Like many Caribbean destinations, St. John doesn't have its own airport. Your plane touches down at another Virgin Island, St. Thomas, where Caneel Bay's small office sits at one end of the baggage claim area. You check in, your luggage disappears and a small jitney takes you to the dock in Charlotte Amalie. For 30 minutes, the hotel's private boat whisks across the sea, and shortly after clearing the point on St. Thomas, you turn toward the looming peaks of St. John. But the boat doesn't head toward the end of the island with houses and a town. It heads to what appears to be a vegetation-only end of the island. As you enter the bay, you spy the small dock, the low roofs of beachside cottages and a few bigger buildings sticking up through the trees and palms. Welcome to Caneel Bay.
Built 50 years ago as part of Laurence Rockefeller's global RockResorts chain, Caneel Bay has been termed one of the original eco-resorts and retains much of the tranquil charm that the oil scion intended—but this hotel is anything but roughing it. The present owners, Rosewood Hotels, extensively renovated the property last year, updating all 166 guest rooms, as well as Rockefeller's Cottage 7, which is also available. Unchanged, however, is the 170-acre expanse of virtually open grassland, where wild donkeys roam.
With rooms clustered about the resort, most visitors develop a favorite part. As the lodgings are largely grouped among the property's seven beaches, sand lovers have little trouble finding an Eden, but Scott's Beach, in which bungalows open right on the sand, a 30-second saunter from bed to beach blanket, is especially tempting. Tennis bums can bunk in luxury by the racket facility, with its 11 courts and resident professional. My favorite spot is Turtle Bay, at the far end of the property. After a five-minute hotel shuttle ride you'll feel as if you're in a private two-story hotel on its own beach. Verandas off the second-floor rooms look over the white-sand-ringed cove and out to the Caribbean Sea toward Jost Van Dyke and Tortola. (Rates are $775 for ocean view, $925 for beachfront and $1,400 for Cottage 7.)
The snorkeling is great and the uncrowded beach is attended by a waiter, but the Turtle Bay Estate House is the attraction for me. Just steps from the rooms is the resort's fine-dining restaurant, where breakfast is quiet, lunch often feels like a private meal, and afternoon tea overlooking the bay is soothing. At dinner it becomes a fine colonial dining room with white walls and views of the property. The wine list is serious (including five Turley Zinfandels). The food (consider the lobster and mango and the duck's breast) is outstanding. Other restaurants at the resort include the Equator, the Wine Room and Caneel Bay Terrace.
Caneel Bay offers other amenities, such as a massage center and a gym, as well as a new meditation outpost, called The Self Center, for yoga and other programs, but it doesn't have television in the rooms, nor will there be. After all, this is a place meant to be a getaway.
Visit www.caneelbay.com or call 340-776-6111.