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A Winter Visit To Virgin Islands National Park: The Logistics


Just east of Maho Bay, Leinster Bay's beaches require a moderate walk down a tree-lined path, but it's well worth it. A little bit offshore you'll find Watermelon Cay, which just might have the best snorkeling in the park. Stock image from Bigstock Photo.

While winter is the slow season for many national parks, it is the very best season to visit Virgin Islands National Park.

What's not to like about leaving the cold and snow behind for sugar-sand beaches lined by palm trees, great snorkeling, scuba diving, and sailing, or exploring trails and their vestiges of ancient civilizations? And if you're a student of history, even if it's dark, the island of St. John that holds the national park also features remnants of European domination of paradise.

What type of weather might you expect?

The Tradewinds (the Easterlies) dominate the weather in the Virgin Islands, blowing east to west across the tropical Atlantic. The winter tends to bring stronger winds and less rain, and the summer tends to bring more rain and lighter winds.

In winter, cold fronts moving off the continent sometimes bring the Christmas winds down from the north. The fronts do not bring cold air as far south as the Virgin Islands, but they can create large waves breaking on the north shore beaches -- which is great for surfing, but can also pose some danger if you're not paying attention.

If you can manage a trip to this national park, now is the time to start planning for it. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

* Depending where you live, one of the downsides to visiting Virgin Islands National Park can be that it takes a while to get there. From Salt Lake, we spent a good, full day traveling to St. Thomas before proceeding to St. John the next day.

The Virgin Islands' main airport is in St. Thomas, and from there you take a passenger ferry to Cruz Bay, the main entry point to St. John and where the park headquarters is located. The Red Hook (St. Thomas) ferry runs hourly (departing St. John) from 6 a.m. to midnight (departing Red Hook).

The Charlotte Amalie ferry in downtown St. Thomas leaves less frequently. It is closer to the airport, but the Red Hook ferry is slightly closer to Cruz Bay. It's basically a toss-up that likely comes down to what fits best with your schedule.

* There are no lodges within the national park. As a result, most visitors either stay at a resort or rent a house.

On St. John rental houses are referred to by property managers as “villas.” Time your visit for the off-season -- roughly mid-April 2012--mid-December 2012 -- and you can find a nice one for about $200 a night...or go all the way past $700 a night, depending on location and amenities. (Depending on how the season is shaping up, you might be able to negotiate an off-season rate near the end of the high season. It never hurts to ask.)

But when you consider the full kitchen, the laundry room, and the two or three bedrooms, and more than likely the deck and BBQ, and maybe a pool, you’ll appreciate being able to flee the resort life and save a little money cooking for yourself when the mood strikes. And if you can split the cost with friends, it becomes even more affordable.

To find a list of property management agenicies, just Google (or Bing, or Yahoo!) "St. John's villas" and you'll quickly be overwhelmed by the possibilities.

There is a resort -- Caneel Bay -- just outside Cruz Bay if you want to splurge.

* Cruz Bay is the main resort town on St. John. Here you'll find a nice collection of restaurants, as well as some shops and stores where you can load up on momentos of your visit as well as fresh fish for your grill.

* You can save money by camping, and this doesn't necessary mean sleeping on the sand in a tent.

Cinnamon Bay is the only beach inside the park with a public campground. But it's a nice one. You'll find kayak rentals, a restaurant, 15-by-15-foot cottages (with twin beds and electricity, central restrooms are a short walk away), wall tents with cots, parking, so don't expect to drive up at noon and easily find a spot.

Maho Bay offers a privately operated lodging operation that consists of 114 "tent cottages" and condo-type units. There's also a restaurant here, a store where you can stock up on those beach items you might have forgotten, a beach cafe, and a watersports shop. Condition of these cottages and condos are commensurate with their age, and you'll pay more than if you pitched a tent at Cinnamon Bay, but these are a tad more substantial.

* To help prepare for the trip, study the park's website, pick up a guidebook or two (I found the St. John Tour Guide by Pam Gaffin to be a great resource, and she can even be hired to lead you around St. John), and don't forget to toss your National Park Passport into your bag. It can be stamped at the park's visitor center right there in Cruz Bay, where the ferry docks.

