Resort option in the Caribbean: a tent

 I had no idea how lazy iguanas were. There, a meter and a half above my face, a scaly reptile was easing its way across the thin canvas that separated my bed from the canopy above it. It took a step roughly every five minutes, heralded by a brisk, gentle brushing sound … and then nothing.
       In a midnight daze, I figured it could be making a break for my towel, which I had primed for the next morning’s Caribbean sun on a wooden balcony perched above the sea. But this critter was making a break in truly indigenous style; nothing on St. John, the smallest and least developed of the three main United States Virgin Islands, happens in a hurry. It took almost half an hour to stalk the 3-meter span of the roof.
       Elsewhere in the Caribbean, one could probably call a butler to swat away such nocturnal visitors. But not on this patch of St. John, on the fringes of a national park abundant with bay rum forests, cactus shrub and mangroves. So I fell back to sleep with a plan of action. Should the iguana be loafing on my towel when the morning came, I would negotiate it toward one of the overlying cactus branches with a trail of genips. Or something like that.
       Our primary reason for visiting this tiny island 1,500 kilometers southeast of Miami had drawn puzzled looks from our friends when we were planning the trip. We were going to the Caribbean to camp. Yes, camp. Well, somewhat.
       A scan of the Caribbean will find a relative dearth of camp-style accommodations. While some campsites can be found in the French Caribbean, most Caribbean islands, it seems, prefer that tourists be herded toward the plethora of money-making resorts. That’s even true on islands like Aruba, where a protected park encompasses almost a fifth of the island, yet there’s not a single place where visitors can set up a tent.
       But on St. John, the expansiveness of its National Park, which encompasses two-thirds of the island, and the difficulty of transporting building materials act as barriers against hungry hoteliers. By contrast, low-tech campsites are easy to build, and in a few pockets of St. John’s almost uninterrupted coastline, they have been plying a steady trade for decades.
       Our destination was the island’s original and most celebrated campsite. On a prime chunk of tropical real estate on the northern shores of St. John, just before the coastal road cuts a wobbling arc toward the island’s interior, the Maho Bay Campground is a mini-city of tent cottages, established somewhat unintentionally in 1976.
       Its founder, Stanley Selengut, a land consultant from New York City, had leased a big swath of land along St. John’s northern coast, originally hoping to build an oceanfront lodge for himself and friends. But protests arose that it would threaten the fragile topsoil. Instead of clear-cutting the land, he developed the air above it. Thus 18 canvas-and-wood tents were sculptured on stilts and connected by elevated walkways under — not instead of — the trees.
       Many years later, on a balmy Wednesday afternoon in September, my girlfriend and I were rolling our suitcase along a labyrinth of wooden trails that now connect 114 tent cottages and 12 studio rooms across nearly 6 hectares of billowing rain forest. Birds chirruped in the foliage above us as tiny lizards darted across the wooden railings and a solitary iguana — our neighbor — lolled on a cactus branch.
       The camp seemed effortlessly intertwined with its surroundings, and as night fell, the cacophony confirmed it. A layered chorus of crickets descended, punctuated by the popping hiccups of an army of frogs. The din was a gentle reminder that despite the camp’s dainty imposition, this was still very much their turf.
       Still, staff members say that as many as 10,000 guests make the fragmented journey to Maho Bay every year, and 80 percent are return customers.
       To get to St. John, we boarded a ferry from St. Thomas, then hopped in a taxi that plunged into the National Park that makes up two-thirds of St. John’s landmass. Our ride, an open-backed jitney with an expansive turning circle, chugged gamely through tunnels of genip and calabash trees, and over heavily eroded roads that curved unendingly. We didn’t care. The views were spectacular.
       As the road oscillated from coast to hilltop we caught snatches of turquoise shores through gaps in the trees. Flocks of pearly-eyed thrashers scattered from the jitney’s path, and on a rare open patch of grass, two deer quietly grazed at the foot of a wooded slope.
       But the best views were at Maho. Our hybrid cottage resembled an open-sided chalet, with a bedroom, living area and balcony forged of wooden fixtures, a canvas roof and mosquito-proof mesh windows. We paid $80 a night.
