My first visit to Maho Bay Camp in 1995 was also my first visit to St. John. My family and I arrived a few months after Hurricane Marilyn had struck the island. We spent weeks before our arrival checking in to see if we should still come. Maho Bay Camp was repairing its property and the rest of the island had suffered a devastating blow as well. In the end, it turned out to be an incredible time for a first visit. All the beaches on St. John were open and pristine! Everywhere I looked I saw nothing but white sand, turquoise water and lush green vegetation covering the hillsides. Arriving at yet another picturesque beach, I noticed the lack of people and wondered, “Where is everyone?” I do recall saying many times, “This place is like an undiscovered Paradise!!”, “I love it here!” How lucky we were to have Maho Bay Camp open so quickly after the hurricane, because on my next visit to the island I realized it had been deserted because none of the other resorts on island were able to open up due to the need for expensive repairs, getting supplies and on a contractors schedule. Nowadays, the summertime is busier than my first visit in Christmas 1995.
Maho Bay Camp was open for business and everything on the property was lush, green, tropical and newly repaired! That week we drove all over the island, taking photos, snorkeling and sunbathing. The views of the turquoise blue water like this view (above) at Honeymoon Bay are what bring me back to this island. Every time I look at that crystal blue I feel refreshed.
Although, not to pop your island fantasy bubble, it doesn’t mean everything on that visit was perfect. Besides a near cancellation due to a hurricane, I was unable to avoid my first and most severe migraine headache, which put me in bed for 48 hours. Which made any battles with mosquitoes or cold showers seem insignificant. This has been a continuing theme to my visits to St. John and on my most recent stay I “mashed up” my big toe. Despite these inconveniences, the beauty of the island and the people who live here captured my heart.
For the uninitiated, some basic information on Maho Bay Camp will start to fill in the full picture.
I should say from the start, Maho Bay Camp and living in one of their tent-cabins was not for everyone. My first summer, when working as a 4-hr Volunteer at the Registration Desk, I would greet guests and check them in. After the 10 minute process was complete, I could see the excitement of an adventure light up one person’s face, while their partner’s look seemed to say “I’ll humor you.” In some instances, those guests trudged back up the steps within the hour, luggage in hand and informed me they were going to checkout and head over to the Westin Hotel. This loving or running from a Maho tent-cabin was not a gender issue, but a combination of camper vs. non-camper, and whether it lived up to an anticipated fantasy of staying in a cabin near a Caribbean beach!
The tent-cabins were called such because their structural frame was constructed out of lumber: a 16 foot x 16 foot wooden platform, with 2×4’s making up the columns and beams that supported the roof, the counter space, doors, bed and sofa frames and minimal closet space. It is the enclosure material that made it a tent. All “walls” were either nylon screening or a white sheeting (or Stanley Cloth in honor of owner Stanley Selengut). The roof material was similar, a Superwhite vinyl which withstood the tropical climate and reflected the sunlight, keeping the tents a bit cooler by not absorbing the heat during the day. Originally the tent-cabins were a green canvas, which I associate with the 70’s as being a signature material for tents anywhere! However I imagine the harsh year-round tropical sun combined with long stretches of rain and mildew made that material impractical. The white “Stanley cloth” holds up better on both accounts.
The tent-cabins were subdivided into 4 equal quadrants of 8 feet x 8 feet. One was the outdoor porch, one was the bedroom area with two twin beds, and the last two were essentially combined to contain a sofa, extra cot and counter space with a gas stove, dishes and other essentials. In the photo above, the “soft furnishings” (such as cushions, mattresses and curtains) have already been removed for the closing in May 2013 but it shows the basic structure well. The bedroom is in the back (middle) corner, the porch is on the far right, the sofa in the far left corner, while the kitchen counter space is the closest corner in the photo. You can see the mold that developed on the wood trim outside of the tent-cabin in a few short seasons. Mildew on the PVC was easily cleaned with hydrogen peroxide. But maintenance was ongoing to keep the cabins in shape.
The tent-cabins also had “roll downs”: sheets of the white tent material with a heavier piece of wood attached to the bottom. The wood piece would be secured between wooden pegs on the interior rails in the tents. Every screened section had these roll-downs making it possible to enclose it on all sides. The roll-downs were used for additional privacy on screened-in sections (a bit hot, I preferred sarongs) or to keep the rain out when the wind was blowing it in. Designing a tent-cabin to be open to catch the wind and, at the same time, keep out windblown rain can be tricky. One of the features that I liked best were the various wind-scoops. Some were traditional scoops at the roof line, allowing hot air to escape while capturing the cool trade winds. Others, as you can see along the back wall in the photo above, are simply a canted wall with screening at the base. This provided privacy and kept the rain out while letting the wind come up and through the tent-cabin.
