US Virgin Islands, St. John– Known for having some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and renowned for its romantic getaways. As Pressure so eloquently puts it, “St. John ah real paradise so nice so nice.”
Man, I can’t listen to that song without it bringing me back to the moment of sitting in the bed of a pick-up truck, driving down these crazy winding roads as the warm ocean breeze flows through my hair and the sun’s rays kiss my skin.
If you’re interested in learning what it’s like to live in paradise, and my experience as a volunteer, keep reading.
With crystal blue waters and beautiful white sandy beaches, you’re probably wondering why on earth did St. John USVI need volunteers.
Well, in September of 2017 Hurricane Irma struck St. John and the rest of the Leeward Islands, forever changing life on St. John. Trees had been toppled and all the telephone poles torn out of the ground.
But the worst was yet to come, within a two weeks span the second category 5 Hurricane Maria brought even more wind and rain, utterly destroying the island.
What was once an island of peace and good vibes was now an island engulfed in heartache and destruction. But as resilient and courageous St. Johnians are, they knew there was nothing they could do but slowly reclaim their paradise piece by piece.
In the beginning of 2018, I felt a sense of urgency and longing to want to help and do what I could to give back to society. In March I finally arrived in the USVI.
From my first steps off the plane in St. Thomas to the ferry ride to St. John I knew I was in a special part of the world.
When I first arrived at the All Hands and Hearts volunteer base I was greeted with a tour and a mini orientation of the guidelines and expectations. Everyone is super friendly and welcoming to newcomers.
Oh, and by the way the base was actually the remains of what was once the nicest most expensive 5-star resort on the island, pre hurricanes.
The following is an average work day itinerary for a volunteer:
5am – Wake-up call, bright and early excited and ready to tackle the day
6am – Make it yourself breakfast supplied by AHAH
7am – After you gather supplies, you meet up with your team and drive off to your designated area for the day
8am to 12pm – Arrive at a local’s home, discuss the phase of rebuilding the house is in and the team leader designates a job for you to do for the day. If it’s your first day of construction don’t worry the team leader will guide and instruct you on how to properly remove debris, paint, cut wood, install flooring etc.
12pm – Lunch break, you pre-pack your lunch in the morning and bring it with you. Don’t forget to bring a large reusable water bottle. You’ll be drinking water like crazy! Sometimes the owner of the property stops by, which is always a cherished moment filled with story sharing and an appreciation for one another.
1pm to 3pm – Continue working on site, maybe listen to some fun tunes as you bang out the second half of the work day.
4pm – Arrive back on base, relax, shower, aka no running water. Cold water bucket bathing will have to suffice but believe me you’ll come to appreciate them.
5pm – Daily base meeting to introduce any new volunteers, discuss goals, teams are assigned, and any important information from management is delivered.
6pm – Base family dinner! We were blessed enough to have the wonderful Mrs. Colleen, a St. John native, cook delicious meals for us Monday-Friday, for meat eaters and vegetarians alike.
7pm to 9pm – Free time to relax and bond with your fellow volunteers and maybe pay a little Rolfball. AHAH member claimed to have invented this game that is like a combination of volleyball foursquare and dodgeball played with a kickball on a tennis court.
9pm – Quiet time. Activities start to wind down as people head off to their designated bunks or tents for some much need sleep after a long day.
On most All Hands and Hearts projects volunteers are given the weekend off. Many volunteers use this time to explore the town, go on island adventures or relax on one of the many beaches.
I always highly recommend bringing spending money for food and any activities you plan on doing on the weekend while you’re there.
Here’s a small list of some of my favorite things to do and places to visit on the island:
Go On A Nature Hike
Did you know that St. John is made up of 60% national park? Which means endless nature hikes! I suggest hiking the 3-mile Reef Bay Sugar Mill Trail and Ruins. Staring at 900 feet above sea level you will trek through lush tropical forest come across historic old sugar mill ruins and eventually end up at the ocean.
Fact: There’s a side trail that leads you to a beautiful waterfall where you can see ancient Taino Petroglyphs.
Another hike I recommend is the Rams Head Trail, which begins on the far east end of the island at Salt Pond Beach. On the 1 mile long uphill hike you will see lots of cactus and a completely different ecosystem than on the rest of the island. The trail ends at a crest 200 feet high with breathtaking views of the ocean.
Fact: The Ram’s Head Peak has an eerie history. It is said that in 1733 there was a slave rebellion. 300 slaves jumped to their deaths from the Rams Head cliff because they would rather die than be captured and worked to death from the inhumane conditions.
Visit Some of The Words Most Beautiful Beaches
Trunk Bay Beach is usually rated in the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the world, and rightly so. This noteworthy beach is known for its aqua blue waters, towering coconut palms and amazing snorkeling.
For all you surfers out there I suggest taking the trek to Reef Bay Beach. It’s a local surfer hangout spot and the place I first learned how to surf.
At the end of the day it’s really impossible to choose a wrong beach. That’s one of the reasons St. John so amazing!
Go Horseback Riding
If you love horses just as much as I do, I highly recommend visiting Carolina Corral. Run by Dana, the sweetest lady and animal lover on the island. Her horses are her pride and joy and she’s always rescuing various animals who are abandoned and in need of love and care.
Fact: Did you know donkeys are considered wild animals on the island? You can see them prancing around on the side of the roads, so be on the lookout.
From Dana’s stables, you will ride horseback down winding scenic trails and end up on a beautiful rocky beach. If you’re lucky you might catch the beginning of a sunset.
Before or after your ride I suggest having dinner at Oasis, known for their delicious home cooked Caribbean comfort food, or Skinny Legs known for their juicy burgers. Both places are a staple on this more laidback side of the island.
If you’re looking for the more populated and lively part of St. John filled with many restaurants and bars, you’ll want to head to Cruz Bay. Which should be easy to find considering you’ll be stepping right onto it as you get off the ferry boat when you first arrive.
If anyone is interested in a more detailed list of things to do and places to visit or eat on St. John let me know in the comments.
To Sum It up
St. John is a magical little island. Only 6 miles wide but filled with a close-knit community of big-hearted souls. Volunteering gave me a greater appreciation for life and much respect for the resilient humans and wildlife still thriving on the island.
Although the St. John program with AHAH has since closed, I highly recommend volunteering on one of the many other projects.
Not being able to volunteer on St. John is not necessarily a bad thing. That just means that St. John is starting to thrive again. By simply taking the time to visit you are supporting the local people and business owners.
In fact, less than a year after I left, I loved it so much that I decided to return and stayed with a friend for a few more weeks.
Like I mentioned before St. John is a magical place. Anyone who sets foot there will quickly understand why it’s “ah real paradise.”