A June 2004 trip
to St. John by pepperpot
Quote: Wondering what you’ll find on St. John besides gorgeous beaches and clear turquoise waters? Check out this journal to read about accommodations, on-land activities, and restaurants. (If it’s sun, sand, and sea you want to hear about, take a look at my companion journal, St. John at Sea.)
And they do quite well, given the fact that even a softie like me was able to get by fine in their original and most basic accommodation option, a tent-cottage—one of 114 packed into the camps’ enormous main site on a hillside overlooking Maho Bay. The ingenious innovation here is that the cottages, instead of being built on the ground, are raised on stilts and connected by a network of similarly raised boardwalks. (Note that since the camp is built on a hillside, you’re going to be going up and down tons of stairways! Maho is definitely not handicapped-friendly.)
Sixteen square feet of floor space can be supported by just nine small holes in the ground. What does this mean? For one thing, animal habitats go undisturbed; for another, clear-cutting of the forest, which can cause dangerous erosion, is avoided. In fact, the trees help to screen the cottages from one another for privacy—which gives them the feel of nifty treehouses, especially since the walls only go halfway up. Their upper portions are open to the air, covered only by mosquito netting. If you want total privacy, there are curtains you can let down—but trust me, the breezes coming through will really help to keep the cottage cool.
Accommodation-wise, don’t expect the comfort of a hotel room; but if you come in expecting to be camping, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Each cottage is equipped with electric lights and outlets, fans, two twin beds (linens provided), a table and chairs, a couch, a small deck, basic cooking utensils, a propane stove, and an icebox. Water for cooking is available from spigots scattered along the walkways. Bathrooms and showers are communal—and there’s no hot water, so be warned! (Not that I never found that much of a problem in the tropical heat.)
Another top attraction at Maho is its gorgeous outdoor dining pavilion, set high on the hillside with a sweeping view out over neighboring Francis Bay. The food there is very tasty, if a little on the expensive side.
Phew! I think that just about covers the bare basics—but that’s not all by a long shot! To read about Maho’s cushier accommodation options, Harmony Studios and Concordia Eco-Tents, follow the links to fellow IgoUgo-er Jose Kevo’s entries. And for much, much more from me on life at Maho, check out my companion free-form entry, The Maho Experience.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 23, 2004
Maho Bay Camps
PO Box 310, Cruz Bay
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Caneel aims to offer its guests a comfortable place to relax and get away from it all. In service of the "getaway" aspect, the rooms don’t have telephones or TVs—but in service of the "comfortable" aspect, they’ve got everything else you could possibly want. (Except for kitchen facilities, of course—if you have to do your own cooking, you aren’t rich enough to stay here. If you get hungry, you’ve got your choice of several gourmet restaurants.)
I didn’t stay at Caneel (can’t you tell by the bitter envy oozing from every word I write?), but I was treated to an extensive tour of its sprawling 170 acres of grounds, as well as a few of its rooms. Each room I saw was slightly different, but I didn’t see a single one I wouldn’t want to stay in. And the resort boasts no less than seven beaches, six of which are for resort guests only. A few of them even have additional stipulations, such as adults only, to ensure that guests have as much peaceful seclusion as they could wish. There’s also a watersports center, of course—along with a private ferry service to shuttle guests to and from St. Thomas.
The grounds are beautifully landscaped, with trees and flowers everywhere—though unavoidably, the grass does die off at the height of summer. A particularly arresting feature of the grounds is the fetching ruins of an old sugar plantation, which the resort has made the most of by planting flowers throughout, as well as adding lights and tables; guests can arrange to have romantic private dinners among the ruins. There’s even a full restaurant built into the ruins of the mill.
Caneel also has all the health-and-fitness facilities you’d expect and then some, including a fitness center, tennis courts, miles of hiking and jogging trails, a large swimming pool, and massage rooms. My group was lucky enough to pay a visit to the Self-Centre, a lovely little house set high on a hill overlooking the bay, where a full selection of relaxation classes is offered. We tried a "sampler session," and though I usually don’t go in for this New Age stuff, I have to admit that I was feeling very relaxed by the end. In fact, we were all so relaxed that we could barely move, and the woman leading the class had to drop a series of gentle but increasingly pointed hints that the session was over before we finally hauled ourselves up from our mats, stretching and yawning like cats after a particularly satisfying catnap.
