“Nights and days came and passed – And summer and winter – and the rain. And it was good to be a little Island.
A part of the world – and a world of its own – All surrounded by the bright blue sea.”
― Margaret Wise Brown, The Little Island
While on a family sailing trip Laurence Rockefeller “discovered” St. John. Because when you’re a gazillionaire, sometimes these things happen. Luckily for the rest of us, the generous Rockefeller donated most of the island to the National Park Service, in fact 2/3 of the island is protected land. And right in the middle of this glorious paradise there is just one hotel, Caneel Bay Resort.
It’s the most unassuming of properties. Just like the grande dame from the country club who is totally loaded but drives a Volvo and shops at Target, Caneel Bay does not flaunt its wealth. The rooms seem to be trying to disappear in to the sand, one story, earth tones, from a distance you can’t even see some of them. The beach chairs have certainly been there since the 1970’s, they still work, why would you replace them? I do wonder about cushions, but with the sudden tropical downpours, the plastic strap furnitures is practical and functional.
For the several days were there I felt like I had gone back to a time when life was unstructured, no phones in the rooms, no TVs, no planned activities. Keaton and his friends caught geckos and made “habitats” for them in plastic cups. This one was named Arnold.
They played hide and go seek, the danced with the umbrellas they found in our rooms on the beach and followed the wild donkeys around petting them against the “rules”. I really expected to come across my mom with a pack of cigarettes and bottle of suntan oil with some Doobie Brothers on the radio at the beach. I don’t remember the last time I was this relaxed, but it took me a day or two to get used to the Caneel Bay vibe.
Those expecting a fancy resort with marble bathrooms and staff who clean your sunglasses by the pool will be disappointed. Those looking to really experience the Caribbean as it’s meant to be experienced will be delighted.
Caneel Bay has seven private beaches, actually one is public but they don’t let people use said fancy plastic chairs so um, no one comes there. Two are adults only. All are uncrowded and have white sand that feels like powdered sugar underneath your feet.
The waves are calm, actually, unless a big boat comes by there are no waves. At Scott Beach you can snorkel (even little kids) and see amazing marine life. We spotted two turtles, both of whom eventually came up for a breath of air and to the sound of us screaming “the turtles are BREATHING”. They seemed unfazed. We saw all manner of fish and with our competent guide Rob learned some amazing ocean facts. The most popular of course being the fish that eats the turtle’s poop. We saw it live. You can’t replicate that in a class room.
They have a pool, I hear it’s small. I didn’t even bother looking. I can’t imagine anyone who would want to be in a pool when the beach is this glorious. There are floaties for spending hours just drifting in the sea and a swim up platform just off shore. The kids loved playing on it and turning the floaties in to slip and slides.
The surf is so gentle even kids can paddleboard in these amazing stand on kayaks, they are more stable than regular paddle boards and easier for little ones to manage.
Like I said, this resort seems to almost pride itself on how unfancy it is. The rooms are nothing to write home about, except for the part where many of them have the ocean out the front door. At many hotels the “oceanfront” rooms are tucked behind dunes or you have to climb down a flight of stairs to get there. These rooms are perfect for families. It’s easy to let the kids play on the beach while you enjoy a cocktail on your porch. Here are a few photos to give you some sense of the accommodations. I think the no phone, no TV thing was more significant before wi-fi and Netflix. As much as I used the wi-fi every minute I was there, I kind of wish they didn’t have it.
You know I love my island tennis. The first question I asked was if they had courts. They have 10. They need to be running a tennis camp. I am seriously trying to sell them on this idea. The pros were great. The surface is crazy, it’s like astro turf with sand blown in, it makes sliding easy. They offer a drill clinic every single morning, which I love. I hate resorts where you always have to take a private lesson or find your own game.
There is only one restaurant that allows little kids, the main restaurant at the hotel, Caneel Beach Bar and Grill. Luckily it has amazing food, even a stellar sushi bar. They offer toes in the sand dinners for those looking for a romantic night, and even for babies. I met a family with the world’s cutest baby and asked them to send me the picture of their family beach dinner. Seriously, how adorable is this?
Zozo’s at the Sugar Mill
This signature restaurant is perched at the top of 18th century sugar mill ruins. The website says the menu is italian, don’t be swayed, it’s not pasta and bread. Keaton had baby octopus and I had the most amazing mahi mahi. The views stretch for miles. Though it’s on property it is a public restaurant and reservations are recommended. Children under 5 are not allowed. Thankfully there is no kids menu, I hate it when restaurants dumb down food for kids.
