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SUNNY ST. JOHN
Horace Sutton
November 05, 1956
Our newest national park is a Caribbean isle brimful of breadfruit, beaches and birdsong—a paradise for skin-divers, fishermen and seekers of peace
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November 05, 1956

Sunny St. John

Our newest national park is a Caribbean isle brimful of breadfruit, beaches and birdsong—a paradise for skin-divers, fishermen and seekers of peace

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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.

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 soign�e 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 m�nage 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.

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