Reviewers Rating: Excellent
"Villa Serenity on St. John"
by Sandy & Dave Dudich
INTRODUCTION - This is a trip report of our stay at Villa Serenity on St. John in November 2000. This was our fifth stay on St. John, and we have gleaned lots of useful information from the experiences of others as posted to Internet bulletin boards, so this report is, in part, a payback attempt to share our experiences with others, and, in part, a reference for our next visit. If, after reading this, you have any additional question, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
ST. JOHN - We first visited St. John in 1996 to celebrate Sandy's 50th birthday. The reasons we keep returning are that St. John is beautiful, laid-back, uncrowded, and offers beautiful beaches and great snorkeling. Because 2/3 of St. John is National Park, the population is only about 3500 people on 21 square miles, and most of the people and houses are concentrated in the Cruz Bay area.
I've seen questions posted to the effect "Please list the five best and five worst places on St. John so that I can maximize my vacation time there." If you want to maximize your vacation time, I suggest you go to go to Orlando and visit Disneyworld instead of St. John. Once you get off the ferry in Cruz Bay, time takes on an entirely different concept, particularly if you are staying in a villa. A couple of times when we were in Cruz Bay lounging around the ferry dock, we'd see the cruise ship folks clutching their matching snorkel bags being herded onto the taxi fleet for their two-hour snorkeling experience at Cinnamon Bay, and we felt sorry for them cause you can't really experience St. John on a tight timetable.
VILLA SERENITY - The three outstanding features of Villa Serenity are its location, its location, and its location.
The first location advantage of Villa Serenity is its proximity to the beach. On our first three visits to St. John, we had stayed in villas on Gifft Hill, overlooking Cruz Bay. This is a nice location for first-timers, since it is close to town, centrally located, and provides a great view of St. Thomas. However, whenever we wanted to go to the beach, we always had a 15 - 30 minute jeep ride. Prior to our fourth visit we discovered Villa Serenity, which is located at Mary Point which is at the end of the North Shore Road, and is about a 5 minute/ ¹ mile walk to the beach at Francis Bay, which had become one of our favorite beaches - it is large ( about 100 feet long) , uncrowded (since its the farthest beach on the North Shore - about a 30 minute ride from town) and offers beautiful snorkeling along its northern edge. We often walked to Francis Bay at 8:00 am and would be the only ones there for an hour or two. At most there would be a dozen people there all day (except when Caneel Bay would set up a picnic lunch at one end of the beach.)
The second location advantage of Villa Serenity is that it is located in a cluster of three houses on a little driveway above the road to Francis Bay. However, because of the vegetation, you can not see either the road nor the other houses from the deck that extends the full length of Villa Serenity. The nearest houses you can see looking eastward are on Tortola, BVI, looking westward, on St. Thomas, and there are no houses to the north on Mary Point. Since no one can see you, the only things you need wear on the deck at Villa Serenity are a smile, suntan lotion, and a hat (unless you're bald its really tough to rub suntan lotion onto your scalp!)
The third location advantage of Villa Serenity is that it is about a 15 - 20 minute walk to the Maho Bay Campground. The Campground offers its own little store, restaurant, and activities center, and, most importantly, it offers a shuttle into town every two hours from 8 AM to 8 PM for $4. On our first three trips to St. John, we had rented a jeep for about $400 /week including gas. The proximity of Villa Serenity meant that we could do without a rental car. Now if you haven't been to St. John before, a rental car is a definite must, cause it can take you to beaches you might otherwise miss. However, if you use the rental car funds for sailboat rides instead (as we did), you'll go to beaches that are inaccessible by car. The Maho Bay Shuttle will drop you off at any beach on the North Shore, and pick you up on any return trip. In addition, Maho Bay activities has scheduled group taxi rides to other St. John activities, such as Salt Pond beach, the National Park Service Reef Bay Trail hike, and various restaurants
Villa Serenity itself is a four bed-room, three bath house, with an enormous deck. (It is a lot more house than the two of us need, but the rental price depends on the number of occupants.) We rented Villa Serenity from Terry Witham (see REFERENCES section for her phone number and e-mail). We found renting from Terry (who lives on St. John) to be a big advantage over renting from a realty company. After our first visit, we had from suggestions for some improvements, and Terry was very accommodating in implementing the suggestions prior to our return. Furthermore, Terry must know every resident of St. John, so if you have any questions about snorkeling, or beaches, or what boats to rent, Terry either knows or can find out.
