A stay in an American paradise ST. JOHN
Maho Bay, St. John, the American Virgin Islands
An anecdote told proudly and often in St. John is the tale of the dire fate of a certain unfortunately round and orange orange-juice stand. This object so incensed the citizenry that a number of otherwise law-abiding persons, in the dead of night, picked it up and threw it into the sea.
St. Johnians are not complacent about their beautiful island. A little under two-thirds of it is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, thanks mostly to a grant in the '50s by Laurance Rockefeller. That means that on much of the land there is virtually no development at all -- unless you chose to count the odd picturesque ruined sugar mill. The population used to be a bit more spread out than it is now, but as people became more affluent, they moved down into Cruz Bay, the main town, leaving the hills empty. The pace of development, thus far, is slow.
St. John is a green mound sticking up out of the water. There is little level land -- a reason that the cane and cotton plantations that once completely razed the island never did very well here. Since the 1940s, the catch-and-keep, kapok and mahogany, and occasional orchids, beautiful parasites that tuft the trees, have come back. Vines and very slender trees predominate; you can see a rather long way into the forest from any of the island's three unpredictable and twisting roads.
Except for a few houses to let, there are only three places you can stay on St. John. A fabulous deal is Cinnamon Bay, a basic campground with a millionaire's beach. Baresites are $3 a night, tents are $24, and stucco cottages are $32. On the other end of the scale is Caneel Bay Plantation, which has the air of a tropical country club with its palms and rolling green lawns; if you wonder why it costs $240 (double, MAP) to stay there, consider that there are seven beaches and one acre of highly landscaped ground per guest.
In between the two in some ways -- price and degree of luxury, maybe -- is Maho Bay Camps, where I stayed. It's set on a hillside, at the bottom of which is a small but lovely beach (the only kind they have on St. John). The sand on the beach is as fine and white as flour. I saw no tar, only one small piece of litter -- which isn't there any more because I picked it up; there were no rocks to step on, the only intrusion in the soft whiteness being some rather pretty shells and a few bits of coral.
A nice way to while away a morning is to kick lazily in the pure, turquoise green water, and observe the pelicans.These large brown birds, of an almost prehistoric ugliness, are great fun to watch. They flap fussily, a steady two feet above the water, head scrunched down into a heavy breast, the substantial beak about the same length as the body. Then, when one decides to descend, it suddenly swoops up about ten feet, closes its wings, points its beak straight at the water, and crash-lands, with a thud that is audible for some distance. Beyond the flight path of the pelicans is the green arm of the bay, and white half moons of sails gleaming brilliantly in the sunlight, silhouetted against the round green hills of St. Thomas, beyond.
Another enjoyable place to be is on the veranda of your tent. The idea of a tent with a veranda might say to you that this is no ordinary tent, and you would be right. Not everyone cares for camping, but this is not at all like camping you may have done before.The tents even have electricity; there is no chance of getting wet; there is no need to lug heavy items around -- in short, you have the fun of being outdoors without the inconveniences that make some of us determined non- campers.
I became qite fond of my very compact and private little three-room canvas cottage, which had two comfortable beds in a small bedroom area (blankets and sheets provided), a living room area with a sofa, a kitchen area with an ice chest, propane stove, and pots and pans, and the veranda, which had a view of boats and water and island beyond, through the trees. The tent costs $40 a night for a couple; each additional person is $10. The sofa in the living room can be made into two comfortable mattresses. (For more information write Maho Bay Camps, 17 E. 73rd St., New York NY 10021).
If you are sedentary, you migh prefer a tent closer to the beach, as there are quite a few stairs. If you are more active, the tents that are higher have even more wonderful views and are also less buggy. (The nasty little bugs called sandflies or no-see-ums, unfortunately common throughout the Caribbean, necessitate frequentm applications of Cutter's.)
You can get a good breakfast and dinner at the camp's charming open-air dining room. The breakfast is created by members of the blond, cheerful, athletic young staff, who themselves demonstrate the benefits of a tropical lifestyle. But the dinners are catered by local women, who serve dishes that are typical of the islands, such as conch stew. (A cooked conch looks rather like a sauteed mushroom and tastes a bit like a cross between a mushroom and a scallop, but springier.)
