With more than 60% of its land area comprised of a national park, St. John’s allows you to be far away from civilization, while still being right beside it. The snorkeling is pristine and easily accessible from nearly every beach, the hiking is both strenuous and beautiful, and the beaches are flawless. We spent roughly 3.5 days in St. John’s. I’ve compiled my guide to beaches, snorkeling, restaurants, and lodging below. If you love nature, adventure travel, national parks, and virgin beaches, St. John’s should be on your travel destination list…
SNORKELING AND BEACHES
One of the best things about snorkeling in St. John’s is that there are multiple excellent snorkeling locations that are easy to swim to from nearly every beach. No need to pay for a tour, when you can simply swim or rent a kayak!
Leinster Bay & Waterlemon Cay: I agree with other reviewers that Leinster/Waterlemon are the best snorkeling spots on the island. To get to them, you simply follow the main road around the island to Annaberg Sugar Plantation. After checking out the views from the ruins, you hike a little over a mile down the rocky beach of Leinster Bay until you reach Waterlemon Cay. Along the way, you can stop off to snorkel at various spots, however it’s important to note that these spots are very shallow, so it’s extremely easy to damage the coral. Once you reach the end of the rocky beach, it’s a short swim out to the Cay. The Cay is encircled by a large, deep reef that is home to various types of coral (particularly Brain, Elkhorn, and Purple Fan – which are common throughout St. John’s) and plentiful tropical fish. We swam between the Cay and a nearby peninsula on the far righthand side of Leinster, and were able to follow an enormous spotted Eagle Ray, Stingray, and a few sea turtles.
Whistling Cay: Kayaking to and snorkeling Whistling Cay was one of my favorite parts of the trip. It’s best to rent kayaks from Cinnamon Bay; it’s a 30ish minute paddle from there. Whistling Cay is a completely deserted larger Cay in between St. John’s and the British Virgin Islands. We parked our kayak on the small pebble beach, and spent an entire morning wandering around the rocky island, exploring the small ruins, and snorkeling the large, deep reef that surrounds the right side. The reef is large and cavernous with many coral mounds, small caves, Parrot Fish, Angel Fish, Puffers, and small sharks. From the Cay, you can easily kayak to Mary’s Point and Maho Bay as well. One great thing about renting kayaks on St. John’s is that you can take them wherever you want as long as you bring them back by 5ish.
Cinnamon Bay: We stayed on Cinnamon Bay/Cinnamon Cay, and were very impressed with its snorkeling. There are two spots to snorkel. The first is a shallow spot to the left of the beach. Again, it’s important to be extremely careful if you snorkel this spot as it’s quite easy to damage the coral. If you haven’t snorkeled much, I’d suggest going straight out to the Cay. Cinnamon Cay has a very nice, large reef that surrounds the full Cay. It varies in depth and is home to a number of tropical fish. Interestingly enough, I had a tiny fish swim with me for an hour at Cinnamon. It appeared to be using me to hide (like fish use sea turtles to hide), and stayed right by my head / chest. It was one of the coolest things I’ve had happen to me in a long time.
Hawks Nest: We stopped quickly at Hawks Nest beach, and were pleasantly surprised by the snorkeling opportunities. The beach itself is quite pretty with a sugar mill plantation ruin overlooking it from a nearby hill. There is a very, very shallow reef near the shore. It’s incredibly difficult to swim near the reef without damaging it since the waves are pretty rough. We saw another spotted Eagle Ray here, and an underwater plaque alerting us to the coral replanting program.
Maho Bay: Maho Bay was a pretty beach, although crowded, and pretty stirred up on the day we went so it was difficult to see much. However, it’s a great spot for swimming with sea turtles. I didn’t see any coral, though.
Trunk Bay: We spent almost no time at Trunk Bay because I was warned it was a tourist trap. On the day we went, the water was really stirred up so we couldn’t see any of the underwater trail near the Cay. My suggestion is to check out Trunk either before 9am or after 4pm to avoid paying entrance fees. Take a lap around the trail, then head off to less crowded spots.
Coral Bay: We hiked from Leinster Bay to Coral Bay, which took about 2 hours (and was largely uphill without switchbacks for the first half). Note: We wanted to hike, but the road takes you directly there as well. We didn’t see any snorkeling there, but the bay was beautiful. We had lunch at Skinny Legs, which had a really good veggie reuben and a nice outdoor area. To me, this seemed like the ‘hippy’ side of the island, so it was a pretty fun afternoon despite lack of snorkeling.
East Side Snorkeling & Beaching I’d Do Next Time… We ran out of time to try everything we wanted to do (partially because my dad came down with the flu), so there were some spots on the east side of the island that I’ve heard are really cool, but we weren’t able to spend time at. Salt Pond Bay – Is supposed to have excellent snorkeling. I’d recommend spending time there. Haulover Bay – Also is supposed to have good snorkeling. Hanson Bay – Has a really cool floating bar in the middle of the bay that I wanted to check out. Reef Bay – Despite the name, I hear it doesn’t have good snorkeling. However, it’s a spot that is only accessible via hiking, so I wanted to check it out.
LODGING AND TRANSPORTATION
Since most of the island is comprised of a national park, the lodging options on St. John’s are more limited than in most beach destinations. We stayed in platform tents in Cinnamon Bay because I wanted to be in the park, on the beach. I’m glad we had this experience, however I would do it differently next time.
The Cinnamon Bay campground is a bit over-priced for what you get. Nothing (at all) is included in the $75 per night platform tent camping fee (the Eco tents are even more expensive). The restrooms are dirty, and the shower water is very cold. The campground is very quiet once the sun goes down, and the bar is largely dead. Dinner is expensive ($25 per plate) and tastes like cafeteria food. Because of this, most people go to Cruz Bay at night. If you’re drinking at all, you do not want to drive the roads into town, and taxis only arrive at disparate, unpredictable intervals. US carrier reception doesn’t work in Cinnamon Bay, and it’s not possible to ‘call a taxi or Lyft’ on the island, so you’re dependent on one of the truck taxis to show up and take you into town. This costs $7 per person each way.
Unless you’ve brought enough camping supplies to cook (and have brought food since grocery stores on St. John’s are double or more than normal prices), and/or you want to go to sleep right after sunset, I’d suggest staying in Cruz Bay (or Coral Bay, but it’s further away). As much as I love beaches at night, things would have been simpler and cheaper if we’d just booked an Air BNB in Cruz Bay.
St. John’s is one of my favorite places I’ve been to (And possibly my favorite National Park – Tied with Death Valley, currently), and easily my favorite beach destination. If you like snorkeling, I highly recommend checking it out.