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Newbie STJ Trip Report - February 9-16 2014

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Newbie STJ Trip Report - February 9-16 2014

Hello from snowed-in DC! :) Here is my trip report from my first trip to St. John, over Valentine’s Day Week 2014 with my boyfriend (hereinafter Mr. Lizby). First of all, huge thanks to everyone on this forum for all the kind and helpful insights. It made planning this trip not only easier, but more fun!

THE SHORT VERSION: We had a fantastic time and can't wait to return. We had perfect weather, no mosquito/no-see-um/bug issues, and loved our villa rental. Why are we not still there?! Oh well. :)

THE LONG VERSION: Please read on…:)

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1. Re: Newbie STJ Trip Report - February 9-16 2014

PROLOGUE: THE MYSTERIES OF ST. JOHN

The idea for this trip originated with Mr. Lizby, an avid sailor, who had been yearning to stay on St. John for quite some time. Years ago, as part of his sailing training, he had apprenticed himself to a salty sea captain and sailed around the USVI and BVI. They moored in several different St. John harbors and he never forgot the beauty of the place. However, he had never stayed on island; the whole crew slept on the boat the whole time, except for one night staying on St. Thomas, when they stayed in what was supposed to be a lovely and historic inn – except that they stayed in a windowless basement area that he described as “the dungeon.” Thankfully, this time around he was very open to staying in a villa rather than in a dungeon.

I must admit at the outset that I had a few hesitations about St. John. I wouldn’t call myself a princess (some may disagree, but that’s my view :)), but I am a worrier. Hearing talk about flushing toilets “only when necessary” started to make me worry. I don’t mind a budget vacation, but this wasn’t going to be a budget vacation, and to be honest, if I’m going to spend something like a thousand dollars a night for a trip, I’d like to be able to avail myself of running water while I’m there. Heck, even Motel 6 lets you flush the toilet. And various other issues raised in this forum unnerved me. No-see-ums! Mosquitoes! Dengue fever! Sunburn! Power outages! Jackbooted thugs who will trick you into parking in the wrong place and then haul you away and hold you for ransom! Unfriendly residents!

Yes, I am a worrier. I'm a lawyer; it's how I make my living. :)

I also was confused by St. John. The more I researched it, the more paradoxes I found. St. Johnians are reputedly devoted to saving water - yet most of the houses for rent have pools and/or hot tubs (and, as we found when we were there, landscaping irrigation systems, non-low-flow toilets, non-water-saving shower heads, and people in town enthusiastically hosing down cars and sidewalks). “Eco-tourism” and conservation are big - yet there is almost no recycling on island. Everything is really expensive - yet you might not have electricity or water at any given time.

On that last note, as it happens, a friend of mine used to live on St. Thomas, where he worked for the power authority, so I went to him for the straight word on electrical outages. “Usually it comes back on pretty quickly,” he said. “Well….except for the time when it took about 6 months. But that was after a hurricane. So that’s pretty unusual.” Taken aback, I asked how people could stay there under such conditions. “They kind of just dealt with it,” he said. “People there have a pretty good attitude about stuff like that.”

Unsure whether he was pulling my leg (probably not, I figured), I decided to just go with it and view the trip as an adventure — armed with SPF 50 snorkel shirts, SPF 100 sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, my Pam Gaffin book, and about 10,000 gallons of bug spray (and plans to buy 10,000 gallons of bottled water in case the cistern ran dry).

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2. Re: Newbie STJ Trip Report - February 9-16 2014

DAY 1 (Sunday 2/09) – GOOD-BYE, LONG UNDERWEAR

I had been making offerings to the weather gods to let our flight from IAD get out on time — we had been experiencing what felt like Winter Storm #46,721 of the 2013-14 season on the east coast a few days earlier. Luckily, the gods were appeased and our nonstop flight from IAD to STT got out smoothly.

We arrived a bit after 1pm to thrillingly warm, embracing breezes and brilliant sunshine, and found our luggage already waiting for us when we reached the baggage claim carousel. Our driver was also waiting: Bazile’s Taxi service had been arranged by our villa manager, Lisa Durgin of Vacation Vistas. The friendly and nice Bazile gave us a quick ride to Red Hook for just the two of us, making it in time for the 2pm ferry to Cruz Bay (even though we took time to drive by the place where Mr. Lizby had stayed in the dungeon — for the record, from the outside it looked like a perfectly nice place, at least if you stay in a room with windows).

