A Tent With A View (Globe & Mail)

St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

274928Twice on the second night I am awakened by the weather. The first time, some stray drops of a tropical cloudburst found their way through the wire mesh screen, and onto my face.  I did a quick midnight putter: three steps from the bedroom to the kitchen, then three more steps outside to the deck. The waves broke dutifully on Drunk Bay beach, 400 meters down the hill. Low clouds made shadows against the stars. On my way back to bed, I checked the temperature on the wall thermometer, 25 C, and fastened the bungee cords that held down our room’s canvas window shades.

This was what woke me up the second time, just before 4 a.m. The shade above the bed was blowing into the room like a spinnaker, then knocking back against the window frame when the wind died down. It was the reassuring racket of a ship at sea. I realized then that this was a shelter of the most elemental kind. In it, you were open to the air outside, but not exposed. But that was why I was here.

My girlfriend Davina and I had come from Toronto to stay for a week at the Concordia Eco-Tents, on the Caribbean island of St. John, the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Eco-tents are tent-cottages with private kitchens and bathrooms, spread out like a camp on an isolated hillside overlooking the Caribbean Sea and Virgin Islands National Park. The nearest town, tiny Coral Bay, is a fifteen-minute drive away on a windy, narrow road that follows the shoreline over steep lush hills and beside quiet bays.

Fourteen kilometers long, five kilometers wide, and without a single spot flat enough to build an airport, St. John is probably the closest thing the Caribbean has to a hippie paradise–which may, in fact, not be all that close. Two-thirds of the island is occupied by Virgin Islands National Park, which has fourteen thousand acres of protected coral reefs and beaches so beautiful they look less like beaches and more like ads on the subway for beaches. Choosing one or the other of the thirty-nine of them is a zero-sum game–they are all beautiful, in nearly equal proportions. Waving palm fronds, soft white sand, turquoise water, and an absolute lack of condominium high-rises provoke a sort of Eden-like complacency, as if this is what beaches really are and always should be.  Known not only for its pristine beaches but for its conservation-minded residents, St. John attracts a sportier breed of winter Caribbean visitors–the kind who come for the hiking trails, coral reefs, and excellent sailing waters, and don’t notice the absence of casinos, nightclubs, or jewelry stores.

Their plumage often includes sport sandals and a mesh backpack (the better for scrambling to out-of-the-way snorkeling spots). Bearded, pony-tailed men wearing tie-dyed T-shirts sipped Red Stripes at bars called “Skinny Legs” or “Woody’s” and awaited their next sea-kayaking customers. While we were there, the headlines in the local Tradewinds newspaper were concerned with possible environmental damage from the development of a new subdivision.

And yet, the million dollar villas for sale in the hills and the fact that most of the island’s 400,000 annual visitors come from Northern metropolitan areas creates a lingering sense of urbanity that makes it as easy to find fresh pesto or a latte as it is a burger and fries. Nobody seemed to notice that the guy selling plants off a truck to benefit the St. John Audubon Society was wearing an apron from Zabar’s, the Manhattan gourmet food store. Such is the combination of protected natural beauty and those who flock to it.

Not that St. John is crowded. Ever since 1956, when philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller purchased the land that became Virgin Islands National Park, development has been strictly controlled, and even today getting there remains a study in multimodal transportation. From Canada, the trip requires a connecting flight through Miami or San Juan, just to get to the more developed neighboring island of St. Thomas, a twenty-minute ferry ride away. When we finally arrived in Cruz Bay, St. John’s biggest town, we rented a rickety red Suzuki jeep from a place called Hospitality Car Rental, which shares a small shack near the center of town with a drink stand. While we filled out the paperwork, the proprietor blended a pair of strawberry smoothies–gratis, included with a week’s rental, he said. The Eco-tents were still forty minutes away on a windy road along the island’s mountainous spine, occasionally interrupted by the crossing of a herd of mangy goats.

When we finally arrived at the Eco-tents, just at sunset, the Caribbean Sea stretched out in three directions, bisected by a green spit of Virgin Islands National Park, empty of even a single house.  Heavy surf pounded a rocky beach on the windward shore, and yachts bobbed in a perfect little turquoise cove to the leeward. It had taken thirteen hours door-to-door from dark, pre-dawn Toronto to reach this golden Caribbean hillside.

I had picked the Eco-tents off the web six months before, in a search for the bare minimum of a house in the Caribbean–a search motivated equally by economy and philosophy. I have long been consumed by the idea of a house open to the world outside its walls. Camping does not quite qualify. A nylon tent is more like clothing than a building; it does not frame the world. I am in it for the inside as much as the out, for the play of interior and exterior landscapes, both architectural and metaphorical.

“This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of crystallization around me,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1854 about his hut beside Walden Pond. In it, he “made some progress toward settling in the world.”

There are a dozen Eco-tents at Concordia, small wood-framed structures covered in canvas walls millimeters thick, set high up on the hillside with 180-degree views. Sparsely but comfortably furnished, each Eco-tent has two double beds in a curtained-off room, a queen sized futon that folds into a couch, and a sleeping loft with two additional mattresses. Six people could sleep comfortably, without privacy.  The only decoration consists of a weather station and the spectacular views out the screen-windows. The kitchen, functionally equipped with pots and dishes, occupies a long counter. The bathroom lies across a narrow breezeway–its chief luxury being the breeze that tickles through. Like tree houses, the Eco-tents are perched on stilts and accessed by a walkway raised above the vegetation. We rarely glimpsed or heard the other guests, either of the Eco-tents or of the Estate Concordia Studios, the more conventional bungalows that share the property. Only in the early evenings did the office area–with its assortment of dry goods for sale, payphone, small swimming pool, and “help yourself shelf”–bustle like the center of a small village. Strangers compared notes about snorkeling and restaurants. There was something about that hillside that inspired a sense of camaraderie.

The “Eco” in “Eco-tent” is a devil’s bargain. There is little environmentally responsible about travelling thousands of miles to spend a week thinking long thoughts in the sun. And yet on their hillside in St. John, the Eco-tents do an impressive job of limiting their impact on the immediate environment. With the exception of the propane for the two-burner stove, the tents are fully self-sufficient.

Rainwater runs off the broad canvas roof into a cistern beneath each tent, ready to be pumped back up for use. Filtered drinking water and ice are available next to the office. Power for the water pump, the lights, a small refrigerator, and a few unnecessary fans is collected from a solar panel attached to the tent’s side, and stored in batteries underneath. In the bathroom, the toilet flushes into an odorless composting unit beneath each tent. Water for the solar shower is heated by the sun in a black-painted drum propped beneath the roof. Little laminated signs scattered around the tent explain the environmental features:

St. John is not, logically, the place to go to minimize your ecological footprint. Everything, and nearly everyone, comes from somewhere else. The freight dock is the only thing in Cruz Bay busy all day. Over the course of the week we spread peanut butter from Oklahoma City and sunscreen from Mississauga. And yet the Eco-tents are intensely local.

There was never a moment you could turn the place off–close tight the shades, pump up the air conditioner–and pretend to be anywhere. Instead, when the wind gusted at night and the thin canvas walls of the Eco-tent rippled and the window-shades banged, it was an assertive reminder of what was right outside the door. The view was omnipresent and, since we were showering in the rainwater and reading by the stored light of the sun, so was the place.

By the second day, I was tent-proud. The floorboards are made from recycled paper, and they felt good beneath my feet. Not normally particularly tidy, I found myself shuffling around our tent straightening things up, sweeping the sand out the door and arranging tubes of sunscreen. When I came across Ted, the handyman, radioing in a maintenance request as if it were a missile strike (“E-6, west door, warped and chipped, copy?”) I was reassured that these delicate structures were being well taken care of. It was the opposite of the anonymity of a big hotel.

Concordia’s staff of six do their work while sipping ice water from insulated jugs clipped to their belts. They speak of the owner, Stanley Selengut, who is widely respected as a founder of eco-tourism, in reverent tones, as the protector of this place. In summer, guests can join the staff, working four hours a day in exchange for free lodging. The first three of the dozen Eco-tents were built with the help of guest labor.

Each morning during our stay, we would have breakfast on the porch before heading out to one or another of the beaches. All were beautiful white sand and clear turquoise water, so we became connoisseurs of other things: Cinnamon Bay had bathrooms, Trunk Bay had better snorkeling, and Salomon had nobody on it, or at least nobody with clothes. We picked up island gossip and hitchhikers.

“The only thing on St. John the hurricanes don’t knock down is the rumor mill,” one told us. He had “moved down” from the San Juan Islands in Washington State the year before, hoping a woman would follow. She didn’t. Now he was doing landscape work, living in the sun. His story set the pattern: a “psychologist-artist-healer” sailed to St. John with her husband, from Minnesota. A group of college students, from Maine, Michigan, Massachusetts, were working at a campground, bodysurfing in the afternoons. A young Quebecois guy was the chef at a local West Indian restaurant. Contorting himself to hang out the back window of the jeep, he told us he had spoken to a friend that morning and that it was warm in Toronto. All of them were deeply tanned, slow in speech, and told us how they had “crossed over to the other side.”

St. John may not be exotic (it is far too American, and there are too many tourists) but it inspires the impulse to stay–maybe to sell $6 frozen-yogurt smoothies, and charge an extra buck for rum. It is not hard to settle into life here. Elsewhere (we would later learn) there were disputes over Olympic medals, a kidnapped reporter was killed. On St. John, a beachfront bar called Island Blues keeps one TV tuned to the weather, which this time of year is less interesting than it is in most places: sunny with cloudy periods, high 28 C, everyday from today until hurricane season.

Our only rush was to get back to the Eco-tent in time to watch the dusk gather. With a full horizon visible from the deck, the night drew together in discernible folds. Some evenings, single rain clouds passed by, like parade floats tossing confetti. It seemed overwhelmingly obvious that they had extracted this water from the sea, leaving its salt, and were now politely dropping it on this dry island. The roof pattered in approving applause. The water ran along the rain gutters and down beneath the tent into the cistern, ready to be pumped back up again.

The last morning, we hiked out to Ram Head, the 1.6 kilometer-long spit of parkland the Eco-tents overlook. The trail passes a beach with natural blue cobblestones, unusual among the island’s white sand, then climbs past perilous cliffs to a crest 61 meters above the sea. Sailing east, the next landfall is Africa. Out here, the sun and trade winds are strong enough that instead of sweating, the skin pickles, tingling as the pores suck for moisture. Looking back towards the island, the Eco-tents stood alone on the hillside. At home in Toronto the next night, the streets seemed straight, wide, and gray, and the walls felt thick.