Eco-Camping Amid Palms and Artifacts
by Jeff McCord
For more than one thousand years, the palm-fringed beach and abundant forest have attracted human visitors. First they came in the hundreds by dugout canoe for religious ceremonies and seafood feasts. Now they come in the thousands by airplane to St. Thomas and ferry to St. John for rest and recreation.
Boasting the longest beach in the Virgin Islands National Park, since 1956 Cinnamon Bay has welcomed generations of modern visitors. Under a tropic forest canopy, camp ground structures built in 1970, including concrete cottages (some beachfront), erected canvas tents and platforms, restaurant and camp store, are now being modernized in phases to serve today’s more discriminating eco-tourists. Re-named Cinnamon Bay Resort, eco-tents will soon offer beds — king size and twins — linens, power, storage and sitting decks. Plans call for new cottages with kitchenettes, ample living space and even sleeping lofts to be built early in 2017.
Upgraded restaurant, bar and beach food services will make the resort more self-sufficient. Visitors can also choose from a variety of water sport rentals including paddle boards, Hobie cats, snorkeling gear and kayaks. The initial phase of renovation will be completed and the resort reopened in November 2017. Renovation of the resort is being managed by Adrian Davis who is well-known to Virgin Islanders for his work running the pioneering Maho Bay eco-camp. He will manage on-going operations.
What isn’t changing is the extraordinary natural beauty and fascinating historic sites beginning at Cinnamon Bay visitors’ doorsteps. Prominent on the beach is one of the oldest buildings in the Virgin Islands. Dating to the late 1600s, this Danish colonial sugar plantation structure now houses an archeological museum and laboratory established as a joint venture between the National Park and its non-profit partner the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park.
Running in front of the museum and along the beach is an un-paved road built by Danish planters who had no idea that it would preserve for posterity the remains of pre-Columbus Native American ceremonial grounds located a few feet under the sand, reports National Park Service archeologist Ken Wild. Artifacts from the Taino people found there include a gold disk, pottery devotional bowls, a head carved from stone, fragments of Mayan-style stone belts worn by ceremonial ball players, a dagger and ax and votive statues. They speak of an advanced society enabled by successful agriculture, abundant seafood and a culture of peace.
Radio carbon dating of the artifacts indicate the Cinnamon Bay site was in use at least as early as 1,000 A.D. and into the 1400s. Just over the mountain, and off the Park’s popular Reef Bay Train, faces carved in stone (known as petroglyphs) are accompanied by a geometric carving that may be as old as the first century BC.
When Columbus met the Taino people in the Bahamas in 1492, he was impressed by their generosity and friendliness. “They will give all that they do possess for anything that is given to them, exchanging things even for bits of broken crockery,” he said in his voyage log. “They were very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces . . .they do not carry arms [weapons] or know them.”
Sadly, within a few years, European diseases and abuse by Spanish conquerors would all but wipe-out the Tainos. In the years that followed their disappearance, Cinnamon Bay has no evidence of human habitation until the Dutch and English buccaneers and Danish sugar planters arrived in the Virgin Islands in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Rum bottle necks, “pieces of eight” coins and cannon balls have been found on shore and in nearby waters from this era. Indeed, standing on Cinnamon Bay beach, one can see a number of islands including the British Virgin Island of Jost Van Dyke, which was named for a Dutch pirate and slave trader who established a village and fort on nearby Tortola in the late 1600s — just across Sir Francis Drake Channel from St. John.
It’s impossible to miss the buildings and ruins of the sugar plantation era that commenced a few years later in the early 1700s. Just across the National Park’s North Shore Road from Cinnamon Bay Resort’s entrance can be seen the picturesque ruins of stone buildings in which sugar cane grown on terraces up the surrounding hills was processed and refined by enslaved Africans into crude brown sugar known as muscavado, molasses, rum and crushed, dried sugar cane stalks used for fuel and fertilizer known as bagass.
A half mile, self-guided loop trail with explanatory NPS signage leads Cinnamon Bay visitors through the ruins and up a short nature trail. Just beyond the sugar factory grounds, the trail leads past a small Danish cemetery where the graves of an early 19th century plantation owner and his wife can be seen. The trail then follows a water course known as a ghut into the forest, passing through an aromatic stand of bay rum trees, under ancient mango trees and by cocoa trees from which chocolate is made, among other botanic wonders.
Nearby, a more rigorous mile-long trail (the Cinnamon Bay Trail) leads visitors up the mountain where majestic views can be found. A short distance up the trail, a spur leads hikers to the ruins of the America’s Hill guest house built to accommodate visitors in the late 1800s. Located on a knoll, the remains of the main house and nearby cookhouse overlook spectacular views of Cinnamon Bay, Maho Bay and the British Virgin Islands.
For hundreds of years, Cinnamon Bay has successfully hosted humans in a natural wonderland. It will do so for many, many more. For more information, please visit cinnamonbayresort.com and the Virgin Islands National Park site.
Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work on international economics and consumer protection has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and Truthout.org, among other publications. For more than 20 years, he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels: “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI.