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Camping in paradise: St. John Island lacks fresh ingredients, but who's complaining?

Sunday, October 29, 2000

By Kathleen Ganster

Are you from Pittsburgh?" the man asked. My significant other and I had just traveled nine hours by land, air and boat, and were exhausted. We now sat in an open-air taxi -- really a converted pickup truck -- and just looked at the guy.

(Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette)

"Ah, yes, we are," one of us managed to say. I guess we must have looked stupid, because his wife explained, "We knew because of your Wholey's hat."

Oh, the Wholey's cap on Branson's head. Here we are in St. John Island, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the first people we run into are from Pittsburgh. "We love Wholey's," the woman said.

Before we knew it, we were discussing food in Pittsburgh, the Strip District and then All-Clad pots and pans, another Western Pennsylvania product. "I'm from California, and I couldn't believe it when I found out that All-Clad was made in Pittsburgh. I always buy some during the sale at the Crate," she said.

There are two sure things in this world: No matter where you go, you will run into someone from Pittsburgh; and no matter where you go, you will run into someone who loves food. Happily, the two are often the same.

The couple got off the taxi before we exchanged names, but it was a great welcome after an exhausting trip. We were just beginning a 10-day stay on the island, and it seemed like a whole new world. Running into someone from home kept it real.

St. John is the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, only nine miles end to end. Our trip took us to Maho Bay Camps, an unusual island resort. The main form of lodging is tent cabins -- canvas tents that rest on wood platforms. The tents sit on hills, up from the ground to protect foliage and animals. The tents, bathhouses, restaurant, store and other buildings are connected by wooden walkways and steps, lots of them.

As Branson said, "If you see a step, take it."

The tents are outfitted with propane camping stoves, ice chests, water jugs and food storage bins so you can cook, camping-style. You can purchase food at the camp store, but the prices are nearly double what they are here in the States. Recently, Starfish Market, a large grocery store, opened in Cruz Bay, but the prices are still much higher than we're used to.

So we had one whole suitcase packed with food staples. The bread from BreadWorks went in a carry-on bag. "I asked the guy what would travel well, and he recommended this Italian bread," said Branson, holding up two long, skinny loaves. The bread was used for cheese fondue (those foil packets travel well), sandwiches and food for the hermit crabs.

Although the setting is different from most resorts, Maho Bay has a restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner to guests, employees, volunteers and island locals. It opens out into a pavilion with a phenomenal view. Unlike Pittsburgh's outdoor restaurants, this one is open all year. (Well, they close during hurricanes.)

Because the threat of hurricanes is greatest in September and October, those are the slowest months for the resort. There was only a handful of guests at the island during our stay. During peak season, December through March, the restaurant will serve 250 to 300 each meal, said Lane Heston, the kitchen manager and head cook.

The atmosphere is casual. Guests walk up to the counter and order, giving their first names. While their meal is being prepared, they get their trays, utensils and drinks. When the food is ready, the name is called out and the guest retrieves his meals. Guests also clean up after themselves, disposing of dishes and trash in labeled bins.

Although you would think cooking in paradise would be, well, paradise, it isn't. "We can't get a lot of ingredients here. Believe it or not, fresh fish is hard to get, as well as some fresh vegetables and fruit," said Heston.

Because of the mountainous terrain, heat and humidity, water shortage and bugs, it is difficult to grow crops of any kind on the island. There isn't any livestock raised for the same reasons. Heston does have a small garden at Maho Bay Camps.

"We don't have much luck," she said. "When we do get anything growing, the bugs get them or they rot from the humidity."

A small farm called Josephine's raises organic produce but, according to Heston, it can't keep up with demand.

In the five years she has been at the camp, it has developed a reputation with the locals for its specialty nights. When we were there, Friday night was prime rib night. Other nights may have an Italian or Mediterranean theme. Meals always feature a vegetarian entree, as well as two other choices. Prices range from $9.95 to $16.95 for dinner, quite competitive with other restaurants on St. John.

Attracting trained cooks and chefs also are a problem for Heston because her salaries cannot compete with the larger, fancier resorts.

"We have the housing and meals benefit, but they are making minimum wage," she said. "It is a good place for young chefs who want some work experience."

Despite the shortcomings, Lane enjoys working at Maho Bay. Since she and 95 percent of the employees live there, they have to enjoy the communal setting. "I had worked in communal settings twice before, so this wasn't anything new," she said.

Tent cottages for employees are behind the guest cottages and off limits to guests. Unlike guest cottages, these have showers and toilets, and employees can decorate and modify the tents.

"Some people don't do well in these settings, but others love them," said Heston.

And there is always the attraction of the location. "It is a beautiful place to live."

If you want to prepare your own island meal, try these recipes that we brought back with us.

Kathleen Ganster is a Hampton free-lance writer.

Related Recipes:

Spicy Plantation Chicken
Salmon Balls
West Indian Johnny Cakes
Painkiller



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