Thursday, February 15, 2007

The nature of St. John

St. John is a rare combination of national park and tourist burg. The town of Cruz Bay has all the tourist amenities you could want -- expensive jewelry boutiques, casual clothing shops and plenty of breezy beachside bars -- without tipping into the overwhelm zone. But what really makes St. John unique is its untainted forests and snorkeler-friendly beaches -- all part of Virgin National Park.

The park celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and you can thank Laurance Rockefeller for that.

When the philanthropist cruised to the island in 1952, he was struck with its beauty. He bought up 5,000 acres, establishing Caneel Bay -- still a casually luxurious beachfront resort -- and donated most of the land for a national park, established in late 1956. Another 5,000-plus acres was added over the years, and today more of St. John is national park than not.

Development and building still encroach on the edges that Rockfeller didn't procure. But the rest is mangroves, woods and quarter-moon slices of beach fronting snorkeling waters so close to the shore that no boat is required.

If you're accustomed to Florida's wide beaches and the spectacular reefs of the Keys, you may be underawed. But this is still a unique and beautiful place. From the top of any hill the views are nigh-on staggering: Turquoise bays and watercolor-blue oceans rimmed by green hills and dotted with sailboats skimming the calm waters.

With frequent ferries from St. Thomas, many vacationers come over just for a day. Others stay rent villas or stay at one of the island's two big resorts -- Caneel Bay and the Westin Resort.

Many camp. The national park is home to two campsites, one at Cinnamon Bay and one at Maho Bay, known for it's eco-friendly practices. This means that St. John is affordable for families and backpackers ... a rarity in the Caribbean. Both camps offer screened, tented structures with cots, so you don't have to haul your own tent or sleep on the ground.

Regardless of where they are staying, most of the visitors I've chatted with are enjoying the island. One drawback: The divide between black and white is obvious here, and while it's still a generally friendly place to visit, it lacks the warmth I found earlier this week in St. Croix.

Tomorrow: On to St. Thomas.

1 comment:

Caralee said...

Thanks for writing this.