Violence ends Jamaica resort owner’s dream

“Much as I love Wisconsin, those winters can be challenging,” he wrote. “We bought an incredible property here, six miles of oceanfront. We (my wife and I) are doing a low impact, ‘green development,’ including lots of solar and large restricted lots, and lots of green space.”

Why not come for lunch or dinner, he asked. Spend the day, or the night. Get a feel for the place.

John Eugster sent me that e-mail from sunny Jamaica last week. Five days later, he was a homicide victim, reportedly shot to death because of disgruntled squatters on this land that he had purchased.

The violent manner in which his life ended is a stark contrast to the generous and thoughtful life that he led. And the incident does nothing to improve Jamaica’s tenuous reputation, as both a beautiful and high-crime tourist destination.

John and Kathleen Eugster bought their first parcel of land in Jamaica in 1986. One acre on the ocean reportedly cost them just $5,000.

They camped here years before building a small cottage. Then it became Coconuts, a 10-cottage resort in the small fishing village of Little Bay, roughly 15 miles from the heavy tourism of Negril.

This is Bob Marley country; the reggae musician, who died in 1981, had owned a home here. Arthur Frommer, guidebook publisher and travel columnist, has dubbed Coconuts “Jamaica’s No. 1 honeymoon spot.” And the resort has been great for budget travelers: $595 per person, when we last checked, which included seven nights of lodging and three meals a day. A 10 percent tip also is collected upfront, to be shared by the staff.

My guy and I considered staying there, while planning a spring trip to Jamaica, but then we succumbed to the lure of an inn that is on Negril’s 7-mile beach. What we gave up was “a chance to experience the country of Jamaica in a very real way,” as Carol Sykes of Appleton had explained.

I rationalized that we could have it both ways; a cab or boat ride to Coconuts would be around $25, one way.

Carol handles reservations for the resort and is close to the Eugster family, whose roots are in Dane County, where they are well-known for their fresh produce – sold at farmers markets and other vegetable stands that are situated throughout the county. John Eugster also has built environmentally friendly homes in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

“We are in a small fishing village, and being away from the tourist areas, some people would call it isolated, but I don’t,” Carol wrote, regarding Little Bay. There are no water lines or land phone lines to the village, she says, but Coconuts has fresh water tanks and cell phone access. It also “is usually the only place in the village where basic first aid is available.”

After John Eugster’s death, Carol shared observations about the ecological and sociological contributions that the resort and its owners have made. Staff have been taught how to manage insects without using chemicals. Guests are taught, by staff and neighbors, about the make-up and fragility of Little Bay’s agriculture, natural wonders, culture, ocean reefs.

A local fishing and snorkeling guide named Georgie “is working to protect the reef … he watches over the sea turtle nests when they infrequently come ashore to lay eggs near Little Bay,” Carol wrote.

“These are very difficult issues in a village that is poor, but he’s a shining light and very well-respected in his village. We’re proud to have him as a neighbor.”

The goodwill has worked in all kinds of ways. That includes guests who have raised money to improve the lives of village residents.

“My sister, a fifth grade teacher in Sauk Prairie, made the school in Little Bay a project,” Carol said. “I came in to speak to the kids, and they brought in piles of school supplies.”

There is a Boston doctor who brings medications and donates his services. A University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor has taken individual students under her wing, and also organized a language skills seminar for teachers. Artists have donated work for fund-raisers.

“Our guests’ lives have often been touched in amazing ways,” Carol said. “There have been numerous stories like this over the years.”

It is a circle of generosity that began with the Eugsters.

“We are all proud of the fact that John always tried to hire local people for every job that needed doing around Coconuts,” Carol said. “Local craftsmen built every building, chair, table and bed. Neighbors have crafted the thatch for our bar and restaurant.”

She refers to the staff affectionately, and there is a similar tone on the resort’s Internet site. “These are all people who greatly respect John and their jobs,” Sykes noted. “They are paid Jamaican wages, with plenty of bonuses, and they love their jobs. It prevents them from having to travel into Negril for work, which pays less and requires travel expenses.”

So as the resort has prospered, so has Little Bay’s people, and not just from working for the Eugsters.

The couple has “helped small businesses get started, loaned money to people to work on their homes (money they did not expect to get back) and they have had the road improved,” Carol said. “They are deeply entrenched in the lives of these people, and when one dies, they feel like they have lost family.”

The locals, who called the Wisconsin man “Big John,” no doubt feel the same about him.