Tag Archives: eco-adventure

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!)

 

Never Miss the Opportunity to Sleep in a Screened-in Porch!

View of Francis bay from tent-cabin A20.
View of Francis bay from tent-cabin A20.

Camping at Maho Bay was not the version of camping where you pop-up a dome shaped structure, climb inside and roll out your sleeping bag; It was more like staying in a large screened-in porch.

One experience that drew me back to Maho Bay Camp time after time was the so-called “tent”, tent-cabins”, or “cabins” (for lack of a perfect description) which were more like vacationing in a screened-in porch. There was a roof over your head and strategically placed screens around the tent allowing for cool breezes and beautiful views.I grew up in the South in a house with a screened-in porch and always loved the in-between-ness of that space. As we say in architecture: I am inhabiting a threshold, a place that holds the attributes of what is on either side of it (inside the house & the outdoors), joins the spaces, but is its own defined space. The beaches where everyone spends so much time are similar; they are the thresholds where the earth’s land joins the oceans, and walking along the water’s edge I again inhabit a threshold. So it appears that staying near places defined as thresholds, in-between places, are a popular vacation destination.

Maho Bay Camp tents were more than a pop-up tent with a sleeping bag rolled out on the floor, but more like sleeping in a screened-in porch.
Maho Bay Camp tents were more than a pop-up tent with a sleeping bag rolled out on the floor, but more like sleeping in a screened-in porch.
Living room area of an F-section tent, stripped bare just before closing.
Living room area of an F-section tent, stripped bare just before closing.
The slope of the hillside meant many tents were elevated high above the ground below them, feeling much like they were built in the tree canopy
The slope of the hillside meant many tents were elevated high above the ground below them, feeling much like they were built in the tree canopy

The boardwalks were appealing to me as well. They held a space that was defined, outside and yet not walking on the ground. They also served the great benefit of preserving the integrity of the very fragile tropical soil from degradation during construction and habitation, as well as serving as the conduit for the water pipes and electric lines that feed the tents and bathhouses.  Walking under a continuous tree canopy, with a turn in the boardwalk to make way for an immovable volcanic boulder or stately tree, I sometimes felt like a kid again in part because I became more aware of nature and my surroundings.  As I walked the lizards would quickly scurry out from under my feet, always able to be faster than I would expect for their size. Passing by the numerous screened-in porches that visitors were populating in order to commune with the nature around them, I assume somewhere Althea was picking a spot to keep an eye on the daily activity.

Tents and tropical plants along the boardwalk through the C-section of the former Maho Bay Camp.
Tents and tropical plants along the boardwalk through the C-section of the former Maho Bay Camp.
Tent-cabin in the D-Section next to volcanic boulder.
Tent-cabin in the D-Section next to volcanic boulder.

 

Never stayed in a Maho Bay tent-cabin?

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.

A typical interior - emptied  just before closing - of a tent cabin.
A typical interior – emptied just before closing – of a tent cabin.

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.

E15 as seen from EVip when I first arrived in 2012.
E15 as seen from EVip when I first arrived in 2012.

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.

View of Big Maho Bay from an A-section tent.
View of Big Maho Bay from an A-section tent.

Twenty-three years ago the cabins were same as when Maho Bay Camp closed this past May. ”Each cabin comes equipped with fresh linens, towels, an ice chest, propane stove, pots, pans, necessary utensils and two lizards. If any of these items are missing when you leave, we won’t refund your $30 deposit,”  was what you may have heard when you checked in.  And yes, there were always lizards in the tent on mosquito patrol!  (The link above takes you to a great basic description of Maho Bay Camp. Written in 1990 much of it would still be true, except prices!)