Travel

Get into Glamping at a Beachside Resort Inside a Caribbean National Park

Seaside slumbers await at Cinnamon Bay Campground in St. John.

Photo by Steve Simonsen, courtesy of Cinnamon Bay Campground
Photo by Steve Simonsen, courtesy of Cinnamon Bay Campground
Photo by Steve Simonsen, courtesy of Cinnamon Bay Campground

It was on my first night staying at Cinnamon Bay Campground in St. John that I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake. Perhaps my error was simply the three painkiller cocktails I’d consumed, now spurring me to contemplate the two-minute walk from my tent to the bathroom.
Or maybe the mistake had been thinking that I-very much not a camper-should stay at Cinnamon Bay Campground in the first place. This possibility seemed especially likely as I ruminated on the concept of leaving my tent to walk through the darkness, of which I happened to be very afraid.

A few hours later, however, the sun rose, and my fear of setting foot outside subsided. Newly comfortable, I took in my surroundings: My own sizable tent set amongst lush greenery and atop a wooden platform, beside a cute outdoor seating area and grill. The secluded expanse of Cinnamon Bay Beach beyond a dense wall of trees and shrubs, its crashing waves a heady shade of turquoise. I thought about the wildlife I’d already seen here-tiny lizards, hermit crabs, and even a few deer-equal parts exciting and alarming for a non-camper, but very much the marker of a special place. Maybe, I thought, it was worth finding out how granola this city girl could get.

Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground
Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground
Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground

You wouldn’t necessarily know from looking that Cinnamon Bay Campground was recently completely rebuilt in the wake of 2017’s devastating hurricane season. Its tents had to be repaired and re-skinned, its cottages rebuilt in concrete to withstand storm winds. The campground finally reopened in November 2022, a boon for nature lovers willing to sleep in close proximity to the island’s considerable flora and fauna. More than 60% of St. John is located in Virgin Islands National Park, and Cinnamon Bay falls right within park limits, making it both beautiful in its own right and a great jumping off point for adventures. The accommodations have been beautifully redone, and visitors can choose their preferred style of roughing it, from actual cottages to covered platforms that require you to bring your own tent. While not every option is strictly bare bones, the campground’s managing director Adrian Davis points out that “if [going without] air conditioning or a private in-room bathroom is a deal breaker, we might not be a good fit for one another.”

Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground
Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground
Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground

Case in point: I stayed in a glamping-style eco-tent, which came with a queen-size bed, multi-speed ceiling fan, and necessities like towels. There were outlets near the bed for charging my devices, and a three-shelf wooden cubby provided some basic storage. Zip-down window panels on the sides of the tent kept air circulating and daylight streaming in. A comfortable stay, perhaps, but not a luxurious one.

Given its location inside Virgin Islands National Park, Cinnamon Bay Campground takes conservation seriously-and bear with me, but this goes back to the bathroom situation. “Our concessionaires’ contract has many rules and guidelines, like all National Park Service concessionaires have,” explains Davis. “Some of them include that we provide public bath houses because it is stated that guests consume more water in private bathrooms versus public bathrooms; this aids in water conservation, which is a major concern on St. John.” Showers are also cold, but the chilly water feels great in the island’s humid, 80-plus-degree heat. Besides the tents, bathrooms, and beach, there’s a single restaurant on property that serves up breakfast and dinner daily at open-air tables. The portions are tasty and massive, and offer serious island-style flair. One night, I ordered fried snapper for dinner, and was surprised to learn it came with a bevy of sides-rice, mac ‘n cheese, potato salad, and veggies-all ready to be doused with the table’s obligatory bottle of scotch bonnet hot sauce.

Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground
Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground
Cinnamon Bay Beach & Campground

If you’d rather venture off-property for meals, however, that’s totally doable. Though Cinnamon Bay feels a world away from pretty much everything, it’s only a 20-minute taxi ride from town. Neighboring St. Thomas is known more for its nightlife, but local favourites like Mongoose Junction offer a fun range of shops and eateries, and dirty martinis at La Tapa Plage are a must.

But if you’re staying at Cinnamon Bay, the real attraction is the nature, and it absolutely delivers. I enjoyed a short, meandering hike on the Nature Loop trail across the road from the resort. The partially wheelchair-accessible path winds through the overgrown ruins of a former sugar plantation, with signs throughout to educate you about life on the plantation and point out native plants like the tyre palm.

Sailing Asante
Sailing Asante
Sailing Asante

For ocean-centric activities, snorkelling with sea turtles is an opportunity most guests will want to take advantage of. There’s also the option to climb aboard the 44-foot yacht known as the Sailing Asante for a sunset cruise around the bay. I found the two-hour sailing excursion to be a great way to escape the area’s mosquitos, which proved no match for the ocean breeze as we watched the Caribbean sky turn orange, then black, from the comfort of the vessel.

If you’re not ready to say goodbye to the natural world when you turn in for the night, the beauty of Cinnamon Bay is that you genuinely don’t have to. By my final night I was unzipping my tent’s window panels like a camping pro and falling asleep to the whistling calls of coquí frogs in the surrounding brush. There’s really nothing like it.

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Patrice J. Williams is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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