Caneel Bay Resort: 60 Years of “Simplicity, Elegance and Unspoiled Nature” by Design
By Jeff McCord
Ever since Admiral Christopher Newport and Captain John Smith stopped in St. Thomas in April 1607 on their journey to establish the Jamestown colony, Virginians have been coming to the Virgin Islands. For the past 60 years, the Virgin Islands National Park and Caneel Bay Resort on the island of St. John have been major attractions. Each year, about 3,500 Virginians stay at Caneel Bay, a 150-acre ecologically-managed resort occupying a peninsula within the National Park.
Both the Park and Resort were created in 1956 under the leadership of Laurance Rockefeller, a philanthropist, environmentalist and pioneering aerospace venture capitalist who believed St. John to be the most beautiful island in the Caribbean. The relationship between Park and Resort epitomizes Rockefeller’s belief in partnering conservation with responsible commerce.
“The whole idea is to keep its beauty simple and unspoiled . . . [to live] simply and elegantly,” Mr. Rockefeller explained. Both Park and Resort, he believed, would become part of a new environmental “ethic.” Writing in a Reader’s Digest article in 1976 — years before most people were aware of effects of climate change — Mr. Rockefeller foresaw that change was required. He said:
“We are faced with the moral challenge of simplifying our overly complicated, overly wasteful lives and forging a national commitment to an environmental ethic. We must do this to protect the limited resources on which all life depends. [Living lives of] simplicity, self-reliance and thrift may [be] the key to our survival.”
Preserving the beauty and ecological assets of St. John embodied his philosophy. Speaking of his father, Rockefeller’s son Larry noted in a Caneel Bay history, “His foresight was really great; he saw the need to act and did so with vision and commitment.” Otherwise, he said, all of St. John would be developed.
The resort’s natural resources include five sand beaches and easy access to two in the National Park, many acres of tropical forest, nature paths and some of the best fauna and flora in the Caribbean. Roads and hiking trails provide easy access to the surrounding National Park.
Built upon the site of a significant Danish sugar plantation dating to the early 1700s, in its formative years the Resort hired its own horticulturists and sought the advice of local botanists as it carefully replanted land that had been deforested by three hundred years of agricultural use.
An aerobiologist was even hired to survey the island of St. John to document that no rag weed grows there. A promotional campaign then marketed Caneel Bay as a place where hay fever sufferers could gain relief — a real plus for those who struggle through the legendary Washington, DC and Virginia hay fever seasons.
Caneel Bay guests have ranged from the Presidents of Harvard and Yale to celebrities such as Alan Alda and film-maker and comedian Mel Brooks. Republican President Richard Nixon, Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Kennedys and Arkansas Senator William Fulbright, who mentored young Bill Clinton, are among the political luminaries to have been guests. Contemporary celebrities and leaders continue to visit the Resort and St. John.
The 166 low-key luxury rooms spread in groupings around the peninsula shoreline continue the Rockefeller tradition of excluding televisions. Phones and WiFi, though, are provided.
Beyond the natural environment, the peninsula on which the resort is situated is also an important historic site. National Park Service archaeologists have found pre-Columbus era ceramics and tools, including a stone belt used in ceremonial ball games, made by St. John’s Native Americans. Sadly, the most recent, the Tainos, had disappeared by the time Columbus sailed by St. John in 1493.
Klein Caneel was the name of the Danish colonial sugar plantation that marked the next era of human habitation. It’s picturesque stone sugar factory ruins remain and, nearby, the Park Service found a “honey-colored gun flint” that had been heavily used. This may be an artifact from the largest battle between enslaved Africans and Europeans during the 1733 island-wide slave revolt documented by historians and brought to life by novelists such as James Michener in his epic work “Caribbean” and John Anderson’s book “Night of the Silent Drums.”
Several sources report that St. John’s planters and their families made their last stand against the mutinous slaves on the Klein Caneel plantation. Armed with flintlock muskets, forty Europeans and 25 faithful Africans held-off the enslaved mutineers long enough to escape by sea onto nearby cays and islets, historian Isaac Dookham tells us. Although the enslaved Africans won control of St. John for six months, they were eventually defeated by European soldiers who arrived from nearby British and French colonies.
Given the Caneel Bay peninsula’s ecological and historic richness, it’s not surprising that the Rockefeller family land conservation trust (Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc.) that owned the property deeded it to the Virgin Islands National Park in 1983. The resort continues to operate under a use agreement with the National Park Service that will, among other provisions, “ensure the protection of the natural, cultural, and historic features” of Caneel Bay.
As Laurance Rockefeller no doubt foresaw, the required land usage agreement between Caneel Bay Resort and the National Park Service guarantees that the character of the Resort as a partnering of responsible commerce with conservation will continue to the benefit of future generations.