Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St. John – Day 4

Arthur Jones came to St. John from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to be a Caribbean kayak guide. He thought it would last a season, maybe two. Seventeen years later he’s still here and helping me explore the island’s rugged coast. “I never thought I would stay this long but … look around.” The island national park of St. John rises behind and St. Thomas – capital of the USVI — is just three miles to the west. The low hills of Tortola and the rest of the British Virgin Islands spread to the north and east, silhouetted in the morning light, appearing to go on forever. “Why would I leave?”

Pushing kayaks off Maho Beach we head out and around Whistling Cay. Winds are calm today; they can often blow 10 to 20 knots, making for challenging kayaking. Tiny, silvery baitfish jump in packs of hundreds, suggesting predators are nearby. Sure enough, just below the surface swim a dozen 30-pound tarpon and above circles a gang of pelicans.

I ask Arthur if he can explain a mystery of nature I’ve long wondered about: Why don’t pelicans break their necks when they slam beak-first onto the hard surface of the water? “Surprisingly, they do, but not for the reasons you might think. A scientist once explained that all those years of impacting eventually affect their eyes, which go bad. And then they die misjudging the water because they can’t see so well anymore. They hit a rock or hit the water too early or too late, and snap their necks. Hard to believe, but true.”

As we paddle we hear the green turtle break the surface before we see it. “There are lots of turtles out here, both in and out of the national park boundaries, but especially inside the park. Somehow I think they’ve figured out it’s a good place not to get hunted.”


On Whistling Cay the hills are steep, spiked with cactus. A solitary beach is accessible through the breaking surf, perfect for resting the kayaks and snorkeling among the coral. On the far side of the island is the shell of an old Danish custom’s house; a similar one is on Great Thatch Island, in the BVI, just a couple miles away. “Apparently the guys manning the signal fires used to get bored and just signal each other,” says Arthur.

It’s changing though. “See those houses there, on the hill?” he asks, pointing back towards the main land of St. John. “None of those was here when I came.” Fortunately the natural world here is less changed.

The next day with a rented 4×4, necessary due to the steep hills and muddy paths that take over when the roads run out, I visit all of the island that is accessible by road. From East End to Saltpond Bay and on to Great Lameshur Bay, all surrounding the big Coral Bay; this is the less populated, more rugged, wilder side of the wild island.

Where the main town of Cruz Bay’s streets are narrow and tightly packed with restaurants and souvenir shops, the road that winds through the island’s only other town of any substance — Coral Bay — is pocked with a couple small commercial developments and a handful of roadside shacks selling fish and vegetables.

My research into what makes this end of the island tick begins – and ends, much later in the day — at the bar at Skinny Legs, just past the Emmaus Moravian Church and on the road to the village of Palestina. The bar on weekday afternoon is amazingly packed. Named for the identifying mark of its two Boston-based founders, the open-air room boasts a half-dozen TV’s turned to sports and tables for 50 burger munchers and beer swillers. Jimmy Buffet is on the stereo; this is clearly the stop for both expats who’ve already made their escape to the island and visitors desirous of doing exactly the same one-day. Lots of big-sunburned guys with ponytails who long ago opted for the easier pace of island life. One weak coffee, a club soda and one very good Kamikaze later, I’m back on the road, promising to return for the baseball playoffs (available only in Spanish) later that night.

Following the bartender’s recommendation, I hike the Drunk Bay Trail to the Salt Pond at the island’s eastern end. During dry season its floor of muddy red algae creates a thick layer of sea salt and locals come daily to collect it for their home tables. At Lameshur Bay the road ends and a long, winding foot trail leads to and joins Reef Bay Trail, where evidence of the early Taino Indians exists in petroglyphs carved into the stone. As I hike, island cats are everywhere and a pair of mongoose sprint across the road on the trail of big lizards that have gone ahead, trundling through big muddy puddles. Land crabs idle along the road.

Back in the car I veer off the road at a sign announcing Concordia Estates. Concordia is the sister resort to Maho Bay Camps, boasting slightly more sophisticated tents with views out over Rams Head Point. The point, formed by tectonic plates grinding together beneath the ocean surface where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea adjoin, looking out over Flanagan’s Passage towards Tortola. To the east, Nanny Point juts into the sea, covered with soon-to-flower barrel cactus, big red buds popping out of the thick-necked cacti. Geologically this is the oldest rock on St. John. “St. John’s gets a tremor each day,” says manager Jennifer Pierce, who left Maine and an organic farming business a decade ago for the ability to swim in a warm ocean every day. “I’ve had the earth move significantly enough that my furniture has been dancing in my room.” Probably not a selling point these days, given the tremblers that seem to be rocking the world corner by corner.

Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St. John – Day 3

I spent one rare rainy day in St. John with Jane Johannis, who couldn’t have been happier about the dampness outside her simple house. “When it rains like this I put out every pot and pan I have, in order to keep my plants watered,” she says.

A native of the island, at 80-plus years old her skin as beautiful as fine Italian leather, eyes reduced to slits from years spent tending her garden under a hot sun, she wears a long pink dress and flip-flops. Her hair, remarkably free of gray itself, is pulled back in a tight bun. One of seven children, with nine kids of her own, she has lived most of her life in the small island town of Coral Bay. “You could say I’m surrounded by family all the time, yes,” she says, though she’s not against the occasional off-island foray and has been to New York and LOVES Las Vegas. “I do manage to play the slot machines,” she smiles, “since I’m not a drinker I need to have something to do!” But more than anything she loves her island life and her gardens.
Her expertise is the herbal medicines she finds everywhere in the bush, giving the occasional class but counseling her friends and neighbors for free. “People now they too easily run right to the pharmacy when they need something. They tell me, ‘It’s easier.’ I don’t agree. Me, I never go to the pharmacy. The doctor? He’s the last person I turn to!”


What does she find in scrub and forests? Black wattle for fighting colds. Aloe for burns. Eye bright, which is – believe it or not – makes your eyes stronger. Sour sop used as a sleeping aid. Bastard okra, boiled and used to relieve burning eyes. Breadfruit leaves, used in an infusion to cure high blood pressure and lime leaves boiled with salt to fight aging. “Those are the ones I rely on most these days,” she laughs.

She’s not wild about some of the changes on her island, like the cost of living and taxes both of which are going up. “Even Coral Bay is changing, with more shops, more people, more everyt’ing,” she says. I’m headed to her small town the next day and ask for a recommendation on a good place to eat, the best places to hike. “Go to Salt Pond, for sure. That’s where we collect the best sea salt. The best restaurant would be Lucy’s, but she died the other day at 93, of a stroke. I’m going to her funeral tomorrow. So that restaurant be closed for a private party. But you might stop by anyway. Probably be the best party of the year!”

Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St. John – Day 2

Given its history of wildness, the 114-tent-and-boardwalk resort known as Maho Bay Camps is a perfect fit on St. John, as close to a true eco-resort as any I’ve seen around the world. Which surprises no one more than Stanley Selengut, the camp’s owner who put up the initial 18 tents in 1976. “That phrase – eco-resort – didn’t exist then,” says a longtime Maho Bay manager once explained to me. “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, he was the one that figured out how to get things done.”

In 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. Recycle-reuse-reduce is its watch-phrase. Showers are communal; potable water accessible in just a couple locations in the 14-acre compound; the restaurant is self-serve; urinals water-less; much of the energy needed to run 114 tents, reception, restaurant, internet solar-produced. In its art studios –open to all guests — glass is recycled by the glass-blowing studio, waste paper by the textile-makers and aluminum cans turned into pendants.

There is definitely a hippie-ish feel to the place, from the tie-dyed batiks made in the textile room to the “volunteers” who come for month-long stints, trading work for a free place to stay. During high season the place fills with families who’ve been coming now for two generations.


I stay in tent-cabin, A-6, anchoring the far end of the boardwalk, closest to the beach at Maho Bay. It’s perfect for me. Through cracks in the deck flooring I can see the jungle below. The stove is propane, the refrigerator an Igloo cooler filled with ice, and table and chairs made of plastic. A box fan whirs, thanks to 24-hour electricity, necessary to keep the mosquitoes at bay. As I write, a frigate bird lands atop a palm just outside my window and white-tailed tropicbirds and brown boobys flit and soar. Inside, small anole lizards — gecko-like, with colorful, leaf-like dewlaps — do push ups in front of me, reminding me that this is their territory.

Letting the screen door bang behind, I find the head of Maho Goat Trail and wander down to the beach. From here it’s a mile-long walk to the start of one of the most beautiful of the park’s 22 official trails (there are countless unofficial ones, the former detailed in a variety of guidebooks and park service handouts, the latter marked with stone cairns and cryptic, handmade signs). I’m open to following any trail here since the only native mammals on the island are bats and there are no venomous snakes. The only surprise in the woods is the occasional wandering deer or donkey.

