Let’s continue our celebration and exploration of Virgin Islands National Park with a walk at Caneel Bay and an intimate chat with Eleanor Gibney, who grew up nearby.
By Amy Roberts
St. John Tradewinds
Infinity pools. State-of-the-art gyms. All-you-can-eat buffets. Kiddie Camps and teen discos. These are some of the amenities that resorts offer to entice vacationers to their properties.
The Caneel Bay Resort has always been different. Since it opened its doors on December 1, 1956, it’s relied on its natural beauty and stunning historic ruins to create an ambiance “where guests can find sanctuary from the stress and distractions of everyday life…a place to truly ‘unplug,’ where guest rooms are free of telephones and televisions,” as its current website proudly proclaims.
The resort is a creation of Laurance Rockefeller, who fell in love with the island on a family cruise, and dedicated a good part of his energy (and a relatively small part of his family fortune) to buying up property to establish the Virgin Islands National Park. He kept a particularly comely parcel, originally colonized by the Durloo family, to build an understated but luxurious hotel that was named Caneel Bay Plantation, until 1979 when it was decided that the word “plantation” set the wrong tone.
But Caneel was a thriving sugar plantation dating back from the early 1700s, and the ruins of a sugar factory, manager’s house, and mule mill are the first things a visitor sees upon proceeding down the stately, mahogany-lined entrance road.
“Laurance loved trees; he encouraged the planting of trees,” said Eleanor Gibney, pointing to the mahogany trees that are not a native Virgin Islands species (though they are native to the Greater Antilles) which he had planted in the 1950’s.
Eleanor made her remarks while leading 25 members of the St. John Historical Society on a December tour of the resort. From the outset, she explained that her presentation would be more anecdotal than historically comprehensive.
“There is an excellent guide, written by Chuck Pishko, available at the Caneel Bay Gift Shop, for those who want a detailed explanation of the making of sugar and rum production,” she said.
There is arguably no one more qualified to speak about Caneel Bay than Eleanor, whose connection with the resort predates her birth.
“My family came here to check out one of the seven cottages [operated by West India Company] that were here to rent in the 1940’s,” she said. “They decided it was overpriced at $100 a week with three meals a day.”
The family found a place instead in Cruz Bay, and later moved to Henley Cay (about half a mile from Turtle Bay) and came to shore at Caneel when they needed supplies from St. John.
Eleanor’s father, Robert Gibney, worked as the head of maintenance on the property from 1952-1956, when the present-day resort first opened. The hotel staff was supplemented by residents of Tortola, who came across during the week by wooden boat. Eleanor remembers as many as 25 wooden boats belonging to workers tied up at Caneel’s Hawknest beach, through the late 1960s.
As a child, Eleanor said she “was in and out of here all the time.” So was a horse that the Gibney family adopted from the resort who “was always coming back here, swimming across the bay” from the Gibney family home on Hawknest Bay East.
Eleanor worked at the resort for 16 years and personally propagated in the nursery many of the trees and shrubs that exist today, some of these which are now more than 100 feet tall.
“I came here in 1979 and worked with Roy Thomas, the corporate head of horticulture, who was my mentor,” she said. “I lived and breathed plants, six days a week, 12 hours a day.”
Roy Thomas, an English horticulturist who had trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was in charge of the grounds of all the Rockresorts; after developing Caneel Bay, Laurance Rockefeller went on to add resort properties in Virgin Gorda, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Wyoming, and Vermont.
Caneel Bay has a history that predates any written records.
“The site has been occupied since B.C.,” Eleanor said.
There were major Taino settlements — the biggest on Turtle Point because the best fishing was at the Durloe [Durloo] Cays and Lovango.
“Taino artifacts continue to surface whenever the grass dries out,” she said.
No one is certain when Peter Durloo arrived on St. John, but it was sometime before 1728. He was thought to come from one of the Dutch islands, Curacao or Statia, and may have been of mixed race as many early plantation owners were. By 1733, the year of the Slave Uprising, he had established a sugar factory at what was known then as Klein Caneel.