WHAT TO PACK - Every trip to St. John, we've packed fewer clothes and more support supplies.
For clothing at Villa Serenity you'll need suntan lotion (lots of it - we packed 5 tubes of #30
this time), and bug repellent. When we were there in May, we had no problem with the no-see-ums, but on this trip, Sandy left looking like she had chicken pox. We found Avon Skin So Soft to be completely ineffective, and instead used deep woods from Walmart. (Earlier I mentioned that you need a hat on the deck - there are straw hats on top of the refrigerator.)
To go to the beach, you'll need a swimsuit, sandals, a colorful coverup, a hat, suntan lotion, bug repellant, and snorkel gear (Villa Serenity provides snorkel gear, but I think you're more likely to get a better fit by bringing your own.) (The purpose of the colorful cover-up is to hang from a tree on the beach so that it serves as a beacon so that when you go snorkeling you know whereto return to.) You'll also want to pack along some water bottles (we brought 4 bicycle bottles with us), as well as some granola bars or other snacks. We also brought some underwater cameras that we bought at Walmart for about $8 each.
(You can bring beach chairs down from the Villa.)
To go to town (or anywhere else on St. John) you'll also need shorts and a tee-shirt, and tennis shoes if you're going hiking. And of course a fanny pack, or back pack, to carry your water bottles, suntan lotion, and bug repellent. Don't leave the villa without them!
If you pack any more clothes than these, you'll probably bring them home unworn. You can't pack too few clothes or too much sun tan lotion!
Most of our luggage was food, because we ate most of our meals at Villa Serenity. We bought a soft sided 20 can cooler at Walmart for $10.00, filled it with 5 lb. frozen shrimp, frozen steaks, frozen scallops, and other frozen foods and carried it with us on the plane. We also brought dry food like spaghetti, rice, oatmeal, dry milk, seasonings, etc. In previous visits, the largest grocery on St. John, the Starfish market, was about the size of a 7/11 and offered a very limited selection. However Starfish has opened a new much larger market, so we'll probably buy more of our food on island during our next visit.
WHAT TO DO - Your first day, walk up to the Activities Desk at Maho Bay Campground to see what they have scheduled for the week and when. Activities vary quite a bit from week to week.
On Monday and Thursday, the NPS offers a guided Reef Bay Trail hike, with boat return to Cruz Bay, and Maho Bay has a shuttle to the trail head. This fills up fast, but we found it to be a day well spent.. On Wednesday, Sadie Sea does a round St. John snorkeling tour. This is still on our "To Do" list for the next trip,
Most mornings we'd wake at first light (about 6:00 am) and have breakfast on the gazebo while we watched the sun rise. Then we'd head for Francis Bay around 8:00 am for some snorkeling. Around noon, we'd head back to the deck of Villa Serenity to get an all over tan and to drink some rum punch. While there is a hammock on the deck large enough for two, we found the very sturdy lounge chairs to be much more comfortable for sunning and whatever. Afterwards we'd head into the shade or inside to get out of the mid-afternoon sun. Around 3 or 4 we'd walk back to Francis Bay for more snorkeling, and around sunset (5:45 p.m.) have dinner. The PBS station in St. Thomas is the only TV at Villa Serenity, so in the evening we'd usually read or do crossword puzzles. Usually we were nodding off to sleep by 8 p.m. or so.
SNORKELING - Our favorite beach snorkeling location is the north shore of Francis Bay - from the dead tree out to the point. If Francis Bay is choppy (due to the wind) try Mary Creek instead. At the base of the driveway, turn right and walk about 100 yards, to a little path leading down to Mary Creek. You can snorkel among the Mangrove roots there, or go out to the coral reefs at Anna Point. Alternatively continue down the road towards Annaberg ruins. Just past the tee in the road you'll find another path to Mary Creek. If you continue down the road, past the Annaberg ruins, it turns into a rocky trail along the beach which leads to Waterlemon Cay. Snorkeling there is supposed to be fantastic, but we didn't find it worth the 45 minute walk vs. the 5 minute walk to Francis Bay.
If you don't take the Maho Bay excursion to Salt Pond (which is on the south east side of St. John), you can catch the shuttle into Cruz Bay, and the VI Tran bus to Salt Pond for $1. It runs every two hours or so (when its running).