We had chosen a villa managed by Lisa since everyone seems to give her such great reviews, and as St. John newbies we wanted someone we could rely on to hold our hands with anything we needed. Lisa was perfect for that — she kept in touch at key points over the course of the year between our booking and our arrival, and was friendly, helpful, nice, and all-around great! She met us at the ferry dock and accompanied us to Cool Breeze to pick up our Jeep, which went uneventfully (they did warn us not to return the car with sand in it, which worried me a little that we wouldn’t be able to remove every speck of sand and some ugly confrontation would ensue – but it worked out fine. No drama). She drove her own Jeep to the villa, with me riding with her, and Mr. Lizby following in our rental. She pointed out places of interest along the way (including the new gas station in progress and the relative merits of Dolphin Market vs. Starfish vs. St. John Market). The ride from town to the villa took less than 10 minutes.

THE VILLA: “Serenity,” managed by Vacation Vistas

Serenity is on a cliff between Great Cruz Bay (where the Westin is) and Chocolate Hole. Its particular location means that you have unlimited water views plus a view of St. Thomas. During the obsessive research phase of the trip, I think I looked at every single villa on St. John, and Serenity had one of my favorite views (and met the high standards of Mr. Lizby, who prizes a great view above all else). I like looking out at the ocean rather than into one specific bay — it feels more private, and our view was constantly changing, with different types of boats going by. The privacy extends to the building site itself — you can’t see any neighbors or vice versa, though we could hear some conversations now and then from our neighbors to the left (east) of us (not actual words — too bad since, admittedly, I am not above enjoying eavesdropping as long as the conversation is interesting ;)). The house is right on Great Cruz Bay Road (you park in a dedicated space just off the road and then walk down a wide staircase to the house), so that you do hear cars going by and when we were lying in bed we could see people’s legs and strollers walking by. However, there is tons of vegetation, so it’s not like people can see in. The only creatures looking in were iguanas and other non-human animals.

I should note that I was *very* excited to see iguanas close up. For some reason, I, a lifelong and devoted city girl, have always loved reptiles. Having spent lots of time vacationing in southern Florida, I’m used to encountering small anole-type lizards (which I also love), but not iguanas, so I looked forward to the opportunity with great anticipation.

Evidence: as Lisa showed us around Serenity, her tour was interrupted now and then by my shrieking, “OMG, AN IGUANA!!!” like a preteen sighting a member of One Direction, or whatever the kids are excited about these days. I did calm down eventually and stopped scaring the iguanas away.

We spent some time just relaxing and enjoying the healingly warm weather and sun, and the view from Serenity, which was so enthralling that we didn’t feel motivated to really do anything except gaze out at the horizon. Lisa had kindly stocked the refrigerator with some basic snacks and drinks, too, so we didn’t have to go out immediately to provision. Eventually we did get up enough energy to go out for an early dinner to the Fish Trap.

DINNER: FISH TRAP

The Fish Trap opened very early – we got there about 4:30, scored one of the dedicated parking spots outside, and were one of only two tables eating. (This would be a trend for us during the week — show up early, hang out awkwardly waiting for the place to open, and then rejoice at having gotten there early as the place filled up.) We liked the Fish Trap a lot – simple food and friendly service.

On the way back from dinner, we stopped briefly at the St. John Market to pick up some additional supplies. We found the market well-stocked and not super-expensive — e.g., $2.95 for a half gallon of skim milk, $1.95 per Chobani yogurt, $3.95 for 1L of Fiji Water, and $5.95 for a thing of Tropicana orange juice (excitingly, they had the kind with both pulp *and* calcium, which is hard to find even back home).

We easily found our way back home and found driving on the left to not be too difficult. Well, at least I didn’t — I wasn’t the one driving! :)

We made it back in time for the sunset, which was as dramatic and beautiful as you would expect. So far, so good!

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3. Re: Newbie STJ Trip Report - February 9-16 2014

Can't wait to hear more! Where'd you stay?

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4. Re: Newbie STJ Trip Report - February 9-16 2014

DAY 2 (Monday 2/10) – NOTHING YOU NEED TO DO

I was *very* excited for Monday morning to come since we had massage appointments with Paradise Massage’s Barb and Cary. I’m a massage junkie back home, and thought having a session on our deck would be a perfect way to unkink from sitting on a plane for 4 hours the day before.

The experience was amazingly fantastic! I can’t say enough positive things about Barb and Cary, who were so nice and fun, and who had such great massage technique. Having received massages from many different therapists over many years, my standards are high, and this experience was fabulous.