Later that one I hike down Cinnamon Bay Trail lured by its reputation for having an incredible lookout over Maho Bay. Inside the forest is dark, tropical, intensely green thanks to recent rains. The trail is narrow and steep to the downhill; you don’t want to slip. Strangler figs, 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 tree – expose a pink skin beneath peeling bark. Guts, natural rocky drainages criss-cross the trail channeling water downhill; man-made swales – lines of strategically placed rocks across the trail – are angled to divert the rainwater and prevent erosion.

As I walk down, slowly to avoid slipping, a solitary black bat leads me. Small lizards, imported to the island centuries ago to help kill insects, run across the trail; a variety of snails meander. Yellow & black bananaquits dart among the trees, many of which are home to giant termite balls built in the low crotches. Halfway down the 45-minute hike the trees open up, exposing a western view from the island, over Cinnamon Bay to Trunk Bay and beyond.

As I walk I try to make out the stone terraces that once divvied the island into 100 sugarcane plantations. Everything was a clear-cut then, except for the mangoes and cocoa tree. Men, women and children slaved over the farms, in tropical heat.

At the bottom of the trail, just across from the long sand beach at Cinnamon Bay, sit the ruins of a two hundred year old plantation. Buildings, like the terraces, were constructed from stone, brain coral and occasionally imported red and yellow bricks from England and Germany. Tall stone columns, still standing, at one time supported the big room used to store brown sugar, molasses, barrels of rum and crushed and dried sugarcane stalks. There was a boiling and distillery house next door, where they used to make St. John’s Bay Rum (cologne, not alcohol!). Sitting on one of the stonewalls, sweating from the hike, nearly meditating thanks to the quiet of the forest, I can almost see and hear the young children climbing the bay rum trees, carefully stripping the leaves, putting them into sacks and carrying them off to be distilled.


Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St.John – Day 1

I’ve been lucky over the years to plan my work/travel calendar in order to miss the worst of New York’s winters, specifically the entire month of February. This year, early that month, I panicked, realizing that I had no plan … that I was at home in the Catskills, locked down under damp, gray, twenty degree skies, day after day. So I did the only rationale thing possible for someone with deep connections in the travel world: I contacted friends who manage a resort in the Caribbean and asked if they had any room available. Which led in short order to the U.S. Virgin island of St. John, where I’d been once before. As close a hop as the Caribbean is from New York, my knowledge of the place is surprisingly thin so I went back to what I knew.

Days after daydreaming of islands, I was ensconced in a tented camp at Maho Bay Camps, standing on my small deck overlooking Little Maho Bay on a bright and sunny morning, staring into the trees that surround fill every morning with sizable iguanas, napping and munching.


St. John is just twenty square miles around, smaller than the Dallas Fort Worth airport or the island of Manhattan. Originally home to Arawak, Carib and Taino Indians today the volcanic knob is home to 4,500 who share 39 beaches and scores of trails carved through jungle forests, mangrove swamps and scrubby, cactus-dotted hills with a million tourists each year. Two-thirds of the island is officially national park thanks to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s signature on Public Law 925, establishing it on August 2, 1956.

(Which had nothing to do with the naming of the trio of islands that comprise the USVI – St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. Why Virgin Islands, anyway? One theory has them named in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, inspired by the unspoiled-ness of the place, after the legend of St. Ursula, the 14th century British princess and Christian who along with 11,000 virgins suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Huns. Others theorize they were named by Sir Francis Drake, who sailed through in 1595, and dubbed them for Queen Elizabeth, known as the Virgin Queen.)

Prior to the U.S. buying the three islands from Denmark in 1917 (for a mere $24 million), Europeans had been here for a couple centuries (what happened to the Taino is another 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 cane plantations on the islands, using Danish prisoners to do the work. When they suffered from disease and 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 working on St. John alone, a scenario that continued despite a couple revolts until slavery was discontinued in 1848.

The American’s initial idea was to use them for a military base. But in the 1930s St. John was already being considered in some circles as a future national park. World wars slowed the official process. By 1950 the human population had fallen to less than 1,000 and 85 percent of the land had reverted to bush and second growth tropical forest when Laurence Rockefeller bought half of St. John and quickly deeded it to the park system. Today the USVI National Park owns 52 percent of the island, including 7,200 acres above ground and another 5,600 acres of underwater marine sanctuary. Thanks to its parkland status St. John is without question the wildest of all Caribbean islands, its natural life closest to what it was like 600 years ago when Columbus first sailed past.

