A Caribbean paradise with rooms to rent Escape: John Klein fell in love with Jost Van Dyke in 1976 and returned to build his dream house. Now, he's the proprietor of vacation units called White Bay Villas.

November 15, 1998|By Jack Sherwood | Jack Sherwood,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Fifteen years ago, the only ways to get to Sandcastle's Soggy Dollar Beach Bar on the Caribbean island of Jost Van Dyke were by boat or goat trail.

We chose to arrive by water, anchoring our chartered sailboat off the beach of the undeveloped isle and getting wet while landing the dinghy. Our cash, as expected, got soggy and was hung out to dry on a laundry line behind the Soggy Dollar. From the funky bar, we drank in the intoxicating, isolated setting: white powder sand, indescribably beautiful water and skies, rope hammocks swaying in the trade winds.

The bar itself was simple: no doors, no windows, only sand for a carpet. That lack of pretense was reflected across the island, which had no electricity, no telephone service, no roads and only a couple of Spartan rental units.

Last December when I revisited this rugged island in the British Virgin Islands, I was surprised to find not only electric power, telephone service and an unpaved road of sorts, but a villa on a hillside overlooking one end of the two-mile-long beach. It was the island's first (and still only) luxury rental, a handsome multilevel villa painted in the traditional pastel colors of native West Indies architecture.

Another surprise came when I encountered the owner, builder, landscaper, developer, maintenance man and innkeeper of the White Bay Villas - John Klein. He and I, it turned out, have mutual sailing friends on the Chesapeake Bay, and Klein, formerly of Philadelphia, still has a home outside Annapolis not far from where I live. Small-world time.

Tan, lean and bearded, this 45-year-old with a ponytail looks like an escapist beach-bum dropout in this Margaritaville setting. But what gave him away as a worker and not a player was his leather tool belt - a permanent part of his daily uniform of shorts, hiking boots and T-shirt.

Home of his dreams

What was for many years a construction site is now occupied by Klein's dream home and an adjoining rental property. Two additional rental units appear to be suspended 100 feet above the azure, wind-blown Windward Passage with Tortola's famed Cane Garden Bay a few miles off in the distance.

"I built this as my home, but visitors kept asking me if I would consider renting it," he says. "So I moved into a storage room under the main deck, turned the house over to renters, and kept building and working while they luxuriated, enjoying the manner of living that I thought I would be enjoying."

Klein remembers looking over at St. Thomas one night from his eagle's nest after a devastating hurricane knocked out all the power there. "It was so strange. Where once there were thousands of lights in the west, now there was only darkness, just like the dark mountainside of White Bay at night," he recalled.

"I couldn't help but think that I might miss that darkness and solitude if ever the developers arrive here and do what they did to St. Thomas. I mean, there's no crime here on Jost Van Dyke, for example. None. Houses are left open. Even when the beach bars 'close' for the night, most of the owners don't lock up because there are no doors and windows to lock anyway."

Making a place

Klein first came to Jost Van Dyke in 1976 and returned many times. "That first visit I chartered a sailboat for two weeks and spent nine of those 14 days anchored off Jost, exploring the inhabited part of the island by foot," he recalls. "I immediately fell in love with the place and its people, and started thinking about finding a way to live here. There were no roads, no police, no electricity, no telephones, no waters or sewers, no ferry service and no pollution.

"Visitors get fooled when they visit a place like Jost because U.S. dollars are the currency here and the natives speak English, although in a West Indian patois," he explains. "Things are slower, of course, and there's no immediate awareness that this is an entirely different culture."

The Annapolis sailor discovered the difficulties of meshing cultures in 1983 soon after buying his 4-acre property at Pull and Be Dammed Point. When he began clearing the land for building, the islanders saw him as just another crazy outsider who had come searching for paradise, would find something else and would also leave. Only he refused to give up.

Instead, he hired one of the island's 150 permanent residents to help him clear the nasty scrub brush with a chain saw and machete, and to level a site for a road and house. Later he employed Baba Gene Maduro from Tortola to operate a bulldozer and backhoe. The clearing alone took six months. Klein slept under the shelter of an old sail when he was too tired to hike down the hill to his live-aboard sailboat anchored in the Great Harbour bight.

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