Or you could just ride Frett's Maho Bay shuttle to any of the North Shore beaches. On previous trips we found Jumbie Bay to have really good snorkeling. I'd avoid Hawksnest, Cinnamon, and Trunk Bays cause they get overrun with day-trippers off of the cruise ships.
BOATS - As I said earlier, the money we saved on car rental, we spent on day sails.
The best day sail was with Captain Phil on the Wayward Sailor out of Cruz Bay. (Terry had recommended this as the one trip to take). Although Wayward Sailor will take six, Sandy and I were the only ones with Captain Phil the day we went. We sailed to two snorkeling spots near the St. James islands between St. John and St. Thomas. Capt. Phil actually went snorkeling with us and took us on a guided tour of the reefs. We'd be surface snorkeling when Capt. Phil would suddenly dive down 20 feet or so and bring up something interesting he had spotted. He is very knowledgeable about sailing, snorkeling, and sea life - it was like a personal tour with Jacque Cousteau. A daysail on Wayward Sailor costs $85 per person, while some of the other boats are as low as $50, but we believe that it is worth it!
Our other good day sail was with Capt. Lisa on the Pepper out of Maho Bay Campground Activities Desk. Pepper is much smaller than Wayward Sailor - about 23 ft - although it also carries 6 - so the ride was a little more exciting (i.e. bouncier and leaninger). Pepper took us to Caneel Bay and also to Whistling Cay off of Mary Point, both of which had great snorkeling. Once again Terry had recommended Pepper. On previous trips we had ridden on bigger power boats to Jost Van Dyke and to Virgin Gorda, and we found the small sailboats to be much more exciting.
Our favorite place to eat was the deck of Villa Serenity! The villa has a nice gas grill on the deck which we used to grill steaks, shrimp, and scallops. Other nights we had steamed shrimp, with and without pasta. The view of the sunset over St. Thomas was better than any restaurant, and besides we didn't have to dress for dinner (at all!)
I understand there are really elegant restaurants in St. John, where you can easily spend $100 per person. We didn't eat at any of these, but we didn't spend more than $10 for a meal at any of the following places. (We preferred to spend our money on great day sails instead).
Now Terry also happens to be the lunchtime cook at Miss Lucy's, a locally famous restaurant on the way to Salt Pond, so we stopped there on our way back from Salt Pond. The Conch Chowder alone is worth the trip to Miss Lucy's. Also on Saturday night Maho Bay Campground ran two taxis there for a Full Moon Party, where they roasted two entire pigs, and had a live band for entertainment. Evidently the Full Moon Parties are a local St. John tradition, as most of the attendees seemed to be St. John residents.
Our favorite place for breakfast is JJs Tex Mex, located at the ferry dock in Cruz Bay. They have great cheese omelets.
Sandy's favorite place was Uncle Joe's for barbecued ribs. Uncle Joe's is so well known that they don't even have a sign out front - just the barbecue grill. They are located right across the street from the Post Office in Cruz Bay.
A vacation on St. John is not for everyone. Its a bit of a hassle to get to, and there's no night life to speak of, but if you enjoy sun, snorkeling, and uncrowded beaches, then its for you.
Similarly, staying in a villa is not for everyone. If you like being waited on, and being entertained then you're probably better off on a cruise ship or staying at Caneel Bay.
If its your first time to St. John, you're probably better of renting Cloud Nine (www.cloudnine.com) and renting a jeep, as we did on our first two times.
However, if you're adventurous. If you look at receiving only PBS on TV as not a bad thing. If you can look on the necessity to conserve cistern water as an opportunity to shower together (outdoors!), if you enjoy the absolute freedom of basking in the sun in complete privacy, if you enjoy walking to an uncrowded beach, if you enjoy snorkeling, then send Terry Witham an e-mail and ask about renting Villa Serenity. We plan to return, probably in the spring, once the winter rates are over, and when its too dry for the no-see-ums.
We fly on frequent flyer miles, so its usually a hassle to get to St. John. For example although we rented Villa Serenity Sunday to Sunday, we had to fly down on Saturday and back on Tuesday. Saturday night we stayed at The Inn at Tamarind Court in Cruz Bay. Its inexpensive ($84 night), and is sort of like staying at a Motel 6 or a Super 8 - it provides a place to sleep. Since we got to St. John about 8 p.m., that's all we needed.
If you'd like to see any pictures of our trip , or if you'd like to read trip reports of our other trips, they may be found at:
Sandy & Dave Dudich
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