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Tuesday, 01 November 2011

Maho Bay Camps: An Endangered Species?

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IMG00349If only I believed people really meant it when they asked, “How was your vacation?” I’d tell them about my week with no running water and the ten-flight walk to a bathroom, where pull-cord showers only ran cold. I’d show them bites on my ankles from sand fleas and mention the long flight delay. But then I’d urge them to book the same trip – before it’s too late. 
Pat, the adventuresome love of my life, likes to “travel.” I prefer “vacationing,” by which I mean beach-to-fridge on the Outer Banks. Maho Bay Camps, in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, seemed like a good compromise: restful Caribbean beaches for me, water adventure for her, and the idea of “eco-friendly” yet comfy camping, intrigued us both. To be honest, I’m not a good traveler no matter where I’m going. I get antsy on long drives. If I’m flying, I hate even one layover. This trip was scheduled for four: two flights, two taxis and a ferry.
In reality we had five, since they canceled our first flight. Saturday morning, Pat and I stood in a long slow line, juggling our wheeled suitcases and carry-on laptop bags. Meanwhile, I called U.S. Airway’s “flight irregularity line.” After a neck crick, two hot flashes and thirty minutes on hold, we found our only option would be an overnight layover in Philly. A 24 hour delay. We watched the sun rise through a thin rectangle of sky at the far side of the ticketing counter; the first day of our vacation evaporating.

The delay made our already heavy carbon footprint worse: first our son had driven us to airport; he returned an hour later with Pat’s forgotten sunglasses; we then flew from Pittsburgh to DC, where we took a bus to a plane bound for Philly. We then took another bus to the Ramada to sleep.It was back to the airport the next morning, the 5-hour flight to St. Thomas, then a taxi to a ferry, a ferry to St. John and another taxi to, finally, Maho Bay Camps – a pioneer, oddly enough, in ecotourism.

Ecotourism suggests low-impact, sustainable travel to pristine or protected areas that supports local people. The term first showed up in the 1980’s. But New Yorker Stanley Selengut, a civil engineer, thought along those lines back in 1974, when he leased fourteen acres in St. John from three U.S. mainland owners: a lease that could, regrettably, come to an end next summer.

On the northern shore of St. John, on a steep incline off Maho Bay, Mr. Selengut built a nearly invisible encampment: fourteen tent cabins on land surrounded by U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. To avoid soil erosion, he and his team hand-dug stilts for the cabins and the snaking walkways that connected the cabins to the bathhouses, store, and dining pavilion. He wanted to “provide intimacy with the great outdoors in …one of the world's most beautiful settings, with comfort and convenience, at low cost.” His camp has since stressed sustainable travel with emphasis on creative recycling and attention to water, energy, and land conservation.

At 9 x 5 miles, the island of St. John is the smallest and least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Viewing it on Google Maps, St. John looks like an ink splat: as the ink scatters it leaves lots of indentations, each one named So-and-So Bay. Viewing it with Google Earth, one sees so much deep green its clear preservation takes priority, especially as compared to its more developed Virgin Island counterparts. 

In 1956, a local artist and a St. John elected official joined Laurence Rockefeller to buy up over sixty percent  of the land on St. John. They then donated it to the U.S. government to be kept as U.S. Virgin Island National Park. In 2001, under President Clinton, the adjacent waters became the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument – 12,708 acres of federal submerged lands. Pat, at least, looked forward to snorkeling explorations of these reefs.

It’s not easy to be the person in the Caribbean who whines. It seems so lame, surrounded by all that turquoise water and sunshine. And it’s true, our place had a great view and offered the promised “intimacy with the great outdoors.” Yet by the time I got there, read the two-page instruction sheet and Lionfish warnings, climbed 150 steps to our “cottage,” and looked at the empty five-gallon water jug, I felt a little undone.

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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