What can I say? Caneel has it all. It ain’t cheap, but in this case, you definitely get what you pay for.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 23, 2004
Caneel Bay Resort
North Shore Road
St. John, US Virgin Islands
But then again, as everyone knows, there are a few things that tropical islands do better than just about anyone else. And prominent among these is smoothies—at least for a rabid smoothie lover like me. Needless to say, the smoothie joints sprinkled liberally around Cruz Bay had me licking my chops in anticipation.
After surveying the possibilities one sweltering afternoon, I finally decided to try Our Market—or was it Island Fresh Smoothies? You can take a look at the picture below and decide for yourself. It doesn’t matter either way, because this place is impossible to miss. Not only is it painted bright yellow, it sits right on the main road out of town towards the north shore.
As I approached, a guy lounging with a friend on the hood of a nearby car snapped to attention and stepped behind the counter with a gracious smile. Menus were plastered all over the walls, confronting me with an overwhelming array of choices. This wasn’t just a smoothie joint—I could choose between dozens of frozen drinks, cocktails, and ice-cream–based treats. But I would not be distracted from my mission. I pondered the equally intimidating list of tempting smoothie choices. Huge piles of fruit sitting on the other side of the counter attested to the freshness of the ingredients. Drool began to trickle down my chin.
I finally decided that strawberry-lemon-lime sounded the most refreshing. The smoothie guy began tossing fruit and ice in a blender, chatting and joking congenially all the while. I forked over five bucks, and then, finally, the smoothie was in my hands. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. I took a long draw.
Well, "delicious" doesn’t even begin to describe it. Maybe it was just the heat, but I felt like I’d never tasted anything so delectably refreshing in my entire life. I walked back to where the Dude was waiting for me and handed it off to him for a second opinion. He agreed: this was one amazing smoothie. He went straight off to get one of his own and returned moments later clutching a strawberry-mango-banana.
It was quite tasty, but I had made the better choice—nothing could measure up to that strawberry-lemon-lime. I still dream about it some nights, that ambrosial flavor, that perfect consistency… So when the tropical heat starts getting to you, have no fear: relief is just a strawberry-lemon-lime smoothie away.
Our Market Smoothies
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
They had sandwiches and other snacks as well as sweets and pastries, which was lucky for us, because we were hungry for lunch. There were only two sandwich choices, turkey and ham—but what more did you need, really? The lady behind the counter was very nice, and we chatted pleasantly as she made our sandwiches. I sat down, bit into my turkey sub, and… ahhhh. Heaven. The bread was wonderfully fresh, with a nice crunchy-crumbly crust, and the ingredients (turkey, cheese, lettuce) were equally fresh. I gobbled the whole thing down in 60 seconds flat and was left craving more. What I really wanted was another sandwich, but I restrained myself and just got a roll stuffed with cheddar cheese instead, which turned out to be equally delicious.
It was like crack. More, more, more—we had to try more of these delectable baked goods! Lunch dessert—well, why not? Inspecting the glass case of sugary treats, drool running down our chins, we finally settled on a powdered-sugar-covered chocolate donut, an apple-cinnamon pastry, and a cinnamon roll. Biting into each of them in turn as we walked back towards the main part of town, our eyes rolled back in pure, unadulterated delight. It helped that we hadn’t had any junk food for the past several days, so the unaccustomed sugar and fat rush was intoxicating—not to mention that these pastries were ambrosia. This time, it was only 30 seconds flat before we were left with an empty bag and full, happy stomachs.
So if you’re in Cruz Bay and you’ve got a hankering for a hoagie, don’t you dare go to the Subway in the main part of downtown—walk that few blocks further and get yourself a real submarine sandwich, and some mouthwatering sweets to go along with it!
The Rolling Pin used to have pizza as well, but the pizza portion of it was moved to its own location around the corner in February 2004. Once I’d tried the Rolling Pin, you’d better believe that I went out of my way to make it over to Ronnie’s Pizza later in the trip.
Rolling Pin Bakery
South Shore Road
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Stepping inside, we saw that the ambience at Ronnie’s Pizza was something of an improvement on the Rolling Pin—though still clearly not Ronnie’s strongest suit; he relies on the quality of his food instead, which is just how it should be. The restaurant was painted in red and white, with red curtains, dark wooden tables and chairs, a few pictures on the walls, and several plants scattered around. The most interesting touch was a large set of shelves heaped with books and games. What could this be for, we wondered—to keep kids entertained while they waited for their pizza to arrive? Or was it so that the employees could run a daycare service on the side (which they did seem to be doing, if the little kid rambling through the restaurant was any indication)? An informal unwanted-stuff exchange for local residents?
