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Bay Tripper

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Caribbean camping: the art of tent cruising

Caribbean camping: the art of tent cruising

Bay tripping the Chesapeake has sort of been my forte for a long time, and this summer I plan to follow those watery trails to the southern Bay, for sure. But recent winters have stopped me cold and sent me scurrying off to warm waters. In 2005 it was the Florida Keys, and this year it was faraway bays in the Caribbean.

It was just my luck that the weather was mild in my home waters while I was away, and, having returned, we got whacked by a snowstorm. Anyway, winter assignments in the British Virgin Islands got me to the Bitter End Yacht Club in Virgin Gorda and to Jost Van Dyke, ending at two beachfront, watersports-oriented campgrounds in St. John in the U.S. Virgins.

At the Bitter End, my lovely hillside cottage with a sea view and indoor plumbing was reached after a long walk along the beach and a climb of 90 steps to my aerie. At Jost Van Dyke, I was booked in a one-bedroom apartment at Violet Chinnery’s South Side Villas, her lovely winter mountainside home overlooking the Windward Passage. This required renting wheels.

But at St. John’s two primary campgrounds I was eager to check out the premise that pocket cruising in a small boat is similar to camping. I am not a tent camper, although I was dragged against my will into the tented lifestyle some years ago as an Army draftee in Korea.

Winter escape requirements for me must include access to boats, beaches and water. All of that, and more, were available in St. John. I had visited St. John once before, a dinghy beach landing in Francis Bay back in 1982 during the first of several bareboat charters out of Tortola that would follow over the years. This time I returned to Francis Bay, where I bay-tripped on foot to adjoining Maho and Cinnamon bays.

Two brief ferry rides had taken me from Jost to Tortola’s West End and thence to Cruz Bay in U.S. territory, where I cleared customs. Waiting nearby was Frett’s Shuttle Bus, which leaves on scheduled round trips to the Maho Bay Camps, a $7 fare for the winding, up-and-down, hairpin-curve ride of 20 minutes.

Maho has been an ecotourism destination since 1976, and its predominant accommodation is an unpainted, tent-like cabin in the trees with a white vinyl-covered roof that didn’t leak, but sounded like the inside of a kettle drum when the evening rain beat upon it. Dense foliage conceals most water views and provides a degree of privacy, enhanced by an inky black darkness at night that requires a flashlight to get around.

The screened cottage, with a bare wooden floor, is open all around for catching breezes. The small quarters are divided into a sitting room area, with a vinyl-covered couch and a spare bed hidden underneath, and bedroom that has two single beds with privacy curtains and flaps. Towels, linens, pillows, light blankets and one floor fan are provided. A minimally equipped kitchen with a well-used propane stove is furnished with a round plastic table and four plastic chairs. An open sundeck with a railing also has a clothesline (laundry facilities are available elsewhere). Most important are two bare (yellow) electric lights.

The 114 standard cabins are linked by elevated wooden pathways with hand rails and a spidery, secure network of well-maintained stairs and boardwalks. Convenient bathhouses (no hot water) are scattered about, along with barbecue areas and freshwater outlets. No indoor plumbing, however.

Twelve Harmony Studios provide excellent views, and are better furnished with an upper and lower floor, large sundeck, kitchenette with microwave, and a private bathroom. The rustic feel of camping is not part of the program here.

Soon after arriving, I headed directly to the campground’s small beach on Little Maho Bay. After descending 162 steps, I landed and needed a rest. (Bring a backpack.) Fortunately, at the bottom is a small refreshment shack selling iced beer, frozen smoothies, hot dogs and sandwiches. A patio has tables and chairs, and a rental operation handles Hobies, kayaks, sailboards and beach chairs.

The food concession is operated by 25-year-old Joshua Slayton, who along with brother Matthew, 27, a Maho security man, also owns another business. Their Lion In Da Sun business is a captained, 26-foot Twin Vee cat with a pair of 115-hp outboards available for touring or snorkeling. The brothers came here from Boston last summer.

During my visit a norther created swells and sand-blasting winds that hit 20 knots, and pushed the surf to the tree line on the beach. But within easy walking distance is Francis Bay, with a larger, adjoining beach. This is a popular mooring area for transients. On the other side of Little Maho Bay is Big Maho Bay, another large adjoining beach reached by walking along the shoreline or via a rocky goat trail.

The center of activities is the Pavilion, an excellent outdoor restaurant in a cleared treetop area with a spectacular view of Francis Bay, Mary Point and Whistling Cay. It serves breakfast and dinner, with a surprisingly good salad bar and selection of wine and beer (No tipping allowed). One simply places an order, picks it up when ready, and carts a tray off to a table, then returns same to a kitchen station.

One evening the wonderful “March of the Penguins” documentary was shown on an outdoor screen peppered with a million insets. At the end, I waddled off to the bar like an emperor penguin. I also was surprised to meet two Annapolis, Md., friends, Chesapeake sailors Chris and Marsha Kellogg, who were cruising in their Tayana 48, Endorphins.

Maho Bay Camps is privately owned and employs many young American men and women, most recent college grads. They are friendly, outgoing and smiling — somewhat of a contrast to the sometimes unfriendly manner of some West Indian natives who deal with tourists. All sorts of activities are available: guided snorkel and sunset sails, and glass-blowing, ceramics and painting classes. (Other Maho-owned facilities are Estate Concordia Studios and Concordia Eco-Tents, on the other side of the island. These are so isolated that a rental car is necessary to reach even the nearest community, Coral Bay.)

My last stop was Cinnamon Bay Campground in the same general area, a facility operated by the U.S. National Park Service with 60 tents (10 by 14 feet), 40 “cottages” (15 by 15 feet), and 26 bare tent sites. The big difference between Maho and Cinnamon is that the former is very hilly with many stairs, and the latter is flat with no stairs and a much larger beach.

I am not much of a hiker and certainly no camper, so when I checked in at my tent I half expected a tented cottage like Maho. But this was a real tent, with a wooden floor, four bunks and no electric lights. It was gloomy, dank, dark and claustrophobic — not for me.

Luckily, there were vacancies. The manager took pity on me and my reading requirements (lights!), and I moved to a cottage. These grouped units reminded me of a 1950s-era motel with two cement walls and two walls of screens with a patio for cooking, kitchen equipment, and two bare electric light bulbs. It may not be ecologically attractive, but the floor was cement, and much natural light penetrated when the curtains were pulled back.

Incidentally, upon leaving I shared a taxi with four young women who were vacating the tented life. Their first night under a canvas roof kept them occupied by training small flashlights on a scorpion that had taken up with some big spiders under the peak of the tent.

But it’s all about the beach here. And that’s where I spent most of my time — prowling about, kayaking, taking dips, reading and dozing in a beach chair, and just staring at the changing colors of the water. My choice: Maho, without a doubt.

So is camping out anything like overnighting in a pocket cruiser? Sort of, except you don’t have to worry about your anchor dragging. And when you get up in the middle of the night, you don’t have to look around to make sure you’re where you think you are. Also, your “cabin” is not in motion, and it’s nice to have standing headroom.

For rates and other information, contact Maho Bay Camps at (340) 715-0501, www.maho.org, or Cinnamon Bay Campground at (340) 776-6330,

www.cinnamonbay.com.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.