St. John, US Virgin Islands, affectionately nicknamed “Love City,” is the scene for some of the most fantastic Festival revelry in the Caribbean. The St. John Festival is a month-long celebration that kicks off energetically with live music and performances and ramps up to an awe-inspiring fireworks display in the Cruz Bay harbor on the fourth of July!
The first official St. John Festival took place in 1945, but accounts of masquerade events and street festivities date back to the early 20th century while St. John was still under Danish rule. Today, the traditions of the Festival are kept alive with a variety of cultural, culinary and musical events that attract visitors from near and far.
July 3rd is celebrated in the Virgin Islands as Emancipation Day, commemorating the abolition of slavery in the islands in 1848. The Festival ends on Independence Day, July 4th, with the Festival Parade and fireworks that make this event one of the most memorable experiences in the world. It may be challenging to decide how to navigate all these wonderful events. Use this guide as your map.
To St. John From St. Thomas
The St. John ferry is the primary method of travel to St. John from St. Thomas. At $12 round trip, the ferry is the most convenient option. They usually leave at the top of every hour, but due to the high passenger volume during the festivities, they will leave when the vessel is at capacity. Make sure to give yourself plenty of travel time, and expect long lines at the dock. Traveling light will help you get through security quickly as well.
For some events, it may be fun to charter a boat. That will set you back anywhere between $500 and $1200. Try Busy Bee Charters for smaller parties.
Sleepover on St. John
If you’re planning to attend events on a daily basis, you may want to consider reserving accommodations on St. John. There are a variety of options, ranging from camp grounds on the beach at Cinnamon Bay to the luxurious ocean-view villas offered by St. John Ultimate Villas.
Be sure to book your stay well ahead of time. If you wait too long, you may find it difficult to find a place to stay. The boutique inns in Cruz Bay and Gallows Point Resort are central and walking distance from all the action. If loud music playing into the early hours of the morning bothers you, you may want to consider getting a room a little further away from Cruz Bay.
- Whether you live on St. John or are travelling to “Love City,” it’s important to remember that the Summer heat in the Virgin Islands is often unforgiving.
- Make sure to stay hydrated, especially if you’re planning to enjoy some of our local rum cocktails.
- Wear sunscreen and plenty of cover up during the day and you may want to carry bug spray at night.
- When you are traveling as a family or in a group, try to wear easily identifiable clothing so nobody gets lost in the crowds.
- If you’re ever injured or ill during the festivities, the Morris F. deCastro Clinic is in the heart of Cruz Bay. It’s a blue building to the left of the Cruz Bay ferry dock. You can’t miss it, but I hope you never have to visit.
There’s so much to see and do, so stay safe and enjoy St. John Festival.
June 24th – Queen Pageant
The title of “Festival Queen” is a coveted one. The Queen Pageant began in 1960, when Ms. Elsie Thomas-Trotman was crowned “Miss Independence.” The traditions continue with young ladies competing in categories like talent, fashion and special presentations. The Pageant is a unique display of our culture that takes place at the Winston Well Ball Park on Saturday, June 24th at 1:00pm.
It’s a good idea to bring folding chairs, as there isn’t much seating and the event usually lasts several hours. Food vendors and satellite bars are available, but you may want to bring snacks especially if you have small children with you.
June 25th – Food Fair & Coronation
Speaking of snacks, the Food Fair is one of the most popular events of any Virgin Islands Festival! On Sunday, June 25th the sights and smells of St. John will be intoxicating. Vendors set up booths or tents throughout Frankin A. Powell Sr. Park and offer local foods and crafts for sale.
Some of the vendors represent restaurants and local businesses, while others support church groups and other non-profits on St. John. Expect an impressive assortment of locally caught fish, lobster, conch, and other delicacies. Satisfy your sweet tooth with cakes and tarts made from recently ripened fruit that bare only in the Summer months. Mangoes, genips, tamarind, gooseberries and guava are just a few of the fruits that can be found in everything from food to smoothies.
At 1pm, the Coronation of our new Festival Queen takes place with much fanfare and live steel pan music!
