Tuesday, February 7, 2012

This Week: St. John, USVI

Even in paradise, camping is still camping

My fondness for camping ebbs and flows. In the midst of the experience, I have issues - like cleaning my contacts, a fear of spiders and my preference for flush toilets. Over time, these inconveniences fade and the memories of nature and camaraderie remain. So when we went looking for affordable accommodations on what can be a very expensive Caribbean island, Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds sounded appealing. Situated in Virgin Islands National Park, Cinnamon Bay was a gorgeous stretch of beach on the island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands. Located off Northshore Road, Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds had the island’s longest beach along with its own restaurant, grocery store and watersports rentals. We had camped in national parks before, but this was camping in paradise.

Cinnamon Bay had three types of lodging, cement cottages with electricity, tent sites and bare sites, where guests brought all their own equipment. We chose a tent site because everything we needed would be provided for us. This proved worthwhile since a snow storm scare in Atlanta delayed our arrival until just before the campground’s lodge closed at 8 p.m. Already at our tent were a propane stove and lantern with a book of matches. Too bad the tropical humidity rendered those matches useless. Good thing my husband thought to pack our head lamps. Our linens and towels were stacked on a cot inside along with an ice chest and storage box containing cooking gear. Between arriving late and the damp matches, dinner at the campground’s restaurant was a no-brainer.

Our military green tent was a roomy 10x14 feet with four cots. This room was good since we shared the tent with a spider that had made its webby home in a corner. I reassured myself that the spider would eat the insects that came inside through several holes in the tent screens. In case the spider couldn’t keep up, we doused ourselves with insect propellant before going to sleep. I also wrapped myself in the bedsheet despite the tropical air just incase the spider decided to drop down from its corner. The long hot night was cut short, however, by the island’s garbage truck. It awoke us at the darkest of hours while backing into the lodge’s rear entrance. Beeeep, beeeep, beeeep, beeeep. Headlights burned through our tent. Apparently they were unaware of the camp’s quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

The campgrounds had multiple bathhouses with flush toilets (hallelujah) filled with rust-colored water (ew). The hand-pulled showers had unheated water, rather refreshing on a muggy island. Early in the morning and late at night I had the bathhouse to myself to brush my teeth and clean my contacts. Mid-afternoons it bustled as tourists would use it before going back to their resorts or cruise ships. Anyone I did meet during those quiet hours were fellow campers so I made a point to greet them and ask about their camping experiences. Everyone I asked had stayed at Cinnamon Bay before, some going back several years with their entire families. For them staying on a Caribbean island for less than $100 a night was well worth the nuisances of camping. I decided to make peace with the spider. 

Meeting happy campers made us curious to investigate the rest of the campgrounds. We discovered our problems were not necessarily the tent, but rather its location. Our site was farthest from the beach and closest to the lodge, hence our nightly garbage truck encounters. Buried in the trees on the side of a steep hill didn’t help either. We climbed four wooden steps to our tent and our precariously perched picnic table needed bricks to keep it from rolling away. Down the path tents were on more level ground. Adding insult to injury, these tents looked brand new compared to our beat up canvas. The bare sites had the best locations of all. Thirteen of them had beach access through trails cut into the shrubbery.

St. John was a national park for a reason and we enjoyed the natural beauty it had to offer. We hiked the Cinnamon Bay Trail, which started at sugar plantation ruins near the campground’s entrance. The Park Service held nightly ranger talks with slideshow at the campground’s outdoor amphitheater. We attended the popular Camp Critters lecture on Thursday night. Ranger Diane explained St. John wildlife, from the smallest of insects to the free-range deer brought over by the Dutch. We joked with her that we had already seen most of these creatures. The scorpion on our window screen was especially enlightening. Something not encountered in most mainland national parks was the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, which protected the amazing reefs that surrounded Cinnamon Cay, an islet just offshore. We spent an entire afternoon snorkeling around the cay viewing sting rays, colorful fish and a swimming turtle.

Our Caribbean adventure was like any camping trip, full of mosquitoes, rock-hard cots, no temperature control, and suspect plumbing, but those annoyances dissipated when I returned home. Instead I mused about the morning we spied island deer foraging through the trees, dreamed of the tree frog chirps that lulled me to sleep and reminisced about our nightly walks on a silver beach during the full moon. I told all who would listen we camped in the Virgin Islands.

“Really? How was that?” they asked.

“Depends on how much you like camping,” I said. Even in paradise, camping was camping.

For more information, visit the National Park Service website, www.nps.gov. For campground information, visit www.cinnamonbay.com. You can make reservations by calling or emailing the campground’s main office, 340-776-6330 / 340-693-5654 or cinnamonbay@rosewoodhotels.com