From Pirates to Rockefellers and Beyond, Caneel Bay Resort Still Enchants
Although the earliest signs of habitation in the area date to around 600 A.D., today Caneel Bay Resort on the North Shore of St. John is better known for powder sand beaches and vacationing superstars than raiding Caribs and marauding pirates, but they used to stop by those very same shores.
With 166 rooms, Caneel Bay Resort is nestled on a 170-acre peninsula within the Virgin Islands National Park and boasts seven stunning beaches on its property, one more beautiful than the next. This stretch of land has been catering to rum-sipping vacationers since at least the 1930s, but it enjoyed a colorful history way earlier than that.
The first known inhabitants were the peaceful Taino Indians who plucked fish out of the teeming waters and farmed the land until around the 15th century, when Carib Indians from the Lesser Antilles sailed up, raided and essentially depopulated the island.
What followed were about 200 years of sparse settlement of the Caneel Bay peninsula by pirates and fugitives, passing fishermen and the odd bootlegger. Finally by the early 18th century, a Dutch planter had carved out a sugar plantation on the land and built a mill and factory.
After the plantation’s decline, the land was mainly used for cattle grazing until the West India Company of St. Thomas purchased the peninsula and welcomed the first sun-seeking guests to its shores. Adventurous vacationers accessed the property via a narrow wooden dock after sailing over from St. Thomas, stayed in one of three cottages and relied on a well-stocked commissary for essentials.
In the 1940s, the peninsula was bought by the Trigo brothers of Puerto Rico, who built several more cottages on the land and ran the resort for more than a decade before listing the 500-acre property for sale for $75,000.
The modern era of Caneel Bay began in the 1952 when the grandfather of preservation himself, Laurance Rockefeller, bought the property. Caneel Bay Resort opened on the same day as the 7,000-acre Virgin Islands National Park, December 1, 1956. For its first 30 years, the hotel was operated as one of the beloved RockResorts and hosted Laurance and his family during regular visits to the island.
Rockefeller envisioned Caneel Bay to be a place where people could get away from the stresses of the real world and enjoy nature in its all its beauty. Sitting under a tree on the alabaster shoreline of Caneel Bay beach, it’s easy to fall under that same spell. The sound of the waves lapping the shore is disturbed only by my waitress asking if I would like a tropical cocktail. I could easily get used to this.
RockResorts, which is no longer in existence, eventually sold the resort and today it is owned by CBI Acquisitions. It was managed by Rosewood Resorts from 1993 until 2013 and is now run independently as Caneel Bay Resort.
From those halcyon RockResort days, Caneel Bay has always billed itself as a sanctuary of sorts. The property utilized unobtrusive lighting so as not to interfere with stargazing and offered a palette of neutral colors to blend into its surroundings.
The resort still largely adheres to that ethos today as well. While there is wireless internet access, you won’t find an HD TV in your room, or even a telephone. What you will find are simply breath-taking vistas of azure water and sugar sand beaches lined with rolling green lawns dotted with roaming deer and donkeys.
The stone ruins of that sugar mill are home to the wildly popular Italian restaurant ZoZo’s at the Sugar Mill while the charming Turtle Bay Estate House, nestled on a commanding point on the peninsula, offers an impressive buffet for lunch and steak house concept for dinner with plenty of local seafood options.
There is also a gelato and coffee shop at Caneel Bay, where you can grab a sandwich to bring down to the beach where you’re friendly waitress will deliver freshly made piña coladas as you wiggle your toes in the sand.
If you’re on island, be sure to stop by this unique property. There is a $20 parking fee at Caneel Bay Resort, but if you spend that anywhere on the property — which is not difficult — you can validate that parking ticket.
And if you prefer a different kind of stargazing, you never know how you might see at Caneel Bay…yesterday I spotted Mario Batali there!
Written by: Jaime Elliott