There isn't an untethered bear within a thousand miles of the nation's newest national park. Nor is there a mountain peak frosted with the sugar of high snow. Geysers don't spray the air every hour, and neither deer nor antelope play. For the newest federal playground is two-thirds of the island of St. John, a tropical outpost nine miles long and five miles wide in the sun-swept Caribbean.
Here in the American Virgin Islands, in an enclave of pleasure reachable only by boat, no giant blue spruces scrape the sky, no waterfalls rumble into gorges the way they do in the traditional national parks of the West. But the late spring down here litters the road with mangoes. Fig trees grow and cinnamon bays, and mockingbirds flit into the shrieking red of the flamboyants. Red-bark turpentine trees run along the stone fences, and green pods the size of cucumbers hang from the great silk-cotton trees. The weather averages 78°, never going more than six degrees this way or that. There are a score or more of white sand beaches, and out in the deep of the turquoise sea there are sail and tarpon, kingfish and dolphin, and, as well, many a manless cay.
This idyllic preserve, so different from any other federal playground, lies supine in the sun, some 1,500 miles from New York, 1,000 miles south and east of Miami, and 40 miles from Puerto Rico. Coming down from Manhattan on an Eastern Airlines Constellation, it is about a six-hour trip to San Juan, then another half hour on the local airline to St. Thomas. Both St. Thomas and St. Croix, two of the three Virgins we bought from Denmark in 1917, can be reached by air, and they hum with hotels, villas and tourists. St. John, the third Virgin, is still a primitive place, with a total population of 746. Too mountainous to permit a level space for an airfield, it is separated from civilization by Pills-bury Sound, a four-mile moat that is breached by launch service from Red Hook Landing on St. Thomas.
The launch arrives, in 30 minutes, at St. John's most ambitious resort, the Caneel Bay Plantation, once the private pleasure ground of the Danish West Indies Co. It was bought in 1952 by Laurance Rockefeller (third son of John D. Jr.), who has since spent about $4 million and much of his energy on it. The result is one of the handsomest beach resorts in the world.
November 5, 1956
All told, Caneel has 10 beaches, enough in fact to set aside two for guests who live in the 24 beach-front rooms, two for those who rent the private cottages, and one for trippers who come over from the neighboring islands for a day's outing. At $38 to $46 a day at Caneel, a couple can live snug from the rigors of winter in a sea-grape-shaded, porch-equipped, Danish-decorated, cement bungalow. Stepping down from the porch will put the vacationist right on the beach, and from there it is but a scant dozen steps over the fine white sand into the Poland Water sea.
When Rockefeller first put his yacht into St. John back in 1952, Caneel Bay was hardly the soignée seaside shelter his millions have since made it. Having passed through many hands, the bay-bordered plantation was up for sale by the Rhode Island Charities Trust. Says Laurance, "I was brought up on good scenery. We bought Caneel Bay because it was beautiful and it was relatively a bargain. We bought something that was good not knowing how good it was."
The Rockefellers, who had been gypsy sailors in the Bahamas and the Caribbean for half a decade, now began dropping anchor at Caneel three or four times a year. During a visit in 1954 Laurance found a prewar report exploring the possibility of a federal preserve in the Virgins. With the blessing of national park administrators, he decided to underwrite the idea. When he had bought 5,000 acres, or about half of the whole island of St. John, he offered it to the nation as a national park, keeping his Caneel Bay place as a private resort. The offer was accepted this year, and the island park will be officially turned over to the Government on Dec. 1.
Aside from Rockefeller's own resort, which will be run on a nonprofit basis, visitors to the national park can also put up at Trunk Bay, an informal, rustic retreat long known to writers and movie and theater people. The main house at Trunk Bay, which has five bedrooms with share baths, stands on an elevation looking down on a magnificent strand of white sand that rims the Atlantic for 1,500 feet. There is, as well, a cottage with two double rooms, each with bath. From now until April 30 rates run about $75 a week per person or $140 for two.
