A Darkened Bay

The area around Maho Bay was always quiet, but now as the island gets ready for “the busy season” it seems eerily lifeless…

September and October are the slowest months here on island. It is when we are most likely to get a hurricane, it is when the cooling trade winds die down and the humidity seems to rise, it is when many business close and spruce up their shops or take a much needed break before the busy season starts. And this year the government shutdown tried to close almost the entire island! (Thankfully the beaches are open again.)

September/October is also when the grocery stores don’t carry as much variety in produce as during the tourist season, or what they have looks like it has been sitting there for a month. Last week I saw that a carton of strawberries costing $10 and they were all rotten. All these issues mean that September & October are good time for locals to take a vacation elsewhere or get creative. Nevertheless we have had a lot of visitors to the island this summer, I would say more than usual. I can recall going to the beach and having it to myself last September! (Big Maho Bay & Cinnamon.) This year the beaches seem to have stayed consistently busy as more people are saving money to visit when it is less expensive to travel here.

The nearly deserted beach at Big Maho Bay in September 2012.
The nearly deserted beach at Big Maho Bay in September 2012.

A vacationer approached me while I was waiting in line at the post office last week. He wanted to ask some questions about living here and I was happy to oblige. He asked the usual questions regarding costs of homes or rent, with some comments that the island needed some other stores. Then he mentioned the cost of groceries and wondered where the locals shopped? Is there a secret store where locals go to pay a better price on their food? I almost laughed out loud, but said “No, we pay the same high prices that you do. Have you filled up your rental car with gas yet? We pay that same high price too!”

Sometimes it takes a while for visitors to understand that everything must be shipped here: food, gas, lumber or concrete for building, cars, clothing, and furniture and as a result they cost more. St. John has the same problem with trash: everything has to be shipped off island to a landfill elsewhere, at great expense. “So you’re saying there are no secret stores that have cheaper goods for locals?” he asked.  I think that would be every islander’s fantasy!!  However the people who live here love the island despite the lack of amenities and even basic goods that most take for granted back home. And we share equally on the things that are inexpensive: locals and visitors pay the same price at Happy Hour, as alcohol is the one thing on island that is not expensive….

This conversation got me thinking about Maho Bay Camp and the people who loved to stay there when they came to St. John. Many of them arrived already understanding that they were living differently than they do at home.  They spent their time in a sort of screened-in porch for the duration of their visit. And that was why many people came back to Maho to stay – for the entirely unique experience that is possible in this climate. It rarely occurred to me to wonder why this minimally developed Caribbean island was not just like where I lived back in the States.  I certainly have missed some of the conveniences, but I came here because there was nothing like this back home. So I expected some differences and made whatever accommodations were necessary to enjoy my time here.

Maho Bay Camp was a great way to visit St. John in an economical way. If guests were willing to sleep listening to the tree frogs and the crashing of the waves (which I preferred anyway) they could save money, and have it for other fun activities or for another visit in the future.

St. John does not need a secret grocery store for locals, or a Marshall’s or Best Buy (I’ve heard that comment), or a fast food joint.  What we need is a diversity of options for people who want to stay here and enjoy the National Park and the rest of the island. One like Maho Bay Camp, where visitors were enveloped in the natural environment and understood more readily the dynamics of living on an island. You might sleep though the rain and thunderstorms in an air-conditioned room at the Westin or in a villa, but not at Maho! And in the morning at Maho you might wake to the pink clouds reflecting the sunrise from the west, later to watch bananaquits eat their breakfast of bowl of sugar near the Dining Pavilion.

So here we are at mid-October. I am noticing small signs that the island is perking up: people are arriving to look for jobs, cars and apartments; business are reopening; I hear live music traveling up the hill to my living room more and more nights; the parking lots in town and at the beaches are getting full; large yachts are showing up out in the bays again, even if only passing by. There is a general buzz beginning as everyone starts getting ready for the arrival of winter.

It was sad to drive home recently along North Shore Road after dark. I stopped at the Maho Bay Overlook.  There was nothing to see. It was pitch black. There was not enough light from the moon to even illuminate the hills around the bay. It was sad to feel this beginning buzz of the upcoming season and see no life whatsoever where Maho Bay Camp lived for so many decades. And all the more so when so many people wanted to keep visiting.

Someone found a hiding place for spare shoes in the E-Section?
Someone found a hiding place for spare shoes in the E-Section?

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3 thoughts on “A Darkened Bay”

  1. Thank you for this poignant memory of Maho Bay Camps! Yes, being so close to the outdoors was one of the best things about it – being sung to sleep by the nightly symphony of the tree frogs and insects with fresh island breezes wafting through the screens. Waking up to bird song and then falling back to sleep to their music. The whole experience – the cabins (and Harmony) always felt so private as they were surrounded by trees, the board walks through the trees that left the ground untouched and provided a pathway for the critters, the beautiful calm private beach of Little Maho Bay with beginner snorkeling only feet away, the ethic of recycling, sharing and preserving the earth. It was the best! I’ve never found anything else even close.

  2. These are my memories as well. We went to Maho Bay because of the simplicity and the ability to embrace and respect nature. I spend my nights on the internet looking for a replacement to this paradise lost, and I have yet to find it.

  3. I spent 4 months in working as a “4 hour worker” at Maho camps, and I will never forget the wonder of it all. We made friends that we still see on a semi-regular basis, hold lifelong memories that we share, and in spite of the “save Maho camps” websites and all the wonderful and creative ideas that arose out of it, we had to watch the demise of that beautiful place. We are all so saddened, and that saddness manifests itself in many different ways. For some of us, it is anger, frustration, resignation, wistful nostelgia. It runs the entire gamut of human emotions, and we can only hope that someplace, somewhere, a place like Maho camps will, like the mythical Phoenix, rise again from the ashes. We are all curious as to whether the new owners of the property have any idea how so many of us miss that place, and if they have any intention whatsoever of creating a “new” Maho Camps?

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