Upscale Camping—Be Green in Comfort

Enjoy the Caribbean paradise of the U.S. Virgin Islands—and help preserve it—with a stay at one of these luxury eco-camps.

They call it camping; I’d call it anything but.

The U.S. Virgin Islands is home to a growing number of eco-camping grounds, some of which are quite luxurious. Here are three favorites.

Virgin Islands Campground—Affordable Luxury

I’m on Water Island off St. Thomas, at the new Virgin Islands Campground, which opened in 2007. “This [island] has been good to me for 30 years,” says Paul Quade of pristine St. Thomas, which is about two miles long by one mile wide. Quade, with his wife Deborah, built the lovely cottages that now comprise the campgrounds. “I wanted a place that people could come enjoy for $75 to $125, rather than $400 a night.”

Out on my cottage balcony, watching the sunrise over the sea and the hills of St. Thomas, I smile wryly thinking of that comment. I face the expensive Frenchman’s Reef and Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort on St. Thomas across Frenchman’s Reef, where rooms with a view like mine are easily near $400 per night. To experience the true tranquility and natural beauty of the Virgin Islands, I’ll take this camping any day.

Water Island is a 10-minute ferry ride from Crown Bay on St. Thomas, but life on the island is like stepping back in time. Visit Honeymoon Beach on a Monday evening, and you’ll find golf carts lined up for a viewing of a movie projected onto a big screen by the water. Stroll down to Joe’s Bar and you’ll find crusty sailor types by a makeshift shack with a few tables in the sand and kids swinging in the trees nearby. On Sundays, it’s smorgasbord night at the beach where locals—and incredible chefs from private yachts moored in the harbor—all bring dishes to share.

The campgrounds use wind-powered electricity and solar-heated water, and guests share a communal cooking area, as well as a bathhouse with compost toilets. The campground cottages—currently just seven, but there are plans to build a few more this year—were designed to leave a minimal environmental footprint. They’re screened-in, built of wood and canvas, are nestled amidst lush foliage and have private terraces overlooking the sea. As a fellow guest points out, “Give me the Ritz, or this.” If not first class, then this is as good as it gets. Rates for 2009 start at $99 per night. Tel. 877-502-7225. A ferry schedule is posted on the campgrounds’ Web site.

Maho Bay Camps—The Original Eco Camp

Maho Bay Camps on St. John was the first and was a leader in the eco-resort concept. It was more than 30 years ago that Stanley Selengut—a former civil engineer who served on President John F. Kennedy’s economic development staff—thought there must be a market for comfort in a back-to-nature setting. And so Maho Bay Camps was born. Some people consider the property a precursor to ecotourism as we know it today. “The whole process is about leaving a wonderful world for our grandchildren,” says Selengut on the ethos of sustainable design.

Every guest I met during my stay loved Maho. One woman from Toronto said that at posh resorts she often feels a distance between guests and staff. “I don’t feel that here,” she says of the natural, low-key surroundings. Selengut adds, “It’s been a lot of fun, really rewarding. Many of the enlightened guests come back over and over again, visitors of all ages and demographics.”

Maho Bay has 114 eco-friendly tented cottages, each with cooking facilities. The cottages are situated amidst winding, wooden walkways through the tropical forest, with a lovely beach and water sports at the bottom of a long set of stairs. There’s also the Pavillion Restaurant on site, and daily activities including yoga and park tours. But be forewarned—Maho cottages are basic, and the haul to the common bathhouses can be a hike.

My 5-year-old didn’t seem to mind, however, and she especially loved the camp’s extraordinary art program that takes just about anything recyclable and turns it into an art form: glass-blowing using recycled bottles; paper-making classes using shredded newspapers; ceramics from native soil; and batik designs on recycled campground sheets.

Cottage rates start at about $80 per night; art classes are $15 and up. Tel. 800-392-9004. A taxi shuttle serves Cruz Bay, where the St. John ferry comes in, to Maho Bay. (See “Getting Here” on Maho’s Web site.)

Estate Concordia—Posh Camping

Maho Bay is subject to a ground lease that, after more than 30 years, runs out in 2012. Whether the lease will be extended is unknown, but Maho’s founder planned for the future, creating Estate Concordia, an eco-camp on the southeastern side of St. John. And in this case, Selengut explains that since he owns Concordia’s land, he can pull out all the stops.

Situated atop lush hills overlooking a stunning, rugged peninsula, Concordia has 25 luxury eco-tents—including some that are wheelchair accessible—each with a private bath and cooking facilities. Stay in one of the gorgeous loft duplex units, which sleep six and have vaulted ceilings and wraparound decks, and you’ll quickly consider putting the Ritz-Carlton hotels of the world on notice that tents are now your rooms of choice.

Concordia rates start at $115 per night. Tel. 800-394-9004. There’s a restaurant and provisioning center on site, but note that a rental car is a must for exploring this remote end of the island.

Destinations: U.S. Virgin Islands, Saint John, Saint Thomas

Themes: Beach Vacations, Ecotourism, Luxury Travel

Activities: Camping, Sleep

User Comments

This is the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in. First of all they lied on Expedia about the services they provide. There is no room service available in the hotel, no ocean view rooms and no mountain view, they charge even to lock your door $8 for a lock. Tents are 30 years old and leaking, and cracks in the floors are so wide that cockroaches and lizards are flooding the dwelling. Restaurant is extremely dirty and the food is all from cans and is made in China. They say they are eco hotel but it is not true. They just don't repair the hotel and do not clean the territory, besides all their furniture, tables, plates, glasses and many more things are made of cheap toxic plastic which is definitely not ecofriendly. Also there are so many mosquitos that it is impossible to sunbath. There are a lot of tiny flees on the beach and they are so annoying that there is no way to relax on the sand. The beach is good but you can enjoy the same beach from a better hotel. But the worst thing is that they are credit cards frauds. They stole my credit card’s number and started to charge me after I checked out. Front desk service is awful; they just don’t care about customers and are not professionals. I WILL NEVER STAY IN THAT AWFUL PLACE AGAIN! BEWARE!!!! BEWARE!!!! BEWARE!!!! BEWARE!!!! BEWARE!!!! BEWARE!!!!

You're forgetting the Inns, Guest Houses and Bed and Breakfast, which have reasonable rates. Phyllis Hall Hillcrest Guest House, St. John, US Virgin Islands

This is a great place I found to get your own amazing campers Angela Meeks Wide Circles

This is a great place I found to get your own amazing campers Angela Meeks Wide Circles