       I’d pay that for our view alone. When we woke on our first morning, from our bed we could see astonishing contours of green and turquoise lacing the bay beneath us. Pelicans elegantly skimmed the water before arching upward, plunging into the water and glugging down their catch.
       My perception of the Caribbean has always been a lustful daydream of how the other half lives: a string of impossibly beautiful islands stretching from the foot of one continent to the top of another, where people who make more money than I do come to play in grand five-star resorts. But staring out over the water from our balcony, we couldn’t imagine being more spoiled. We’d found our Caribbean loophole.
       In fact, I couldn’t really imagine why you’d want to experience this region any other way. Viewed from a wooden balcony nestled in the trees, the (albeit self-imposed) idea of the Caribbean as a place to swim in chlorinated swimming pools and sleep in bulky concrete constructions seems like a giant folly.
       Breakfast was served in a large wooden pavilion up on the hill. In the low season, two dozen guests, ranging from honeymooners to retired couples, were sipping coffee and stretching out limbs following the daily yoga session held in another pavilion higher up the hill.
       It felt something like a Caribbean commune, an intergenerational summer camp where families forgo the luxuries of all-inclusive hotels for an ingenious shantytown of recycled materials, solar power and rainwater showers.
       The lease on the campground runs out in 2012 and the company that owns it, Giri Giri, is asking for $32 million, well beyond the campground’s budget. The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservancy based in San Francisco, is trying to negotiate a better price to keep the camps there.
       But Maho Bay could very well be closed. If that happens, St. John’s status as a Caribbean camping enclave won’t be totally lost. Across the bay from Maho is the Cinnamon Bay Campground, where 126 cabins and tents surround another beautiful beach, and two trails snake into the forest behind the property through the remains of a bay rum plantation amid mango and calabash trees.
       Meanwhile, Maho’s owner, Selengut, has a backup plan. Clinging to the cliff overlooking Ram Head on the island’s southeast is a 21-hectare plot that he owns outright. It is currently home to the Estate Concordia Preserve, a collection of upscale studios and eco-tents, but there is enough room for additional tents and other camping-style elements.
       We inadvertently discovered yet another camp on a drive out to the island’s East End, a jagged arm of land curling two miles into the Atlantic from the island’s northeastern corner. Just after the road exits at the national park, there is a brown and yellow shack under a peeling boxwood tree. It is the home of Vie’s Snack Shack, a roadside restaurant frequented by locals for the conch fritters, garlic chicken and fresh limeade. Nearby, on the beach, is a small, bare-site campground where guests can pitch a tent and catch their own fish dinners.
       Over three days of sunshine, we made many similar pit stops on our slow meanderings, going from coast to hilltop on the handful of roads that network the island. Beach-hopping along the northern coast, we stumbled on the former holiday home of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the Manhattan Project making the first atomic bomb, now converted into a community center, where a troop of kids from St. Thomas chased tiny crabs around a line of lilting palm trees fringing the water.
       At the far reaches of the coastal road on the island’s southern shores, where the landscape is cut from a rugged cloth of craggy cliffs and pebble beaches, we found a pristine crescent of sand totally empty at Salt Pond Bay. En route we visited the brilliantly anomalous Tourist Trap, a year-old roadside watering hole operated by a New Hampshire expatriate named Larry, where a tiny hut fronted by a wooden table laden with liquor coaxes passers-by to stop for a drink.
       After the exertion of each day, we would bump along the same pockmarked trail that runs from the coastal road and return to the Maho campground, ambling through the maze of boardwalks toward our humble tent-cum-cottage.
       We didn’t feel any pressure to mingle with other guests, or to compare tales of jewelry construction or yogic escapades. In fact, by our third day we’d realized that Maho’s atmosphere is a lot more wholesome than hippie. You just do what you want, simply. Our final evening was wholly appropriate, spent playing cards and sipping beers in our lounge, listening for the occasional stumbling of our ever-soporific iguana.
       As we woke early the next day and doused our faces with sun cream before a final dash to the beach, we wished it well. Spread-eagled on a cactus branch jutting into the windless air above the bay, our reptile friend remained unmoved.

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