Stanley Selengut, owner of Maho Bay Camps, explained the reason behind the catering arrangement. "The people here have an instinctive dislike of being put in menial positions," he said. "For instance, a woman who is a waitress might be sullen and unfriendly. But when she's the hostess, she's smiling and giving big portions. . . . She's not a servant, she's an entrepreneur."
If you plan to do a lot of cooking in your tent, be prepared for the high prices of food in St. John. The commissary is run on a breakeven basis but still $1.50 for a pork chop, or $1.25 for a package of frozen broccoli, is probably more than you are used to paying. The reason: everything -- even the fruit and vegetables you might assume would be abundant on a tropical island -- is imported. Mr. Selengut suggests bringing tins of tunafish and produce from home right on the plane with you.
There isn't a lot to do at night on St. John, unless you can catch a fish fry. These are usually put on by local ladies for the benefit of a church or the community. The men haul the fish right up on the beach, where it is cooked in great pots on beds of charcoal (making charcoal is another local specialty.) The fish is of many different types; our party had a grouper, an alewife, and a yellowtail -- and one person who opted for chicken.There was also a calypso band. The tourists danced with some difficulty to the unusual beat, but local people dance with much more subtlety and style.
The local people, as a rule, are much more neatly dressed than the average tourist and somehow it is quite obvious that theym are not on vacation. "They are very proud. . . they wear a lot of gold," one lifelong resident of meighboring St. Thomas, Miss Juliet Creque, remarked to me. "One thing I remember, growing up -- is lots of starchm ." The people seemed reserved rather than gregarious, but friendly and civil if you are friendly to them.
A delightful daytime excursion is a jaunt with Bob and Cissy on their sailboat, looking for a quiet place to snorkel. Bob pointed out that the land looks even better from a boat, and somehow no sign of civilization seemed to scar the hills as we pranced proudly across the unfurling bay.Often another sailboat gleamed white in the distance, as tiny as a ship in a bottle. We spent much of our time tacking back and forth to watch a mother whale and her baby; the mother was simply a dark shape under the surface of the water, but the baby obviously thought it more fun to jump up out of the water every so often, as if for the benefit of the four tourists, agog with excitement, in the nearby sailboat.
Finally we headed off for a completely deserted beach (called Lamashur; you can also get there by jeep from Maho) where Bob showed us how to put on our equipment. As we flapped down into the bay, I suddenly felt I understood why ducks walk the way they do. Things did not go much better at first in the water; I came flailing to the surface, choking down a fair amount of salty water , quite often before I mastered the snorkel and mask. This taken care of, I discovered a weird green world beneath the surface -- less brilliantly colored than the photos always show. Soft brown and olive prickly objects wavered a bit in a soft green light. I swam through a school of tiny fish, each with a neon-blue racing stripe along its side; it was like swimming through a hailstorm. Moving slowly, without moving your arms but with steady strong beats of the fins, you don't frighten the fish; it is really quite comfortable and exciting, like being just a giant fish yourself.
Other days, you can go shopping in St. Thomas. St. Thomas is a pretty town with a magnificent harbor. The main part of town consists of rows of little shops selling pearls from Japan, perfumes from France. It's odd that on this island where necessities are expensive and somewhat limited, all sorts of unusual luxuries are obtainable. As for prices, I was told that cameras, for instance, were comparable to what you would pay in a discount store in a big city in the US. If you're from a small town with no access to discount stores you might do better here than at home.
Actually, I wish I'd had more time to spend in the campground at Maho. One of the unusual features of the campground is that the tents are on wooden platforms and are connected to the beach and the commissary by wooden walkways. No road was cut to bring all the wood in, or the 40,000 tons of cement for the bathrooms; it was all carried in by hand, so that no major tree or rock formation was affected. As a result, the tents fit into their surroundings as naturally as if they grew there. "Most people bulldoze, then relandscape with non-indigenous plants, which must be watered evermore," Mr. Selengut comments wryly.
Because water is scarce on the island, at Maho Bay the shower heads are designed to use very little, as are the toilets -- except for the Cilvus Multrums, a type of toilet which uses no water at all. "We addressed ourselves to water conservation from the very beginning," says Mr. Selengut. However, he adds, "We didn't even think about energy."
