A Caribbean island paradise in winter sounds like the perfect place to be and our trip to Virgin Islands National Park did not disappoint. High green hills, turquoise water, white sand beaches and ruins that evoke an era of sugar production and the plantation system all are to be found on St. John. We found beautiful scenery, nice hiking and interesting history.
Virgin Islands National Park is on the island of St. John but since there is no airport there, we flew into Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. From there we took a taxi (really a van which dropped people off at numerous places) to the ferry at Red Hook. Due to the circuitous route created by the destinations of various people, we actually got a pretty good tour of the island. We then boarded the ferry to Cruz Bay, St. John, where the car rental person met us at the dock and took us to pick up the jeep we rented.
In the Virgin Islands, you drive on the left side of the road. The roads are very narrow, winding, and steep and the highest speed limit posted was 20 miles per hour. There was a reason. The roads in general were in pretty bad repair with lots of potholes. There are also the wild donkeys, goats, and chickens that are frequently on the road. It didn’t take long to adjust to driving on the “wrong” side of the road but it was always a challenge to be sure to look the correct way before pulling out onto a road.
We never did get a satisfactory answer as to why they drive on the left – no one seems to really know.
We decided to try another new experience on this trip. We booked our stay at an eco-resort. So, after getting our jeep and a quick stop at a grocery store, we headed across the island to Concordia Eco-Resort. The resort offers several types of accommodations but we chose an eco-tent which was a wood-framed, soft-sided structure perched high up on the hillside overlooking Saltpond Bay.
Our “tent” contained all the amenities (bathroom, kitchen, beds) and was completely self-contained with solar power, water catchment, and solar shower. Being perched high on the hillside, our deck gave us a magnificent view of the bay and other islands. It also meant that we were 157 stair-steps up the hill from the office and restaurant. Fortunately, there was a road up top so we didn’t have to carry our gear up and down.
In 1493, Columbus sighted the islands and cays and named them after St Ursula’s legendary 11,000 virgins. Archeological work shows that people have inhabited the islands for 3,000 years and when Columbus arrived there was a small Taino population. Since then, Spain, France, Holland, England, Denmark and the United States have controlled various islands at different times.
Attracted by lucrative sugar cane cultivation, the Danes took formal possession in 1694 and in 1718 established the first permanent European settlement on St. John. By 1733 nearly all of St. John was planted in sugar cane and cotton and as this economy grew so did the demand for slaves. In 1733 the slaves revolted, controlled the island for six months and were finally subdued by French troops from Martinique. The plantation system continued for over a hundred years until the emancipation of enslaved people in 1848. There are ruins of sugar mills and estate houses throughout the island.
The Annaberg Sugar Mill ruins offer a glimpse at the size and scope of these operations. The windmill at Annaberg was one of five on the island.
The windmill, horse mill and factory buildings were the center of operations for 13-15,000 acres of six consolidated estates. We asked how sugar cane could be grown on such steep terrain and were told that the steep hillsides were terraced to provide relatively flat areas for cultivation.
With the demise of the sugar plantations, the islanders depended on cattle and subsistence farming as well as bay rum production. In 1917, fearful that the Germans might capture the islands during World War I, the United States bought St. John, St. Croix, St. Thomas and about 50 smaller islands from Denmark for 25 million dollars.
People began to see the Virgin Islands as a vacation paradise and by the 1930’s, the tourist industry took off. In 1956 conservationist Laurence S. Rockefeller donated more than 5,000 acres on St. John for a national park. In 1962, the park was enlarged to include over 5,000 acres of adjacent offshore marine habitat.
We took a number of short hikes, explored pretty much every road on the island, and spent a day on the beach at Francis Bay. Neither of us had ever snorkeled so we rented equipment and gave it a try. I can’t say it was particularly successful although Tom had better luck than I did. I couldn’t ever really get the mask to seal so that didn’t work well. However, the beach was beautiful and the water was comfortably warm.
One evening at the resort, a National Park volunteer brought a telescope and did a night sky presentation. We got a look at two planets, the moon, and a number of constellations. The National Park volunteer gave an interesting talk on the movement of the constellations throughout the seasons and explained why we were unable to find the Big Dipper. It was a beautiful evening and worth the 157 stair-steps back up to our tent overlooking the bay.
The boundary of Virgin Islands National Park incudes about three-quarters of St. John but owns only slightly more than half of the island. Sometimes it is a little difficult to know whether you are truly in the national park or not with private inholdings throughout and the national park visitor center being located in the town of Cruz Bay outside the park boundary.
Virgin Islands National Park exemplifies “island style” – laid-back, friendly, beautiful and welcoming.
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