I had been wondering how the logistics of having an on-deck massage would work — they set up the massage tables outside, on the covered part of our deck to help protect us from the sun (I made sure I already had sunscreen on all over, too – I should note that I am super-pale and blonde so have to be careful with the sun), went around the corner to the entryway to get more stuff and give us privacy while we undressed and got under the sheets on our respective tables, then we called them back when we were ready. The when done, they did the reverse — packed up and put away some stuff while leaving us on the deck to get dressed.

Again, they are great at what they do. We both were in absolute ecstasy (or Serenity ;)). As the massage was ending, as I lay there in my fog of bliss, I started conjuring up ways I could get Barb and Cary to move in with us for the whole week. :)

One mantra that was repeated during our massages was that there is “nothing you need to do.” Mr. Lizby and I both work like crazy in our everyday lives, and the realization that we were finally on vacation and had no responsibilities for the week was so delightful I almost cried in relief. We did take this saying seriously – our motivation to do anything outside the villa disappeared for most of the rest of the day. We spent the rest of the day in the pool and gazing out at the view, and watching the iguanas, who would appear near our pool and the villa entryway regularly, sunning themselves and generally doing their iguana thing, 95% of which involved holding the same pose for an extended period of time and giving everything a skeptical look.

DINNER: LIME INN

We did get our energy up to go out to dinner again, this time to the Lime Inn, and again on the early-bird schedule. We were glad we showed up before opening and did the hanging-around-awkwardly-waiting-for-them-to-open thing, since it meant we got one of the dedicated parking spaces out front (which are marked with cement statue-like things that you move out of the way in order to have room to park – Mr. Lizby stopped the Jeep just short of the parking space, I jumped out, moved the cement thingy, gave thanks that I lift weights on a regular basis, and helped guide him into the space). The place got packed with people soon after we sat down. Our red snapper and grilled Caribbean lobster were very tasty.

We were back to the villa in time for another lovely sunset.

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5. Re: Newbie STJ Trip Report - February 9-16 2014

DAY 3 (Tuesday 2/11) – STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

On Tuesday we decided to finally get somewhat ambitious and explore the island. Thus, after sleeping in a while, we hopped in the Jeep to leave no inch of the island unexplored (or unphotographed). Mr. Lizby was again the driver and I was the navigator/person who kept saying helpful things like, “Don’t forget, keep to the left!” “We’re going to stay to the left now!” “Now we’re going to keep in the left lane as we go around this turn!” He didn’t really need me to say this, but it helped me feel useful.

We drove the length of Centerline Road, North Shore Road, Bordeaux Mountain Road….any road or sub-road we could find, sometimes multiple times. We loved the abundance of beautiful overlooks that would suddenly appear as we made it up a hill or around a curve.

It really sank in how small an island this is — even the East End, which felt very remote, still was only about a 30-minute drive from the other end of the island. We encountered innumerable donkeys, goats, and chickens, particularly in Coral Bay and the East End. In the East End, while driving at a perfectly respectable pace (we thought), we were overtaken by a cantering donkey who was outpacing other cars as well — and, like a good citizen, staying in his lane.

Can we talk about hills for a moment? The good part was that it felt like we were climbing toward the heavens. They took a little getting used to, though. I generally do not get motion sickness, but some of these hills and curves were making me feel something just slightly akin to queasy — at least prior to lunch. After lunch, I was basically fine with them. Maybe I just needed time to adjust, or maybe I needed food in my stomach. Anyway, in the end they were totally fine. I don’t mean to make anyone worried about them. (I should have included them on my list of 10,000 things I worried about pre-trip! How did I leave them off? ;)

LUNCH PART 1: Chateau Bordeaux. The food was tasty (grilled mahi-mahi sandwich and crab cake sandwich), and the views – what can you say about the views? Breathtaking. We sat out on the outside patio, whose enclosures are clear to give an unobstructed view from the floor level upward. We could have just hung out there gazing at the views all day, but eventually we moved on and continued exploring.

LUNCH PART 2: Driving around, we encountered the Tourist Trap, which resembled a hippie encampment, and were curious to check it out. We weren’t really hungry since we had just eaten lunch, and we didn’t want to drink alcohol either (those hills! Those curves!). But we felt a bit cheap sitting there and just drinking ginger ale, so we bravely mustered some more appetite and got fish tacos, which were quite tasty — surprisingly gourmet-y, given the rustic-appearing setup. Perhaps this is just another example of the magic of St. John, discussed further below. We sat near a tree in which someone had hung a bird feeder, and a zillion bananaquits were swarming upon it and chirping. It was the first time I’d seen this type of bird in person and I quickly realized that bananquit chirping is the techno music of the birdsong world. Well, they are very cute to look at!

Eventually we returned home in time for some quality pool time and to watch the sunset. We stayed in for dinner, assembling a small meal from our groceries since we had had two lunches.

