4 Days on St. John: Experience Paradise on a Budget

St. John’s natural beauty, expansive national park, and pristine public beaches make it an ideal spot for an affordable escape in the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

Follow this four-day itinerary to experience a magical getaway on St. John. With a comfortable campsite and free park and beach access, you can enjoy this special island in style—without breaking the bank.

Getting Around St. John 

There is no airport in St. John, so visitors must fly into nearby St. Thomas and ferry to the smaller island. Three ferry routes make the trip between islands, departing from Red Hook, Charlotte Amalie, and Crown Bay. All three land at Cruz Bay on the western side of St. John. 

Before you reach St. John, you’ll need to decide how to get around the island. Busses operate at an affordable $1 per person per ride, but the schedules can be sporadic, and the routes may not reach every site you wish to see. 

Most visitors instead choose to rent a Jeep or similar 4-wheel drive vehicle for the occasionally rough terrain. You can rent your car on St. Thomas and ferry it to St. John with you or pick up a rental car when you reach Cruz Bay. If you plan to pick up your car on St. Thomas, make sure to verify that your rental company allows ferrying to St. John before booking! 

Day 1: Check-In and Play at Cinnamon Bay

After ferrying from St. Thomas to St. John, you’ll want to start enjoying yourself right away. Fortunately, Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground is just a 15-minute drive from the Cruz Bay ferry dock on the northern side of St. John. 

The view above Cinnamon Bay on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Cinnamon Bay has one of the loveliest beaches on the island, with a long stretch of white sand and natural shade from the mangrove and coconut palm trees. Steps from the water, a picturesque campground offers affordable beachside accommodations. Visitors can rent a campsite with a raised platform for just $50 and put up a simple tent. Or you can upgrade to an  “eco tent,” equipped with a fan, light, electric outlet, queen-sized bed, a cooking kit, and more. 

An onsite store offers cold drinks, groceries, and charcoal for grilling, making it easy to cook at your campsite.

For your first day in St. John, explore the clear turquoise water of Cinnamon Bay. Rent snorkel gear to explore the coral, sea grasses, and aquatic life just below the surface, like bright tropical fish and sea urchins. Or head out into the bay on a paddleboard or kayak, also available for rent at the campground. If you’d rather relax in the sun, reserve a beach chair and park yourself in a tropical paradise. 

When you’ve worked up an appetite, stop by Rain Tree Cafe, also located at the campground. This open-air eatery has themed nights like Caribbean, burgers, and BBQ. 

Day 2: Explore Salt Pond Bay and Salt Pond Beach

With so much beauty to see, you don’t have to spend much to enjoy a glorious day in St. John. Day Two takes you to the southern edge of the island to explore a protected bay and pristine beach. 

Before you head south, stop by one of the local markets to pack a picnic of fresh fruit, bread, and cheese to bring with you. Then hop into your Jeep or a taxi and head for Salt Pond Bay. You’ll park or be dropped off about a 10-minute hike away from the bay and the beach. Less crowded than some other beaches, Salt Pond Beach is a white, crescent-shaped stretch, safely ensconced within a protected bay. The calm, clear water is perfect for snorkeling the bay’s reefs and seagrass bed to look for sea turtles, rays, and hermit crabs. 

View of Salt Pond Bay from Ram’s Head Peak on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

When you’re back on solid ground, head for the southeast end of Salt Pond Beach to pick up the 2.3-mile out-and-back trail to Ram Head Peak. This hike will take you along a rocky bluff to stunning views from the island’s southernmost point. The terrain can be loose, so make sure to wear solid shoes! 

If you’re still hungry after your picnic, head just north of the beach to the restaurants of Coral Bay. At Miss Lucy’s, sample local fare like conch fritters, johnny cakes, and okra fungi, a cornmeal cake made with okra and garlic. Or stop by the eclectic Salty Mongoose Pizza & Rum Bar for top-notch thin-crust pizza and refreshing rum-based cocktails.

Day 3: Experience Virgin Islands National Park 

Spend your third day on St. John exploring the Virgin Islands National Park, which occupies two-thirds of the island. This free park includes tropical forests teeming with flora and fauna, beautiful beaches, and many historical sites and relics dating back over a thousand years. 

Just across the road from Cinnamon Bay Beach, explore the Cinnamon Bay Plantation Ruins within the park. Follow the half-mile trail to learn about the history of this Danish colonial sugar mill and the enslaved people who lived and worked there. 

For a more strenuous hike, climb the Reef Bay Trail. Spanning about three miles each way and an elevation change of 900 feet, this is a hike for the sure-footed! You’ll pass some of the oldest and largest trees on St. John and spot pre-historic rock carvings from the indigenous Taino people. 

Historical carvings off the Reef Bay Trail on St.John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo Courtesy of Kelly vanDellen.

You can also take advantage of tours and presentations provided by the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, a local nonprofit. Take a guided hike of the Reef Bay Trail down to the water. There, you’ll meet a boat that will whisk you back to Cruz Bay. Or enjoy the Turtle Boat & Snorkel Experience to learn about the endangered sea turtles with snorkeling stops along the way. Many tours and seminars are free, with a suggested donation at the end! 

If your park exploration takes you near Cruz Bay, drop by Uncle Joe’s BBQ for a low-cost feast. This open-air beachside shack serves fall-off-the-bone ribs and tender chicken in a tangy sweet sauce.

Day 4: Tour the Annaberg Plantation Ruins

On your final day on St. John, spend the morning touring the Annaberg Plantation Ruins, just an 8-minute drive from the Cinnamon Bay Campground. This Danish Colonial Era sugar mill is the largest on the Virgin Islands and includes the ruins of the mill, enslaved laborers’ village, and sugar factory. The site serves as an important reminder of the people who were forced to work here and their methods of resistance. 

After touring the ruins, follow Leinster Bay Trail to reach a famous viewpoint overlooking Leinster Bay and Watermelon Cay. 

If you still have time before your ferry back to St. Thomas, explore nearby Francis Bay. The Francis Bay Trail includes a waterfront boardwalk among the mangroves where you can look for birds like the Mangrove Cuckoo and Little Blue Heron.

You can also hike from Cinnamon Bay to the America Hill Ruins, the most intact ruins on the island. Once you reach the summit of the hill, you’ll find the remains of an old rum factory and fantastic views of Maho and Francis Bays. 

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