Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Paradise Reconfirmed: 
St. John, U. S. Virgin Islands

Last Saturday while en route from St. Thomas to JFK on an American Airlines flight, I struck up a conversation with a woman of my vintage (mid-sixties) seated next to me.  Like my family and me, she was going home after a week on St. John, the smallest of the three United States Virgin Islands, which sits just a few miles from St. Thomas.  

It turned out she was extremely well-traveled, also just like me and my family, and we got into an enthusiastic discussion about places we'd been and enjoyed.  We agreed that we were especially keen on South Africa (notably the Kruger National Park) and Africa in general.  She offered great advice for visiting the mountain gorilla park in Rawanda.  

Soon our conversation turned to various tropical islands and countries with exceptional beaches and reefs for snorkeling: Fiji, Hawai'i, Moorea (Tahiti), the Seychelles (she'd been; I hadn't), Mauritius (I'd been; she hadn't), Thailand, Great Barrier Reef (Australia), Belize, Costa Rica, Barbados, Cancun, Grand Cayman, The Bahamas, Puerto Rico, St. John, and others.

Suddenly she turned to me and said, "You know, I guess I never really thought about it, but I don't believe there are any more beautiful beaches on earth that are so accessible for swimming and snorkeling than Maho Bay, Trunk Bay, and Cinnamon Bay on St. John.  Do you?"

I had to admit she was probably right.  I can make a great case for the sheer beauty of other beaches.  The entire Pacific coast of the United States is breathtakingly beautiful, but I wouldn't call even the Southern California beaches ideal for swimming, let alone snorkeling.  Rio's Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are gorgeous, but they are more a backdrop for beautiful bodies than they are family swim beaches.  Ditto for the French and Italian Rivieras.  One can make a strong argument in favor of my native North Carolina's Outer Banks beaches or the white sugar sands of Florida's Redneck Riviera, both of which are great for swimming. 

But none of those are good for swimming AND snorkeling.  At Maho, Cinnamon, and Trunk Bays on St. John, the beaches are tropical picture post cards of brilliant white sands, crystal clear blue water, and swaying palm trees, all framed by the steep green mountainous terrain that defines the island.  Within a few feet of the water's edge, fish and other sea life teem in abundance among a variety of soft and hard coral.  If tropical island natural beauty, swimming, snorkeling, relaxing, and reading a good book while sipping a rum punch appeal to you, I recommend St. John.  

Of course there are some catches; nothing's easy, after all, let alone inexpensive.  St. John is mainly a destination for the one percent.  That said, we have stayed three times now at the cheapest place on the island, Maho Bay Eco-Camp.  At $85/night (off season), it can't be beat for economy-minded families who don't mind their rustic tent cabins and communal ablution blocks.  Prices for St. John accommodation options beyond the eco-camp tend to jump into the stratosphere and beyond.  One can easily pay $12,000-25,000 per week for a fancy "villa" perched on one of the island's many steep mountains with a spectacular, if far-removed, view of the ocean.  Prices for places modestly tucked into valleys with no water view are considerably less.  In either case, however, beach access is dependent upon having a rental car.  

Rental car agencies are all local on St. John (no Avis or Hertz), but my experiences with several have been good.  A Ford Escape rents for around $540 per week, all in, plus gas.  
All car rental offices are within an easy walk from the Cruz Bay passenger ferry dock.  

Spencer's Car Rental, for instance, is trustworthy and reliable, and the oldest on the island.  If you rent from Spencer's, ask for Carmilla.  She's usually at the bar across the street drinking beer and enjoying the Reggae music.  

There is currently just one gas station on the entire island, and prices are roughly double what they are in North Carolina.  

It is not advisable or allowed to take a rental car off St. John via the car ferry, nor is it allowed to bring a rental car onto St. John from St. Thomas via the car ferry.  Doing so risks a huge fine from the rental car company.  Prices for car rentals are the same on both islands, so there would be no cost advantage doing so, anyway.  

Then there's the logistics challenge of getting to St. John in the first place.  It's only 12.8 miles from Cruz Bay, its main town where the ferry docks, to the far end of the island, and not so much as 100 feet are flat.  St. John roads and highways, such as they are, all go straight up and straight down.  Thus there is no airport on St. John.  All commercial flights from the mainland go to St. Thomas.  From there travelers bound for St. John share a taxi van for about $15 each (including luggage) to Red Hook on the far side of St. Thomas (can take an hour during AM/PM peaks).  Passenger ferries run hourly between Red Hook on St. Thomas and Cruz Bay on St. John, a fast and cheap 20 minute trip.

Flights to St. Thomas (STT is the airport code) aren't cheap, either, but round trip air fares can be found for less than $500 if booked well in advance.

I'll write more next week about our recent experiences getting to St. John and the specific experience of being there.  For us, it was the perfect way to spend Thanksgiving with the kids.


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