Boston Globe Travel Section,by Boston Globe Columnist Jack Sullivan, January 12, 2014:
The 'eco-tents' at Concordia on St John overlooking Drunk Bay and Salt Pond Bay
(photo Courtesy of J Sullivan, Boston Globe)
ST. JOHN — Kermit the Frog famously lamented, “It’s not easy being green.” Though his complaint on “Sesame Street” focused on the trials of life as an amphibian, it can also apply to those who adopt environmentally sensitive standards in their daily lives.
It can be especially hard to take those principles along on vacation. Eco-living comes with sacrifice, which is, after all, the antithesis of vacation.
But vacationing on St. John in the US Virgin Islands demands that we take note of the impact of our carbon footprint. Nearly two-thirds of the verdant island, the smallest of the inhabited US-owned Caribbean archipelago, as well as the surrounding coral reefs and marine ecosystems are protected by the National Park Service. Water and power are at a premium. It’s difficult not to think about the human impact on such a delicate environment.
There is a selection of upscale resorts and villas on St. John catering to a variety of visitors, ensuring their stay has maximum comfort and amenities, but there are precious few that adapt to the nature of St. John and ask their guests to do the same. At the southeastern tip of the island, straddling Drunk Bay to the east and Salt Pond Bay to the south, Concordia Eco-Resort stands out by blending in.
Concordia is a family-friendly cluster of 25 “eco tents” and 17 resort-style studios set in the south-facing hillside among fruit trees, bushes, cacti, and native creatures. Prices run from $126 to $232 a night in the offseason to $175 to $289 in season, Nov. 15 through April 30. The accommodations range from rugged to comfortable, but one doesn’t stay at Concordia for the amenities.
This resort is not for everyone. A stay comes with challenges, ranging from composting toilets and garden hoses as showers in the tents to a series of more than 900 stairs throughout the resort, some of which require a climb to and from your unit that would rival the workout you’d get at the local gym.
Concordia, now in its 20th year of operation, is an ever-evolving eco-resort, owned by New York developer Stanley Selengut, dubbed the “father of sustainable resort development” by The International Ecotourism Society. All of the units here offer some level of sustainability, mostly through use of the campus-wide water collection and filtrations system. A photovoltaic power system is the primary source of electricity and there are no air conditioners or televisions. The studios have the most normal power resources, but “normal” is relative.
“Think of us as an eco-testing ground,” says Wayne Lloyd, Concordia manager and an ex-pat. (Full disclosure: Wayne and I knew each other in Westborough, though we lost touch for nearly 40 years until reconnecting a couple of years ago.) “We are always researching and applying the best new thinking in sustainable infrastructure. . . . None of the units are normal in the sense that you asked the question. The oldest and the newest are the most normal for folks expecting to be able to blow-dry their hair.”
The tents are the most rustic accommodation. They have wooden frames covered with canvas stretched across them, somewhat like a cabin, with mesh screens for windows and doors. There are 14 premium units and 11 regular eco-tents, the difference being location and the view. But the difference is a matter of spectacular versus extraordinary.
The tents are located along the hillside overlooking the bays and are cooled by the trade winds. Each has its own deck overlooking the ocean or the gardens; a cistern for water collection; a solar-heated water tank for the shower, which is stocked with biodegradable body wash and shampoo; a small solar array with a battery to power the fans and small lights; and a hybrid composting toilet that uses a flush system. Each unit has a two-burner propane stove and a small refrigerator, powered by the campus grid.
The eco-studios have several wall sockets for power but the tents have only one socket, for the refrigerator. If you need to use your smartphone or tablet, you can power them up at the office. The resort has spotty cellphone reception and Wi-Fi is available only near the office or by the pool.
Concordia is “dark sky compliant,” a movement designed to reduce light pollution and its effect on stargazing and nocturnal animals. Recently renovated units have LED lighting.
The resort is not exclusionary to guests with physical challenges, as long as those with accessibility needs are willing to face some hurdles. While Concordia does not market itself as ADA-compliant, five premium tents and three eco-studios offer accessible features. There is a boardwalk running through the spine of the campus to assist those who are in wheelchairs or unable to use the steep system of stairs, and there is sufficient room in the units and the bathrooms to navigate with a wheelchair.
Concordia’s location can make for a challenge in getting around the island without negating whatever carbon reduction you’ve made. Salt Pond Bay with its white sand beach is a short walk through a trail outside the office. But if you want to explore other beaches and trails, you either have to rent a car, call a taxi, or take the island’s bus system, which costs $1 and runs right by Concordia’s entrance.
The on-site Cafe Concordia offers breakfast and dinner, though it is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The office has a few provisions available, but mostly snacks and beverages. If you did not shop upon arrival, then you’ll have to either go out for dinner or find your way to either Coral Bay or Cruz Bay to buy groceries.
Concordia has an off-season program from June through October that offers free accommodations and reduced-priced meals in exchange for a minimal amount of work in renovating and cleaning up. Hundreds apply for the few dozen slots, which usually run about a month at a time. Many applicants have skills and trades that put them at the front of the list.
CONCORDIA ECO-RESORT In-season prices from $185 for the basic eco-tent to $289 for a lofted eco-studio.
If camping is not for you but, if you are still interested in a green St John villa, consider Great Expectations. Our Villa was designed and sited to take advantage of the wonderful Tradewinds. We have installed 55 photo-electric panels, 3 solar panels (for hot water), a massive gray water cistern system that is used for landscaping water, energy efficient appliances and pumps, chemical free swimming pools, recycling program, and use of eco-friendly soaps.