Virgin Islands National Park: Returning to a Crossroads of the World

Trunk Bay

Established in 1956, Virgin Islands National Park encompasses some sixty percent of St. John, smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands. About 5,500 of its over 14,000 acres is underwater, protecting coral reefs, sea grass beds, and other marine habitats. One of two National Parks in a U.S. Territory (the other is National Park of American Samoa), it is the only of the sixty-three National Parks in the Caribbean. In many ways, it is the absolute epitome of what a National Park should be: spectacular land and seascapes, abundant nature and wildlife, and preservation of deep cultural heritage and still-unfolding history.

The continuing legacy of colonialism is everywhere in the Virgin Islands, both USVI and the British Virgin Islands, adjacent to St. John to the north and east. Danish colonizers began arriving in the late seventeenth century, and the three islands officially became a Danish colony in 1754. All three were dominated by sugar plantations worked by African slaves until Denmark outlawed slavery in 1848.

In 1917, the United States purchased the islands from Denmark in order to prevent a German toehold in the Western Hemisphere should Germany conquer Denmark in WWI. Citizens of the U.S. Virgin Islands are U.S. citizens, although like other territorial citizens, they cannot vote for president, have no representation in the U.S. Senate, and their at-large U.S. House member can only vote in committee. According to the 2020 census, seventy-one percent of U.S. Virgin Islanders are Black or Afro-Caribbean. Seventeen percent are Hispanic or Latino, thirteen percent are White, and fourteen percent are other ethnicities.

A recent (March 2023) poll found that sixty-three percent of USVI residents support becoming a U.S. state.

Wednesday morning, March 16 [2022], Jimmy came over to our apartment at 6:20am, and he, Sean, and I took an uneventful Lyft ride to O’Hare. Nick and Josh were already at the airport and fretting about their delayed Spirit flight when we arrived.

Per tradition, we got some breakfast for the flight at Tortas Frontera.

Soon we three were aboard our flight on American. As we taxied away from the gate, we saw Nick and Josh’s flight also heading toward takeoff, but some forty-five minutes late. We’d have to wait and see if they were able to make their connection in Fort Lauderdale.

Gulf of Mexico

Our flight to Miami was smooth save for the very end as we rerouted around some thunderstorms. We arrived twelve minutes late. While we were all three using the restroom we heard our names being called to the gate for our flight from Miami to Charlotte Amalie.

Puerto Rico

By 4pm, we were on the ground at the airport in Charlotte Amalie, capital city of USVI on St. Thomas. Happily, Nick and Josh made their connecting flight and they were safely on the ground too. There were thirty people on their Chicago flight also trying to connect to the Charlotte Amalie flight in Fort Lauderdale, so Spirit held the plane.

At that time, USVI was still requiring proof of vaccination and negative COVID test to enter the territory. We’d had to upload our information a few days before. Then we’d received a QR code to show for entry along with our IDs.

The line from the tarmac wrapped around the side of the terminal. One woman standing near us (from Chicago, unfortunately) was not having the line. She complained that she’d gone to a 1,000 person event in Hawaii and it moved much more quickly.

Twenty minutes later we were through the checkpoint. The boys collected our bags, while I went up to the Hertz counter. That line actually moved very slowly. Much slower than the COVID check line. And the people in front of me let a whole group go in front of them, which was…frustrating. Nick got to experience both irritated Brandon and slop-sugar-on-them Brandon in the space of a few minutes as we reached the counter.

Keys in hand, we walked out of the airport. The airport was being renovated, but after a moment, we found the staircase up to the rental car lot. We found our Hyundai Santa Fe, climbed inside, and pulled out of the parking lot. I immediately forgot to drive on the left side of the road. Oops. Although the cars are American, on USVI you drive on the British side because of the proximity to BVI.

We didn’t want to dawdle since we needed to get across St. Thomas to the ferry at Red Hook and then cross to Cruz Bay on St. John, then drive to the other end of St. John to check in at Concordia before the desk closed at 8pm.

It was rush hour, so GPS took us a loopy, scenic way over to Red Hook on the eastern end of St. Thomas. When we pulled up to the ferry terminal, the woman at the booth told us we had four minutes to spare to board the 6pm ferry, and that there was room. She also commented that my eyes looked red, implying that I had been smoking pot. But really it was just a long day of travel and my contacts.

The attendants guided us onto the ferry. We grabbed a few things, locked the car, and climbed up the steep staircase to the upper deck.

St. John

Ahead of us across Pillsbury Sound, the moon was rising over a serene St. John

Out beyond St. John were the islands of the British Virgin Islands.

