Last Updated on May 6, 2023

The three major islands, comprising the U.S. Virgin Islands are St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. The smallest of the three, St. John, possesses an unspoiled beauty unsurpassed anywhere in the Caribbean. Only three miles from the busier St. Thomas, this island treasure feels a world apart, but without major tourist attractions, it can leave visitors wondering what to do in St. John?

Spellbound and moved to preserve the island chain’s incredible beauty, Laurance Rockefeller, venture capitalist, financier, philanthropist, and conservationist, purchased then donated 60 percent of St. John to the National Park Service. Later, in order to protect and preserve the stunning coral gardens, seascapes, and sleepy lagoons, over 5,000 more acres were set aside for conservation. This allows visitors to savor all aspects of this paradise and ecological wonder.

What to do in St. John? Get outside!

With no airport or cruise ship pier, the island exudes a sleepy, secluded feel as visitors can only get here by boat or ferry. As a result, it’s an incredible place to unplug and relax.  St. John may be a small island, but it’s big on splendor. It’s a place you can’t visit just once because its magical draw is too strong to resist.

Though St. John suffered significant damage from 2017 Hurricane Irma, the strong sense of community and commitment to rebuilding and renovating has been impressive. 

When visiting St. John, our preferred accommodation is at the Westin in St. John Resort.

What to do in St. John Virgin Islands

Bask on Magnificent Beaches

The island of St. John is renowned for having some of the world’s most pristine beaches, with sugar-white sand, stunning crystal-clear waters, and towering coconut palms swaying in the soft island breeze. Beach going will always be tops on any list of what to do in St. John.

The postcard-perfect dramatic coastline is dotted with beaches of all sizes and shapes. Trunk Bay is St. John’s most-popular, most-photographed, and most-visited beach.

Cinnamon Bay has the longest stretch of white sand, and beaches like Saloman Bay are more remote and off the beaten path. It’s a fairly easy one-mile hike to this beach from Lind Point Trail, and the only footprints in the sand will likely be your own.

Rent a Dinghy for a Day

© Noreen Kompanik

There’s nothing like seeing St. John by boat, and one of the most fun ways to explore its magnificent beaches and picturesque bays is by dinghy. These sturdy inflatables are available from Noah’s Little Arks in Cruz Bay for half- or full-day rentals.

Laminated maps are provided to boaters to follow the coastline to the many inviting beaches and coves around the island. The boats even have built-in coolers for food and drinks. And the best part of the day? Dropping anchor at any beach you choose for snorkeling or sun-bathing.

Snorkel the Underwater Trail of Reefs

© Noreen Kompanik

Mangrove shrubs, seagrass beds, and fringed and patch reefs offer a diverse array of snorkeling opportunities on St. John.

Trunk Bay is renowned for its 225-yard Underwater Trail of reefs of coral formations, colorful angelfish, and striped sergeant majors that stand out against pearly-white beach sand as they flash through the clear aquamarine waters. The trail features plaques with marine life information.

The water here remains shallow for a good distance before gradually dropping off to deeper depths. Though other bays offer snorkeling, Trunk Bay is very popular with beginner snorkelers and families.

Snorkel Spectacular Watermelon Cay

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More experienced snorkelers wondering what to do on St. John will love Watermelon Cay, one of the most spectacular destinations on the island. The off-the-beaten-path location is one reason this spot is top on the to-do list of many tourists.

Located on the eastern end of Leinster Bay along St. John’s north shore, it requires a 20-minute hike to the beach, but it’s well worth it. The area is not only protected from wind and waves, but within its seagrass beds, I’ve spotted green sea turtles, conch, rays, and starfish. 

The variety of fish and other sea life here is impressive with purple sea fans, grooved-brain coral, schools of Atlantic blue tangs, an assortment of parrotfish, squirrelfish, and more.

Swim with Sea Turtles

© Noreen Kompanik

Another spectacular area to explore is the quiet, secluded white-sand coves of Maho and Francis Bay. Green sea turtles frequent this area with its grassy seabed and protected waters. I was not disappointed as we spotted a host of these curious beauties gliding peacefully past us in both bays.

Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to spot the turtles. You may even be lucky enough to spot an octopus in the coral crevices (that are also teeming with brightly colored angel fish) or brown pelicans along the waters.