But he is certainly thinking about it now. He has purchased land on the dry side of the island for another resort that will take the idea of Maho Bay a bit further. At Nanny Point, as he calls this very original project, each cottage will have its own solar water heater, its own Clivus Multrum, a solar oven, and desalinization equipment.
At the moment this project is in the prototype stage. I visited the workshop where one cottage had been completed. "Cottage" is the closest word I can think of for this structure, which is open on two sides, with a high barrel- arch roof of white fiberglass coated with silicone. There's a loft to sleep in, under the roof.
Four prototype cottages are scheduled to be put in place this summer.
Tourism has been the key to the economy of the U.S. Virgin Islands ever since Cuba was closed to Americans, around 1960. A very pleasant aspect of the islands is that, because the people are US citizens, their basic needs are taken care of.
But the highly seasonal nature of the tourism here creates a strain on the islands' fragile resources. Amadeo I. D. Francis, Commissioner of Commerce, pointed out that the islands buy very expensive foreign crude oil, and have the highest electrical rates in the country. He is anticipating an even greater flood of tourists when the program of lengthening the runway at the airport in St. Thomas is completed (shceduled for 1983).
One thing that is being done to relieve this strain, is the promoting of the islands as a summer as well as winter destination. "A way to escape the summer's heat as well as the winter's chill," Commissioner Francis said, as if it were a slogan. All hotels and activities are open year round.
Another interesting experiment is the $1 million solar airconditioning system at Frenchman's Reef Hotel in St. Thomas. The idea of a hotel guest (who comes back often to check up on his idea), this program has been marked as a test site by NASA.
Another approach is to develop other aspects of the economy. Bill Quetel, director of industrial development, commented, "Our primary goal is diversification. We are trying to attract investment in other areas -- small manufacturing and assembly, to complement tourism -- investments that would not otherwise be viable if they were fully taxpaying."
Glen Speer, architect of NAnny Point and longtime resident of St. John, had some insights on what it's like to live and work in an island in the Caribbean. "We're at the tail end of the supply line," he said. "We do everything ourselves -- we even manufacture our own light fixtures."
Of the local people he commented, "They need jobs. They want economic growth. (But they) don't have the capital or the experience to deal with large scale development. . . ."
As a result of this desire, some local people resent restraints on growth, such as the Park Service. "The park has a 200 year view while everyone else has a two year view. It's hard to sell to local people who want to make money right now. . . ."
"The kids are the ones who are left out the most. All the attitudes and expectations you see on TV -- now all the kids are getting into it. It used to be that they didn't know that the world was round and that they lived on an island in the Caribbean. Now they know their place in the world. . . ."
You get the feeling almost of a small town on St. John, a feeling of very definite common concerns. Concerns about growth -- how can the character of the island be preserved? Concerns about the local people -- how can they participate more in the tourism bonanza? Concerns about the park -- how can it compete on the open market for more land in a time of declining budget?
You also hear the same jokes -- mostly about the island's somewhat haphazard, catch-as-catch-can telephone system.
And the same stories. For instance, if you go to St. John, you will probably hear from several people during your stay the tale of how a long-time resident named Ethel MacCully first found St. John. Apparently she sighted it from the deck of a cruise ship way back in the '50s, and asked the captain to let her off. He refused (not surprisingly); whereupon she, though a middleaged lady at the time, jumped overboard and swam for it. She then proceeded to build a house on Maho Bay, which was then a remote section of the island, at a time when the only land transport was by donkey.
If you should happen to be in St. John on one of the occasional days that it rains, you can go to the tiny library and read about Miss MacCully in the island's only, cherished, copy of her book, "Grandma Raises the Roof."
To get to St. John: Larger planes are flying into St. Thomas now, which means that the fares have dropped. The regular price to St. Thomas from New York is $ 496, round trip, but American has a midweek special for $320. Capitol Airlines has a special $266 rate from New York on Mondays only.
You can also get an ITX, or tour-based fare. From New York, it's $372 weekdays, $392 weekends; the only stipulation is that you must book your hotel (or campground!) at the same time.
Especially if you charter, bring your bathing suit, toothpaste, and a tropical outfit on the plane with you. And if you're flying via San Juan, it's not a bad idea to just check your luggage through to the airport there, and then personally carry it to your connection and recheck.