CRUZ BAY — It had taken me three days of snorkeling, but I finally hit the jackpot — an endangered hawksbill turtle, serenely munching tropical sea grass in the shallows of Francis Bay.
Bright sunlight filtered through the turquoise water, and a sea fan swayed in the current. Blue tang and angelfish glided by a cushion starfish. The huge turtle chomped away, occasionally rising to the surface to breathe, unperturbed by my presence.
By then, my wife and I were feeling pretty gruntled, too. Taking a holiday in St. John in April meant our first airports, our first flights, our first rental car, our first real trip after a strange and perilous year. Sure, we were vaccinated and busting to get out. But still.
It helped that the U.S. Virgin Islands required a coronavirus test no more than five days before arriving. (The rules eased in June: Now no test is required if you’re fully vaccinated.) We had to get approval via a USVI Web portal, show the test results at the United check-in counter at Dulles International Airport, again at the gate, and then again after landing in St. Thomas.
If anything, the journey was easier than usual. Crowds were sparse at Dulles, the four-hour flight was half-empty, and everyone we saw wore a mask. We had to wait two hours for the four-wheel-drive I’d reserved from Avis. But long delays for rental cars are normal in St. Thomas.
I’ve visited the U.S. and British Virgin Islands eight times over the years. I’ve island-hopped on sailboats up and down the Sir Francis Drake Channel, clambered over boulders on Virgin Gorda, drunk painkillers at Foxy’s on Jost van Dyke, windsurfed off St. Croix, taken my family camping above Maho Bay, donned scuba tanks and dived to a sunken aircraft off Great Dog Island, and more.
But all that was before not just the pandemic, but two monster hurricanes, Irma and Maria, that devastated St. John and nearby islands in September 2017. I was worried about what I would find on this trip.
St. John is one of my favorite places anywhere. It’s 19 square miles of impossibly steep hills covered by dense jungle that abruptly drops to reef-lined beaches. Best of all, more than two-thirds of the island is protected as Virgin Islands National Park, home to pristine beaches, rugged hiking trails and scores of archaeological sites.
That has prevented the overdevelopment that has spoiled parts of the other U.S. Virgin Islands. In the worst example, the Limetree Bay oil refinery on St. Croix has spewed noxious odors and regularly caught fire. It temporarily halted operations in May after raining oil on houses more than two miles away — for the second time this year — and announced on Monday that it would remain shut indefinitely.
It’s hard to imagine heavy industry on St. John. The roads are like a roller coaster, a mix of giddy and terrifying. If there is 100 yards of straight, flat surface, I’ve never found it. So there is no airport. The only way there is by boat.
Since we were driving we headed for the Red Hook ferry. It’s like the Higgins landing craft that hit the beaches during World War II. You somehow back your car on inches from the next one, chug for 30 minutes in salty spray, and then the ramp comes crashing down and you’re there.
My first reaction was relief. After Irma scoured St. John with 185 mph winds, the National Park Service described the devastation as “impossible to comprehend.”
“Every leaf was stripped from the island. All the telephone poles were down. Most of the island trees had been toppled and many were tangled with the poles and wires,” it reported.
Even Navy ships and National Guard troops were evacuated when Maria roared in two weeks later. The winds weren’t as fierce but the flooding was worse.
Not quite four years on, St. John appears lush and green again. All the trails and beaches reopened on April 20, the day after we arrived. The huge cruise ships that ply nearby waters were still at anchor due to the pandemic, so the once-jammed alleys in tiny Cruz Bay, where the ferry lands, were relatively quiet.
Friends had kindly invited us back to their elegant cliff-top compound overlooking Great Cruz Bay. Irma had destroyed the main cottage but they rebuilt with steel beams and reinforced concrete, and the endless views of the Caribbean, especially with a cocktail at sunset from their infinity pool, were as stunning as ever.
Four other houses on their hill were not so fortunate; only bare lots remain. Other parts of St. John remain far worse off.
The fabled Caneel Bay Resort, a magnet destination since the 1950s for those who could afford it, is still in ruins and hundreds of people have lost their jobs. But that’s partly because the current operator is in a feud with the Park Service, which owns the land.
Elsewhere, some shops and restaurants remain shuttered from the pandemic, and at least a few, including the popular Caribbean Oasis Bar in Coral Bay, have closed for good. The Westin, the largest hotel, has reopened but shifted much of its operation to time sharing.
One positive result of the storms: Work crews are burying power lines across the island. The goal is not only to remove unsightly poles and wires, but to ensure power doesn’t go out again for weeks when the next hurricane hits.
As part of the recovery, several historic buildings in Cruz Bay and elsewhere have been refurbished, and archaeological sites and hiking trails in the national park, including the serpentine Reef Bay Trail, have been restored or upgraded.
There’s also a welcome focus on overlooked chapters in the island’s long history. On April 24, the U.S. Interior Department designated the ruins at Leinster Bay one of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom historic sites, finally shining a light on the brutal enslavement that flourished here for centuries.
Historians say at least 100 enslaved Africans escaped the sugar plantations on St. John, then in Danish control, by paddling from Leinster Bay across the strait to Tortola, which was British, after Britain abolished slavery in 1834.
A century earlier, in 1733, 150 enslaved Africans seized the Danish fort at Coral Bay and effectively took control of St. John — then called Sankt Jan — for six months, one of the earliest and longest revolts in the Caribbean.
French and Swiss troops from Martinique, more than 300 miles away, ultimately put down the long-forgotten rebellion decades before better-known insurrections flared on Jamaica, Haiti, Grenada and Barbados.
Our host recently bought a 38-foot power boat, and one afternoon we cruised up the north shore to Leinster Bay. We moored just off tiny Waterlemon Cay and I happily jumped in. The water was crystal clear: Black sea urchins carpeted the rocks, reef squid darted in the coral, and a pelican divebombed for lunch nearby.
From the boat, I couldn’t see the plantation ruins through the thick vegetation. But on a previous trip, I had hiked to the ragged stone remains of a sugar mill, overseer’s residence and a guardhouse, much of it overgrown by thorny bushes. Sadly, not a single sign explained their significance. I hope that will change under the new designation.
Not surprisingly, the tourist industry and Hollywood prefer to highlight the pirates of the Caribbean. Back in the 1600s and 1700s, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard and other buccaneers plundered Spanish galleons from these islands and cays. I’ve sailed to both Norman Island, the alleged setting for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” and his “Dead Chest Island” (of “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” fame), lodestars of my childhood.
Cruising back to Great Cruz Bay late one afternoon we detoured west to inspect Little Saint James island, the former home of a modern villain, financier and convicted child sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Long before Epstein was arrested and died by suicide in New York in 2019, it was widely whispered here (with dozens of staff, what did he expect?) that his helicopter brought underage girls along with celebrities. Locals even called it “Pedophile Island.”
From just offshore, we could see a large cream-colored structure with a turquoise roof that apparently was the main house. A steep hill rose behind it and palm trees waved at the top beside a small, squat, blue-striped building that news reports variously described as Epstein’s library, music room or “lair.” The roof is missing and the whole island appeared forlorn and desolate.
We made a more pleasant discovery when a friend directed us to Oppenheimer Beach, a deserted white sand crescent that doesn’t appear on most tourist maps and is a perfect hideaway.
It must have seemed that way to the former owner, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the famed physicist who helped produce the first atomic bomb and who later lost his security clearance in a political witch hunt. The ruins of his house hug one end of the beach.
After all my visits, St. John still had surprises to offer.
—Bob Drogin is a writer based in West Tisbury, Massachusetts