In 1917, the United States purchased the three islands of the Danish West Indies, St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix, in order to prevent German holdings in the Western Hemisphere should Denmark be conquered in the First World War. Virgin Islands National Park was established in 1956 after Laurance S. Rockefeller donated 5,000 acres on St. John for a park. Today the park boundary encompasses two-thirds of the twenty-square mile island, although because of private inholdings, the park service owns only about half of the acreage on the island.
Shortly after our trip to Olympic National Park in April 2012, I switched jobs, as Sean had earlier in the year. The life transitions ultimately meant no more park trips in 2012. But the time also afforded the opportunity to do some systematic thinking about how to proceed with this project. Over the summer, in lieu travelling, we began to reach out to friends who had expressed interest in the project and to ask them which parks, specifically, they were interested in. We received a wonderful range of responses and potentially some tantalizing mixes of people were various trips to work out.
Looking ahead in the summer of 2012, Sean was keen to visit a warm weather park in the winter. His previous firm had been very busy during tax season, so now he finally had a chance to escape the Chicago winter. That, plus specific, enthusiastic interest from several friends placed Virgin Islands at the top of the list.
In the autumn, I began doing research on the park, both online and by reading Saint John Off the Beaten Track, Gerald Singer’s guide to hiking, snorkeling, and exploring the island. Initially, we had planned for late January in order to steer clear of spring break, but a woman I encountered randomly on the CTA Red Line, who saw me reading Singer’s guide and engaged me in conversation about St. John, said that she’d been there in March and there was no issue with rowdy co-eds. South Padre Island, apparently, it was not.
The holidays came and went, and when our friend Bethany visited over New Year’s, we got serious about planning. Before she went home, we’d picked our dates and booked our flights: March 6 – March 12. We also had a general idea of where we wanted to stay. There is no backcountry camping in the park, and the only campground for tents is at Cinnamon Bay. While open to that option, we didn’t relish carrying all our gear down to the island. What seemed most attractive were the eco-tents at either Maho Bay or Concordia. Maho Bay was larger, more established, located on the gorgeous north shore, and boasted regular shuttle service between the camp and Cruz Bay, St. John’s major town and the location of the park headquarters and visitor center. Staying at Maho Bay would make renting a jeep optional rather than obligatory. Concordia was located on the far southeastern end of the island, a wilder and more secluded setting, but was a 45-minute drive from Cruz Bay, making vehicle rental mandatory.
I reached out to the others who had expressed interest in travelling to this park: Adam and Phil, who had joined us for Isle Royale National Park; our friend, Patrick and his partner, Nick; and our friend and my former co-worker, Johnny. Patrick and Nick declined. Johnny was interested if he could swing a stand-by flight to St. Thomas. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to. Phil and Adam booked their flights. So there would be five of us for the adventure. It promised to be a good group including avid hikers and snorkelers, as well as those who just needed to relax.
Ultimately, we chose Concordia. To be honest, it was always my first choice, but I was loathe to impose the necessity of renting a jeep on everyone else. Bethany and Sean talked me out of that concern (and having our own vehicle eventually proved invaluable for our adventures.) My friend and colleague, Sasha, who has visited St. John (and whose friend who lives and works on the islands had some great suggestions for things to see and do) confirmed the heavily community-interactive vibe of the Maho Bay eco-tents. Because my career is communications, when I relax I prefer solitude.
So Concordia it was.
Which of course raised the spectre of renting a jeep. I waffled long enough that many of the jeep rental outfits on St. John were already booked. Eventually, we chose Discount Car Rental on St. Thomas and booked a Jeep Liberty 4×4.
With that we were set. Unlike Isle Royale, we didn’t need to map out our backpacking route. And unlike Joshua Tree and Olympic, which truthfully were rushed trips, we had the luxury of six nights and five days to explore the park. I had a rough idea of things I wanted to do, but as we boarded our flights in Chicago and Detroit, respectively, the trip was largely unplanned.