by: Matt Simerson
Saturday 19 Sep 20

St. John - General Information

This document is divided into sections: Getting There, Things to Bring, Things to Know, and Thank You Gifts.

Getting There (Directions)

Arriving at the 'destination castle' getaway is a two-step process. Give yourself plenty of time to ride in taxis and on a ferry.

1st step - St. Thomas

Once you get to the airport on St. Thomas, collect your bags and take a taxi to the Red Hook Ferry dock. The cab fare is $11-$13 per person. The rates vary based on factors I don't fully understand. They seem to roughly coincide with the "published" fares but you can expect a few dollar variance.

At the Red Hook Dock, take the ferry across to Cruz Bay on St. Johns. The ferry will cost you $3 per person and runs on the hour until 11pm.

2nd step - St. John

Once you arrive at Cruz Bay on St. Johns, find a taxi willing to take you to "Salt Pond" (the farthest end of the island). You are actually going to the entrance to Concordia but the nearest thing on their price chart is Salt Pond. Once you find a cab willing to go to Salt Pond, explain that you are going to the entrance to Concordia. Do NOT go into Concordia. The fare for two persons is $24.

At the Concordia entrance, there are two paved spurs heading left off the main highway. You want to veer hard left, up a single track concrete driveway. Turn left at the three way fork. The second right is the driveway to the house. Park at the top of the driveway. Your house is on the right, the guest house where the attendant lives is on the left.

Your cell phone will probably not work once you leave Cruz Bay. The fact that it works so well in St. Thomas and Cruz Bay can catch you by surprise when the cab drops you off at the other end of the island and your phone teases you with a signal, but never quite strong enough to place a call.

Things to bring

Some of the things on this list are practical for all travels, others are specific to this excursion to St. Johns.

A roll of $20 bills - Nearly everything will cost you a $20 or two (cab rides, lunch, ferry, t-shirt, etc). Have at least three $20 bills for your travels into and out of the island. It's occasionally inconvenient to get change for larger denominations.

Snorkel gear - Rumor has it that there is snorkel gear here that you can use. However, we brought along our own. If you snorkel or dive and want to enjoy the experience, it's important to find gear that fits.

When I got certified to dive, I spent 4 hours in a dive shop (and the adjoining pool) finding a mask that fit my face and sealed well. It's hard to focus on looking around for sea critters when you're purging your mask every minute. I have high arches so I tried on nearly twenty pairs of fins to find a pair that didn't hurt to wear. If you are "average" sized and a "one size fits all" mask and fins works for you, then use what's here or use rental gear. For everyone else, I offer the following advice.

If you do not have gear and don't anticipate snorkeling or diving much, just get a pair of neoprene water booties. They aren't expensive and having ones that fit will make using cheap rental fins (or even good fins that are improperly sized) tolerable. They are useful for all water sports. If you've used a mask before and didn't have problems, don't worry about it and use what you can find. If you're interested in getting your own gear, read on.

As with any sporting gear, it's best to buy good stuff once, store it properly, and you'll have it for many years of enjoyment. My dive bag contains: mask, snorkel, fins, dive knife (optional), neoprene gloves and booties, dive watch, mask anti-fog, and vaseline. Vaseline is used to seal around the little hairs in my goatee. You can use dish detergent or saliva for mask anti-fog. Everything else you should buy at a dive shop with a pool. They'll offer expert advice and let you test the equipment in their pool. Take your swimsuit and plan to get wet. That's the only way to know what works for you and what doesn't.

Groceries - Prices are roughly double the prices on the mainland. Produce prices are triple.

After spending two weeks in Costa Rica where grocery and restaurant prices are less than half of mainland US prices, this left us with a bit of sticker shock. If you are cost conscious or you like cooking dishes that require a well stocked supermarket, you'll want to pack a suitcase with grocery items and bring it along.

Once here, the only real grocery store is at the other end of the island, a trek that will take at least 45 minutes. There is a small store near the house but it's selection compares to a typical gas station or small party store. The supermarket in Cruz Bay will have the staples but precious little beyond that. A trip to St. Thomas to find a better stocked grocery store will be an all day excursion and cost about $50 for the round trip car ferry. It's far easier to spend an hour at your favorite supermarket and bring along an extra suitcase. Upon return you can fill it with any souvenir items you collect.

Contrast this advice with my normal travel style. I typically prefer to travel extremely light, with only a small (carry-on sized) backpack for two week trips in Europe and recently in Costa Rica. When you have little, you can pack and move freely from place to place without worrying about lugging stuff. St. Johns is different. Here we brought along a large checked bag with our snorkeling gear and another with everything else. One more with select grocery items would have been a good idea.

Snacks in your "carry-on" - We always pack our carry-on with a bottle of water and a couple meals worth of snacks. It saves buying food at highly inflated airline terminal prices and you get to choose your munchies from an entire grocery store at home instead of a closet sized assortment of popular junk food. A few of our favorites are: a loaf of fresh baked banana bread, Nutella and something to spread it on, and Cracklin Oat Bran in a ziplock.