The employees seemed to be mostly teenagers, but Ronnie’s still had the same mom-'n'-pop feel as the Rolling Pin. The service was polite, if not the most polished. We ordered a small cheese pizza, and it was brought to our table after a quite reasonable wait. We bit in hungrily, and boy, was it tasty! It reminded us of good New York pizza, with a thin crust and a generous layer of cheese. OK, so it wasn’t quite like the New York pizza joint that would get a loyal citywide following and a 26 overall rating in Zagat, but it was like the neighborhood place that you’d go out of your way to order from because it was a cut above the others. The crust was fresh-tasting and crispy, and the layer of cheese was thick but not rubbery—tender and easy to bite through, without it all coming off at once when you tried to bite into it. Mmmm.
Ronnie’s was obviously a popular place—they sold pizza by the slice as well, and that seemed to be their most popular option. A steady stream of locals breezed in and out to grab slices. It had the pleasant feel of a community hangout. We left with satisfied stomachs and the resolution to go back at least one more time before the end of our trip.
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
When we reached Annaberg, a sign announced a $4 admission charge, but no one was there to take our money. So we strolled past the ticket booth and started on the trail, passing the remains of the slave quarters and a lookout point offering a jaw-dropping view across Leinster Bay.
Next up was the horse mill. When there was no wind to drive the windmill, horses and donkeys would walk in what a nearby plaque poetically described as an "endless circle" to drive the mechanism that crushed the sugarcane to extract cane juice. We were amazed to find that even after 150 years, we could still see the circular track they had walked. I can only imagine how deep it must once have been.
Then came the main factory building. A plaque detailed the process by which the extracted cane juice was made into sugar. The trail went all the way around the factory and partway inside it, but the heat and humidity were getting to us, so we had to stop and rest.
That’s when we noticed a plaque explaining that the entire hillside behind the plantation had once been terraced and covered with fields of sugarcane where hundreds of slaves worked all day. We stared up at the steep hill baking in the glare of the tropical sun and shared a look of disbelief. We were dying of heat, and we’d just been strolling along a shady trail. Toiling on the hillside—or slaving over vats of boiling cane juice in the factory building, or indeed doing any sort of physical labor—would have been pure hell. No wonder so many of the slaves who were brought here were worked to death within a few years.
I pulled out my guidebook and read about the St. John slave revolt of 1733, which surely must rank among the most savage in colonial history. It took over six months to put down, during which time a large percentage of the island’s white population was brutally massacred and many slaves chose suicide over surrender. Standing amongst these remains, it was only too clear what desperation must have spurred their resolve. Horrendous working conditions were only the tip of the iceberg—it’s said that one plantation owner’s favorite leisure-time activity was burying slaves up to their necks in the sand and using their heads as bowling pins.
We’d been planning to sit down and have a snack on one of the shady picnic tables scattered around the site, but now it just seemed too macabre. Instead, we left with food for thought.
Off Route 20 (North Shore Road)
Annaberg, St. John 00831
+1 340 776 6201
Attraction | "Cinnamon Bay Trail"
However, most of the island’s more challenging trails can be hiked, even by an out-of-shape couch potato like me, using a simple ploy: skip the uphill part by driving to the uppermost point on the trail and hiking down from there. That’s the strategy my group and I used to take on the Cinnamon Bay Trail, accompanied by a knowledgeable young guide from A Walk in the Park Tours.
As we started down the trail, our guide mentioned that the forest surrounding us was very different from what it had been a few hundred years ago. In the colonial period, the entire island had been cleared of trees to make way for sugar plantations. So this forest was all new growth and still quite young, and it would be another 200 years before the forest would be back to its previous state. Too bad we wouldn’t live to see it!
Indeed, the marks of the plantations were still in evidence everywhere. We often passed low walls of rock, reminders that this hill had once been terraced, and the remains of the irrigation system could also be seen in places. The guide also noted that St. John’s forest was a very dry one, because the small trees didn’t produce the amount of evaporation needed to precipitate frequent bouts of rain.
Overall, the trail was very pretty, and there were a couple of spots with fantastic views down the hillside and across Cinnamon Bay. And if I could hike down it without a problem, just about anyone can. Do wear hiking boots, though, as it’s rough, rocky, and slippery in places! (One of my companions was wearing slip-on sandals, and he was definitely not a happy camper.) As for hiking it uphill—well, you can do it, but be prepared for a challenge!
