Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley
Sometime around the 1970s, each of the three U.S. Virgin Islands picked up a nickname. St. Thomas became Rock City, on account of its mountainous terrain. St. Croix, which has two main urban centers in Christiansted and Frederiksted, came to be called Twin City. And St. John took on the enviable, if somewhat more enigmatic, title of Love City.
The origins of these monikers, still widely used by Virgin Islanders, are murky and subject to different retellings. One thing that is certain, though, is that they were spread by radio DJs, who would call out to residents of the different islands with these endearing alter egos. Radio Antilles, which broadcast across the Caribbean from Montserrat before its transmitter was destroyed in the volcanic eruption of 1995, was one conduit. Some say the late Llewellyn Sewer, a DJ and music producer from St. John known as “Trucker Man” and “Big Lew,” is the source of all three nicknames. If that’s the case, Sewer, who passed away in 1994, took the story behind the naming of “Love City” with him to the grave.
The title gets little argument from the island’s present-day inhabitants. Many businesses on St. John employ “Love City” in their branding, including two separate music festivals, Love City Live and the Love City Country Festival. Enthusiastically embraced by the local population, the nickname has provided St. John with the sort of authentic, organic marketing big-money advertising campaigns could never buy.
Musician Victor Provost, who was raised on the island, agrees that Love City fits his birthplace like a glove. “[Love City] works for St. John because it is a small, intimate community that is known for being safe and friendly,” he says. “St John has always been the under-the-radar spot where you go to relax. It’s the honeymoon spot, the place where people go to get married. [The slogan is] like ‘Virginia Is For Lovers.’”
The smallest and least populous of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John is a place of low-key, hidden charms. With more than half of its 20 square miles contained within a densely forested national park, it has long been a favorite of travelers looking to unplug — an ecotourism destination before there was a name for such things.
The island tends to attract visitors seeking something more rugged than the typical Caribbean resort vacation. “St John is a place where you can go and get a hotel room without a phone or a television,” Provost says. “You can’t find that on St. Thomas.”
Provost, now based in Washington D.C. (where he is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and a staple of the local jazz scene) but still a frequent presence on the island where he grew up, recommends first-time visitors get familiar with St. John with a stay at Cinnamon Bay. “A big campground with tents and rustic cottages right on the beach,” Cinnamon Bay is the spiritual heir to Maho Bay Camps, the now-closed cluster of tent-cabins on St. John’s north shore that is sometimes credited as the world’s first eco-resort. Maho Bay, which was known for taking a “green,” sustainable approach to water conservation, recycling and alternative energy long before such practices became familiar let alone fashionable, closed after its lease expired in 2013.
Ecotourism on St. John, in a sense, dates back even earlier, to the establishment of Caneel Bay, the resort developed in the 1950s by billionaire nature enthusiast Laurance Rockefeller. In 1955, the oil heir acquired a massive estate on St. John, the majority of which he bequeathed to the United States National Park Service, creating what is now the Virgin Islands National Park. Simultaneously, he developed a 170-acre parcel, formerly occupied by a plantation, within the park, into Caneel Bay. Caneel Bay has operated since 1983 under a long-term lease with the National Park Service, and is considered one of the premiere luxury resorts in the Caribbean. Its appeal, however, lies not in modern, chic amenities but in its pristine and largely untouched surroundings, which appear much as they did in the ‘50s.
During a recent visit to St. John, we found accommodation at Estate Lindholm, a 17-room bed and breakfast with its own colorful history, and the only privately-owned inn or hotel within the national park. Located on a site originally settled in the 1720s by Danish planters, Estate Lindholm was purchased in the 1950s as a residence by writers Sarah and Ron Morrisette. Today, their son, attorney J. Brion Morrisette, operates the property, which boasts superb views of St. Thomas and the surrounding islands — uninhabited, imagination-inspiring places like Congo Cay with its Taino petroglyphs.
Brion Morrisette recalls an idyllic childhood on the property, surrounded by donkeys and his parents’ colorful friends. “My parents purchased this property before St John had electricity or cars,” Morrisette says. “The park was formed around us in 1956, and we were sort of grandfathered in.” His parents, authors of romantic fiction originally from Mississippi (Sarah) and Canada (Ron), came to the island in 1950. “They were romantics, escapists who were deeply in love, and looking for an alternative lifestyle and a quiet place to write,” he says. “They had a circle of friends who were noted writers, including John Steinbeck, who used to visit my parents at this property. He was reported to have emerged from their outhouse to announce: ‘Surely this is the best view from any outhouse in the world.’”
A view from Estate Lindholm
Morrisette recalls other experiences more typical of life on a sparsely-populated Caribbean island. “There were a group of us as kids that used to ride donkeys, and a couple older guys that fancied themselves jockeys, and we’d stage races that would go thundering up our hill by Mongoose Junction. They would take off with a lot of clatter and cheering,” he says. “We would never see who won because they would run out of sight, and both jockeys would claim victory.”
For a place that is officially a part of the United States, St. John has a rather obscure history, unfamiliar even to many residents. But, as any born St. Johnian will tell you, the island has its share of mysteries and lore. And history is all around you on St. John. During the peak years of the sugar industry on the island, in the late 18th century and early 19th century, there were over 25 plantations on the island. Mills from many still remain, some deep in wooded areas conquered by nature, others noted with historical markers and placards.
For those curious about the island’s past, Morrisette recommends reading Night of the Silent Drums, the late John Lonzo Anderson’s semi-fictional account of the slave uprising of 1733, the first successful slave revolt in the Americas. While the sugar mills may seem quaint today, the book offers a reminder of the brutal conditions that slaves endured at the hands of Danish colonists. Also notable is Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea by present-day resident Jeffrey McCord, a semi-fictional work which documents and elaborates on paranormal activity that has been reported on the island. “We form the bottom, quarter of the Bermuda Triangle,” Morrisette notes. “[McCord’s] book is about UFOs and USOs— unidentified submersible objects. Part is fanciful, and part is based on some of these reported incidents that have occurred.”
It’s worth noting here that Laurance Rockefeller, who died in 2004, developed a strong interest in paranormal phenomena later in life. In 1994, he petitioned the Clinton White House to declassify and publicly release all government information related to UFOs. It’s not clear if his time on St. John contributed to this curiosity but, spending time at Caneel Bay with its seven desolate beaches and otherworldly view out to the Caribbean and the British Virgin Islands, it’s easy to take a mystical view of life.
Rockefeller’s legacy, though, is one of preservation. Without his gift to the park service, St. John would undoubtedly face much greater challenges to its resources. The fact that many of the island’s pioneering resorts have had to blend seamlessly within a national park resulted in an environment where low-impact approaches to tourism were developed, encouraged and only later turned into a selling point. With 60 percent of its land mass protected by parkland, the island continues to foster an environment where visitors are encouraged to take care of, learn about and, yes, love the land.
Scroll through the gallery below for a photo tour of St. John.
UPDATE: St. John was badly hit in September 2017 by Hurricane Irma, which caused the destruction of homes and buildings across the island and the long-term closure of many businesses. As of this date, Caneel Bay, Cinnamon Bay and Westin St. John Villas all remain closed for repair. Estate Lindholm reopened in December 2017. Keep track of rebuilding efforts here.