St. John Virgin Islands: Maho Bay

Maho Bay
Maho Bay

As the self-proclaimed “Official World’s Foremost Authority on St. John Beaches,” it has become my job to uncover those fine nuances that separate one St. John Beach experience with another. As I have always maintained, “It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. Today we’ll talk about Maho Bay.

In a nutshell, Maho Bay is the beach of choice for families with children and novice swimmers and snorkelers, who want to seek out calm, shallow, waters to enjoy our tropical wonderland without the anxiety of choppy seas and quick drop offs into deep water.

How to Get There
Maho Bay is located about 1.25 miles past Cinnamon Bay or 5.2 miles past Mongoose Junction going east on Route 20.

Calm Waters, Gradual Entry
Calm Waters, Gradual Entry

Calm Water
Maho Bay is the most geographically protected of all the north shore beaches., surrounded on the windward side by high steep hillsides. This keeps Maho Bay calm even when the trades pipe up and other north shore experience choppy conditions.

Maho is not completely immune to winter ground swells that come out of the north and west, but it is certainly less affected than most of the other beaches.

The downside of this geographical protection is that mosquitoes and sand flies are more active where there is no breeze. The wetlands behind the beach also contribute to a higher than usual mosquito population.  Therefore, during times of mosquito activity, after a rainy spell for example, it would be advised to bring along some mosquito repellant along with your usual beach gear.

Gradual Entry
The entry into the sea from the beach at Maho is gradual. There are no steep drop offs into deep water and you can walk out quite comfortably to find a water depth that suits you.

The Sand
Maho Beach sand is hard packed and not quite as sensual as the soft white coral sands found on other beaches on the north. This hard-packed sand extends into the sea where there are patches of areas with scattered small rocks making it not quite as comfortable for those, like me, with ultra sensitive feet. Of course, you can choose you can just as well choose a spot on the beach without small rocks and problem solved.

Interestingly, Maho Bay, now a relatively narrow beach, was once one of the widest beaches in St. John. The “horse kids” of St. John took advantage of this characteristic, as well as the great length of the beach, to have horse races on the sand. The narrowing of the beach came as a result of the removal of sand by the government to construct Cruz Bay roads and the Julius Sprauve School. This was done at a time when the dynamics of sand production and sand loss were not yet understood.

The Name
Maho Bay was named after the Hibiscus tilaceus or beach maho, a tree commonly found on the St. John shoreline and throughout the tropics. The beach Maho has a distinctive heart-shaped leaf and produces attractive yellow flowers that later turn purple. The small green fruit of the maho is not edible, but a bush tea can be made from the leaf.

Easy Access
Maho is the only beach on St. John’s north shore that you can drive right up to. It’s the very informality of this beautiful and often-photographed beach that makes it so special. It’s right there by the side of the road, no parking lots or signs, just the beach. Stately groves of coconut palms line both sides of the road. Just pull over under a maho tree and there you are!

Maho Bay has some nice shoreline vegetation. On the south there are some coconut palms and bodering the rest of the beach are Beach Mahos, of course, Sea Grapes and some scattered Mangroves and genips. Good for finding shade and hanging hammocks.

I have changed my mind about snorkeling at Maho and would list it as one of St. John’s best snorkel destinations, especially for novice snorkelers.

You can snorkel along the rocks on the north end of the beach to the large boulders on the point between Maho and the next beach Little Maho, where you can expect to encounter lots of reef fish, interesting rock formations and some nice corals.

Snorkeling over the sea grass, can also be very rewarding. Your experience will, however depend on luck, time of day and time of year. Give it a chance and you may find, sea turtles, rays, even spotted eagle rays at times and occasionally conch and star fish.

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6 thoughts on “St. John Virgin Islands: Maho Bay”

  1. There are very often large Tarpon on the outer edge of the rocks between Maho and Little Maho – more likely to be there when the bait schools are heaviest – — — also Moray eels along the rocky shoreline and sadly, since some of the visiting campers feed the fish while snorkeling, these Morays can be quite aggressive – my 1st Mate was bitten while simply pointing out a coral formation because a Moray thought she was offering food – it happened so quickly she didn’t know what it was at first until she saw the eel and all the blood – a very serious cut requiring stitches and some finger reconstruction. Overall it has excellent snorkeling especially for the beginner.

  2. . . . . and the Full Moon Parties are off the hook!! On a serious note I have seen 3 – 4 ft sharks on the bottom just off the rocks between Little and Big Maho in the fall. Of course they just cruised on by . . . Spend the day at Maho and then hike the Goat Trail or drive up and have an awesome dinner at the Maho Camps Resturant!!

  3. Thanks for the great info. I’ve often seen a nurse shark along the north coast of the bay, but no other sharks, nor have I come into contact with the eel (just as well)
    One time when I was practicing for a beach to beach swim with Chelsea O’Brien, I found $350 in tens and twenties just north of the dingy channel in about five feet of water.
    And the Maho Camp dinner idea sounds like an excellent idea. Thanks again.

  4. I ALWAYS take my guests to snorkle the first time at Maho. It is a safe place to evaluate the comfort level of “experienced” swimmers and the best place to teach “newbies” how to snorkle. Best to start out in a large shallow area like Maho for first snorkle lessons. We regularly see turtles in the sea grass area which never fails to excite everyone!

  5. This is a family favorite of ours. We have been there many times and even on holidays it doesn’t seem to be a busy as the other north shore beaches. I have seen many turtles, stingrays (and even a spotted ray), tarpon, but no eels. I agree with everyone, this is a great beginner snorkle beach with quite a bit of good things too see. I really like the coral bay end of the island, which also makes access to Maho very easy. Can’t wait to get back there…..

  6. Maho is my favorite beach on St John. My husband Fred and I started coming to St John 28 years ago. We always hoped to live there. Now Fred has made it ahead of me – I scattered his ashes in Maho Bay in 2007. On this year’s visit, my first snorkel was at Maho. Over the years, I have seen octopus there several times. This time I saw a large one swimming towards me. I followed it to it’s rocky home. I was amazed to watch it change color as it moved over the floor of the bay. In my mind, this sighting was Fred’s way of welcoming me back to our island paradise. As always, I look forward to my next visit.

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