Category Archives: History

Stanley Selengut, Maho Bay Camp’s Founder

I have been absent lately working on other things, but in the process of working on an upcoming post I found some interesting interviews with Stanley Selengut, the founder of Maho Bay Camp, Harmony Studios and Concordia,  that I wanted to share. Despite having worked there for many years, I never heard him speak much and am always surprised when I see so much attributed to him. My impression of him was almost one of shyness, but he is very personable and revealing in his YouTube video!

The text below is a long excerpt from the September 15, 2008 edition of American Way (magazine of American Airlines), in an article entitled “Paradise Lost?” by Jack Boulware.

DESPITE MAHO BAY CAMPS’ reputation as a green destination, Stanley Selengut says his original vision had little to do with conservation. “I was going to build a little lodge right on the ocean, and a nice old couple would run it. They’d have a little scuba boat and a little sailboat. My friends would visit, I would visit, and if it lost money, who cares, because I could take my vacations as a tax deduction.”

When the news arrived that a New York builder had gotten hold of commercially zoned property, the park superintendent of St. John was irate. He met with Selengut, telling him that development could easily disrupt topsoil, potentially ruining the beaches and coral reefs. Selengut then agreed to construct a pedestrian community, with elevated walkways between the trees so nothing would be destroyed.

“In those days, the way you developed was you clear-cut the land, you built what you wanted to build, and then you landscaped with grass and palm trees,” Selengut says. Instead, he hired a few locals and built a series of 18 tent cabins, inspired by structures he’d seen on a trip to Africa. All the buildings were erected on hand-dug footings in order to minimize impact to the land.

From the beginning, the idea was for Maho Bay to be affordable, not elitist. “That was more of a challenge than the green part,” Selengut admits. “Being green, if you have endless supplies of money and want to charge $600 a night, isn’t that hard. But being green and remaining affordable doubles the challenge.”

Not long after Maho Bay opened, two things happened that completely changed the little camp: Neighboring hotels began to send their overbooked customers to the ecoresort, and a writer for the New York Times came to visit and wrote an article that went on to be reprinted throughout the United States.

“We were full right off the bat,” Selengut remembers. “That gave me the feeling this wasn’t really a toy — there was a real market for what is now called nature-based travel, or ecotourism. So that gave me the encouragement to put some real money into it and make it into a real business.”

As more cabins were built, Selengut’s curiosity about his customers grew. He would send every guest a personal letter with a questionnaire and a postage-paid return envelope addressed to his office in New York. Many of the suggestions he received in those replies came from professional landscapers and botanists and were directly incorporated into the Maho Bay design plan. Other ideas were a little different.

“One guest was an artist who worked in fabric,” Selengut says. “I went down [and found a] worker taking our waste sheets and tie-dyeing them and batiking them and sewing them into stuff. Somebody else found out that a kiln can fire ceramics using pallet wood [as fuel], so we’d go to the dump and get bunches of pallet wood and use it to fire the kiln. And then somebody came up with the idea that we could take the lint from the laundry and mix it with the office paper and water in a blender to make art paper. Every time I go down there, they’re doing something new that sounds like great fun.”

Neat little interview recorded with Stanley Selengut & posted by Audubon Magazine in 2008:

(this was posted five years ago and does not appear to allow embedding, so click on this link to watch it on YouTube!)

 

Maho Bay’s Historical Coconut Palms

Maho Sunset with boat

The coconut palms lining North Shore Road as you pass by Big Maho Bay have always been my favorite.  And the closeness of the road to the beach and sea always tempts me to slow down to take in the view.  I recently finished reading a local history book, The Night of the Silent Drums,  by John L. Andersen, detailing the history of St. John and the slave rebellion that occurred here in the 1700’s.  In it I learned that the plantation at Big Maho Bay planted and harvested the coconut palms that you see there today!  My hope is the VI National Park will work on sharing the history of that area now that it is part of the park.  You can still literally walk through much of St. John’s history since development has been limited. It is not necessary to visit only the ruins to see the history of St. John. It can be seen everywhere once you learn about the island’s past. If you want to walk through the coconut palms, I recommend bring a hard had since the coconuts do not give warnings before falling from the trees!

The Night of the Silent Drums is out of print, so if you want to read it you have to find an old copy. Thankfully, locals and visitors have traded in old copies to the Coffeeshop / Used Bookstore called Papaya Cafe at the Marketplace. I don’t know if they ship or not, but the book run about $40 or so, many hardback editions.  You may also find a copy online. A great island read if you are visiting St. John!

In one word: Althea!

What title would you give Althea?

While trying to come up with a title for this post I ran through a number of ideas but all seemed to fall short and not capture the right feeling.  So I have left it ‘Althea’, similar to other famous individuals who only need one name: Madonna, Elvis, Houdini, Sting…  Althea has most certainly been Maho Bay Camp’s biggest celebrity!  Add her regal air, a combination of aloof and inviting which created an ever-growing fan base every season.

