The smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John is one of the most enchanting islands in the entire Caribbean. Most of it remains untouched; in fact, it appears much as it did when Christopher Columbus and his crew first sighted it about 500 years ago.
HistorySince 1493, when Columbus discovered St. John during his second voyage to the New World, the island has been controlled at various times by Spain, France, England, Holland, Denmark, the United States and even the Knights of Malta.
In 1717, the Danish West India Company sent out a contingent of settlers to set up a colony and port at Coral Bay. Sugarcane was planted and flourished here, along with tobacco and cotton; by 1733, there were 208 colonists and 1,087 slaves on the island. But in November of that year the slaves revolted, slaughtering the entire garrison at Coral Bay's Fort Berg. In May 1734, the Danes, backed by two French warships and soldiers from Martinique, retook the island. But by that time, about half of St. John's plantation houses were destroyed and the fields were badly damaged.
Although the Danes rebuilt their homes and sugar factories and achieved prosperity once more, St. John's troubles persisted. Drawn into the Napoleonic Wars on the side of the French, the island was subsequently taken over by the British on Tortola for a few years in the early 1800s. By the time the Danes got a solid hold on it again, sugar beets were being grown in Europe and were dominating the sugar market. This condition and the abolition of slavery in 1848 virtually killed St. John's sugar industry.
In 1917, the United States, worried about unfriendly military bases in the Caribbean, made an offer of $25 million to Denmark for St. John and the other two Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. Croix.
Much of the island's natural beauty has been preserved thanks to the efforts of American financier Laurance Rockefeller. In the 1950s, he made extensive donations of land to the federal government to help establish the Virgin Islands National Park.
To get the most out of your visit, go to the National Park Visitor Center in Cruz Bay just north of the ferry landing, where exhibits will help you get oriented and park rangers will introduce you to St. John's flora and fauna, along with its intriguing history. You may wish to participate in some of the ranger-led programs; snorkel trips, hikes and hands-on craft activities are just a few of the park's offerings.
If you decide to take a journey around the island, the ruins of Annaberg Plantation, on the northern coast, will make a memorable stop. Here, you can tour the factory buildings and windmill of this 1733 estate and take in sensational views of the British Virgin Islands.
Bordeaux Mountain, with an elevation of 1,277 feet, is St. John's highest point. From its summit, you'll get a splendid view of the trees along the road; the leaves are used in the production of bay rum, the major industry on the island.
BeachesNo visit to St. John would be complete without a trip to one or two of its world-famous beaches, none of which charges an admission fee. By far the most popular is shimmering Trunk Bay, the site of the renowned underwater snorkeling trail. A small shop and changing facilities are located here.
Locals often head to Hawksnest Beach during the peak tourist season. Located close to Cruz Bay on the north shore, it is quieter than neighboring Trunk Bay. Changing facilities are available at the Caneel Bay resort complex on the west side of the beach.
Cinnamon Bay is a National Park campground with a famous beach. Larger than Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay has a full range of facilities and services for the day visitor. Maho Bay, Francis Bay, and Leinster Bay are also lovely spots on the north shore; all but Francis Bay have changing facilities.
SportsThe Caribbean is known for its superior snorkeling and scuba diving sites, but few islands can compare when it comes to the underwater splendor of the waters surrounding St. John. Several water-sports centers located in Cruz Bay offer exciting scuba-diving trips. Some trips take you southwest toward Great St. James; others go north and west to the waters off Jost Van Dyke and St. Thomas, or northeast to the nearby British Virgin Islands.
Whichever spot you choose, snorkeling is the most popular way to explore these waters. Most first-timers head for the underwater trail at Trunk Bay.
ShoppingSt. John offers leisurely shopping in small, highly individualized stores with lots of island personality. Wharfside Village, a Caribbean-style complex situated to the right of the ferry dock along the bay, features over two dozen shops. Mongoose Junction also contains distinctive shops and unique restaurants.
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