DVD's or books - There is a DVD player here. If the winds pick up to 25mph and it's raining you probably won't venture out to the beach. It's hard to tan in the rain and the 6-8 foot waves make snorkel or diving visibility plummet. Fortunately, there's an ample supply of books and movies already here, but if you're like me and have a "reading pile" to catch up on, bring it along.

Things to know

Water supply - There is no "city water" service. Running water is collected from rain water and stored in two large cisterns. During the dry seasons, there will be a limited amount of water available so conservation is mandatory. Pay special attention to leaks as a dripping faucet or toilet will rapidly empty the cisterns and it will cost a couple hundred dollars to have the cisterns filled.

From a restaurant restroom: "Here in the land of sea and sun, we never flush for number one."

Cell phone coverage - At the house: coverage ranges from poor to non-existent. If you have Cingular, sacrifice two chickens, and stand in the right spot in the right position, you might get coverage. Everyone else is out of luck.

Around the island: Sprint is mostly useless except in Cruz Bay. Cingular is pretty good on most of the island.

In Cruz Bay: Most carriers have good or excellent coverage.

Calling card usage - You "might" be able to use your calling card, and you might not. Susan's calling card works fine, mine does not. Both are AT&T calling cards, and both were purchased at Sam's Club. Her's works fine, I get a "you are calling from an invalid number" message. Different cards have a range of 800 numbers you dial before punching in your card number. Unfortunately, I don't know which 800 numbers will work from the Caribbean and which will not.

Shops close at 5:00 PM - Seriously. We got into St. Thomas at 6:02 PM and nearly all shopping areas were closed as we drove by them. We noticed this to be the case on St. John as well. After 5, you won't find much open except restaurants, bars, and gas stations.

Road hazards - You drive on the left side of the road.

The left side of the road thing is easy to adapt to, but a word to the drivers. Be prepared for the loud gasp your passenger emits the first time you pop over a hill and a vehicle is coming at them, in what they think is their lane. It is quite amusing, so make sure to chuckle appropriately.

The speed limit is around 30 mph but you won't need to watch your needle. Imagine a roller coaster ride up and down complete with lots of tight turns. Some of these turns fall into the 'hairpin' turn category and come after you've built up a lot of momentum on your way downhill. Surprises lurk. Occasionally you will brake quickly for the local critter population: goats, sheep, donkeys, and even pigs hang out on the skinny roads. Of course, they have the right of way.

Bed - The master suite bed is a Select Comfort air mattress with down mattress covers on it. If you're feeling a bit like you're in a hammock or sleeping on a board, locate the controls near the head of the bed and use them to inflate or deflate the mattress to suit your preferences. Each side of the bed has it's own controls.

iPod connections

If you happen to be an iPod toting traveler, you'll be pleased to know there are various ways to "plug in" here. At first, I had given up after not finding a cassette player to use with my cassette adapter. We resorted to using the Y adapter and our earbuds to listen to a few more hours of "Charlie Wilson's War".

On the second day, I noticed the Bose stereo had aux inputs. I checked, and sure enough, a stereo miniplug cable was plugged in already. I plugged the miniplug into the iPod and we listened some more through the Bose. Later, I used that same cable to play the iPod through the television in the master suite.

Later still, I discovered a set of Sony portable speakers with mini-plug input. You can plug the iPod in and listen to your iPod at the beach and at home using the AC adapter. Pack along AA batteries if you expect to make use of the battery operated feature. I have no idea how much play time 4 AA batteries will yield but I'd consider bringing an extra set if I expected to make substantial use of it.

The Jeep has a cassette deck. I dropped my cassette adapter into the deck and used the car stereo to listen to our iPod books while driving around the island.

Thank you gifts

When we are so blessed by the generous use of someone's home, it's natural to want to give something in return. Nothing listed here is essential but a few things (like harp strings) are items that, once we got here, we wished we had known about before arriving, when we could have done something about it.

Deck chair webbing - The webbing on one of the deck chairs was torn when we arrived, and in it's compromised status, it was only a matter of minutes before it refused to support me any longer. Alas, the lonely general store only offers little. I have taken a photo so that any moderately handy person can acquire the proper webbing to repair it.

Harp strings - I don't know a lot about harps but it appears adding strings would be no more difficult than stringing a guitar. There is a tuner here as well. If you aren't experienced at stringing instruments, I'd recommend bringing along a couple extra strings. ;-)

Toiletries - Everything you need is already here. Seriously. There are even extra disposable toothbrushes and razors in case you forget yours. Consumable items such as Kleenex, paper towels, and toilet paper are always great ways to fill those extra spaces in the groceries suitcase.

Mi casa es su casa. So be nosy. - If you need something, don't be afraid to poke around. You might be surprised to find it's there somewhere. If you don't poke around, you'll never find the vacuum cleaner, candle inventory, harp tuner, or washing machine. Respect and courtesy should govern what you mess with and what you leave alone.

© Matt Simerson 1999-2004 - Email suggestions or updates.