Roughing it (sort of) on St. John

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of August 29-September 4, 1996
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Roughing it (sort of) on St. John
Question: I'd like to find out how easy/hard it might be to backpack/camp in the Caribbean. Do you have any info in this regard? In searching your archives I couldn't find much on camping. I also looked up the Web pages for the board of tourism, but they obviously would steer folks to hotels. Thanks.

Bobbie Morrison
[email protected]

St. John's Reef Bay Trail passes
sugar mill ruins like this one.

Adventure Adviser: On the whole, Caribbean accommodations tend fall into the luxury-guesthouse-with-balcony-and-water-views category, but that doesn't mean that with a little of advance planning you can't reserve a spot at one of several decent beachfront campgrounds.

St. John's Cinnamon Bay--with its three types of sites, water sports center, and outdoor dining pavilion--isn't exactly a bare-bones National Park Service campground. But this is the Caribbean after all, and if you're going to schlep yourself all the way down there, you may as well indulge. Choose from plain sites, pre-pitched tents, or villas, which are square rooms with concrete floors, two concrete walls, two screen walls, two beds with linens, a few chairs, and a table. They also furnish a propane stove, outdoor grill, picnic table, cooler, and utensils.

The Rain Tree serves three meals a day, and when you're not eating or sleeping, you can rent sailboards, sailboats, and scuba and snorkel equipment right on the beach. Or, stretch your legs on the Reef Bay Trail that will take you past old sugar mill ruins and ancient petroglyphs. Reserve a spot on the five-hour, ranger-guided walk by calling the park service at 809-776-6201.

High-season prices range from $105 per night for a beachfront villa to $75 per night for a tent and--here's the bargain--$17 per night for a bare site. You'll need to make your reservations as far in advance as possible, because sites fill up months in advance. For more details call 809-776-6330 or, stateside, 800-223-7637.

If eco-friendly tenting is what you're after (and cost isn't too much of a concern), consider bypassing Cinnamon Bay for one of Maho Bay Camps' no-frills, square-screened huts on stilts overlooking the beach, about three miles down the coast from Cinnamon Bay. Part treehouse, part safari tent, these eco-savvy bungalows are built largely from recycled materials and have energy-efficient lighting, sun-powered appliances, and a composting septic system.

Best of all, Maho Bay is surrounded by Virgin Islands National Park, which means there are 22 miles of great hiking right off your verandah. Call the park for free maps. Maho Bay water sports center rents sailboards and sea kayaks ($15 per hour, $45 per day) and runs snorkeling trips that circumnavigate the island ($40 per person); two-tank dives go to the famous wreck of the Rhone ($75 per person).

If you don't feel like cooking on your bungalow's stove and solar oven, head up the hill to Maho's open-air, buffet-style restaurant. Rates are $95 per night; call 800-392-9004 for reservations and information.

Other camping suggestions: In the British Virgin Islands, try Tula's Enchanted Garden, a waterfront campground on Jost Van Dyke's Little Harbor, a 20-minute ferry ride from Tortola. Tents cost a reasonable $25 to $35 per night and bare sites go for $15; call 809-495-9566 for details. Nearby White Bay Campground (809-495-9312), also on tiny Jost Van Dyke, rents fully furnished tents with beds, linens, pots, and a lantern for $20 to $35 per night, as well as bare sites for $7 to $10. For ferry information, call 809-494-2997.

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