|By Mackenzie Carpenter, Pittsburgh
Post-GazetteMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
September 15, 2010 --There is Caribbean luxury travel of the $500-a-night variety: Chocolates on your Frette linen down pillow. A swim-up bar at the infinity pool. The iPod docking stations in your room. And, of course, air conditioning.
Then there's Caribbean luxury travel that doesn't require that big of a bank account at all, and here's what it gets you:
A million-dollar view from an eco-tent in St. John, Virgin Islands, overlooking both the Atlantic and the Caribbean, with no other building in sight. The sound of rain crashing on the canvas roof at midnight after you've scrambled to zip up the screen windows. A 3 a.m. moon setting in a sky full of winking stars like big fat diamonds while tree frogs peep and lightning flickers from a storm out at sea. A mile-long hike to snorkel in water as clear as gin, in reefs full of neon-colored fish; flopping, exhausted in your bathing suit and T-shirt, into a charming little roadside restaurant shaded by banana trees for a frozen mango daiquiri and a plate of salty crisp fish and chips (the fish caught just a few miles from where you are sitting).
Oh, and something else that no money in the world can buy: the knowledge that you, the visitor, are treading lightly on this paradise, and that after a week of swimming, eating, drinking and sleeping, you will leave the place almost as pristine as you found it.
That's because you showered in solar-heated rainwater collected from that overnight rainstorm, in a permanent structure that evokes not so much a tent as a treehouse and that's made with recycled materials, with no air conditioning but nonetheless cooled by ocean breezes.
Maybe it's a stretch to call the 51-acre Concordia Estates -- named for an old sugar plantation that once stood here during the islands' Danish colonial past -- a high-end travel experience. That is, unless you buy into the notion that a week spent "roughing" it on one of the last truly unspoiled Caribbean islands, where more than half the island is protected national park is something of a luxury these days.
Concordia is the brainchild of Stanley Selengut, who founded the legendary Maho Bay camps in 1976 at the beach of the same name on St. John. Maho Bay was one of the first "eco-tourism" venues in the Caribbean, notes Mr. Selengut, who was trained as a civil engineer, is known as a canny businessman and who also regards himself as a staunch environmentalist.
"I cater to a particular kind of human being who demands a certain kind of experience, people of like minds," said Mr. Selengut, 81, by telephone from his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y.
"And the people I'm trying to attract come back all the time, and that makes it profitable."
While Maho Bay has 140 separate units, Concordia is much smaller, with 38 built on a hillside overlooking the park's gorgeously desolate Ram's Head, framed by Drunk Bay, which faces east into the Atlantic, and Salt Pond Bay, facing south into the Caribbean.
A half-dozen of the units are wheelchair accessible, Mr. Selengut says, and he is building eight more high-end eco units. They aren't tents but rather houses, made with "eco-panels" -- solid building panels that replace concrete -- that tightly insulate the space so that the rooms remain cool in hot weather.
In high season, Concordia has its own restaurant and yoga studio, and a well-stocked general store is open year-round. There's also Internet access at Concordia's reception area ($2 for 15 minutes; $7 for an hour). Mr. Selengut hopes to continue the popular "Trash to Treasure" program he started at Maho, including a craft center that manufactures the site's solid waste into art and building materials, and which offers classes in clay making, glass blowing and other activities.
He acknowledges that the 35 years of human presence at Maho has taken its toll on the reef there, as it has at Trunk Bay and other popular beaches on the island.
At Concordia, the luxury can be found in privacy: Instead of community showers, as at Mahor Bay, each tent has, across a small breezeway, a separate area with a compost toilet and solar-heated shower. There's a small kitchen with two propane burners and a battery-operated refrigerator, and one electric light in each room, but my family squabbled over the one outlet -- out of doors -- to recharge their various iPods and smartphones.
My family visited Concordia in the off-season, early August. There are certain trade-offs involved in this decision. In high season, which begins in November and ends in May, there's that incredible moment when you step off a plane from 28-degree Pittsburgh into 83-degree temperatures and soft trade winds. But you also get high prices, crowds (even in relatively off-the-beaten-path St. John) and, from December to March, high winds, the so-called "Christmas winds," that blow constantly.
In low season, you go from hot (in Pittsburgh it was above 90 degrees the week we were gone) to slightly less hot (in St. John that same week, temperatures averaged about 87 degrees every day), ameliorated by those constant breezes, less crowded beaches and lower prices.
Did I say lower prices?
For $150 a night for a family of five (in high season, it's about $100 more a night), we slept comfortably in a Concordia that included a small deck where we played cards, sipped rum and gazed at the British Virgin Islands dotting the sea.
Except for that fierce storm the first night, we got very little rain the rest of the week, although in July there was record rainfall, cloaking our usually arid part of the island in lush green.
Far below our deck, in undergrowth, land crabs rustled. The resort encourages you to throw your fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grounds over the side -- the crabs eat it all, and because they're an important part of the island's ecosystem, you are doing good, too.
The National Park Service -- which oversees land donated by Laurance Rockefeller in the 1950s -- does an admirable job of keeping the beaches clean and beautiful even if development continues apace nearby on what remains of privately owned properties.
Some of the coral reefs, unfortunately, have taken a beating -- Trunk Bay's much touted underwater coral reef trail, complete with signs -- yielded disappointingly few fish. But Leinster Bay and Waterlemon Cay (no typo: it's WaterLEMON) gave us sea turtles, angelfish, and those schools of baby fish that swim by the thousands, in unison, just inches from you, never touching you.
For a roller-coaster experience, it can be fun to drive on the left side of the road in a jeep -- a must if you want to explore the island, although not part of the "eco" experience, given that the mileage is 9 miles per gallon. There is a bus ($1 for the ride into St. John's capital, Cruz Bay) that is supposed to come once an hour, but it's not reliable.
Concordia isn't for everyone. If you're not in decent shape, you might find the steps up from your cabin (140 from our unit, counted by my husband with a mix of pride and incredulity) to the site's private road -- where cars are parked -- taxing, to say the least, even though the walkways to other parts of the resort were shaded and attractive.
If you hate the heat (even when there's a breeze) you might find the mornings -- when there was less of a breeze and the sun rose over the British Virgin Islands and shone directly into our cabin -- uncomfortable. But we managed by simply driving to one of the island's 39 beaches and immersing ourselves in the cool turquoise water for a few hours.
Visitors have called their stay at Concordia a "life changing experience," and indeed, it is, even without air conditioning.
If that's still not enough, you can always go to Canada instead, or plunk yourself down at one of the island's two high-end, highly manicured resorts, where you can have the chilliest room you want, but it's doubtful you'll feel as close to the island's beating green heart as we did, where at night the jungle below our cabin was a veritable symphony of tree frogs and other animals calling to each other -- and to us.
Mackenzie Carpenter: 412-263-1949 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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