Second time's a charm for Caneel Bay resort on St. John

Destination: Caribbean

October 09, 2005|By CLARE MCHUGH

Love at first sight happens all the time to vacationers. Go to a beautiful resort and adore it -- that's a traveler's cliche.

So too is abhorrence on arrival. Check into a top-rated hotel and find it scruffy or noisy or just not worth the price. You're likely to go home and tell all your friends how overrated the place is.

Less common than either scenario is something in between: Go to a place once and walk away with a sour taste, only to find yourself trying it again and discovering that you relish every moment.

That's what happened to me and Caneel Bay, a resort on St. John in the U.S Virgin Islands. And apparently it's happening to a lot of people who have realized that Caneel, which was once great but had been run on auto-pilot for several years, is now revived under new ownership.

The location was never the problem. Surrounded by the verdant green hills of Virgin Islands National Park, the resort takes up 170 acres of elegantly landscaped grounds and boasts seven sandy beaches. The water is a clear turquoise blue, and the accommodations, in discreet low wooden cottages (most bordering the beaches), are designed to meld with the environment. The rooms contain neither TVs nor phones, and a general feeling of serenity and peace imbues the place.

But, as I discovered on my first visit to Caneel in spring 2003, the staff and the amenities did leave plenty to be desired -- especially considering the luxury prices being charged. (During the high season, January through March, rooms cost between $450 and $925 a night.)

Most staff members never smiled, and when asked for directions and information, the folks at the front desk seemed at best clueless and at worst hostile.

In the hotels' restaurants, service was slow and sullen. Added to that, the rooms were poorly maintained. A dark mold appeared to be growing in the corner of my tiled shower, the door out to the porch was slightly warped so it took several tries to close properly, and the drapes and linens were faded and worn.

But I returned earlier this year for a second look on a friend's urging. I didn't have high hopes for the resort, but I had regretted not seeing the rest of the island on my previous visit and wanted to explore it thoroughly this time.

One thing I knew I had missed: anything outside the hotel's gates. St. John, about the size of Manhattan, has large undeveloped areas, thanks to the generosity of Laurence Rockefeller. Rockefeller, a lifelong conservationist, bought up two thirds of St. John, including the peninsula on which Caneel sits, 50 years ago. He donated much of the property to create a national park, and founded the resort, which sits on park land, as a place for people to experience the island in comfort but without ostentation.

Like paradise

My husband and I flew to St. Thomas, and went to the Caneel office at the airport to check in and be transported by taxi, and then by ferry to the resort, a 35-minute boat trip from Charlotte Amalie, the capital of St. Thomas. This is the standard way to get to Caneel -- St. John has no airport, and while there is a public ferry, it's far less hassle to take the resort's boat. Indeed, the cost of the airport transfer is included in the room rate.

We stayed in a room on Scott beach, a long, narrow stretch of soft white sand. From the porch facing the water, you can walk along a short stone path through the low trees right onto the beach, where we never saw more than a dozen people during our four-day stay.

No garish umbrellas dot the shore here, but white plastic lounge chairs were always available to sit on, along with bright blue floating mattresses. We'd each take a mattress, swim 25 yards out into the water, lie on our backs and let the gentle tide push us back to shore. (It's imperative to wear lots of sunblock while doing this.)

At night, the lights of St. Thomas across the channel glittered, and we'd fall asleep to the sound of lapping waves. All in all, the place is paradisiacal. My fastidious eye also noted that the towels were fluffier, the room cleaner and the bed much more comfortable than on my previous visit.

I saw improvements at the restaurants, too. We ate breakfast on the Caneel Beach Terrace, where an extensive buffet is laid out every morning. Most of the waiters proved friendly -- I heard from a couple of them that the recent upgrades in staff facilities, including the employee cafeteria, had boosted morale.

New management from the Rosewood Hotel chain took over in 2004 and has retrained all personnel. Service at the hotel's two other restaurants also seemed perkier. The Equator, built amid the ruins of an 18th-century sugar mill, serves seafood and Caribbean dishes -- especially good was the sweet roti appetizer.

If you go to the fancier Turtle Bay Estate House, ask for a table outside on the veranda -- they'll set up small ones for couples -- and seek out the fish on the menu.

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