In June my family of five is traveling to St. John for the first time, and we're fortunate enough to have the inside track on where to stay, what to do and where to eat. Nevertheless I've done a bunch of research on my own because it's been so fun -- I've poured over this forum and have received so much valuable information both specific to St. John and travel preparedness in general that I feel compelled to give back. For you St. John first-timers, or for anyone who wants to go back again, perhaps who and what I know at this stage could help you with your planning.
First, why St. John out of all the other places in the world to go? My husband and I have never traveled with our boys (ages 4, 7 and 10), and we didn't want to be looking at a long flight from the east coast of the U.S. or major complications/expense, though we wanted a real adventure. Long story short we narrowed it down to the Caribbean. Perhaps you're debating which Caribbean island to visit, which is exactly what we did for a long time. I did a bunch of searches on this site like "best Caribbean island for families," but nothing jumped out as being THE ONE.
We began looking closely at Antigua in the BVIs because my husband's colleague had just returned from there after a blissful family vacation. (The lure of 365 beaches on one island is pretty hard to resist.) We looked into the all-inclusive Jolly Beach Resort which got some negative reviews on this site though the beach on which it sits is indisputably beautiful, and we actually put down a deposit on a room which they refunded promptly without question when we changed our minds. Turns out we have a friend whose aunt has lived on St. John for a long time. We couldn't believe our luck that we had a personal connection to one of these islands! That helped us decide, as did the fact that St. John is mainly a national park that offers unspoiled nature and many choices of beautiful beaches. St. John turned out to be THE ONE for us!!!
Our friend's aunt's name is Cid Hamling, and she owns a thriving business on St. John (two locations) called Connections (http://www.connectionsstjohn.com/) that, in part, helps visitors find accommodations and book sailing trips and such. Cid's love for and enthusiasm about St. John is simply infectious. She told me she has been up and down the island chain from the Bahamas to Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico and down the Lesser Antilles to South America. She considers St. John's beaches to be the most beautiful.
I don't know how well-publicized is Connections, but I'm fairly sure I wouldn't have known about this great resource were it not for my friend. Cid's our inside track, and happily she would be yours too -- I highly recommend that you call her and get her to send you information that will, as she puts it, "help you fantasize." She's been great to us, and I just can't resist giving her a plug. She's been tireless in helping us plan our vacation. She gets commissions from the companies on her site that she chooses to feature because they are the BEST, and it's of no cost to you to use her.
The first question once we decided on St. John was, where to stay? Remember, we were gunning for an all-inclusive hotel on Antigua. We looked carefully at the Westin to start (only to learn it's undergoing a big renovation and it fronts a man-made, murky beach), and Cid recommended we check out Gallows Point Resort which she said has great views, a beach and small pool, kitchens, etc. along with a fabulous restaurant on property - but not all-inclusive. She recommended a B&B called The Inn at Tamarind Court as an economical option. Then at her suggestion I got on a villa kick and started looking into all the villas available. I fell in love with one called Stone House -- open-air! and affordable! -- offered through Caribbean Villas & Resorts. Finding "hermetically-sealed" accommodations wasn't a priority, though the two campgrounds on the island weren't for us because we wanted to be close to Great Cruz Bay (per my friend who has visited Cid several times). Funny enough the rental agent warned us that the house was open -- but for us that was the big draw. You know what's weird? That I cannot find ANY reviews of Stone House either on this site or elsewhere. I'll be happy to submit the first when we get back.
So, we went from an all-inclusive hotel on Antigua to an open-air villa on St. John. How things changed.
We'll be sending snack foods and some other bulky items via USPS ahead of time to the rental agency to have for us when we arrive. That's another Cid tip, because she said buying food on the island is expensive and she echoes many other people who have posted on this forum that we should pack light. Sending consumables ahead makes a ton of sense. So, the next thing to resolve was transportation once on the island.
Sometime after we booked Stone House and as we began to research transportation, my parents -- followed by my sister and her boyfriend -- decided to join us on the island. My parents will be staying with us in Stone House, and my sister has opted for The Inn at Tamarind Court. My sister looked into renting scooters on the island, but by all accounts that's not the best idea. We'll be renting cars -- us the eight-passenger truck and she the Jeep. Turns out our rental agency will take care of our car rental arrangements (not sure which company yet but apparently all of them set the same rates) -- and my sister is doing the research to determine which company she will use, which we'll pass by Cid for validation.
Next, activities. Here's our tentative itinerary after a bunch of research and Cid's input:
-- rent a dinghy for a full day to explore the North Shore beaches (this company seems like a good option: http://calypsovi.com/dinghy.html)
-- sail with Captain Jin on Dreamweaver
-- Limnos Boat Charter to the BVIs
-- guided Reef Bay Hike
-- Tortola by ferry to swim with the dolphins (controversial, but our kids are begging)
Still fleshing this out. And then the hunt for great but affordable restaurants begins.
Here's a list of must-gets for the trip that I've compiled so far:
Map of hiking trails: www.trailbandit.org
Books: St. John: Feet, Fins and Four Wheel Drive and St. John Off the Beaten Track (and Treasure Island for the kids because the Limnos charter takes you to the Caves @ Norman Island - of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island fame)
Neat Sheet - family size (sold everywhere)
Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Pump Insect Repellent
Baggallini Wallet Bagg - Large
more Cordarounds shorts for my husband -- the BEST go-everywhere brand of pants and shorts in the world: www.cordarounds.com
cheap floats/rafts for the kids that we'll send ahead, flat
So far that's it, hope it helps someone!