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Life on St. John is slow and scenic

Prime beaches encircle small Caribbean island

CRUZ BAY, U.S. Virgin Islands — It's a brilliant morning, the sea lapping below, the hillside twittering with the calls of crickets and tree frogs, only a tent between me and the sky. I have three days ahead of me on a very nice, very slow, very small island. The only cloud on my horizon is the knowledge that once I stand up, it's 137 steps to the nearest toilet and shower. And the shower will be cold.

But that's what a traveler gets for trying to pinch pennies and save the Earth. The bigger picture here is that St. John is a fine patch of greenery and volcanic rock, taking up a mere 20 square miles of the bright blue Caribbean Sea.

The island, which sits about 60 miles east of Puerto Rico, has been a U.S. territory since 1917, when we bought it — along with its larger and noisier neighbors, St. Thomas and St. Croix — from Denmark. It is a lazy place largely free of the jewelry-peddling, T-shirt-hawking hucksterism that pervades St. Thomas and many Caribbean islands on the cruise ship circuit. There's no Hard Rock Cafe here, no McDonald's.

Not that the island hangs in suspended animation. St. John has grown and bestirred itself a bit since I first visited more than 20 years ago, and — judging from the notices on the community bulletin board at the Starfish Market — controversy simmers over efforts to develop it further. But St. John has built-in protections that most islands don't.

There's no airport. The only way onto St. John is by boat, usually the ferry from St. Thomas. About two-thirds of the island is protected as Virgin Islands National Park, leaving the land dominated by tropical forest and beaches of fine white sand. Greenery creeps over the sugar plantation ruins, while iguanas and mongooses creep across the few roads. In the placid bays, you find warm water, coral reefs, excellent snorkeling and sea urchins the size of basketballs.

In 2000, the park service counted a little more than 1 million visitors, many of them day-trippers from St. Thomas, to Virgin Islands National Park. The island's year-round population has grown to about 4,000, along with a few thousand more who spend their winters here in vacation homes perched implausibly on the slopes.

Although more cruise ships have been bringing passengers to St. John in recent years, it still gets a mere trickle compared with the torrents of shore excursionists who regularly wash over St. Thomas (which handled more than 1.7 million cruise passengers last year).

But what about those 137 steps to the bathroom?

This was my introduction to Maho Bay Camps, one of the most widely praised eco-lodgings in the world. Eco-tourism pioneer Stanley Selengut has built and expanded Maho Bay Camps gradually over more than two decades, adding three other eco-lodgings on the island. Each is a showcase for recycled building materials (plastic framing instead of lumber; rugs that once were rubber tires) and alternative energy, including solar and wind power.

Maho Bay includes more than 100 tent-cottages tucked in amid the hillside greenery, barely noticeable from a distance. The common area includes a dining pavilion (breakfast and dinner), a front desk, a "cyber-hut" (holding two computers with Internet access) and an activities desk where arrangements can be made for sailing, snorkeling, hiking and other adventures.

The screened-in tent-cottages are roomy, with firm beds, and each is outfitted with dishes and a propane stove. But there's no running water, something that plenty of travelers might expect at rates of up to $115 per night. (Selengut's other island lodgings do include private bathrooms.) You fetch your potable water from a pair of central spigots and store it in a jug. To wash dishes, you slosh biodegradable cleanser in a pan. This might build character — but I couldn't say for sure. I elected to eat all my meals out.

Downtown Cruz Bay, the island's commercial center, is home to about a dozen restaurants, along with a growing number of shops and lodgings. But the total number of hotel rooms, rental homes and condos is still down in the neighborhood of 1,000.

South of the dock at Cruz Bay, I had a good lunch of baby greens, pear, Gorgonzola and walnuts at Panini Beach Trattoria and, later, a good crab cake appetizer at nearby Stone Terrace.

Ahead from the dock, you see the small public plaza, with its benches and a dramatic sculpture of a heroic islander blowing into a conch shell.

The park service's visitor center stands a few blocks north of the dock. My favorite meal while I was on the island — wild mushroom ravioli with apple sausage — was at the Mongoose Junction mall here, at the Paradiso restaurant.

Just a few roads trace their way toward the island's other corners. Speed limits are 10 mph in the city and 20 in the country, for reasons that quickly become clear.

Those roads climb and corkscrew at crazy angles. The two most astonishing climbing hairpin turns are just beyond Cruz Bay. Moreover, for some reason everybody here drives on the left, even though Danes drive on the right and the cars have steering wheels on the left, American style. This means drivers are positioned next to the curb.

Taxis are popular.

Dozens of prime beaches encircle the island, and choosing among them is mostly a matter of taste. Trunk Bay, where the park service has placed 15 underwater explanatory plaques along a sort of snorkeler's trail, is the most popular beach.

Other big draws include Coral Bay, an inlet village on the opposite end of the island from Cruz Bay; Annaberg Plantation, a ruin that dates to 1733; and the Reef Bay Trail, a 2.6-mile, two-hour downhill scramble to the sea from a trailhead about 1,100 feet above sea level.

On Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays during the winter high season (dropping to Mondays and Thursdays in spring and summer), park rangers lead hikers on the route, a tour that is frequently booked up days in advance.

Halfway down the Reef Bay Trail, we veered off the main path to inspect a fascinating set of pictographs, which researchers attribute to the Taino Indians who found their way to the island from South America more than a millennium before Columbus found his way to the Virgin Islands.

By the time Laurance Rockefeller came along in the 1950s, there hadn't been a plantation open on St. John in 40 years, and the population had dipped below 1,000. But what he did changed the island forever.

Rockefeller and partners bought most of St. John, then donated the property to the U.S. government as a national park. Rockefeller also set aside 170 acres in the middle of the park for Caneel Bay, a luxury resort with seven private beaches. Thus the park service gained some prime territory, and Rockefeller gained an unmatchable hotel location.

In all, the national park amounts to 9,500 acres of land, including about 20 miles of trails, and 5,650 acres of the surrounding sea, which were added in 1962. Apart from iguanas and mongooses, island fauna include bats (the only mammals native to St. John), several hundred wild donkeys and the ever-present bananaquit, a fist-size yellow bird that feeds on the nectar of flowers. (If a bananaquit spies your French toast on a table in the dining pavilion at Maho Bay, it may well swoop in to share your syrup.) Caneel Bay is not the largest hotel on the island. That's the Westin, a 282-room resort just outside Cruz Bay . The hotel's guest rooms are arrayed around a huge swimming pool, and on the day I visited, the deck was full of happy families and thumping Caribbean pop music. There were two less pricey lodgings that I liked the looks of more. One was Gallows Point Resort, a 60-unit vacation condo complex at water's edge, about five minutes' walk from downtown Cruz Bay. The other was Estate Lindholm, which opened in February 1999 with 11 rooms, pool and lush landscaping on a roadside hilltop spot just outside town.

If I were a little more fluent in mathematics, I'd come up with a formula for evaluating lodging rates against bathroom distances. As it is, the next time I head for St. John, I'll either spend more time negotiating the location of my tent or spend more money on a hotel. And then I'll slide on my snorkel and forget about it all.