The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Outdoors

March 2, 2013

No Child Left Indoors: St. John puts eco-tourism on the map

“Spring has put a spirit of youth in all things.”

For this family spring break you may want to think more along the lines of Outward Bound rather than Disney World.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are made up of three main islands: St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. Each island has unique characteristics and stretches of paradise. But it’s the island of St. John that I would propose for a family-oriented, mid-winter break that will insure that none of your children get left indoors.

Thanks to the splendid generosity of a great conservationist and philanthropist named Laurance Rockefeller, much of St. John is a fairly-rustic and well-preserved tropical paradise that is part of the National Park system. The combination of a back-country feel, with many recreational opportunities, along with ranger-led outings — all happening in nearly perfect weather with breathtaking views, beautiful beaches and fine local restaurants — make St. John a perfect family getaway destination.

Surprisingly, a week-long vacation on St. John can be quite affordable. Since you’re visiting a territory of the U.S., no passport is needed and no exchange of your dollars is necessary.

Maybe the only quirky aspect to St. John is that you drive on the left side of the road as in England.

Due to the island being mostly a national park, “going green” is not a new concept. Actually, it’s pretty much the way of life for most of island’s residents.

Last month, my wife and I enjoyed a glorious week-long vacation at the Concordia Eco-Resort (www.concordiaeco-resort.com) on the east end of St. John.

The island is just 9 miles long. However, the pace of life, the amount of traffic and the number of people between one end of the island and the other is dramatic. We stayed on the slower-paced, less-populated, more-relaxed section, and while there we enjoyed the company of several multi-generational families who had selected the Concordia in large part because their children and grandchildren would definitely not be left inside.

The Concordia uses earth-friendly design in all aspects; its staff practices minimal environmental impact in everything it does.

Built into the side of a fairly steep hill, the “tents” offer stunning views of Salt Pond Bay and of the Atlantic Ocean. From all that I observed, I would say that the Concordia Eco-Resort sets the gold standard when it comes to similar facilities.

The tents are a considerable upgrade from anything you might remember from summer camp. Each has a private bathroom equipped with a solar-heated shower.

Water conservation is a must, because rain water is captured in elaborate cisterns since there’s no fresh water source on the island.

Several tents are accessible for people who use wheelchairs or are mobility impaired. There are several family-oriented programs offered every day at the resort and kids stay free.

But the best program on St. John is no program at all. The top thing to do, in my opinion, is to head out on one of the many trails that seem to wind all over the island. At the end of each trail is another breath-taking view and highly refreshing beach.

“Mom, what is that hung lump in the tree?” I heard one boy yell to his mother on a hike. All over the island termites have built elaborate nest in the trees and it’s fascinating to watch all of the activity going on and around these beehive-looking structures.

While in the national park portion of the island we saw kids observing a mother mongoose tending to her babies on one of their first outings. A park ranger was nearby and she was encouraging the interested children to observe these cute creatures from a distance to ensure that they didn’t become habituated to humans.

Another friendly creature that seemed to get lots of attention from the kids was the hermit crabs. Known as soldier crabs on the island, these walking sea shells have become very efficient “housekeepers” because they clean-up any food scraps and other edible debris.

We really had a great time kayaking in Coral Bay. Because it was a windy day we choose not to venture too far out. So we stayed near the coast and toured into the mangroves. It’s a real thrill to paddle along and look up to realize that your eye-to-eye with a 3-foot long iguana. As long as you don’t make any sudden movements, these dinosaur-like reptiles are seemingly as interested in observing you as you are in watching them.

Snorkeling may just be St. John’s biggest attraction. While snorkeling, my wife and I must have seen 50-75 different species of fish. We also saw several sea turtles, a string ray or two and some of the ugliest eels that I ever have seen in my life. At Trunk Bay, which is part of the national park, there are underwater signs that tell you about the fish and the coral that you’re observing. By the way, you can follow the longest underwater trail in the world while snorkeling there.

Eco-tourism is definitely alive and doing quite well on St. John. If a mid-winter break is on your family’s list of things to do, there’s no better place to go. No one will want to stay inside.

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