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Man Vs. Beach

You say your idea of fun involves lying in the sun sipping caipirinhas? No contest. But a goal can raise your downtime to a higher level. Our writer takes on four island paradises, each offering a challenge, from windsurfing to sous-chefing. Who says self-improvement and hedonism don't mix?

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Be confident, mon. My instructor Matthew's words stuck in my head as I bent my knees and started to pull the rope toward me, hand over hand. The windsurfer's sail rose and I shifted my weight to my back leg. My left hand reached the top -- the sail was up! Now I could hear Matthew exhorting me to "hold the sail!" Letting go the rope, I clutched the boom farther down, both hands now, and the breeze caught and filled the fabric right on cue. Somehow I maintained my precarious crouch and, turning my head slowly, gazed over the tip of the board out at the turquoise Caribbean stretching magnificently to the horizon.

"Okay, good," said Matthew. "Now you ready to try it?"

I let the sail drop and stepped back onto the hot sand. "You mean out there? On the water? You must be joking."

My brush with windsurfing took place on Barbados, the third of four Caribbean stops. The idea was that at each destination, apart from indulging in the usual vacationer's ways, I would try to improve at some activity, one that made sense for that island (if not necessarily for me). So, fueled by a thirst for knowledge, and indigenous rums, I set out on my journey of discovery. I visited St. John, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, and Anguilla. One unwitting side effect of the islands I chose and the order in which I visited them was that the designated activities grew more daunting as the trip progressed: I started with tennis, proceeded to off-road biking, then windsurfing, and finally -- most harrowing of all -- cooking.

Herewith a true account of self-improvement running headlong into hedonism under the unforgiving tropical sun.

ST. JOHN
I've only been flailing away on the court for about 90 seconds when Giff Searls, one of my opponents (the others being the ball, my racquet, and the game of tennis itself), calls a merciful halt.

"Okay, let's stop the bleeding for a minute," he says cheerfully. Searls is the tennis director at the Caneel Bay resort, and I am his feckless student. I haven't played tennis in years, and it shows. During my conversations with Giff about my game, the phrase "gorilla arm" comes up far more than it really should in civilized discourse.

It's here on St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, that the gulf between where I'm living and what I'm learning is widest. At the luxurious Caneel Bay, Searls has volleyed with former number-one Mats Wilander and coached guests like Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Kevin Bacon, Alan Alda, and Michael J. Fox. Caneel is the resort on St. John.

But I'm not staying at Caneel. To get to my lessons each day, I drive my Jeep over from the Concordia Eco-tents, twenty minutes away, where life is considerably more spartan. I'm living on a dense, tangled hillside in a self-sustaining two-story structure -- not really a tent, more like a cottage -- made of wood beams and canvas flaps and screens. The floors, which feel like cushioned planks, are actually flame-resistant recycled sawdust and milk cartons, same as the walkways that connect Concordia's eleven units. To shower I have to first prime a 30-gallon rainwater-filled cistern with twenty vigorous pumps. Inside the tents are small reading lights, thin-mattressed beds, a "weather station" (wall barometer, thermometer, hydrometer), and a kitchen. It's like camping out in simple comfort . . . indoors. Sitting in tennis clothes on my rustic balcony overlooking Salt Pond Bay, I enjoy an evening rum while bananaquits and hummingbirds go about their business in the soft light.

Concordia is a smaller, newer variation on the better-known Maho Bay Camps, another ecologically sound vacation community created by Stanley Selengut several bays over, but I prefer Concordia's splendid solitude. During the several relaxing days I spend there, I see almost no one (though a number of the tents are occupied), and hear nothing more jarring than the surf.

Ted Copeland, who co-manages Concordia with his wife, Shay, explains that part of the Concordia approach is to educate guests, maybe inspire someone to explore alternative energy sources back home. (Guests are required to do a simple cleanup when they leave: sweep and wipe down the tent, gather linens, dispose of garbage, roll up flaps.) The tents are on stilts, and the open space underneath is shared by hermit crabs and the equipment used to run each unit. Ted affectionately pats a large green container. "It's the Clivus Multrum composting system," he murmurs. "Love it." Another day I'm talking to Shay when a stricken-looking man opens the screen door to the main office. Shay asks how the couple is doing. "Not so good," he replies. They just got here and his wife, he says, is in "culture shock." Shay calmly offers to show them a studio. (In addition to the Eco-tents, Concordia rents out "studios" that are comparatively luxe -- tile floors, kitchen, microwave, real bathrooms.) The man perks up, and while he goes off to fetch his traumatized spouse, Shay tells me that maybe 40 percent of their guests feel that way on arrival -- they've come a long distance, they're tired, they didn't expect it to be so rough -- but that most stay and love it. Later, Ted says, "The people that should've gone to Caneel, we put 'em in studios."

I go to Caneel, of course, for my own reasons (non-guests can take lessons). The tennis there is part of Peter Burwash International, which runs more than 60 such programs around the world. Under Giff's guidance over several days, I work on my left hand, then my forehand and backhand, first from the service line, then the baseline. Next I practice my serve. Not only is it fun, but because I've started from scratch, my progress feels more astounding than it probably is.

But I don't spend all my days on St. John camping out in tennis whites. For one thing, there are meals to enjoy. At Shipwreck Landing, in Coral Bay, the motif is nautical and the atmosphere funky and unpretentious; a bit of chicken stir-fry, Key lime pie, and a Bushwacker can hit the spot, and did, more than once. One night I tried the popular Miss Lucy's, a mile down the road from Concordia, where one waitress and one waiter had their hands full taking care of some 25 diners. But the tender and spicy conch fritters were well worth waiting for, as was the grilled tuna and the raspberry-mango cheesecake.

St. John's beaches are pretty and, when you're lucky, all but private: One afternoon I shared the ample Salt Pond Bay crescent with no more than a half-dozen widely scattered humans, a pelican, an iguana, and a mongoose. And driving the winding, dipping roads around an island that's half national park is a treat in itself. You can't go fast here -- open highway means 20 to 30 paved feet of straight, mostly crater-free road -- so you're forced to enjoy the scenery. One promising-looking detour led me to a dirt road that quickly showed every indication of trailing off into weeds and rocks. But then I spotted a sign posted helpfully on a tree: tourist info: you are lost, it read. Perhaps. But on the tennis court, anyway, not nearly as lost as I used to be.


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