If you hike it downhill as I did, there’s another nice bonus in store for you at the bottom: an interesting complex of colonial ruins. And right across the road is the Cinnamon Bay campground and beach, where you can relax with a refreshing drink and cool off with a swim in the ocean.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 23, 2004
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands 00831
Maho can easily be the focus of your entire vacation. Visit the activities desk and you’ll find endless possibilities. There are $10 yoga sessions every weekday morning; massages can be arranged by appointment; several tour boats operate out of Maho Bay, offering plenty of snorkeling, diving, and sailing excursions; Hamilton’s Taxi offers equally excellent on-land excursions to beaches, hiking trails, restaurants, and nightlife; Maho’s art center does a variety of classes for children and adults; there are Movie Nights in the dining pavilion every other evening; the registration desk has a lending library of games; and—my favorite of all—there are glassblowing demonstrations most nights (see "Eco-Stuff" section below for more details).
Maho also has its own private beach, Little Maho; and the adjacent beaches of Big Maho to the west and Francis Bay to the east can both be easily reached either by short hiking trails or by simply swimming around the rocks at either end of Little Maho. (For more info, see my separate entries on the Maho Bay beaches and Francis Bay.) There’s a beach café at Little Maho, as well as a beach shop and equipment-rental stand where you can get just about anything you’d want—one day we rented a kayak there to take a trip out to nearby Whistling Cay.
Remember, you’re out in nature here—and if that sounds like a drawback to you rather than an attraction, stop reading right now! Most of Maho’s elevated walkways are named after the animals you’ll spot: Lost Donkey Walkway, Pea Hen Parkway, Lizard Lane, Crab Ramble Road, Banana Quit Cut-Off (the official bird of the Virgin Islands), Goat Trail, Tree Frog Trail, Mongoose Highway, Iguana Alley. And yes, we did see most of these during our stay—even an iguana, which was pretty exciting. What you’ll see the most of are the lizards, small anoles that I, for one, found adorable. Less adorably, there are also bugs and mosquitoes everywhere. Leaf bugs (I don’t know what they’re actually called, but they’re large green bugs that look like leaves) are ubiquitous, especially around (and in) the bathrooms at night. Another nighttime annoyance is the frogs, which make a tremendous din—if you’re a light sleeper, you might want to consider bringing earplugs. And a daytime annoyance is the small army of cats that have taken up residence at Maho and make daily rounds of the cabins and dining pavilion begging for scraps.
Maho’s open-air dining pavilion, with its sweeping view out over Francis Bay, has to be seen to be believed—and the food is really good, too. The only problem is that it’s fairly pricey: expect to pay $5-$10 for a full breakfast and $14-$22 for dinner. But we ended up eating practically all our meals there anyway, because we found that trying to cook on the propane stove and use the icebox (which in this tropical heat was able to keep the ice from melting for all of about, oh, 30 seconds) was a little more trouble than it was worth, especially considering that the food and supplies available at the camp store, though perfectly adequate, were less than thrilling. If you choose to go this route, be sure to check the expiration dates on everything—most of the food in the store is pretty fresh, but occasionally you’ll find something that’s been sitting there for quite a while.
The dining pavilion also has a bar, which has happy hour from 4:30-7:30pm in the high season and 5-6pm in the off-season. During happy hour, all drinks are a dollar off, which means $2 for a bottle of beer, $3 for draft, and $5 for a glass of wine. But the best news for all you cheapos out there is the free popcorn that they have during happy hour, which, if you abuse the privilege enough, could conceivably be your dinner. (A less radical way to save money on dinner is to split it between two people—the dinners are pretty huge, so as long as your appetites are moderate, it should be enough. You can fill up any lingering emptiness in your stomach with trips to the salad bar—you’re only supposed to fill up your salad bowl once, but come on, how are they going to keep track of that?)
Remember, Maho bills itself as an "eco-resort," and they definitely put their money where their mouth is. There are signs everywhere reminding you not to waste water or energy. They use solar power as much as possible. The raised boardwalks, in addition to being walkways, also have the water and sewage pipes and power lines attached to their undersides so they don’t have to run along the ground and disturb animals’ habitats.
And just how will all this eco-ness affect your stay? Well, water is a big deal here, for one thing—it’s a precious resource in these parts. It’s desalinized seawater, and at Maho, it’s divided into two varieties: potable (drinkable) and non-potable (you guessed it, non-drinkable). There are only a couple of potable-water spigots in the entire camp; the main one is by the dining pavilion. Everything else—the bathroom faucets, the showers, the other water spigots—is non-potable. Every cottage is equipped with a huge jug, which you can fill up at a potable-water spigot so as to have your own supply of potable water. The good news is that there are many more non-potable water spigots scattered around the campground, and they’re fine for things like doing dishes and cooking—you can drink that water, too, of course, if you boil it first.
