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On the Underwater Trail at St. John Island

January 29, 1989|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

CRUZ BAY, U.S. Virgin Islands — We've been snorkeling in warm Caribbean waters, following the underwater trail along the coral reefs of Trunk Bay off St. John Island.

Through our face plates we can read about the reefs and fish on display markers beside the trail.

With a flick of its golden tail, a butterfly fish lured me toward a patch of coral, where the blue shimmer of a queen parrotfish was leading my wife Elfriede astray.

We got back on course on the surface by locating one of the bobbing floats that are markers of the underwater trail.

Huge Park

Trunk Bay is part of the Virgin Islands National Park that includes two-thirds of St. John Island. The park spans about 9,500 shoreside acres, plus another 5,650 acres of surrounding water.

St. John Island is only 20 minutes by ferry from St. Thomas, capital island of the U.S. Virgins.

We were instructed by rangers to keep off the coral or otherwise subject it to damage while snorkeling.

On the beach, the white sand feels as soft as talcum powder when you walk the shore and wade into the water.

Reef fish help to keep it that way. The queen parrotfish turns rock and coral into fine sand by grazing the algae growing on them. The sand, in turn, helps maintain nature's life cycle of the coral and beach in a relationship that is both enduring and delicate, and dependent upon a pollution-free sea.

The peaceful Arawaks arrived in the Virgin Islands from South America long before the birth of Christ. However, their villages on St. John and the other islands were almost wiped out by other Indians, the Caribs, by the time Columbus arrived on his second voyage in 1493.

Plantations Developed

After two centuries of struggle for control between European powers and long years of piracy, St. John and the other Virgins were taken over by Denmark in 1717.

Sugar and cotton plantations were developed with slave labor. Slavery was abolished in 1848. The United States bought the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917 and in 1931 they became a U.S. territory.

We landed on St. Thomas from the Pacific Princess as one of the ship's shore options.

The charge of $24 per person included a surrey bus ride from the pier to the eastern tip of St. Thomas, the ferry across Pillsbury Sound to Cruz Bay, and another surrey ride along the coastal road high above the beaches to Trunk Bay. Snorkeling gear and instructions were part of the package.

A lifeguard station and facilities for changing and showering are maintained by the National Park Service at Trunk Bay.

This introduction to St. John is a lure to return for a longer stay. On your own, the 20-minute ferry ride from the eastern tip of St. Thomas to Cruz Bay is $2 each way. The 45-minute ferry between the docking area and Cruz Bay is $5.

Rental cars and motor scooters are available at Cruz Bay. The National Park Service visitor center near the ferry landing offers trail maps for mountain and beach hiking and for snorkeling.

Narrow Trails

The 21 hiking trails take from 10 minutes to two hours to walk. They include old Danish plantation roads to ruins of sugar mills, narrow trails with sea vistas and winding paths through mountain forests.

The Moravian Church at Emmaus, near the community of Coral Bay, is along the way. It was built in the late 18th Century, and is one of the oldest Caribbean chapels still in use.

The 10-minute hike to Peace Hill leads to an old sugar-mill tower and a sculptured figure of Christ looking out over the sea. The trails and coastal roads link accommodations ranging from National Park Service campgrounds to cozy inns and condos, mostly around Cruz Bay, and two luxury resorts--the historic Caneel Bay plantation and the new Virgin Grand Beach Hotel.

Lind Point Trail is a one-hour walk between the National Park Service visitor center at Cruz Bay and the Caneel Bay plantation resort opened by Laurance Rockefeller in 1956.

The Caneel Bay resort can be seen from the beach.

St. John Island, with a population of almost 9,000, had about 400 residents when Rockefeller arrived in the early 1950s. Caneel Bay was then a fishing camp. Rockefeller acquired nearly 5,000 acres, most of which was given to the U.S. government to form the nation's 29th national park.

Caneel Bay resort is in a 170-acre estate surrounded by the national park. The 171 villa-like accommodations are set in coral stone and surrounded by tropical foliage along the beaches. There are seven tennis courts and many hammocks.

Guests also can be ferried to St. Thomas for golf. Double rates start at $395 a day during the winter high season, including all meals, and about $295 after April 16. For information and reservations, call toll-free (800) 223-7637.

The Virgin Grand Beach Hotel opened for the winter season in 1987. It overlooks a beach and marina at Great Cruz Bay. The 264 guest rooms, suites and town houses have patios and sea views.

Three restaurants offer from international cuisine to informal beachfront dining. There are six tennis courts, and the resort has a private yacht for excursions. A 96-unit development of condo villas was recently added. Double rates with all meals are in the same price range as at Caneel Bay. Information: (800) 323-7249.

Tents and cottages that sleep four at Cinnamon Bay National Park Campground are $50 a night for two and $6 for each additional person. For reservations and information, call (800) 776-6330.

Popular small inns such as Raintree start at $60 for rooms with private baths. Weekly packages are available at the inns and housekeeping homes.

For more information, contact the U.S. Virgin Islands Division of Tourism, 3450 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 915, Los Angeles 90010, (213) 739-0138.

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