Mme. Boulon, who operates the ménage at Trunk Bay, makes exotic use of what grows naturally and locally, squeezing jelly out of sea grapes, jam out of lime peels and making a sort of tropical celery out of coconut sprouts. When the Eve, Trunk Bay's twin-engine cruiser, goes out on charter the hotel guests dine that night on whatever she happens to bring home—tuna, Spanish mackerel, kingfish, bonita or yellowtail.
St. John is administered from the metropolis of Cruz Bay. A pathway lined with yellow cedar leads to the administration building, built on the foundations of an old fort, and roosters and ducks, crowing and quacking, amble contentedly around the ancient ramparts which also enclose the post office and the jail. A mystery writer named Richard Ellington rents a few cottages out on Gallows Point, an old but fortuitous name for an arm of Cruz Bay which Ellington with some glee has revived. The social life of the Gallows Point resort centers around a bar built of cinder blocks and decorated with newspaper clippings of the blizzards falling up north. Guests drop ashes into old coconut shells and summon Mr. Ellington with a ring of a ship's bell. He dispenses not only drinks but autographed copies of his works. Cottages rent for anywhere from $50 to $150 a week in season, depending upon size, and maids and cooks are available at prices that would tempt a New York matron to break the lease and emigrate forthwith.
A young emigré named Ron Morrisette, who lives on St. John with his blonde wife, once a New York model, has plans for taking visitors on overnight sailing excursions to Virgin Gorda. He will use a Tortola sloop, a 30-foot craft rigged as a cutter. On the island, Morrisette will build adjoupa huts, an Indian shelter made of woven branches, thatched with palm or guinea grass and set on a concrete slab. Native lobster or shish kebab will turn on a charcoal spit tended by Ivan Danielovitch Jadin, a former Bolshoi tenor who escaped Stalin and the Soviet winter and is now the Caneel Bay blacksmith. He sings Russian-accented West Indian calypsos while accompanying himself on the balalaika.
Aside from swimming, sunning, shelling, snorkeling and cruising the waters for fish, there is little to do on St. John save explore the relics of its salad days under the Danes. Explorers can move by horse, burro or jeep, either taking a box lunch from a resort or stopping for provisions at the Caneel Bay commissary. The local rum there sells for 95¢ a fifth, which is somewhat less than the cost of the mixings.
Of the 106 Danish sugar plantations, most are buried ruins, unvisited for 70 years. Old muskets and iron chests are continually being excavated by gardeners, and the mounds that puff yeastily around Cruz Bay are said to hold relics of the Arawak Indians, a gentle race that smoked nose pipes, reclined in hammocks, developed a breed of barkless dog and let their wives do most of the work. The Arawaks were vanquished by the Caribs who came to St. John from the Orinoco and passed the time by wrestling sharks, ripping them neatly up the belly with a hardwood knife.
ARAWAKS AND MOANING DOVES
The richest plantation was at Reef Bay on the Caribbean side of the island. The planters grew cotton in the valley, sugar cane in the hills, but all that grows now is lacy yellow "Pride of Barbados" and wild lime trees. From Reef Bay it is a 20-minute walk to a glen where Arawaks carved the rocks with man-in-the-moon heads and phallic symbols. The pathway is strewn with Brazil nuts, and catch-and-keep vines lie in camouflage to tarry the traveler. Doves moan in the valley, the copper trees grow lean and long with a puff of green impaled on top, and white butterflies flutter around the painkiller trees.
High up in the Bordeaux Mountains it is cool and peaceful at Picture Point where the elevation is 1,200 feet and the view looks down to Coral Bay with its three "hurricane holes" where Sir Francis Drake sheltered his ships and called it a "good rode." The Danish fort which protected the bay is a tangle of weeds, and all that remains are the ramparts and the account of the slaves who overthrew it in 1733 and began the demise of the Danes in the Caribbean. This and the turpentine trees and the tarpon, the blinding white beaches and the quiet, the Danish days, the sea-grape jelly and the doves moaning in the valley—all this is National Park No. 29.