‘The newly wed and the nearly dead” is how jaded types describe the clientele at old-school, high-end Caribbean resorts—but while rich retirees and canoodling honeymooners are certainly part of the equation at Caneel Bay, they’re easily ignored in favor of the seductive tropical beauty.
One of the world’s first eco-conscious hotels, Caneel Bay was built on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John by Laurance Rockefeller in the 1950s. Its 170 acres are situated on a private peninsula within Virgin Islands National Park, which Rockefeller created by buying the 5,000 surrounding acres—thereby ensuring the place remains unspoiled. One look at the overdeveloped and overrun neighboring island of St. Thomas is enough to make anyone thankful that he did. Because St. John has no airport, visitors to Caneel Bay must fly into St. Thomas (roughly a four-hour nonstop flight from Boston) and then catch one of the resort’s private ferries from the honkytonk port of Charlotte Amalie. A 35-minute ride later, they’ve left behind the cruise ship throngs sipping rum drinks and hunting for duty-free bargains, instead finding a mellow paradise of seven white-sand beaches shaded by maho and coconut trees.
Last year, Caneel Bay was rebooted as an independent property, and while the original midcentury architecture remains and might strike some as dated, the quality of the food, amenities, service and activities is inarguably five-star. Despite its having 166 rooms, a private atmosphere prevails, and with seven beaches to choose from (“one for every day of the week,” as the staff likes to mention), none ever seems crowded. The absence of telephones and televisions in the rooms adds to the serenity, but for those unable to unplug completely, there is Wi-Fi…and a quaint New York Times facsimile that’s distributed alongside the freshly squeezed juice at breakfast.
Choosing how to spend your time is about as stressful as things get. The use of snorkeling equipment, Sunfish, kayaks and paddleboards is complimentary, and scuba diving, sailing trips, powerboat rentals, tennis instruction and island tours are available at an additional charge. However, one of the resort’s strongest amenities is its spa. To call the signature massage with warm bamboo “sublime” might sound like hyperbole, but it’s accurate, and treatments are administered in rooms with sigh-provoking views. A pedicure by one of the Beauty Lounge pros, meanwhile, didn’t chip, ding or dull for three months after returning to close-toed Boston weather.
Not surprisingly, there are few prettier places in the world to sail, and the diving is superb. But even the most group-activity-averse individual might enjoy offerings like the Kayak-Hike-Snorkel, which is led by a knowledgeable expert who can snap a photo of you swimming with a sea turtle, explain why the Navy used to call life vests “kapoks” (look it up) and tease a (perfectly harmless) tarantula out of its hidey-hole. And despite the allure of doing nothing but collapsing on the beach and reading a book, guests are bound to get a modicum of exercise simply from walking. Although there are phones to hail a golf cart outside every room, it’s tempting to say “To hell with it” and stroll through the extensive gardens.
You’ll be thankful that you did, given the resort’s food, overseen by executive chef Anthony Dawodu, who worked as chef de cuisine at the Four Seasons, Boston. He creates contemporary American cuisine using local ingredients (and produce he grows himself at a nearby biodynamic farm) at Turtle Bay Estate House, located at the end of the peninsula in an old colonial building, while ZoZo’s at the Sugar Mill offers northern Italian fare by renowned island chef John Ferrigno. The sushi is superb at the Caneel Beach Bar and Grill, as are the club sandwich, burger and chopped salad, and the buffet at the Caneel Beach Terrace is infinitely superior to your average sneeze-guarded smorgasbord. There’s even an on-site gelateria and coffee house called Cannella, where you can grab a quick (or as quick as things get on St. John) panini.
The obligatory sunset cocktail cruise offers visitors a glimpse of the rest of the island, while St. John’s main town, Cruz Bay, is a short cab ride away. A ramshackle, hilly collection of candy-colored buildings, it has a swashbuckling charm. The preponderance of bars and gift shops located cheek by jowl is anything but coincidental; however, you can still find beautiful examples of larimar—the pale blue semi-precious stone found only on the Dominican Republic—at reasonable prices. The names of the restaurants, meanwhile, might recall SpongeBob SquarePants (Fatty Crab, Driftwood David’s) or Pirates of the Caribbean (Spyglass, Rhumb Lines), but there’s an impressive selection of good and varied food. And the nightlife is just as lively as in places like St. Barth, but less pretentious.
Paying guests aren’t the only ones drawn to the charms of Caneel Bay. One of the resort’s most noticeable trademarks is its large population of feral donkeys, descendants of the animals that worked the plantations. The management tried to keep them out for years, but finally decided that coexistence was a better approach. They’re now a beloved feature of the place, seemingly content to sit in the shade or wander around nibbling the grass. They seem genuinely happy to be there. Then again, you’d have to be an ass not to be.
-Be sure to bring or buy bug spray. The beaches of St. John are some of the prettiest in the Caribbean, but at certain times of year they’re infested with noseeums.
-Those wanting to venture farther afield can rent a Jeep and drive the mountainous roads to Coral Bay, the smaller of the island’s two towns. Catering to boaters—there’s no gas station but a full marina—it’s quieter but boasts some funky bars and restaurants.
Caneel Bay Resort Cruz Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (340-776-6111) caneelbay.com