Where I always found Althea: on the boardwalk from the dining pavilion to the store.
Where I always found Althea: on the boardwalk from the dining pavilion to the store.

While there were other lovable cats at Maho, Althea has always been my favorite.  Perhaps it is because my family had a cat that looked nearly identical to Althea, a calico female we named Checkers. Checkers and Althea even have very similar personalities / temperaments. (Somewhere packed away in a box I have a photo of her and will have to scan it and post it here for a side by side comparison.)  Every year that I visited Maho Bay Camp I would look for Althea and my vacation would not be complete without seeing her.

In years past I remember seeing Althea up near the Dining Pavilion where a water bowl was placed for the Maho cats. While feeding the cats in the pavilion was discouraged, it was hard to resist Althea’s occasional visit to my table for a bit of bacon. Not the healthiest cat treat, but it is what she liked. Does anyone else remember seeing her hurry across the area where the line formed? She would be quick in getting from one side to the other, trying to avoid all the feet of the many guests, and I guess she has a hip problem because her run was more of an elegant sashay. Very different from other cats.

Below are two recent photos of Althea, the first taken in 2013 and second taken almost two years prior in 2011.

A popular place to find Althea, she looks like she had had numerous people stop to pet her!
A popular place to find Althea, she looks like she had had numerous people stop to pet her!
This was a popular place to find Althea, since I had taken a similar photo two years prior!
This was a popular place to find Althea, since I had taken a similar photo two years prior!

Althea liked to spend some time in the high traffic areas and boardwalks of camp and would even lay down in the middle of a step on a flight of stairs, often right at the top coming up from the A-Section before you reach the Registration Desk. She was completely confident that no one would accidentally step on her!  This last seaon I was told the story of an evacuation of Maho for a tropical storm or low level hurricane.  After everyone was gone and the wind and rain were picking up, the resident manager made his last rounds of camp before taking shelter himself.  He saw Althea in an alcove next to the store (in a spot staff called “the Secret”, which was a recessed storage doorway), sitting up with her head held high and Althea appeared as though she was going to stoically wait out the storm right there. Of course she was at camp and fine when everyone returned.  With that confidence and attitude I came to see her as Maho’s “Manager Incognito”. Secretly Althea ran the place….

At various times there has been some discussion regarding when Althea arrived and how old she is. Last year I got the credible answer from Joe Brown, a friend and former staff member at Maho Bay Camp:

I’ll clear this up. I worked at Maho from 1997-2008. Althea showed up feral to my apartment (Dan-o’s too) right after hurricane Georges in 1998 – so she is at least 15 years old. We lived above the store and took her in as our own. We had no idea where she came from, but she was adorable and wouldn’t stop meowing at our door. Danny took primary responsibility for her and had to leave island in 2000. Unfortunately, he couldn’t take her to NY and thought it would be best to leave her in the care of staff and guests. He loved her very much and hated to leave her. Danny passed away in 2006 at the young age of 35.  She has had a great life at Maho. By the way, we named her after the Grateful Dead song Althea.

Althea taking a comfortable nap after eating her fill of tuna fish!
Althea taking a comfortable nap after eating her fill of tuna fish!
Althea was tempted to sleep on my papers in order to be sure I gave her my undivided attention!
Althea was tempted to sleep on my papers in order to be sure I gave her my undivided attention!

She did have a great life at Maho Bay Camp! Guests, staff and four-hour workers alike loved her, fed her and took care of her whenever she needed it. The Animal Care Center on St. John knows her well enough that I could pick up medicine for her without bringing her in (she had previously run away during a vet visit and it took weeks for Althea to return to Maho Bay Camp.)  Meanwhile she had the run of the property and could be as social or introverted or independent as she wished. When Maho closed everyone felt Althea needed to stay on island because she would not survive a flight to the States. Understandable since she disliked even the short car ride to the vet!  Actually I was worried that she might not even survive the closing of Maho. I am rather impressed that she did not return to Maho Bay Camp (as best I know.) I had anticipated her returning a number of times before she settled into a new home.

The day Maho Bay Camp closed, May 16th, someone from Coral Bay did adopt her but apparently it didn’t work out. A month later Althea showed up near Calabash Boom (the area just before Miss Lucy’s restaurant) at the apartment of Marty, a former employee of Maho Bay Camp. She could not have been luckier to find anyone, since Marty not only knew her and that she was supposed to be living in Coral Bay, but he also has a soft spot for Althea. He looked after her until she could find a permanent home, which turned out to be a former chef from Maho Bay Camp. Crispin had left St. John when Maho closed and by a twist of fate returned a few months later to work at Asolare in Cruz Bay. Crispin has now adopted Althea and I am guessing that she is eating better than I am!!

One thing is for sure, Althea is a fighter and a survivor! So… Titles for Althea??

Althea keeping an eye on things!
Althea keeping an eye on things!