Or “I Survived the Steps at Maho Bay Camp” in order to stay in the Best Tent!
Like so many others visitors I stayed in an A-Section tent on my first visit to Maho Bay Camp. Tent A-16 I believe it was. It had a porch overlooking the water at Little Maho beach and the weather was perfect the entire time. The location was perfect as far as the main boardwalk because it was mostly a flat walk under a shady canopy of trees. That flat boardwalk was decidedly nice when toting luggage on arrival and departure days, as well as after a hike up and down stairs around the rest of Maho or from Maho’s beach.
We always booked our tent a year in advance in order to get the best chance at having our first choice, but somehow we never stayed in the A-section again. Which turned out to be wonderful! Over the years I stayed in the D-section with it’s large volcanic boulders, the E-section with its newer style bathhouse and shady afternoons, the C-section with its lush green foliage, and even the B-section. But I never grew fond of the B-section because I stayed in the tent behind registration and next to the bathhouse.
One thing I discovered was that every section has tents with fantastic views! For instance, if you were in tent E15 you had a fantastic view of Big Maho Bay and an extra large porch (due to the fact you entered through the porch to get in the tent.) The C-section tents had some nice ceiling fans and solid wood floors which helped when things were buggy. And last year my E-section tent had deer running around all day in September and October.
But better than all of those sections, my favorite was the F-section tents! When we first arrived and found out we were staying up there for the first time,we were a bit reluctant. It was more of a climb to the F tents and they felt removed from the rest of the property. But when we arrived at F4 to see the view, it took our breath away! It was like having a room at the Maho Bay or Trunk Bay overlooks, only better. We were higher and could see further. And we could plan our day by standing on our porch in the morning. If there were rain clouds anywhere, we were going to see them! F-section tents were distinctly hotter during the day than most others since they were so high on the side of the hill and had minimal shade, but they had a breeze and the F-section had a relatively private bathhouse. Making the hike up to the F-section was more than worth it when you were rewarded with the view overlooking the north shore of St. John.
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.
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.
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.
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??
“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.