National Park Number: 30 of 59
Virgin Islands is hands-down one of the most special places we’ve visited on our trip. Because we were trying to raise money for rebuilding efforts before and after our time there, we did a lot of research about St. John, its land and history and people, and came to love it before we even set foot on the island. Our trip turned out vastly different than what we thought it would be; because the phone lines are still out, it was tough to get ahold of people and set things up beforehand, but we planned on volunteering and doing cleanup work for most of our visit. We didn’t think we’d be able to get in the water, because the island has had trouble with toxicity since the hurricanes, and we figured we’d feel weird laying around on the beach when there’s so much to do.
We spent our first day contacting officials from the park and local organizations to find out where and how we could help, and the universal answer was to just be tourists. Right now, St. John doesn’t need unskilled labor (and they certainly don’t need to put time into training visitors who will only be there to help a handful of days)—instead they need tourists and money. The water is safe again and well-monitored, and while most of the park’s structures haven’t been rebuilt, the trails have largely been cleared.
Our trip felt special because we’d poured our hearts into our fundraiser for the island, but also because we were some of the few visitors the national park has had since getting hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria. Graham worked on his Jr. Ranger book just like he does at every park, but here he was the first post-hurricane Jr. Ranger to be sworn in and a whole team of folks working disaster management at park headquarters gave him a round of applause. Going to the beach was a near-solitary experience. Beaches like Trunk Bay that normally see 1500 visitors per day had only a handful of locals and two or three tourists each time we went there; we watched sunset there by ourselves three nights in a row.
Being there without many other tourists also meant we got to have lots of long conversations with locals about living on the island and their experiences during and after the hurricane. Every time we went out to eat, or went into a shop, or visited the park’s headquarters, we got to talk to someone new about their perspective on rebuilding, how their life was affected by the storms, and what people can do to help.
What stood out overwhelmingly was how positive the people of St. John are, and every relief worker we talked to pointed to that optimism, too. Virgin Islanders are a resilient bunch, grateful and hopeful, and so warm and lovely that our conversations with them were the highlight of our trip.
And that’s saying something, because this park is one giant highlight: incredible views, trails through tropical forests, turquoise water, fantastic snorkeling, the funnest driving we’ve encountered in a national park (Buster wouldn’t have made it 15 feet, but our rental Jeep was a blast), and the best Best BEST beaches that exist, I’m pretty sure, in the world.
We stayed at a B&B in Fish Bay, about 15 minutes up into the hills above Cruz Bay. If we’d been there before the hurricanes, we would have wanted to stay at the Cinnamon Bay campground, the only camping in the park, which is situated just off the gorgeous Cinnamon Bay beach. But the campground was hit hard during the hurricane and it won’t be running for a while. Because the campground is run by a concessioner (rather than the park service) and their insurance hadn’t come through yet, very little had been done to clean up the campground and it was heartbreaking to see the devastation largely untouched. In most places we visited, there had already been so much cleanup done that it was hard to envision just how extensive the damage had been.
Hurricane Irma’s wind speeds were the highest ever recorded on the open Atlantic. They hit the island and then set off a series of tornadoes that whipped up and down St. John’s forested valleys, until very little was left untouched. Then two weeks later, Hurricane Maria passed through and dropped heavy rains, soaking everything Irma had left behind and forcing recovery from Irma to a halt. After Irma, satellite pictures of the island were brown, the once-lush island denuded. It looked so bad that the first government workers to show up, from the U.S. Marines, pulled into Cruz Bay’s port with 50 body bags, expecting heavy casualties. Maria brought the soil back to life and by the time we visited, there was a lot of green—but most of it is now in the undergrowth, the taller trees and high branches having been knocked down.
We moved slow at this park and didn’t take on too much. We did one hike (or three-quarters of a hike, really—we cut it a bit short because the heat was terrible and we hadn’t packed enough water) to Ram Head Point, drove around a lot to take in views of the island and, mainly, enjoyed the beach and the people.
On our way to the Ram Head Trail, we took a wrong turn and ended up at this resort, the Concordia Eco-Resort, and it seemed to have hardly been touched since the hurricane. It was a bizarre scene—blown-off branches on the reservation desk, months-old food still in the unpowered fridge, board games and books scattered around the sidewalks.
The only possible downside to St. John is the bugs: we had bug spray, but forgot to bring it every stinking day, so in the late afternoon and early evening, the mosquitoes and no-see-ums came out and nibbled us half to death. But sunset over the water was too pretty for us to be driven off, so we floated around in the water to avoid bites—although while floating, I did get stung by a jellyfish instead (I have terrible jellyfish luck.)
Trunk Bay has a gorgeous underwater snorkel trail along the reef. Visibility wasn’t great and the hurricane took out a lot of coral, but there were loads of fish. We also visited Hawksnest Beach, where we took turns snorkeling; the reef there is super close to shore and we saw a stingray, eels, and a sea turtle. David took Graham out for his first snorkel, and though he was scared at the beginning, as soon as he saw fish he forgot his fear and ended up absolutely loving it.
On our last day on the island, we visited St. John’s School of the Arts, which just received a block grant from CFVI to give free art and dance classes to all the kids on the island. We were so touched to hear about their work; I can’t imagine how traumatic the hurricanes must have been, especially for kids, and there was so much damage to schools that most kids had to stay home for months.
We also interviewed several residents, as well as Murray Shoemaker, a park ranger with the disaster management team who we visited with a bunch over the course of our visit. Murray normally works at the Grand Canyon, but travels around to different parks when they have emergency needs; at Virgin Islands he managed public relations and he was fantastic to talk to. He was also, I’m pretty sure, Santa Clause—a young, outdoorsy Santa Clause. We’re convinced of this: what better job could Santa have in the off-season than being a park ranger? And isn’t Murray Shoemaker the best undercover name Santa could possibly choose? He must have borrowed it from an elf. It’s brilliant. He was brilliant. We want to grow up to be him.
I can’t describe how wonderful our experience on St. John was; we hope to be able to visit again and again. We are so happy to have had so many people donate to our fundraiser and were thrilled to send our money to the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands. We’ll be watching the recovery of this place closely, praying for its inhabitants, and trying to convince everyone we know to go for a visit. We honestly can’t say enough about what a magical place this is. I’m telling you, GO TO THERE. I guarantee you will love it. Just bring bug spray ;).