* If you truly like to explore, rent (in the weeks before you reach the island) a Jeep to give you some freedom on the island. True, there are bus-like open-air taxis that will take you from Cruz Bay all the way out to Cinnamon Bay and even, I believe, the Annaberg Sugar Plantation ruin. But if you want to check out other places -- say Coral Bay or Great Lamshur Beach -- you'll need your own wheels.

While there are plenty of two-door Jeep Wranglers and similar SUVs to be had, you’d probably be better off with a four-door model if there are more than two of you and if you have more than a couple bags. If you're not comfortable driving on the left side of the road or on steep, rutted two-tracks, though, you might want to forego the rental and ride the taxis.

According to the park, "VITRAN buses travel between Cruz Bay and Salt Pond Bay along Centerline Road. The buses leave from the public ferry dock at 20 minutes past the hour beginning at 6 a.m. and ending at 7:25 p.m. daily."

* Touch bases with the folks at Friends of Virgin Islands National Park. Not only can they provide more pointers on how to enjoy the national park, but they invite volunteers to join them on Tuesdays and Thursdays (November through April) to work on projects around the park, such as clearing vegetation from ruins and trails and picking up garbage from beaches. You can check out their winter activity schedule at this site.

For more information on the park, check out Traveler's webpage on Virgin Islands National Park.

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Good article that has me dreaming about the US Virgin Islands. But please clarify something.
In the US Virgin Islands, you drive on the left with American cars. So it is more complicated than driving in England where the cars are designed to drive on the left. Is that correct?
Or can you rent left-handed cars to drive on the left?  Thanks
Danny Bernstein

A few slight tweaks and comments to your story. Caneel Bay Resort is run by Rosewood with a concession from the NPS as are other lodges across the NPS. It sits within the park boundaries so it's really fair to put it in the same category as those at Yellowstone and Yosemite, for example.

Maho Bay Camps sits within the park boundaries but it's fate is uncertain. It's built on an inholding that owner Stanley Selengut leased. The lease is about up and the Trust for Public Land hasn't been successful in negotiating a purchase of the land.

The ferry from Charlotte Amalie to Cruz Bay is at times unreliable with unannounced cancellations possible. In recent years, the schedule was cut so the Red Hook ferry has many more frequent departures.

The VITRAN buses are even more unreliable and you may find yourself stranded if you're waiting at Salt Pond, for example. 

Nice intro to the ins and outs of visiting St. John. I think the most important thing to remember is that St. John is worth the trip! The island is 3/4 national park and has some of the best beaches, hiking and snorkeling you'll find.

The answer to Danny's question is that, no, right-hand drive cars are not available. He's correct that the combination of the two (left-hand drive cars and left-hand drive roads) is not ideal -- especially when drivers stop to let off or pick up passengers or if you are overtaking and need a clear view of the road ahead -- but it's also not too big a deal. Roads just aren't congested enough around St. John, so I wouldn't advise spending a lot of time worrying about that. In fact I would really encourage biting the bullet and renting a car at least for a couple of days so you can get around to all the more remote parts of the island -- taxi fares really add up.

I'd also add that Maho Bay Camps, the concession Kurt refers to, is a great place to stay if you are interested in being close to nature and they have a long history of being environmentally responsible -- they use low-impact construction, recycle glass and other things on-site, carefully manage water use and are at the vangaurd of 'green' on St. John, all of which is more than can be said for the multitude of villas that have been constructed around the island in the last 10 years. If the tent cottages are too rustic for you, Maho does offer apartment-style suites, and the sister property, Concordia, near Salt Pond is also a bit more upscale. But I for one love the simple comforts of the Maho Bay tent cottages and would not stay anywhere else.

As Island Paddler points out, Maho's future is uncertain -- all the more reason to come while you can.

Island Paddler, Thank-you for your clarification on the status of Maho Bay Camps.  Your comments are very accurate.

About 30 years ago I enjoyed a visit to St Croix, which included chartering a catamaran to Buck Island, where we enjoyed snorkeling the underwater nature trail. That day of snorkeling alone made the trip.

My husband and I are thinking about planning a trip to this park in Feburary or March and are just starting to research. This a great overview of what to expect!

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