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@Work: Mount Victory Camp

Feb. 5, 2006 – After turning on Creque Dam Road — east from the west shore beach, just north of Sunset Grill — it is less than two miles to Mount Victory Camp, St. Croix's eco-tourism experiment. It may be the most exotic two miles in the Caribbean as huge kapok trees hug the road, small creeks cross it, and thick ficus vines run downward looking to reunite with the dark earth.
The pleasantness of St. Croix's towns and the sunshine of its beaches slip quickly into memory — this is the rain forest. The tropical sun just trickles in through thick leaves at spots, a mongoose darts across the road, and an egret, on the edge of a small body of water, turns to watch a car go by.
When you arrive at Mount Victory, owned and operated by Bruce and Mathilda Wilson, you don't even see a structure immediately, just a little grassy parking area and an arrow pointing to a path.
This environment is probably why "Outside Magazine" chose Mount Victory Camp as one of the top 10 eco-lodges in the world the year the camp opened.
The camp has three platform dwellings, built in and around trees, and two that Bruce calls bungalows. They are two stories and somewhat like two-third cabin and one-third tent. There is also a pavilion where drinks are served, a pig roast is held on many Sundays and organizations have events.
All these buildings blend into the environment so that if you are not really looking you might not notice what they are.
The 19th-century schoolhouse bungalow is unique, being part of Danish Gov. General Peter von Scholten's initiative to educate slave children. It is one of eight architecturally identical schools on St. Croix, designed by Danish architect Albert Lovmand. All were built in 1841, seven years before emancipation took place in the Danish West Indies. The school was torched in the Fireburn uprising in 1878.
Fortunately the building that holds the public bathrooms does stand out a bit and can easily be located in the middle of the night.
All dwellings include an opaque canopy roof overhanging all sides, sun and weather protection, natural wood frame beds with comfortable mattresses, fresh bed linens, and an efficiency kitchen with a table and four chairs.
Locally grown mahogany, almond, teak, and saman are used for the camp's woodwork. Dwellings can accommodate up to six people. The shelters are flexible so part of the canvas tent or netting can be pulled down for protection from rain or sun.
There is no doubt the owners are appreciative of their environment. Bruce says, "We live in a garden of Eden. We meet some of the most interesting creative people, whether from our local events or from off-island guests. We can raise our kids in a natural, healthy and challenging setting doing the things we like to do. We eat healthy, grow food, and have a very exciting life."
One recent Sunday afternoon provided evidence of what Bruce was saying. Although nothing was planned, the pavilion became a meeting place of St. Croix's eco-tourist entrepreneurs as Jill and Paul of Paul and Jill's riding stables stopped in, and Bryan and Jill Updyke of Virgin Kayak's showed up also. Although it was not one of the Sundays for a pig roast, Mathilda and her team of Caribbean cooks made a traditional island meal. Many of the ingredients came from the garden Mathilda has on the grounds. She received a master's in agronomy from the University of Havana. As well as being in charge of the camp gardens, she does tours for school children in the aim of reconnecting them to agriculture and history. She also speaks four languages fluently.
The couple opened Mount Victory just a little over three years ago. The pavilion was opened a year and a half ago.
Bruce says, "The camp is an experiment in progress, so we're learning all the time. I've learned a lot about the architecture and land planning needed to make a low-impact eco-lodge.
He added, "We've had to learn about the Internet and how to make it work for us. (See "Mt. Victory").
Since Mount Victory opened, the tourism industry has not been strong on St. Croix. Bruce says, "We hoped to get more off-island tourists to come to the camp. The St. Croix tourism sector is still half dead since hurricane Hugo. We don't have lots of general tourist pressure on St. Croix (like the eco-camps on St John enjoy), so as a lodging operation we don't have the benefit that a generally good tourist economy would offer."
But, according to Bruce, "Occupancy is getting better and better, especially of Virgin Islanders from St. Croix and St. Thomas coming up here for a vacation close to home."
Schools and community organizations are getting the word and are also starting to use the camp for events. St. Croix Environmental Association held its 20th anniversary celebration there last month, attracting over 100 people.
Mount Victory has a special residents' rate of $60 per night for two adults/two kids. The nonresident rate starts at $85 per night.
No one on St. Croix has a crystal ball as to what the future of tourism is going to be. The Wilsons feel confident enough about Mount Victory's future to keep pouring work into their investment.
They recently completed an upgrade of all the units, adding complete screens and electricity to them. They also plan to add three new units with canvas wall tents to accommodate more youth groups. If demand grows, they are ready to add more luxury cottages as well.
Two developments are proposed in the vicinity of Mount Victory – William and Punch and Annaly Bay.
Bruce says he welcomes the William and Punch project, that it will bring needed hotel rooms and jobs to St. Croix. However, he is hesitant about the Annaly Bay proposal, concerned that it might be too big. He says, "I don't understand why the would-be developer of Annaly has made no effort to design with nature and culture in mind."
Hiking around Mount Victory one finds the trees one would expect – banana, papaya, avocado, mango, carambola, breadfruit – but there is much more: ackee, mangosteen, malay apple, soursop, lime, sour orange, custard apple, golden apple, and plum trees.
A bit of fauna, completely unexpected, are the locally endangered red-footed tortoises. Bruce has been doing a captive breeding program for over 20 years. Thousands of them have been raised because of the program.
Bruce says, "We have about 20 of them here in the schoolhouse ruins. It's great for kids to learn and makes a nice neighborhood for the four-bed eco-dwelling built into the schoolhouse ruins."
Talking with the Wilsons and seeing all the local groups that use their grounds underscores Bruce and Mathilda's commitment to St. Croix, but the couple's philanthropic reach extends beyond the Big Island.
Bruce says, "Maybe one of the most exciting things we do is to use the camp to raise funds for two elementary schools we support in Mathilda's birthplace, high in the mountains of Haiti. Our big fund-raiser every year on Easter Sunday raises money to teach 120 kids to read and write; kids otherwise unable to afford education.
For more information about Mount Victory Camp, call the Wilsons at 340-772-1651.
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