Fly direct from Chicago to Miami or San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then take a connecting flight to St. Thomas. From there, regular ferries leave for Cruz Bay in St. John from downtown Charlotte Amalie ($7 adults, $3 for children, one way, for the 45-minute trip) and Red Hook ($3/$1, 20 minutes).
Taxis (really flatbed trucks with benches along the sides) await at the Cruz Bay ferry docks. Individual rates range from $2.50 to $10, but when three or more passengers pile on, they pay no more than $5 each. Rental cars -- generally Jeeps or the equivalent -- increase flexibility and cost about $55 a day and up, including insurance.
Hiking trails abound. The most spectacular might be Reef Bay Trail, which starts in the highlands at Centerline Road and winds down to Reef Bay. Expect terrific views, petroglyphs (Amerind or slave? No one knows for sure.), plus the ruins of plantations and sugar mills. Signs along the way identify plants, fauna and roles once played by various now-crumbling buildings of the Reef Bay Plantation. Twice a week (check the visitor center for schedules) rangers lead the way and for $15 take hikers by boat back to Cruz Bay, saving them the arduous 2-mile trek back up the hill.
Snorkelers follow the Underwater Trail in beautiful Trunk Bay, a 150-yard stretch dotted with informative blue plaques along the sandy bottom that explain and describe features of underwater life. The colorful fish down there never seem to tire of reading about themselves.
Also on the water, concessionaires will arrange day sails, snorkeling and scuba expeditions, or rent out snorkeling gear, kayaks and windsurfing rigs. No water skiing or jet skis are allowed in park waters.
WHEN TO VISIT
As in most of the Caribbean, temperatures are pleasant all year. The rains fall more frequently from July through January. And in late summer, hurricanes occasionally blow. December through April is the high season, meaning higher prices and bigger crowds. Why? Look out the window.
Several accessible sites are available at the Cinnamon Bay campground. Some picnic areas, trails and beaches are more accessible than others. Call the main park number for more specifics.
LODGING AND DINING
Restaurants and groceries are sprinkled around tiny Cruz Bay and even tinier Coral Bay, the two main towns. Asolare in Cruz Bay is the most sophisticated restaurant on the island, and more upscale dining can be found at the Caneel Bay and Westin resorts, as well as the two main tropics-style shopping malls, Wharfside Village and Mongoose Junction. Up on the central ridge and well out of town, Chateau Bordeaux serves gourmet fare to go with the enchanting views.
More to the point, parkwise, a stand at Trunk Bay sells sandwiches and beverages. Cinnamon Bay, location of the only campground in the park, offers a buffet restaurant and a small grocery.
Campers may occupy sites on a first-come, first-served basis. Call 800-365-2267 for the details.
Resorts include the Westin, Gallows Point and Caneel Bay Plantation. Several other hotels and guest houses dot St. John. To stay right in the bosom of the park and do the camping thing, Cinnamon Bay is the logical place to go. The concessionaire maintains bare sites, furnished tents and screened-in cottages. Winter season rates through April 30, based on double occupancy, start at $20 a night for a bare site to $120 for a beachfront cottage. To book, or get more information on camping, call 800-539-9998.The U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism may be able to help with detailed information on accommodations. Write P.O. Box 6400, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands 00804. 800-372-8784; fax: 340-777-9695. Or consult with a travel agent.
Write Headquarters, Virgin Islands National Park, P.O. Box 710, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands 00831. The park visitor center in Cruz Bay is open daily 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 340-776-6201. Headquarters and business office in St. Thomas: 340-775-6238.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun