18.308 N, 64.832 W (published February 2013)
“Welcome to paradise,” the woman on the next mooring cried as we slipped into our first anchorage on St. John at sunset. The next day, we were stunned to watch bright fish flitting under our boat in 30 feet of crystal-clear water, and soon decided that St. John, with its National Park lands empty of humans and its abundant, amazing snorkeling, was our favorite place on earth. That was, until it came time to pay the mooring bill.
With good reason, the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John requires boats to use moorings rather than anchoring: anchors destroy the abundant coral and sea grass, home to the turtles, rays and fish that make diving here so fantastic. But at $15 a night, staying in the National Park can get pricey for the cruiser on a budget who is more accustomed to throwing out a hook for the night. What’s a cost-conscious sailor to do?
Make for Christmas Cove, less than three miles from St. John on Great St. James Island, part of St. Thomas. Christmas Cove combines the best of the National Park on St. John—immaculately clear waters, abundant sea life and a completely undeveloped shoreline—with the added benefit of a couple dozen moorings that are completely free and available for up to 10 days.
Christmas Cove had long been a popular anchorage because of its good protection from weather and swell, but its popularity was taking a toll on the coral and sea grass. Two years ago, a Department of the Interior grant to the local government paid for the installation and maintenance of free moorings in the cove, something for which the sea turtles and our crew are infinitely grateful.
We saw more sea turtles frolicking around our boat than anywhere else in the Virgins, and multiple times spied a spotted eagle ray jumping several feet out of the water, its black wings with white spots curled toward the sky as it gracefully but awkwardly plopped back into the sea. Snorkeling is fantastic—a long rock ledge covered in coral is home to a strikingly large variety of fish, eels and squid, their bright colors sparkling through the transparent water. Nights here are quiet, with only the sound of birds and crickets from land to interrupt the perfect timing of the waves on the shore. A walk along the beach yields handfuls of shells, sand dollars and sea anemones, admired and tossed back to the sea for someone else to enjoy.
But all this nature is only a dinghy-ride away from St. Thomas, where you can fill water and fuel tanks in Red Hook, grab a drink at the St. Thomas Yacht Club, or get a taxi to K-Mart, Home Depot, marine chandlers or wholesale club stores. And this makes Christmas Cove the perfect place to hole up, ready the boat, provision and relax for a few days before heading down-island.