Camping in the Caribbean, Part One: U.S. Virgin Islands

Circus tents!

It’s a church camp, unfortunately…but with that view and a few circus tents I could get religion.

The very first time we went to the Caribbean we camped at the Cinnamon Bay campground in Virgin Islands National Park, on the superlative island of St. John. It was a life-changing experience, to say the least—we spent five days truly stunned by beauty, our jaws agape, and have been back to the region multiple times every year since. We haven’t camped in the islands since then, but lately I’ve been thinking about going back because it was really great. Twenty yards from a perfect beach, amazing forest sounds, deer, iguana, hermit crabs scuttling around the undergrowth, geckos chilling on the tent…what’s not to like? On many islands it’s as close as you’re going to be able to get to the beach, and there’s nothing more romantic than taking a late night stroll on the sand looking for shooting stars with your sweetie.

Plus there’s the cheapness. Even if you have to check extra bags you’re going to be saving some serious bucks. At Cinnamon Bay we spent a lot of time gazing at the (kind of tacky, IMHO) faux-Tuscan mansions on Peter Bay. We were on the same island. Swimming in the same water, although we were sleeping closer to it. We were spending around $55 a night (at that time, it’s gone up) instead of $2500 or more.

It’s my strong belief that travel should be more egalitarian. If you can save up for the airfare, that’s pretty much always going to be the biggest part of your budget. If you need to sleep in a tent, at least you’re sleeping in a tent somewhere really cool. So put some money aside each payday and just go.

So, without further ado, here is the first post of many on places to camp in the Caribbean. At some of them you need to bring everything. Others have tents (or Airstream trailers!) set up for you. Some of them are “eco-cabins.” Every single one of them will give you a truer, more authentic, more interesting experience than even the most luxurious resort.

  • Cinnamon Bay Campground, St. John: Cabins, platform tents, baresites, group camping. Cabins and platform tents come with basic cooking equipment and propane stoves; baresites can rent that stuff. There’s a store, a restaurant, and watersports on site, on the longest beach on the prettiest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Look out, the showers aren’t heated!
  • Concordia Eco-Resort, St. John: The Maho Bay Resort on St. John pioneered sustainable tent-cabins, but unfortunately someone else owned the land and they were kicked out a couple of years ago. The same person developed the Concordia resort in a very secluded spot on the other side of the island. It’s not cheap (higher than our usual even in the offseason) but if you want to see how it’s done this would be a great place to try.
  • Virgin Islands Campground, Water Island: Also not cheap by our stringent standards, but pretty nice. Water Island is just off of St. Thomas with regular ferries, but seems to be a world away from what is a fairly urbanized island.
  • Cane Bay Campground, St. Croix: When we went to St. Croix we considered this option very carefully: nice little screened cabins extremely close to a gorgeous beach, perfect for snorkeling, diving, and liming. These people also run a kayaking company for trips to the Salt River Bio Bay.
  • Ridge to Reef Farm, St. Croix: Stay in a tent or cabin on an organic farm in the tropics. They say you can volunteer to work on the farm…not sure whether it’s expected that you’ll be an unpaid farmhand. If you don’t spend much time weeding in your real life, you might love it.
  • Mt. Victory Camp Eco-Lodge, St. Croix: Another really cool group of cabins with baresite camping available. St. Croix rocks. These people run workshops on tropical skills and survival, which could be interesting, I guess?
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Culebra Planning Update

As a travel blogger I’m a bust. The best bloggers are committed. They post all the damn time. I guess that’s just not me. And I’m not going to make any excuses about all of the other things happening in my life because I spend at least a half hour every day just wasting time.

Now, on to this post.

Villa Fulladoza was all booked so we went with Seastar at the Green Villas. I’m pretty excited about it…the owner has been friendly and helpful and knocked a night’s rent off the price, which is very satisfying to my inner frugal person.

And the more I think about Culebra the happier I am about where we’re heading. It’s the island that Puerto Ricans go to for a day or a weekend when they want to get away from it all. Try to wrap your head around that one: where do people who live in a tropical paradise go when they need a minibreak? Culebra, as it turns out. (There were also a bunch of people from Puerto Rico anchored off of Virgin Gorda when we were there.)

We’ve also finalized our transportation plans. When I booked the trip I thought we would be able to rent a Volkswagen Thing. I have wanted a Thing since before I could drive. I’m totally comfortable with driving a rickety stick-shift vehicle in mountainous terrain–after all, I spend a lot of time in Pittsburgh in an uninspected 1998 Golf–but they’ve stopped renting the Things! I guess they got to the point where they couldn’t keep them on the road. I am very disappointed that we’re six months too late. But we are renting a golf cart! I am foolishly excited about this. It’s the next best thing, really.

If you ever want to go to Culebra (or Vieques, for that matter), there are only two ways to get there unless you charter a yacht: ferry or eight-seat puddle-jumper. The ferry is the budget option: it costs less than $10 after an $80 cab ride to Fajardo. There are frequent delays and you can get bumped because it’s really there for the people who live on the islands (after all, every now and then you need to go to a real store). Even so, we would have taken the ferry because ferries are fun, but the times just weren’t working for us. The afternoon ferry was a little too early and then we would have had to have waited until 7:00 p.m. and gotten there after dark. Coming back, the only ferry that would have worked was for commuters and left at some ungodly hour like 6:00 a.m.

So we’re flying. There are three airlines serving the offshore islands, and they all fly from three separate airports (San Juan’s big airport, Isla Grande in San Juan, and Ceiba outside Fajardo). These are the three airlines, in case you ever want to go:

This was a surprisingly difficult analytical task that worked best with a spreadsheet. What combination of flight schedules, airports, and airlines would get us to and from Culebra at the best times and at a reasonable price? There were hundreds of possible combinations but we ended up buying tickets on Vieques Air Link from Isla Grande for the arrival date and Cape Air to SJU for departure.

So now we’re less than a month out and all we’ve got to do is wait. We’re passing the time by thinking about excursions (definitely want to go to Culebrita, might want to kayak to Cayo Luis Peña) and food. I am dying for pinchos and empanadas.