Tag Archives: tent cabins

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!)

 

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?

Island Lullaby

St. John Night Music:

One experience I always loved when I returned to stay at Maho Bay Camps was listening to songs of the frogs and birds while falling asleep in my tent at night. It is a phenomenal chorus that starts at sunset and continues throughout the night.  I’ve discovered that there are a variety of frogs (so far I’ve found four) that are singing on St. John: 

  • the local tree frog,
  • the Antillean frog,
  • the Coqui and Whistling Eleuth from Puerto Rico.

It is intriguing that I will go all day without seeing a frog anywhere, but as soon as the last rays of sunlight dissolve, I hear thousands of tree frogs in the bush, both near and far, begin their nightly songs. I especially love driving along North Shore Road through the National Park after dark with all the car windows open, listening to all the thousands of frogs in the forest and seeing the bats swoop down and back up in front of my car.   

From what I can gather the local tree frog only sings when it is wet or has just rained. But others clearly sing every night regardless of the weather.  One sound I used to hear at Maho Bay Camp came only after the rain; either a frog or a bird made a pleasant and irregular (thankfully!) sound of water dripping.  I recall hearing it when the rain woke me up at night when I first arrived and was not used to living in a tent and hearing all the sounds around me.  I would listen to the rain, usually hearing it end shortly after it started.  Once the rain stopped I heard that “drip” sound. Wondering if there was a slow leak in the tent roof I would get up to inspect.  My inspection said no. And it quickly became clear the sound was outside and up in a tree!  I always loved that drip sound; it was uncommon and it served the same purpose of counting sheep – listening to it would help me fall right back  to sleep.

Singing in the Rain

After a rainfall the frog chorus can be phenomenally LOUD if you are surrounded by trees and bush!  Now that I am living in a house in Coral Bay (vs. a tent at Maho) I have the opportunity to watch TV again. One night while watching a movie, there was a brief shower and once it had passed the frogs picked up their singing in force. I kept turning up the volume so I could hear the movie, until it occurred to me that it might be disturbing my neighbors, even though I could barely understand what was being said on TV!  At that point it is best to just give up and turn off the TV.  Island life….