Paddleboard the Island

© Noreen Kompanik

The Virgin Islands are a stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) paradise. The clear and mostly calm St. John waters provide the perfect place to put in and enjoy one of the most fun watersports around. Paddleboards can be rented from SUP St. John in Cruz Bay. SUP St. John even offers paddleboard lessons for all ages five and above.

The St. John Paddleboard Guide is a comprehensive insider’s guide on the best paddleboard locations around the island. It covers everything from calm beginner spots and the best places to SUP on a windy day to intermediate beaches and locations ideal for more advanced paddleboarders.

Visit Annaberg Sugar Plantation

In the 18th century, 25 sugar plantations dotted the steep slopes of St. John. Slaves and free Danes and Dutchmen toiled to harvest the cane used to create sugar, molasses, and rum for export. Sugar is a grisly business with a cruel history, but when thinking about what to do on St. John, you should take time to consider this awful legacy.

Built in the 1780s, Annaberg was home to the largest sugar mill in the Virgin Islands. The partially restored plantation located at Leinster Bay contains ruins of the factory, slave quarters, and a standing windmill. Placards and signs along the winding trails guide visitors through the sugar production process and history of the island’s sugar manufacturing. But one of the best parts of visiting the plantation is enjoying the breathtaking panoramic views.

Hike Reef Bay Trail

© Noreen Kompanik

A 2.2-mile moderate hike on Reef Bay Trail is one of the best on the island of St. John. Hikers descend through a shady, moist forest with creek crossings and a dry forest with visible remains of sugar mills and pre-Columbian petroglyphs. The beach at the end of the trail is a worthy reward.

The well-maintained trail is also a magnificent setting for bird watching, as well as spotting deer, mongoose, hermit crabs, lizards, and even wild donkeys along the trek. It’s important to remember to pack your environmentally-friendly bug repellant. 

Dine at Rhumb Lines

One of my favorite places to dine on the island is Rhumb Lines Restaurant in Coral Bay. The unusual name refers to the path taken by a ship that maintains a constant compass setting.

Owned and operated by long-time St. John residents, the eatery encompasses the flavors of the Caribbean with a twist of Pacific Rim thrown in for good measure. The tropical garden setting is reminiscent of a South Seas abode surrounded by flora, fauna, tiki torches, and performances by some of the island’s hottest vocalists.

Menu items range from pupu-pupu platter appetizers and salads, to noodles, dumplings, and a host of main entrees. My favorite dish here is the grilled banana mahi-mahi covered in a gingered banana beurre blanc sauce topped with candied plantains and frizzled leeks. This is island dining at its best!

Shop at Mongoose Junction

Let me just say that I am typically not a shopper. But I can’t ever pass up strolling through the charming boutiques of Mongoose Junction in Cruz Bay.

A collection of fun and fashionable shops, galleries, bars, and restaurants are nestled in a lush, rambling two-story porticoed courtyard in the heart of the village. Who can resist being lured into such inviting places as Island Fancy, Just Beach, Made in St. John, Sugar Birds, and Gecko Gazebo Bar?

It’s utterly impossible to leave empty-handed.

Enjoy a Tropical Beach Libation

A true Virgin Island tradition is toes in the sand with a tropical cocktail in hand. Rum is definitely the choice libation of these islands, and St. John is a tropical concoction-lovers’ dream. 

Located in Wharfside Village just 100 yards from the ferry terminal, the Beach Bar is known for its laid-back island vibe and stunning views overlooking the waters. The original beach bar of the Virgin Islands, it’s the music venue where big names play when they’re not playing in big places. And it’s a local favorite–which means it has to be good!

A myriad of tropical drinks feature on the menu, including the famous Virgin Islands Painkiller, made with dark rum, pineapple, and coconut. Word of warning here…this amazing drink is potent, and more than one can bend your knees.

The food here ranges from fun appetizers to more filling entrees like burgers, fish sandwiches, and our favorite, the lobster Reuben. This delightful twist on the traditional Reuben is made with butter-poached lobster, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, slaw, and 1,000 Island dressing on rye bread. It’s awesome. 

Author

  • Noreen Kompanik

    Noreen Kompanik is a retired registered nurse, legal nurse consultant and military spouse turned travel writer. She launched her travel writing career in 2014 and has over 1,000 published articles in a variety of digital and print publications.