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6. Re: Newbie STJ Trip Report - February 9-16 2014

DAY 4 (Wednesday 2/12) – THE MAGIC OF ST. JOHN

I started this trip planning to investigate the mysteries of St. John. I quickly began to also understand the magic of St. John. There were things about the place that didn't make sense - in a good way.

As mentioned above, there were things like the commuting donkey passing our Jeep on the road, and the way that the Tourist Trap could look like a hangout for Hunter S. Thompson yet turn out the food of an upscale cafe. There were other things like the quirks of the weather: someone cleverly arranged a deal with Mother Nature so that it would rain overnight, while we were sleeping, filling up the cistern and lulling us to sleep, then would clear up in time for a brilliant sunrise. Also, once or twice during our stay, a very brief shower of maybe a minute would happen during the day — when there was not a cloud in sight. I swear that this was no ordinary sun shower — with those, you can see a cloud overhead somewhere. It was almost spooky – or at least quirky.

And I also found myself getting up at dawn – in my normal life, I am the furthest thing from a morning person you can imagine, but on St. John I was happily waking up even before the sun, happily getting on the road to check out the beaches and explore. Surely, some magic must have been at play.

And we found a reliable, convenient, and reasonable place to park in town — for $3 an hour in a lot near the First Bank building. In our normal everyday lives, parking is about $3 a minute, so it was appropriate that this lot was in direct view of the stained glass windows of a church: this was truly a parking miracle. Hallelujah! (We weren’t huge fans of spending lots of time in town, though. It was cramped and crowded, making it hard to walk much, and people kept calling out to us from doorways, like carnival barkers in a red-light-district (TIME SHARES! DAY EXCURSIONS!). But we really enjoyed each restaurant we went to.)

We started spending some time at the beaches as well, which each had their own individual personalities and magic.

BEACHES:

CINNAMON BAY – Despite our early start, we didn’t go to the beaches early enough and couldn’t find parking at Trunk or the more “boutique” beaches like Jumbie. Instead, we went to Cinnamon, which we liked for its picture-postcard-ness and convenience/resources (bathrooms, food, etc.). We also saw some hermit crabs walking along the path from the beach, which were cool to observe.

HAWKSNEST – There was also some parking at Hawksnest, so we stopped here for a while as well after Cinnamon. It was also beautiful, of course. It had a fair number of people there – not crowded, just not empty.

We got in some good swimming at both, but were also happy to return to Serenity and gaze out at its ever-changing view. One item I was glad I packed was a small pair of binoculars, which helped us see ships in the distance. They also shattered our quixotic dream that we saw whales in the distance – they were instead waves crashing over rocks. Oh well!

Hanging out in Serenity’s pool was definitely one of our favorite things to do. The pool was larger and deeper than I expected from the photos - a happy surprise. We did lots of actual swimming in it as well as floating/lazing about. It was also a favorite of the iguanas, although they preferred to sun themselves beside it rather than go in. They drank from the pool now and then, leaning over to sip from it but picking themselves upright just when it looked like they’d fall in. (As they grew more comfortable around us, they started leaving droppings as well, which Mr. Lizby took the initiative to clean up. You know what they say: a man who saves you from ever having to clean up iguana droppings is surely a keeper.)

DINNER: RHUMB LINES

Continuing the early-bird trend, we showed up at Rhumb Lines before they opened for dinner, and hung out at the bar to wait. (Another magic-of-St.-John thing: you walk through a random little grocery/market, and end up in a great restaurant!) It was worth the wait — Rhumb Lines was Mr. Lizby’s favorite meal of our trip, and though it would be hard for me to choose a favorite, I can’t argue with giving this place the crown. The ceviche and bouillabaisse we had were absolutely delicious. We had heard great things about the place, all including a warning about the spiciness of the food – all true. Luckily we love spicy food!

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7. Re: Newbie STJ Trip Report - February 9-16 2014

Your trip couldn't be anything but great. You started out with my two favorites. Lisa Durgin & Bazile. Can't wait for the rest of your trip report!

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8. Re: Newbie STJ Trip Report - February 9-16 2014

DAY 5 (Thursday 2/13) – BEACHES GALORE

We found that the best approach to the array of beaches was to start very early - leaving the villa by 7 or 7:30am - which gave us the beaches basically to ourselves for much of the morning, even the small beaches with limited or no parking.

