I made my pilgrimage over to Big Maho Bay this week to take a closer look at the apparent dismantling of the Maho Bay tents. The closer view made it possible to see that the furnishings still remain, but that the white “Stanley cloth” has been removed as well as the roofs. And, while it was mid-week, no one was working on those tents that day to further dismantle them. Everything about the new owner and the intent for the future of the land has been so secretive that I almost expect them to do any dismantling at night under the cover of darkness!
My hope is that the new owner is able to donate some of the materials for reuse by others on St. John. One place to donate building supplies is the newly established ReSource Depot here on St. John. The wood floors inside many of the tents have some fantastic lumber than can be reused.
This was a beautiful day here on St. John with no Sahara dust clouding the skies, no hurricane in the forecast and no mosquitoes since we have not had the heavy rains that were here in June. Big Maho was crowded with visitors as it is in the winter and from what I overheard, it may have been due to a wedding planned for the next day. I sat and read for a while and going in for a swim when the heat was too much. It is summertime on island which means the Maho tree on the beach is blooming, the sea grape is putting out its “grapes”, the laughing gulls are here and the sun sets a bit later (and along the north shore instead of the west end of Cruz Bay!) Having such easy access to one of my favorite beaches on the island made staying at Maho Bay Camp perfect. I arrived late last summer when there are not as many visitors on island and altered working hours. For the month of September, before the rains arrived, I was able to walk down the Goat Trail after work and sit on the beach or go for a swim after work. I am so thankful for that time.
I haven’t had a post in the last few days because I had to move to another house. It was a bigger project than I anticipated, in part because carrying my stuff down a steep driveway required me to develop a set of brakes while still moving forward.Besides, it’s hot here right now! Add to that a broken bed left by the last guests, which I gave an island-fix: a hard plastic igloo cooler with its lid removed is now the fourth bed post. Needless to say, I bought fixings for a good Gin & Tonic today!
On my way home from Cruz Bay I drove along North Shore Road and stopped to look at the Maho Overlook, as I do probably four out of five times.It did not take long to notice something had changed: the small white tent roofs were missing in the A-Section closest to Big Maho Beach and only the framing was standing!Even though I am fully aware that the land is now owned by someone else and that Maho Bay Camp has been closed since June, I still felt a sense of alarm. Something is happening and I don’t know what the plans are! I rushed back home to put down my thoughts, completely forgetting about my Gin & Tonic, musing as to why this potentially anticipated event bothered me.The two main reasons I felt related to my alarm are two big reasons why Maho Bay Camps was so special to me.
Reason One: those basic white tents with only the essentials as furnishings allowed me to move in and make the space mine. During my stay, it felt like home.I would put up colorful sarongs for some privacy and loved how they waved in the breeze. I would buy candles for the table and hang my bathing suits and hats on the wooden dowels around the bedroom. When I lived there in a staff tent, I used woven grass mats as carpeting in my room, stapled down to the floor with heavy duty staples, or sometimes over “wall” space, almost like wallpaper.Often the lights in staff were minimal or non-existent, so white Christmas tree lights would be strung around the top of the rafters to offer some light at night. I suppose not everyone did this, but anyone who felt like making the tent-cabin “theirs” for the duration of their stay could easily decorate it with a handful of thumbtacks and some sarongs. Home Sweet Island Home!
Reason Two: Maho (and St. John) was a place where I came with my family and we all were interested in doing and seeing the same things.On our first and second visit we were equally excited to discover this tropical island paradise and see it all: on land and under water!It was great to have a place we all loved to visit together. And once home, we had great memories we shared, having seen and done it all together: finally spotting a turtle or ray at Waterlemon Cay, enjoying a dramatic sunset during dinner, and remembering our first arrival up the bumpy dirt road on Frett’s Safari Taxi and wondering if he was bringing us to the right place! Had we stayed in a hotel or rented a villa, I don’t think it would have been the same, since too much caters to your lifestyle back home: TV and movies, internet connection, or listening to the drone of the A/C instead of the frogs and crickets and rain on the roof. Even the difficulties of tent living created some of our shared memories:enduring cold showers on a day that it rained and was cool or waking up in the middle of the night during a downpour to put down the roll-downs and check for leaks. Yes, I am very sentimental about my memories of Maho Bay Camp.
So I look at those tents, now coming apart piece by piece, and I feel like a stranger is taking apart my home.I suppose feeing some heartache at the sight is to be expected… I remember hearing (maybe my first visit) that the tent-cabins and boardwalks were built so that they could eventually be removed and that it would only take a year for the jungle to grow back and fill in the empty spaces, without damaging the land or the reef below. But I just never considered it would happen so soon.
Tomorrow I will heading over to Big Maho beach for a closer look.
“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.