In the early years, the buildings were wood structures with stone foundations, less massive than the stone ruins that remain today.
The Durloo family held on to the estate for five generations, according to Chuck Pishko’s Caneel Bay History Guide. By around 1850, the St. John cane sugar industry was in dramatic decline due to numerous factors.
Of the 375 acres of the estate, only 70 were used for sugar production. The rest were pasture and bush. Historical records from that time refer to a wooden dwelling and manager’s house “in tolerable condition” and a “sickhouse,” “calves’ pen,” and 13 laborers’ houses “in bad order,” said Eleanor.
The estate was bought by Louis Dellinois, a Haitian, who raised livestock and produced some amount of rum, until the Smith family acquired the property in the early 20th century. Many of the descendants of that family still dwell on St. John.
Rafael “Lito” Valls, an historian with the Virgin Islands National Park until his death in the mid-1990s, said that in 1927 Abram Smith offered to give the property to his mother, who was like a daughter to him, if she and her husband would keep the property from “going to ruin.” But Lito’s father was adamantly against it. “I’m not going with my family in that bush!” he declared.
At that time, St. John was said to be “behin-gad-face” — “behind God’s face”— meaning remote, inaccessible, and backwards, according to Valls.
Smith held on to the property, which at that time extended from the Creek in Cruz Bay to the east side of Hawksnest Bay, until 1936 when he sold it to the West India Company for $10,000.
Interest in the islands apparently increased; the West India Company sold to the Trigo brothers of Puerto Rico in the early 1940s (they owned Caribair, the only scheduled airline that flew into the new St. Thomas airport), and a few years later the property was sold to John Hertz Jr. — heir to the rental car family — for $75,000.
Allegedly, he had ties to organized crime and was planning to set up a gambling resort. Eleanor mentioned that Hertz had a rather scandal–ridden marriage to the actress Myrna Loy, who apparently divorced him after charging him with assault and battery. (Hertz was also later charged with using a gun to attack a nurse who tried to take a boat horn away from him.)
Things quieted down in late 1949 when the Textron Corp. of Rhode Island bought the property with the goal of establishing “A Modern Cottage Colony,” according to a glossy brochure featuring a leggy model from 1951.
Textron also briefly initiated the first upscale subdivision on St. John, selling at least eight lots that included the Morrisette property overlooking Cruz Bay, the Lyne property between Salomon and Honeymoon beaches, and the Turtle Bay area, where the insurance tycoon Redfield Vose built the beautiful house that’s now the center of Caneel Bay Resort’s Turtle Bay complex.
This is when Laurance Rockefeller came on the scene. At that time, Caribbean development was all urban, and Havana and San Juan were the major tourist destinations. Rockefeller bemoaned the fact that there were no resorts with pretentions of elegance which focused on the natural beauty.
“What a beautiful place to get lost,” he declared when he beheld his new property. And indeed, the hotel guests did complain that they got lost, especially at night, because he insisted on keeping the lighting low.
“His purpose was to design a resort where the buildings disappeared,” Eleanor said.
Everything was designed to blend into the background as much as possible, with all the focus on the unmatched natural surroundings and the botanical collections of native and exotic plants. Deer (then unknown on the north shore) and untethered browsing donkeys were certainly not welcome guests in the Rockefeller years.
While discussing the subject of buildings that disappear, it’s worth noting that the Durloo’s home was not located within what is now the resort’s boundaries. The “great house” (early houses were uniformly small and constructed of wood on stone foundations) was built on a ridge overlooking Hawknest Bay across the North Shore Road. This piece of property was sold by the Textron to Gus and Charlotte Stark in 1950, and acquired by Rockefeller in 1978. The eventual sale to the National Park was finalized only a few years ago by the Rockefeller heirs.
The foundation of the great house is still visible, along with five or six graves from the late 1780s, if you know where to look. The extensive village of the enslaved laborers extended down the hill near the Caneel pump house, yet there is little remaining evidence of these early structures beyond the flattened areas where they sat.