bus passengers.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Traffic thins after we leave town on the narrow but paved Centerline Road. Wesley pulls the bus over so we can photograph termite nests that look like black growths on the trees.

Pointing to a shrub nearby, he says: "We lather up the juice from this bush and put it on our skin to dry up rashes and heal cuts. Feel how rough the leaves are. They make great scouring pads."

He then points out a calabash tree. "We carve the dried fruit into bowls, which we stack like Tupperware, or make them into purses or maracas."

Soursop and sugar cane

Reaching into his cab, he pulls out a couple of the musical instruments and shakes them as he chants: "Who's driving the bus?" Motioning for us to respond, he joins us: "Wesley's driving the bus." As we sing along, a flock of tiny guinea hens skitters across the road.

He then shows us the prickly green fruit of the soursop tree. "The juice makes a great drink," he says. "You can also dry the leaves and brew them into a tea to help you sleep. My grandfather, who's 93, drinks lots of it. He has 27 children," he adds, leaving it up to us to attribute any aphrodisiac properties to the tea.

As we drive towards the centre of the island, Wesley explains that during the 18th and 19th centuries, more than 2,000 slaves worked the 88 sugar factories on St. John. With the abolition of slavery, in 1848, and the production of less expensive sugar from sugar beets, the plantations gave way to subsistence farming and fishing.

"In 1917, the Danish government, which owned the island for 200 years, sold it along with St. Thomas and St. Croix, to the US government for 25 million dollars,v says Wesley. We think of our cruise ship, the Grand Princess, which cost 18 times that amount — US$450 million.

Laurance Rockefeller gift

Looking out over the dramatic progression of craggy mountains, and dense vegetation that encroaches on both sides of the road, we quietly thank Laurance Rockefeller. Hoping to preserve its unspoiled beauty, the philanthropist purchased and donated 2,000 hectares of the land to the federal government.

Sign for Virgin Islands National Park
Sign for Virgin Islands National Park
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In 1956, President Eisenhower created the Virgin Islands National Park. Since then, it's grown to over 5,000 hectares, with one-third of it encompassing coral reefs, beaches, mangroves and seagrass beds.

"I'll turn on the air-conditioning," laughs Wesley as he snakes the vehicle up Bordeaux Mountain. At 390 metres, we're at the highest point in St. John — and the coolest. We get out and admire the emerald mountains and sapphire Coral Bay.

Mango sherbet

A tin-roofed ice cream stand sells yummy mango sherbet. Naturally Beautiful, an adjoining shop, displays island souvenirs: bright batik tropical dresses, small burlap bags of spiced coffee, jars of star fruit sauce and chocolate coconut rum cake.

Shopping and snacking done, we hop back in the bus for the serpentine downward journey towards the north coast. Wesley plays a tape of Amazing Grace over the speaker. We hope the brakes work. They do, as we discover when a small, furry animal streaks out from the forest, crossing the road in front of us.

Mongooses and wild donkeys

"It's a mongoose," says Wesley. "The Danes brought them here from India when rats were devastating the sugar cane crop. There was only one problem. The mongoose forages during the day, while the rat feeds at night. They never saw each other, so both thrived. So do wild donkeys."

Park Ranger with Annaberg Historical Trail sign in St. Thomas
Park Ranger with Annaberg Historical Trail sign in St. Thomas
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The St. John Guidebook, which we picked up free-of-charge at the tourist information bureau next to the safari bus parking lot, elaborates: "National Park staff counted 400 wild asses on the island. They can be pests, wandering through campgrounds and yards looking for snacks. If approached, they can be nasty and bite. They have bad breath too!"

Wesley stops the vehicle, disappears into the jungle, and returns with a handful of leaves. Crushing them, we sniff the fragrant bay leaves appreciatively. "Islanders extract the oil and make cologne and bay rum with it," he tells us.

Annaberg Sugar Mill

Continuing our drive, we arrive at the Annaberg Sugar Mill. Wesley introduces us to Deanna Somerville, a National Parks ranger, who explains that the ruins are remnants of the last surviving sugar plantation on the island.

Looking into bread oven next to St. John's Annaberg Sugar Mill
Looking into bread oven
next to St. John's Annaberg Sugar Mill
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

It takes about 30 minutes to stroll along the circular route. Wesley hands us a tin of bug spray before we depart. We're thankful, because hordes of hungry no-see-ums inhabit the area.

A self-guided trail map describes 18 ruins, ranging from slave quarters to the boiling bench where slaves boiled cane juice into crude brown sugar. The best preserved building is the windmill, which was built in 1810. On one side, there's a bread oven; on the other, an impressive view of Leinster Bay and the British Virgin Islands.

Nature trails and petroglyphs

There are 22 self-guided nature trails in the National Park, according to Somerville. The best known trail is the ranger-guided five-kilometre Reef Bay Hike. It descends through subtropical vegetation, past Danish ruins and petroglyphs created by the original Arawak inhabitants.

We hop back on the safari bus for the return trip to Cruz Bay along the Northshore Road. One pristine palm-fringed bay follows another. Maho Bay features cabins strung together, like Chinese lanterns, with elevated wooden walkways through the woods. Harmony Studios, the world's first luxury resort, which operates solely on solar and wind power, is also here. The spacious guesthouses were built from recycled materials.

There's a more traditional National Park campground and a self-guided trail at postcard-pretty Cinnamon Bay. Descending a few more elastic band curves, we reach Trunk Bay, famous for its underwater snorkelling trail.

Trunk Bay, famous for its underwater snorkeling trail
Trunk Bay, famous for its underwater snorkeling trail
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Alan Alda and Carol Burnett

Equally pretty, but less crowded, is Hawksnest Bay, just down the road. "Hawksbill turtles come here to lay their eggs between mid-July and mid-December," notes Wesley. "If the scenery looks familiar, it's because you may have seen it in Four Seasons. In the movie, Alan Alda and Carol Burnett got stuck here on the reef and went skinny dipping."

Wesley knows that we can't resist the bathtub-warm water and sugar-sand beach. He stops long enough for us to have a quick swim.

A beach for every day of the week

Back on the safari bus, we skirt Caneel Bay, which boasts seven beaches. "One for every day of the week," quips Wesley. The jewel of the 70-hectare peninsula is the luxurious Caneel Bay Hotel, built by Rockefeller in the 1950s. It beckons from manicured lawns and gardens, but we have no time to stop. We resolve to return and spend more time in St. John.

Grazing goats greet us on the outskirts of Cruz Bay. In town, Wesley points out Mongoose Junction, a shopping arcade housed in stone buildings reminiscent of old Danish architecture.

As he pulls into the parking lot, he chants: "Who's driving the bus?" In unison, we sing back: "Wesley's driving the bus."

He turns around and flashes a dazzling grin.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

US Virgin Islands Department of Tourism: www.visitusvi.com