Maho also recycles all of its glass—and they’ve come up with a brilliant way to do it: glassblowing. The camp’s two resident glassblowers give fascinating demonstrations a few nights a week, making everything from simple mugs, bowls, vases, and plates to fancy doodads like glass fish, accompanied by the oohs and ahhs of the crowd looking on. Stopping by to watch the glassblowing was one of my favorite things to do in the evenings, even though the glassblowing hut was always swelteringly hot. And all the things that they make in the demonstrations are then sold in Maho’s art gallery—I picked up a great vase there to take back to the folks.
Other Miscellaneous Tips
1. The Maho Bay complex, with its network of raised boardwalks zigzagging all over the hillside, is easy to get lost in. They’ll give you a map when you check in—use it right then to learn the way from your cabin to key places like the dining pavilion, nearest bathroom, and registration desk.
2. Be sure to bring a flashlight. It gets very dark here, and the walkways aren’t lit, so you’ll need it to get around in the evening and at night.
3. Every cabin location has its advantages and drawbacks: view; amount of privacy; number of stairways you have to climb to reach it; proximity to the bathrooms, the dining pavilion, the beach, and the road. If any of these is particularly important to you, be sure to mention it when you make your reservations or at check-in and see if they can accommodate you.
4. There’s a free "help-yourself" center across from the registration desk. This is where departing guests can leave anything they don’t want to take back with them, and incoming guests can help themselves. There’s always plenty of pulp fiction, usually some sunscreen, and a varying selection of food items—if you’re lucky, things like peanut butter; if you’re not, stale crackers. The pickings are best at the end of the weekend, when people have just left to go back home.
5. If you don’t have a rental car, memorize the schedule for Frett’s shuttle, which runs several times a day between Maho and Cruz Bay and will drop you off or pick you up anywhere along the route. You’ll find the schedule printed on the back of the camp map they give you at check-in. There are also several places you can realistically walk to from Maho, including Cinnamon Bay, Annaberg Plantation, and Leinster Bay. However, the side road that runs up to Maho from the main road is a killer—so steep you practically need ropes and grappling hooks to climb it. If you’re on your way back to Maho on foot and you’re not in training for the Olympics, I’d suggest waiting as long it takes for someone to drive by and agree to give you a lift.
6. Have a fabulous time! There’s no other place in the world like Maho!
I was frightened, of course, but at the same time, a part of me longed to see one. It sounded to me like the nearest natural equivalent to the man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors, which I’ve always secretly rooted for when watching the movie (because really, what’s the fun in rooting for a milquetoast like Rick Moranis?). So when I got to the islands, it was with some disappointment that I learned that the manchineel is fairly rare and not likely to be met with on a casual visit. Of course, I had to feign relief at this news for the benefit of my travel companion. The Dude emphatically did not share my desire for a close encounter of the arboreal kind.
And so it was unfortunate for the Dude that he allowed me to persuade him one afternoon that we should walk from Francis Bay, where we’d just been snorkeling, to nearby Annaberg Plantation. It wasn’t that far, I argued, gesturing towards the map, and besides, who knew when a taxi would come along? With a long-suffering sigh, he capitulated.
We’d been toiling along in the relentless heat for about 15 minutes (increasingly accompanied by grumbling on the part of the Dude and forced perkiness on mine), when we noticed a sign by the side of the road up ahead. I hastened to read it, and imagine my excitement when the sign declared the tree behind it to be a manchineel and warned us off in no uncertain terms! The Dude, catching up with me and taking in the gist of the sign with a single glance of alarm, was only too ready to follow its instructions. But I lingered, ignoring his tugs at my arm, looking admiringly at the deadly tree. It looked just like all the other trees, but that only made it more tantalizingly dangerous. The sign described how Christopher Columbus, of all people, had named its dubious-looking fruit "death apples" after a sailor on his ship ate one and died. "Death apples"—what a great name!
After admiring the tree for some minutes, we finally departed with renewed liveliness—I animated by thrills of excitement, the Dude by a sensible desire to put as much distance as possible between himself and the killer plant.
So I’d like to give notice to anyone who shares my death wish—or, conversely, the Dude’s instinct for self-preservation—that the only manchineel on St. John can be found on the road to Annaberg Plantation!
Brooklyn, New York