June 25th – Boat Races
The attention turns to the Cruz Bay Harbor at 3pm on the same day for the boat races! Hundreds of people gather on the beach or on the hilltops overlooking Pillsbury Sound for the best view. If you have access to a private boat, or would like to charter one, you can get even closer to the action! This is St. John’s nautical version of NASCAR, with the roaring engines of speed boats resounding across the bay.
June 28th through July 4th – Festival Village
One can scarcely mention St. John Festival without highlighting the Festival Village. “The Village,” as it’s called, is truly the heart of the event. Directly across from the clinic, the parking area turns into a musical arena. The stage is surrounded on both sides by food and drink vendors, some of which have been part of the Village for decades. You can always tell which vendors are the most popular by the long lines in front of them. Each night there is a music line-up that includes Caribbean artist from the Virgin Islands as well as some of the biggest names in Calypso and Soca music worldwide!
Expect an amazing lineup this year including:
The Village opens on Wednesday, June 28th and stays open each night until the wee hours of the morning. Children can enjoy the Coney Island style games that are set up for them at the St. John National Park field. Bring the whole family out for cotton candy, rides, and good clean fun for all!
July 3rd – Emancipation Day Program
On July 3rd, 1848, Governor Peter von Scholten was forced to liberate the slaves after a peaceful revolt in St. Croix. The day is celebrated in the US Virgin Islands as Emancipation Day. Each year, the St. John Festival has a special program at the Franklin A. Powell Sr. Park to commemorate this momentous event that had such a huge impact on our islands and the Caribbean.
Starts 4 AM, July 4th – J’ouvert
J’OUVERT! Sorry, I got excited for a minute. J’ouvert (pronounced Joo-Vay) is a celebration of epic proportions. The word itself originates from French creole, meaning “dawn,” or “open day.” Upon the abolition of slavery, slaves took to the streets before sunrise to dance to the rhythmic beating of drums and triumphant blowing of horns and conch shells!
Nowadays, the St. John Festival J’ouvert starts at the National Park dock at 4am on July 3rd and leads right into the Festival Parade. A small group of elite steel pan players usually kicks off the event. Crowds begin to gather at sunrise and look for their favorite bands as they are paraded down the street on large truck beds!
Expect to get your clothes ruined if you jump in! Besides the obvious sweat, J’ouvert revelers are often covered in body paint, color-dyed powers, mud and a variety of party favors as they dance behind large speakers in the street.
Oh, and there will be plenty of rum. Just remember to keep our paradise clean by discarding your trash in the nearest bin.
July 4th – Festival Parade and Fireworks
Once the dust settles, J’ouvert revelers have just a couple hours (or minutes) to collect themselves before the start of the Festival Parade at 11AM. The Festival Queen leads the parade in a decorative gown and crown, as she waves and takes pictures with her subjects. Immediately following the queen is a parade of colorful troupes consisting of everything from clowns and jesters to Mocko Jumbies and steel pan bands!
If you are able to join a troupe, this is one of the most exciting ways to participate in the parade. Otherwise, spectators can enjoy the view from the sidelines.
The Parade is almost always finished before sunset, and most take this opportunity to nap or grab a relaxed meal before the fireworks display at 9pm.
Independence Day on St. John is an unforgettable experience. Find a place along the Cruz Bay harbor with your loved ones and enjoy the dazzling display. It is a truly magical way to end your day, but, if you still have the stamina, the Festival Village will stay open that evening until about 2am.
Whatever you decide to participate in, the most important thing is your health and safety. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen fun cut short by things like irresponsible drinking, sun burn or food allergies.
Take care of yourself, take care of your loved ones and have a happy and safe St. John Festival!
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Vernon Oliver Araujo
Vernon was born in Antigua and grew up on St. John and St. Thomas, USVI from the age of three. After graduating from Antilles School, Vernon earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Communication from Boston College in 2006, but returned home to St. Thomas that year. He started his career in marketing and human resources with Diamonds International, and worked for them for 4 years before turning his attention to non-profits. Mr. Araujo was the co-founder of the STT-STJ Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals Network, he sits on the Board of Directors for the V.I. Council on the Arts, is Director of Development for Family Resource Center, and Director of Island Vibes Summer Camp. In his remaining free time, Vernon does marketing and media consulting through 104.3FM The Buzz and Melee Media. When he isn’t working, Vernon enjoys playing sports, writing, gardening and water sports.
Photo credits: William Stelzer