Most families also head in to Cruz Bay for casual dining as eating at one restaurant for an entire vacation can get old. The resort offers babysitting so you can get away for a nice dinner if you’re traveling with little ones. Which leads me to the kids camp.
Turtle Town Kids Camp
Let’s start with the most important fact, it’s free. Yes, totally free. The facility is perfectly lovely, if small. I was concerned that the kids would just sit inside and color. Not that I was overly concerned as I was getting a massage at the time, but still. When I asked what they did Keaton exclaimed “We played hide and seek, and learned about turtles and played house!” Like I said, a 1970’s vacation. Or am I the only one who has a child so over scheduled that hide and seek is a rare treat? This a photo that the girl who worked at kids club took and sent me.
There is no real spa to speak of. They have very unassuming open air cabanas up on the hill with a view of the water in the distance. Like everything else at this resort, looks are deceiving, truly one of the best massages of my life….and just look at the view from the table.
The Town – Cruz Bay
We only spent a short amount of time in town. I was on a mission. I love jewelry as a vacation souvenir and the iconic St. John hook bracelet had been on my wish list for a while. There are several jewelry stores in town that sell various versions. They are all handmade, some are large and chunky with logos on them, I was looking for thin and elegant. I found mine at Bamboo Studios. They had them in solid gold for just under $ 1,000 (this one is on my Christmas list, someone tell Mr. LTM), I got the mixed metal for $260 and they had plain silver for less. All of the girls on the trip got one and they are now our friendship bracelets. I haven’t taken it off since and it makes me happy every time I look at it. Also in town, t-shirt shops and lots of bars that serve up the island’s signature drink the Painkiller.
Tours and Outings
Every night a sunset cruise departs from the dock. It’s a relaxing tour around the islands with lots of rum punch on board. It’s a lovely way to cap off a gorgeous day on the beach.
VI Ecotours operates from Honeymoon Beach which is the public beach about 4 minutes walk from Caneel Bay. They offer several different tour options. We did the kayak, hike and snorkel excursion. You go in double kayaks so little kids can manage, it’s also a short kayak trip. The hike took about an hour and our guide Rob taught the kids which plants were poisonous, would make you itch and looked soft but would actually cut you. It was great information. Much to their delight and my horror, he taught us that the holes in the ground are full of tarantulas and he coaxed one out with a blade of grass. I didn’t take my camera, so you will just have to trust me on this one. At the end of our tour our guide Rob made some amazing sand art with the kids. Yes, he knows about tarantulas and he’s an artist. He’s also single ladies.
You will be pleased to know that I sampled the entire cocktail menu at Caneel Bay on your behalf. The signature Painkiller was not my favorite, it’s too creamy. I would recommend the IguanaColada or the BBC. I love big yummy frozen drink on vacation and this menu did not disappoint. The Painkiller recipe will be in a separate post. It seems that all of my readers already knew about it and are completely obsessed. I love my readers.
Last, but by no means least – the wild donkeys. As charmed as I was by this roving band of hooved friends, I think the staff is tired of them. They are total outlaws. They wander the property, drinking from footbaths, strewing beach towels about and generally doing whatever they want. I was up early working and they came right up to my front door one morning. Keaton ran out and started petting and feeding them. Apparently this is a bad idea since they are wild, but they seemed quite used to it. Since I don’t have to deal with their naughty ways, I thought they were adorable.
What You Need to Know
You don’t need a passport to get to St. John, it’s in the US Virgin Islands. Money, electric power, all American. Service? Decidedly island.While the staff was lovely, the pace is hard to get used to for an east coaster. The only time it really made me crazy was when I would wake up to last night’s beach party mess outside my front door, but the guy who cleans the beach doesn’t come to work until 11:00am. Yes, I checked my watch. I told you I can’t relax. You fly in to St. Thomas airport, from there Caneel Bay transports you to St. John by private boat. Though the flight is quick, the transfer is not, factor in an extra hour or two depending on your arrival time. The stress of waiting for a ferry to the island is completely forgotten once you have a rum drink in your hand. Also, no need to pack heels or anything fancy, this is an all cover ups and flip flops affair – nothing more needed.
We were the guests of Caneel Bay for review purposes. Keaton cried when we left, and his opinion is not swayed by comps – his whole life is comped by mom. Also on this trip were two of my very dearest friends and fellow mom bloggers, Nicole from Momtrends and Andrea from SavvySassyMoms. Click on the links to read their reviews.