There is very little flat land on St. John and most construction is done on a slope. The soil on the island is at most two feet deep and takes a great deal of time to develop. Removing or damaging existing vegetation causes the unsecured soil to run down into the bays during any heavy rains, damaging the fragile coral reefs and ecosystems. At Maho all the tent-cabins and boardwalks were elevated above the soil for that reason. The intention was to preserve, not disturb, the surrounding natural environment. Often the ground dropped off dramatically from one side of the tent to the other. I sometimes refer to these as tree-houses, but nothing was actually built in the trees. I simply felt like I was up in the tree canopy, with tree frogs serenading me after a rain, a view of the ocean below, the tropical trade winds blowing through my tent-cabin and the sounds of rustling leaves and wind chimes just outside.
“Here today, Gone to Maho”. I loved that phrase when I first heard staff saying it this past season. It captured everyone’s shared feelings about Maho Bay Camps. Maho is a place that guests and staff alike visited on short notice, season after season. Some came and never left. But it was rare that someone would pass on the chance to come back. Maho pulled all of us here in equal measure and this phrase collectively reflects our devotion to this unique experience.
Here today. Gone tomorrow.
I came down for the last season at Maho Bay Camps mainly to help. If there was any way to save Maho from closing, I wanted to be a part of it. Because, quite frankly, being here for the surveyors coming every week, for the slow disintegration of the camp’s infrastructure in this damp tropical environment and the sadness that many felt knowing it was their last visit – being here for that – was not the way I wanted to remember Maho Bay Camps. Nevertheless, the land sold, Maho did close, and I was here to watch as Maho said its last goodbye.
On May 16, 2013 as Frett’s last shuttle delivered the morning’s departing guests to Cruz Bay, Maho’s registration manager radioed out: “The guests are all gone…. Forever.”
As much as it could be ‘hidden’ from guests, Maho began dismantling tents prior to the actual closing and collecting everything in hopes to donate to organizations who could use the items. The sheer volume of what Maho had, despite the fact that the tent furnishings were minimal, became apparent as it was all collected in unused guest tents.
I think everyone expected Maho to somehow magically survive… I wished for that too. But intellectually I knew it was destined to close. Despite leaving my life in the States to come back for Maho’s last season, I at times felt as though I was the non-sentimental one… the matter-of-fact bean counter… Maho was sunk. The price was right for someone who could develop one of the most beautiful areas on the North Shore. The asking price for the roughly 13 acres dropped from $32 million to $19 million; clearly the owners felt that they had waited long enough, rebuffed the Trust for Public Land often enough and wanted to hasten the sale of the property. Comparing real estate prices in NYC, as well as those on St.John, this seemed like a bargain to me (big problem is I don’t have that sort of cash!)
And yet. And yet I hung onto every last hope, rumor and long-shot possibility, as did so many others.
Closed sign placed on the road coming up to Maho Bay Camp’s entrance on May 16, 2013.
The land sold in December 2012 and much secrecy surrounded the purchase. Everyone wanted to know who the new owner was and what was he or she was planning to do with the purchased land. Secrets are hard to keep in the Internet Age. And on a small island! Fairly steady rumors allude to a billionaire conservationist having purchased the land. Personally, I don’t know but I hope the rumors are correct. A hotel or residential neighborhood would be damaging to the fragile topsoil and nearby coral reef. As would a large house, if not built with awareness and sensitivity. I don’t imagine in my wildest dreams that this person plans to reopen the camp (as some have expressed), nor would that necessarily be the best option. But I do think this is a time to look at what Maho Bay Camps and Stanley Selengut (Maho Bay Camp’s founder/owner) accomplished and what we know about sustainability in 2013, along with the important environmental issues of the island, the surrounding coral reefs, and richness of opportunity to incorporate sustainable design in this location. Then some intelligent, forward-looking and sound decisions about what happens next could be shaped.
From a very selfish perspective, I will admit I’d love to have the 21st century version of Swiss Family Robinson: Tree houses in the jungle, connected by boardwalks, safe and nurturing, a home away from home that you do not know you need until you stay there! Something perfectly sustainable, perfectly in-tune with the challenges presented by this small volcanic island in the Caribbean, while providing a vacation surrounded by the sounds of tree frogs, snorkeling in the turquoise waters and walking the flour-like white sand beaches. All at a price similar to what Maho charged! These are not small requests! Stanley Selengut had a vision that he reached for and struggled to keep alive for many years. Without another visionary who is committed to the various conflicting demands that a destination like Maho Bay Camps creates, I would at least hope that it is preserved or donated to the VI National Park (if they have the resources to maintain it.)
In memory of the much loved eco-resort Maho Bay Camp on St. John, US Virgin Islands.