All Along St. John
On the Virgin Islands National Park of St. John, nature – in all its wild and untouched glory – is showcased around every corner.
My tent-cabin at Maho Bay Camps anchors the far end of a boardwalk winding through the jungle, just a hundred feet from one of St. John’s well-known beaches. It’s a perfect hideout for me during my exploration of one of the Caribbean’s surprisingly wild jewels. Through cracks in the deck fl ooring I can make out the jungle below. The stove is propane, the refrigerator an Igloo cooler fi lled with ice; there is a plastic table and chairs. A box fan whirs, keeping the occasional mosquito at bay. Through the cactuses outside the screened window, I can make out the calm morning sea. As I write, a frigate bird lands atop a palm just outside my window; white-tailed tropic birds and brown boobies fl it and soar. Inside, small anole lizards gecko-like with colorful, leaf-like dewlaps do push-ups on the countertop right in front of me, reminding me that this is their territory.
Letting the screen door bang closed behind me, I fi nd the head of Goat Trail and wander down to long, narrow Maho Bay Beach. From here it’s a mile-long walk to the start of one of the most beautiful of the Virgin Islands National Park’s 22 offi cial trails and countless unoffi cial ones. The former are detailed in a variety of guidebooks and Park Service handouts. The latter are marked with stone cairns and cryptic, handmade signs. I’m wide open to following any of them because the only native beasts on the island are bats, and there are no venomous snakes; the only mammalian surprises in the woods are occasional wandering deer or burros, or possibly an opossum or mongoose.
My goal is Cinnamon Bay Trail, which cuts from north to south across the heart of the island. I am lured by the promise of an incredible lookout over Maho Bay and a panoramic view of St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands
Inside, the forest is dark, tropical and intensely green thanks to recent rains. The trail is narrow and steep to the downhill; you wouldn’t want to slip. Strangler fi gs, kapok, cocoa, mango and bay rum trees are thick and tall, the undergrowth heavy with star-like teyer palms, sweet lime and anthurium. Turpentine trees what locals have dubbed “tourist trees” expose a pink skin beneath peeling bark. Guts, the natural rocky drainage channels that crisscross the trail, guide rainwater down the slopes of the mountain. Manmade swales, or lines of strategically placed rocks, cross the trail at an angle to divert the rainwater and prevent erosion.
As I walk down slowly to avoid slipping, a solitary black bat leads me, an odd sight in daylight. Giant termite balls occupy the low crotches of fi g trees, and small lizards, imported centuries ago to help kill insects, run across the trail. A variety of snails meander. Yellow and black birds called bananaquits dart among the branches overhead. Halfway down the trail on the approximately 45-minute hike, the trees open up, exposing a northern view of the island from Cinnamon Bay to Trunk Bay and beyond.
Looking down at the path, I try to make out the stoneterraced walls that once divvied up the island into more than 100 sugar-cane plantations. Everything must have been clearcut then, except for the mangoes and cocoa trees. Men, women and children slaved over the crop in shadeless tropical heat.
At the bottom of the trail, just across from the long sand beach at Cinnamon Bay, sit the ruins of a 200-year-old plantation. Buildings, like the terraces, were constructed of stone, brain coral and occasionally imported red and yellow bricks from England and Germany. The bricks arrived as ballast on ships originating in Europe and sailing to Africa before heading for the West Indies. Once in the islands, the bricks were traded for sugar, barrels of rum and bales of cotton. Twelve support columns of the Cinnamon Bay Sugar Factory are all that remain standing now. At one time they supported the factory storage room used to store brown sugar, molasses, barrels of rum and crushed and dried sugar-cane stalks. On the southwest corner of the factory is a well-preserved bay rum distillery where fruit and bay rum trees were grown to produce St. John’s bay rum (cologne and lotion, not alcohol). Sitting on one of the stone walls, sweating from the hike, nearly meditating, I can almost hear the voices of the children shouting as they climb the bay rum trees, carefully stripping the leaves, putting them into sacks and carrying them to be distilled.
the wild side of st. john is exactly what i’m after. And with every step through the forest and on dozens of its seldom-seen coves and beaches, I am happily and incredibly surprised. Though the whole island, originally home to Ar awak, Carib and Taino Indians, comprises just about 20 square miles – smaller than the Dallas Fort Worth airport or the island of Manhattan – the volcanic lump is home to more than 39 beaches and scores of trails carved through jungle forests, mangrove swamps and scrubby, cactus-dotted hills. Home to about 4,500 permanent residents, it gets just a little more than a million tourists each year (a small number for a beautiful island less than an hour from Puerto Rico). Today two-thirds of the island is offi cially the Virgin Islands National Park thanks to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s signature on Public Law 925, establishing the park on August 2, 1956.
Prior to the U.S. buying the trio of islands from Denmark in 1917 (for $24 million, or $300 an acre), Europeans had been crawling around for a couple centuries (what happened to the native Taino who preceded them is a big mystery; they had lived here for nearly 1,000 years, but when Columbus sailed by he reported no human population). In the 1700s the Dutch and Danish built big sugar plantations on St. John, using Danish prisoners to do the work. When the Danes suffered from disease and hard conditions and died, the landowners began the import of slaves from Africa. By 1733 there were more than 1,000 slaves working more than 100 plantations on St. John, a scenario that continued – despite several serious slave revolts – until the slaves were emancipated in 1848.
The Americans’ initial idea was to use the islands for a military base, but in the 1930s St. John was already being considered as a future national park. World Wars I and II slowed the offi cial park-making process, and by 1950 the human population had fallen to less than 1,000. Eighty-fi ve percent of the land had reverted to bush and second-growth tropical forest when Laurence Rockefeller bought a big portion of St. John and donated it to the federal government to establish the Virgin Islands National Park. Today the park encompasses about 52 percent of the island, including more than 7,000 acres above ground and another 5,650 acres of underwater marine sanctuary. Thanks to its parkland status, St. John is the wildest of the Virgin Islands, its natural life close to what it was like more than 600 years ago when Columbus fi rst sailed past.
given the island’s wilderness reputation, the tent-and-boardwalk resort known as Maho Bay Camps is a perfect fi t, as close to a true eco-resort as any I’ve seen around the world. This surprises no one more than Stanley Selengut, the camp’s founder and owner, who put up the initial 18 tents in 1976. “That phrase, ‘eco-resort,’ didn’t exist then,” says Jennifer Pierce, the one-time Maho Bay Camps manager who now manages sister property Estate Concordia Preserve. “Stanley and a bunch of his friends were down here and someone said, ‘This would be a great place for some tent platforms.’ Typical for Stanley, it may not have been his idea, but he’s the one who fi gures out how to get things done.”
These days, when any hotel that encourages you not to wash your towel every day wraps itself in a green banner, Maho Bay Camps is the real thing: Reduce-reuse-recycle is the company motto. Showers are communal; potable water is accessible in just a couple locations in the 14-acre compound; the restaurant is self-serve; urinals are waterless; and the Harmony Studios use solar-heated water. In the art studios open to all guests glass is recycled by the glass-blowing staff, wasted linens are dyed and sewn into clothing in the textile department, aluminum cans are turned into pendants, and lint from the dryers is used to create handmade paper. Volunteers come for month-long stints, trading work for a free place to stay. During high season the place fi lls up with families who’ve been coming to this nature island for two generations.
Text by: Jon Bowermaster