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It's easy to forget that the Virgin Islands are a part of the United States. St. John in particular is so lush and untouched that it feels worlds away from the states, yet, in reality, it's just a three-hour flight from Washington D.C. One of the most surprising - and telling - facts about the smallest of the three main Virgin Islands is that while St. John is just 20 square miles, two-thirds of it is protected National Parks land.
After landing at the St. Thomas Airport we took a 45-minute boat ride to St.John, which in and of itself was a treat. The warm winds, blue waters and friendly sea captain ready and waiting with refreshments made it feel like an excursion. Once we arrived, it was clear that this isn't a tourist-centric destination. To that point, there are no all-inclusive resorts in St. John. This island offers both lush, mountainous terrain and stunning, white sand beaches. Beaches like this anywhere else in the world would certainly be overrun with resorts and tourist traps.
Instead, St. John's has managed to keep their island a pristine destination, one that embraces and openly shares its rich history, parts of which can be found on nearly any given hike. It's the blend of cultures, particularly African, European and Caribbean; unparalleled natural beauty; warm, friendly people; and most importantly the ability to soak it all in, without hoards of crowds and pretenses, that make this truly a special place. Plus, the fact that delicious Painkillers can be found at nearly every establishment doesn't hurt either.
I spent 3 days glamping at Cinnamon Bay Bay Beach & Campground, an Eco retreat in St. John located directly on the beautiful shoreline of Cinnamon Bay Beach. Reopened in November 2022 after being devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017, Cinnamon Bay reopened with a renewed focus on sustainability. Working alongside local communities to ensure that the environment and continued growth of the region stay top priority, Cinnamon Bay's goal is to provide travelers the special opportunity to quite literally be immersed in the untouched scenery of St. John.
Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground is a welcome alternative to the all-inclusive resorts that over run much of the Caribbean. Being on a campsite allowed me to feel a connection to the place I was staying at. I was actually absorbed into the fabric of the island in a way that can't be done while staying in a hotel room.
On these campgrounds are several types of accommodations ranging from eco-tents, which offer a fan, light, an electric outlet, queen-sized bed, linens, and a porch for unwinding; group tents, which are perfect for groups of 4; bare sites with tent rentals that include comfort kits; and the most recently opened cottages with are concrete buildings that offer most comforts a hotel room would have.
In addition, there's an onsite restaurant, the Rain Tree Cafe, that serves breakfast and dinner daily, while lunch is served at their food truck. When it's not serving food, the space is great for relaxing, group activities or catching up on screen time - it's one of the few places on site with wifi.
When it comes to showers, there are four bathhouses with sinks, showers and flush toilet stalls. As someone who needs their creature comforts, I was pleasantly surprised that I had everything I wanted despite not being in a convention hotel.
Most people assume you have to spend tons of money on a vacation to the U.S. Virgin Islands. For the 2-person eco tent I stayed in, the average is $175 a night and that's for an accommodation that's literally steps away from one of the most gorgeous beaches I've ever seen. Guests who prefer to be even more cost-efficient can opt for a bare site for only $50.
Because St. John is simply stunning, you don't need to splurge when it comes to excursions. Some of my favorite activities during my trip didn't involve hefty price tags.
You can rent affordable kayaks at the Cinnamon Bay campsite and experience the crystal-clear waters of the Virgin Islands. This area is known for its sea turtles and here we spotted three species with ease: the Hawksbill, green, and loggerhead sea turtles. The turtles' habitat in Cinnamon Bay remains undisturbed, unlike more popular snorkeling spots in the area. It was an absolute treat seeing them so close up and unbothered.
Cinnamon Bay Loop Trail is adjacent to the property and is a non-strenuous one-mile trail that explores the sites of a historic sugar plantation culminating in stunning views of the surrounding islands and the sea. A short drive away is St. John's most famous beach and one of the most photographed in the world. Trunk Bay, a quarter-mile of white sand, was one of the most spectacular places to spend the afternoon sipping Painkillers.
Another incredible and worthwhile hike was at Reef Bay Trail. This incredibly lush trail is open to the public, with no fee, and features ancient petroglyphs dating back to 900-1500 AD; magnificent ruins of the Reef Bay Sugar Mill; and stunningly dense jungle terrain. On this trail we made several stops to cool off at gorgeous, rushing waterfalls. The trail culminated at Reef Bay, an untouched stretch of beach that looks like it's straight out of a postcard. It makes sense considering it's inaccessible by car.
I consider myself to be outdoorsy, but not sleep-under-the-stars outdoorsy. While friends of mine on the trip embraced being disconnected from their screens and technology, I initially felt an increase in anxiety because of it. Similarly, while most people loved falling asleep to the cacophony of waves, birds, frogs, insects and rain, I felt an increased sense of stress from it the first night.
I'll admit, it took some adjusting and I had to acclimate myself to being in a new environment. Because I had no other choice, I focused on deep breaths and calming techniques to let go of the discomfort of being in a place that is literally nature. It took some time for me to be comfortable not checking my emails, texts or social media, but once I let go of the sense of urgency to be connected, I felt great. Minus the bug bites - definitely bring bug spray.
There's something extremely special about waking up to the sound of crashing waves and being able to walk just a few feet out to feel that same cool water underneath your toes. At Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground, you can do just that. The fact that this is right on such a stunning beach - one that's practically empty all day - is reason enough to push your boundaries and stay here.
Chelsea is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco whose passion revolves around exploring the world, immersing herself...
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