Tuesday, March 22,  was our final afternoon on St. John. Hungry after our six-plus-mile hike to and around Reef Bay, we had a leisurely lunch at Miss Lucy’s very close to where we were staying at Concordia. The next day we would have to say goodbye to St. John and make our trip by boat, plane, and car back to wintry Chicago.
But we still had time for a couple more adventures.
Nestled in a valley near the center of the south side of St. John, there is a grotto of freshwater, a sort of naturally occurring cistern. Near the water’s edge is a collection of petroglyphs depicting what appear to be faces and symbolic shapes. The petroglyphs were made by the Taíno people, who inhabited the Greater Antilles and the northern Lesser Antilles at the time Columbus’ invasion began in 1492. This place of reliable freshwater was clearly important to the Taíno. It was to this most remote part of Virgin Islands National Park that our adventures would take us on Tuesday, March 22 , our last full day on St. John.
Late afternoon on Monday, March 21 , we finally swam at Trunk Bay. When Sean and I had been to Virgin Islands National Park nine years earlier, the day we’d reserved for visiting Trunk Bay turned out to be windy on the north side of St. John, so Trunk Bay was closed for swimming because of dangerous surf. But on this trip, we got to enjoy a late afternoon swim and sunset at one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet.
On Monday, March 21 , we went snorkeling at Waterlemon Cay, one of the premiere snorkeling sites in Virgin Islands National Park. Skipping it on our first trip had been my biggest regret, so I was very excited to see what it had to offer.
On Sunday, March 20, ,after we’d spent the morning and early afternoon on a visit to Annaberg, which was a repeat for Sean and me, we spent the late afternoon swimming at Hawksnest Bay, which we had not done on our first visit to Virgin Islands National Park in 2013. It was well worth it. And we could see why it is popular with St. John locals.
Transferred to the National Park Service upon the establishment of Virgin Islands National Park in 1956, Annaberg preserves and interprets the legacy of chattel slavery in the Danish West Indies, which supported St. John’s small piece in the Caribbean’s massive and world-altering cane sugar industry. Located on a bluff on the island’s north side, and commanding an astonishing view, the site was unexpectedly our destination on Sunday morning, March 20 , the vernal equinox.
On Saturday, March 19 , we decided to stay over on the eastern side of St. John, nearer to our home base at Concordia. We hadn’t actually been planning to go into Cruz Bay every single day of the trip, but somehow had. Also, we figured that with it being the weekend the more famous beaches like Trunk Bay were probably going to be packed. So we decided it would be a good day to return to a favorite bay from Sean’s and my previous trip: Brown Bay, nestled on the north side of St. John—almost to East End—and accessible only by a hike two-hundred feet up and over a ridge. On our first trip to Virgin Islands National Park, Brown Bay offered the most spectacular snorkeling of the trip. The return didn’t disappoint.
Friday, March 18  was a classic day on St. John, filled with undersea explorations, good food, and only slight mayhem. We visited two sister Virgin Islands National Park beaches on the north shore—Francis Bay and Maho Bay—separated by a great lunch in Cruz Bay.
To close out our first full day at Virgin Islands National Park, and to raise a toast to Saint Patrick’s Day , we hiked to the southeastern most point on St. John, the sheer-cliffed peninsula of Ram Head. The hike to Ram Head is splendid, and it was a highlight of our first visit to the National Park. But first we had our first dip into the Caribbean Sea of the trip, an afternoon swim at Saltpond 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.