10 great romantic destinations

Some people like to travel for food. Others prefer to travel for sun. Still others enjoy traveling so they can share a secluded destination with a loved one. Here are ten romantic destinations for couples of all ages to enjoy… together.

Verona, Italy
Located in the northeast part of Italy near the Swiss border, Verona is most famously known as the setting of William Shakespeare’s passionate Romeo and Juliet. Many tourists and lovers travel to Verona simply to see the balcony that has a historical connection to the fictional characters of that famous play. The covered passageway that leads to the balcony is covered in graffiti and letters from visitors asking Juliet for luck in love.

Visitors may also go googly-eyed with a romantic stroll over the Castelvecchio Bridge, along Verona’s winding Adige River. Be sure to walk all the way to St. Peter’s Castle for an awe-inspiring view of the city shrouded in sunset.

St John, USVI
There are numerous secretive retreats in the Virgin Islands, but Moon Cottage is said to be the Caribbean’s “most romantic villa.” Located on the island of St. John, Moon Cottage offers lovers a hidden getaway and is the perfect place for couples to expand their relationship. Amenities include a private heated pool, walking distance to the beach, and complete seclusion.

For those seeking to mix some adventure with their passion, consider a day-trip to Jost van Dyke, the “New York of the Virgin Islands,” and home to (quite possibly) the world’s most amazing bar.
Kauai, Hawaii, USA
Routinely selected as among the world’s best beaches, Kauai is the oldest and the most northern of all the Hawaiian Islands; it’s also the least populated of the islands. Kauai was given the nickname of the “Garden Isle” because of its lush tropical forests. This is ideal for couples because lovers can spend time together in a quieter, more secluded setting, unlike other, busier islands in Hawaii.

Though dining options on Kauai may be a bit unromantic, there are countless ways to wile away serene hours in Kauai with a loved one.

Los Roques, Venezuela

Los Roques is great for lovers, because the secluded beaches offer the chance for couples to enjoy the sun… and each other.

Los Roques is Venezuela’s archipelago in the Caribbean. It’s most famous for its beautiful beaches — and even more beautiful water. This is a great place for lovers to visit because of the limitless secluded beaches offer the chance for couples to enjoy the sun… and each other.

In fact, the most popular activity on Los Roques is to be dropped off in the morning with a cooler filled with food and drink, and just spend the day exploring the uninhabited island on which you (and your partner) find yourself.

Napa Valley, California, USA
Famous for its wineries and cozy bed and breakfasts, Napa is the perfect couple’s getaway.

Lovers can visit local wineries, take tours, have dinner in various restaurants with cuisine ranging from French to Italian, then cozy up next to each other in front of a fire at one of the many local bed and breakfasts.

Venice, Italy
Located in northern Italy, this city is best known for its gondolas and canals. Lovers can take a tour of the city while sitting on velvet seats and Persian rugs. Though not the quickest way around the city, a gondola ride is certainly the most romantic.

An estimated 20 million people visit the sinking city every year, but Conde Nast has an excellent overview of the city, which includes details about disappearing within Venice’s ancient walls with your lover.

San Luis Obispo, California, USA

San Luis Obispo, along the Central Coast of California, is home to the famous Madonna Inn. The Madonna Inn has 110 rooms, each decorated with a different theme; there’s also a European style pool and a beautiful day spa, and it’s all located just minutes from San Luis Obispo. Couples can enjoy unique food, art and culture in town, or they can visit the Hearst Castle.

Paris, France
Paris offers couples seemingly endless options: Lovers can visit the Eiffel Tower, see a ballet or opera show, dine on fine French cuisine by candle light, take photographs to share later, or visit the famous Notre Dame Cathedral.


New York City, New York, USA
This is the ideal romantic getaway for the couple that likes to be active. Lovers can catch a show on Broadway, take a carriage ride through Central Park, and then grab a coffee in Rockefeller Center. The city is full of restaurants and fabulous hotels for couples as well, including many romantic places and bars.

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
All-Inclusive is the way to go. Many resorts in Cabo San Lucas offer an all-inclusive package. This is great for couples because not only do you get a room for two, but food and beverages are all included. Lovers can enjoy the beaches and night-life without any hassle.

If you’re thinking about Cabo as a destination, be sure to remember that at least one Cabo hotel offers in-room aphrodisiacs to help couples set the mood.


Of course, romance is what you make it. You don’t need to be in one of these cities to enjoy a romantic weekend with your lover. While these destinations help set the mood, nothing coos romance like simply paying unending attention to your significant other.