We disembarked the ferry without incident and headed into Cruz Bay. There are two main routes over to Coral Bay on the eastern side: Centerline Road, which cuts up over the spine of the mountains, and North Shore Road, which twists and turns steeply past the National Park’s famous beaches. Just like nine years earlier, I intended to take Centerline, but ended up on North Shore. It was our first time up the completely ridiculous switchbacks between Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay. I knew it was coming, but it’s still quite a road. Jimmy’s shrieking didn’t help.

The light was fading as we descended into Coral Bay, noting restaurants and the hours of the roadside market.

First, though, we headed out to Concordia, perched on the hillside above Saltpond Bay and Ram Head Point.

In the office, we met the resident cat, Meow Meow. The attendant checked us in. We’d be in tent E21, just up the stairs from the office and near the recently reopened swimming pool. She handed us our bag of linens, and we climbed the stairs up to our tent. After a quick look around and dropping our bags, we headed back down to Coral Bay.

First we stopped at Calabash Market where we grabbed some items for the next few nights. We also met the handsome man who worked at the market. Sean decided that they were friends.

A little further down the road, we struck out at a couple restaurants. One had a private event, and one’s kitchen was already closed.

We settled on Chinese food at Wok on the Beach.

It turned out to be pretty great, which was a delightful surprise. Our server, Kyle, also worked at Reef to Peak, which did kayak tours and hiking tours. Once we figured out what we wanted to do on the island, perhaps we’d check it out.

“I’d make love to him,” Nick observed about Kyle.

Back in our eco-tent, we realized that we hadn’t been given enough bedding. So we went back down to the office. It was closed and locked, but the storage room door was unlocked. So we went in and grabbed another set of linens.

Sean and I took the loft, and the others took the three main level beds.

We spent the rest of our first night on the island hanging out, drinking, and gabbing.

Ram Head

Next morning, Thursday, March 17, was St. Patrick’s Day. I’d slept fitfully because I was so excited. At 6:30, I got up, crept down the ladder, and crept out the squeaky door onto our balcony.

Our view from this eco-tent was much better than the view we’d had nearly a decade before. That one was more private and tucked away. Although more exposed, our tent this time around had a sweeping view of Ram Head, Drunk Bay, Saltpond Bay, and the Salt Pond.

I hung out reading and watching the light move across Ram Head for a couple hours before the others got up.

Brown Pelicans

Saltpond Bay

Image: Sean M. Santos


We didn’t have a coffee maker in the little kitchen area of our tent. I tried boiling coffee, but that didn’t work too well. I went to the office to see if there were a spare coffee maker. There wasn’t, but the guy gave me some Folger’s crystals.

In the daylight, I got a better view of Concordia. It was still pretty rough from both the 2017 hurricanes and that the previous owner had just sort of abandoned the property after the destruction. The new owners were slowly rebuilding. I noticed that the villa we’d stayed in last time (we’d split our nights between an eco-tent and a villa) had no walls.

On the positive side, the pool was open. On the bad side, the restaurant wasn’t. We’d need to get more food from town.

Barbados Aloe

We piled into the car. DJ Sean “Starbody” Santos began messing with the audio system to play some music. He discovered that some previous renters had recorded an audio file about it being a haunted car. We were delighted. Absolutely delighted.

We took Centerline Road into town while Sean played some vacation tunes. At the traffic circle in town, I went the wrong direction (because of the wrong-side-of-the-road thing). Jimmy’s shrieking alerted me to my mistake.

We parked at Mongoose Junction, a touristy development with shops, bars, and restaurants, near the National Park Visitor Center.

After getting some real coffee at Mongoose Junction, we walked over to check out the Visitor Center.

I got a few snorkeling recommendations from Ranger Thomas Kelley (appropriate for St. Paddy’s Day), including the mangroves shallows on the East End.

The guys were hungry, so we drove into the center of town, but not before I fucked up the traffic circle a second time.

Nazareth Evangelical Lutheran Church

We parked and walked over to a restaurant near the pedestrian ferry terminal.

Jimmy’s attention was tuned to every cute mutt we passed, which he declared, “So cuuuute.”

We noticed the handsome guy from Calabash Market disembark the ferry on his way to work.

Also “so cuuuute” was a chicken that walked over to watch us eat. But it quickly found shelter when a sudden tropical downpour passed overhead, almost drenching us.

After lunch and before heading back to Concordia, we stopped at Starfish Market for groceries. At the hardware store, I grabbed a can of WD-40 for the squeaky door to our balcony. I also looked for a French press, but didn’t find one. Boiled coffee it would be!

Maho Bay

We took North Shore Road back so that we could see the famed beaches in the daylight.

On the way into Coral Bay, we passed feral donkeys and a flock of goats. At first, someone said they were tired cows.

Bellies full and finally settled in our accommodations, we were ready to get into the water.

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