This weekend I had a spread in the New York Times Travel section on camping on the Caribbean island of St John. The article focuses on the Maho Bay Campground, a truly special place that, as things stand, could disappear in 2012 when their lease expires. Their only hope lies in the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit conservancy that could purchase the land on Maho’s behalf. Read more about their campaign here.
The NYT also ran a slideshow on the island, as snapped by NYT photographer Steve Simonsen. Steve is a truly multi-faceted chap, dividing his time between travel photography and being Stoke City’s reserve goalkeeper.
A little extra
Anyway, here is a funny little story from the island, that didn’t end up in the piece. It features the father of the atomic bomb, an Orthodox Jewish sect, and footballing policemen.
On the northern coast of the tiny Virgin Island of St. John, as the road cuts a wobbling arc through the forest around Hawksnest Bay, a small unmarked drive peels from the tarmac towards the beach, invisible beyond a thicket of palms and cactus scrub. My girlfriend and I had come looking for it. The path lurches downwards after twenty feet, levelling out on a dirt car park next to a modest yellow building backing into the trees, with a covered veranda looking out to sea. A line of lilting palm trees fringe a tiny strip of sand flattened by the soft, repetitive laps of the tide.
It was here that J Robert Oppenheimer, the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” came to spent long periods of his twilight years, retreating frequently from his New Jersey home for peaceful island reclusiveness, until his death in 1967.
After a protracted dispute over the property’s succession (it was donated to the undefined “people of St John” in the will of Robert’s daughter, Toni) the seafront house was eventually turned into a community centre by the island’s vast National Park. On our visit, we found the old Oppenheimer house buzzing. Dozens of children were scurrying around the front porch, collecting tiny crabs found crawling between lumps of white-streaked driftwood.
Watching parents relaxed under the veranda, as a stream of keyboard music and intermittent drums escaped from the inside of the house. Our visit had coincided with the annual festive holiday of an orthodox Jewish community from St Thomas, the largest U.S. Virgin Island. Orthodox Caribbean Jews, eh? Who knew?
It was an unlikely scene. A beautiful Caribbean beach overtaken by a religious sect pumping out music in the belly of J Robert Oppenheimer’s old beach house. It was compounded when two local police trucks swung down the drive and disgorged three topless officers, who tightened their shorts and promptly jumped into the water. Before long, a football was being thrown between them.
A very special little island indeed.
Finally, here are a few links I garnered during my research for the piece. All well worth a read, particularly the Arthur Frommer piece at the top, which outlines the campground’s imminent demise:
• Where is the cheapest bed in the Caribbean? [Spendtrhift Shoestring]
• Camping and eco living in the Caribbean [Caribbean Inspired]
• Paradise Lost? [American Way]
• A Harmonic Convergence of all Things Lush and Green [St. Petersburg Times]
• Paradise Lost? [Plenty Magazine]