Beaches that were gorgeous with other people on them went to a whole other level when empty: there is something almost overwhelming about having such stunning beaches all to yourself. We would swim for hours (we are swimming people more than lying-in-the-sun or snorkeling people), then spend the later afternoon hanging out at the villa having a light late lunch, swimming in the pool, and observing our iguana friends. The water at the beaches was a little chilly at first so early in the morning, but once we got moving (swimming) it was fine, and by later in the morning it was very warm.

LOGISTICS NOTE:

Even in full sun, I avoided sunburn completely with SPF 100 and long-sleeved SPF 50 snorkel shirts. My waterproof Canon D20 (with added float) was fun to use in the water. I discovered that saliva kept the lens from fogging up just as it would keep a snorkel mask from fogging up. Miracle stuff, that saliva.

BEACHES:

OPPENHEIMER/GIBNEY – Mr. Lizby and I are physics fans so this place was particularly meaningful to us. We got there about 7:30am and no one else was there. I tried to convey to Mr. Lizby how thrilling it was to be the first there (and that we must NOT block the gate). We loved the tire swing and pretty much everything about this tranquil little beach. Eventually, another couple showed up as we were exiting the water; we struck up a conversation and one of them spoke enthusiastically of walking the Peace Hill Trail pathway to the beach. “We were going to go there if there was no parking here,” she said. Thankful for the tip, we made that our next stop.

PEACE HILL/DENIS BAY – There was plenty of parking available at Peace Hill. We walked down the trail to the beach. Actually, first we walked up, as it wasn’t clear where the trail to the beach began. We went to the top of the hill, which has a mill ruin and a great panoramic view. On the way down, we saw the trail, which was somewhat confusing to navigate. It kept going up rather than down, making us wonder whether we were going the right way, and the path was covered in many parts with tangled brush and plant growth, making it seem like the trail ended when it really didn’t. (Later, I saw that Pam Gaffin noted in her book that the trail is not maintained. Indeed.) However, it was definitely worth it as we finally reached the beach – it was beautiful and empty of people. We appreciated this beach especially since we kind of had to work for it. (On the walk back up, we encountered numerous people, all wearing the same confused looks that we had on our way down.)

CINNAMON BAY – We returned to Cinnamon and this time we were the only people there. Having such an expansive beach to ourselves felt like a great luxury. Eventually, others did show up, and we were starting to get hungry (by then it was probably 11am-ish), so we made our way over to the campground restaurant, T’ree Lizards, just before it opened for lunch. (Of course we had our reputation to maintain as the most eager diners on St. John.) T’ree Lizards is a covered lunch area like you might find at camp – appropriately, since it is part of a campground. It was a bit pricey for counter service and paper plates, but the food was pretty good (veggie burger and regular burger). We relaxedly ate our lunches, watching watch birds swoop down and steal mayonnaise and mustard packets from the condiment bar. There were only a few other people there and it was quiet. Peaceful. Blissful.

Then randomly, over a loudspeaker came, loudly, that Celine Dion song:

“‘Cause I’m YOUR LAAAAYYYY-DEEEEEE….and YOU ARE MY MA-A-AAN…”

All conversation stopped. We tried to resume talking, but it was a bit difficult to compete with Celine at like 10,000 decibels. Jokingly, I said (or mouthed) to Mr. Lizby, “Now for the REAL reason I brought you here – this was all a clever ruse, to set up the perfect proposal!!!”

He couldn’t hear what I was saying anyway, but got that I’d said something in the category of funny, and we laughed and finished our lunch.

We also explored the Cinnamon ruins across the road, which were interesting — and it was rather shocking to find that one of the buildings, the estate house, now a pile of rubble, was last occupied in the 1960s.

TRUNK – Too crowded by the time we got there (1 pm or so); no parking.

On the way home, we stopped at Starfish Market and Starfish Gourmet, which were definitely more expensive than St. John Market, but a little more upscale and had a wider selection. The sliced/cut fresh fruit selection was really good and I stocked up on sliced watermelon. We assembled a small dinner out of our groceries.

Another beautiful sunset topped off the day.

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9. Re: Newbie STJ Trip Report - February 9-16 2014

We so badly want to stay at Serenity , it's amazing!

A big shout out to Lisa, 2 years ago she gave us a tour of several of her properties. We had rented from her in 1997 on our honeymoon.

We will be at Oceana in a few weeks, sadly Serenity is too small for our group of 9.

Love the trip report!

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10. Re: Newbie STJ Trip Report - February 9-16 2014

We so badly want to stay at Serenity , it's amazing!

A big shout out to Lisa, 2 years ago she gave us a tour of several of her properties. We had rented from her in 1997 on our honeymoon.

We will be at Oceana in a few weeks, sadly Serenity is too small for our group of 9.

Love the trip report!

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