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Seduced by St. John

February 25, 2001|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

CRUZ BAY, U.S. Virgin Islands — It's a brilliant morning, the sea lapping below, the hillside still twittering with the calls of crickets and tree frogs, only a tent between me and the sky. I have three days ahead of me on a very nice, very slow, very small island. The only cloud on my horizon is the knowledge that once I stand up, it's 137 steps to the nearest toilet and shower. And the shower will be cold.

But that's what a traveler gets for trying to pinch pennies and save the Earth when the dirt in question is in high demand. The bigger picture here is that St. John is a fine patch of greenery and volcanic rock, taking up a mere 20 square miles of the bright blue Caribbean Sea.

The island, which sits about 60 miles east of Puerto Rico, has been a U.S. territory since 1917, when we bought it--along with its larger and noisier neighbors, St. Thomas and St. Croix--from Denmark. It is a lazy place largely free of the jewelry-peddling, T-shirt-hawking hucksterism that pervades St. Thomas and many Caribbean islands on the cruise ship circuit. There's no Senor Frog's here, no Hard Rock Cafe, no McDonald's.

Not that the island hangs in suspended animation. St. John has grown and bestirred itself a bit since I first visited more than 20 years ago, and--judging from the notices on the community bulletin board at the Starfish Market--controversy simmers over efforts to develop it further. But St. John has built-in protections that most islands don't.

There's no airport. The only way onto St. John is by boat, usually the ferry from St. Thomas. About two-thirds of the island is protected as Virgin Islands National Park, leaving the land dominated by tropical forest and beaches of fine white sand. Greenery creeps over the sugar plantation ruins, while iguanas and mongooses creep across the few roads. In the placid bays, you find warm water, coral reefs, excellent snorkeling and urchins the size of basketballs.

In 2000, the park service counted a little more than 1 million visitors, many of them day-trippers from St. Thomas, to Virgin Islands National Park. The island's year-round population has grown to about 4,000, along with a few thousand more who spend their winters here in vacation homes perched implausibly on the slopes.

Though more cruise ships have been bringing passengers to St. John in recent years, it still gets a mere trickle compared with the torrents of shore excursionists who regularly wash over St. Thomas (which handled more than 1.7 million cruise passengers last year).

But what about those 137 steps to the bathroom?

This was my introduction to Maho Bay Camps, one of the most widely praised eco-lodgings in the world. Eco-tourism pioneer Stanley Selengut has built and expanded Maho Bay Camps gradually over more than two decades, adding three other eco-lodgings on the island. Each is a showcase for recycled building materials (plastic framing instead of lumber; rugs that once were rubber tires) and alternative energy, including solar and wind power.

Arriving just before 11 p.m. and picking my way along the campground's raised wooden walkways with a flashlight, I didn't at first take in the full sweep of the place or the implications of my tent-cottage's location. In the morning, reality snapped into focus. But instead of seeking reassignment to another tent, I decided that the long walk to the bathroom would build character.

Maho Bay includes more than 100 tent-cottages tucked in amid the hillside greenery, barely noticeable from a distance. The common area includes a dining pavilion (breakfast and dinner), a front desk, a "cyber-hut" (holding two computers with Internet access) and an activities desk where arrangements can be made for sailing, snorkeling, hiking and other adventures.

The screened-in tent-cottages are roomy, with firm beds, and each is outfitted with dishes and a propane stove. But there's no running water, something that plenty of travelers might expect at rates of up to $115 per night. (Selengut's other island lodgings do include private bathsrooms.) To cook (or just brush your teeth) in your tent, you fetch your potable water from a pair of central spigots and store it in a jug. To wash dishes, you slosh biodegradable cleanser in a pan. This, too, might build character--but I couldn't say for sure. I elected to eat all my meals out.

Downtown Cruz Bay, the island's commercial center, is home to about a dozen restaurants, along with a growing number of shops and lodgings. But the total number of hotel rooms, rental homes and condos is still down in the neighborhood of 1,000. During my visit early this month, it was easy enough to be seduced by all that remains small and slow about the place.

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