Given its history of wildness, the 114-tent-and-boardwalk resort known as Maho Bay Camps is a perfect fit on St. John, as close to a true eco-resort as any I’ve seen around the world. Which surprises no one more than Stanley Selengut, the camp’s owner who put up the initial 18 tents in 1976. “That phrase – eco-resort – didn’t exist then,” says a longtime Maho Bay manager once explained to me. “Stanley and a bunch of his friends were down here and someone said, ‘This would be a great place for some tent platforms.’ Typical for Stanley, it may not have been his idea, he was the one that figured out how to get things done.”
In these days when any hotel that encourages you not to wash your towel every day wraps itself in a green banner, Maho Bay Camps is the real thing. Recycle-reuse-reduce is its watch-phrase. Showers are communal; potable water accessible in just a couple locations in the 14-acre compound; the restaurant is self-serve; urinals water-less; much of the energy needed to run 114 tents, reception, restaurant, internet solar-produced. In its art studios –open to all guests — glass is recycled by the glass-blowing studio, waste paper by the textile-makers and aluminum cans turned into pendants.
There is definitely a hippie-ish feel to the place, from the tie-dyed batiks made in the textile room to the “volunteers” who come for month-long stints, trading work for a free place to stay. During high season the place fills with families who’ve been coming now for two generations.
Letting the screen door bang behind, I find the head of Maho Goat Trail and wander down to the beach. From here it’s a mile-long walk to the start of one of the most beautiful of the park’s 22 official trails (there are countless unofficial ones, the former detailed in a variety of guidebooks and park service handouts, the latter marked with stone cairns and cryptic, handmade signs). I’m open to following any trail here since the only native mammals on the island are bats and there are no venomous snakes. The only surprise in the woods is the occasional wandering deer or donkey.
Later that one I hike down Cinnamon Bay Trail lured by its reputation for having an incredible lookout over Maho Bay. Inside the forest is dark, tropical, intensely green thanks to recent rains. The trail is narrow and steep to the downhill; you don’t want to slip. Strangler figs, kapok, cocoa, mango and bay rum trees are thick and tall, the undergrowth heavy with star-like teyer palms, sweet lime and anthurium. Turpentine trees – what locals have dubbed tourist tree – expose a pink skin beneath peeling bark. Guts, natural rocky drainages criss-cross the trail channeling water downhill; man-made swales – lines of strategically placed rocks across the trail – are angled to divert the rainwater and prevent erosion.
As I walk down, slowly to avoid slipping, a solitary black bat leads me. Small lizards, imported to the island centuries ago to help kill insects, run across the trail; a variety of snails meander. Yellow & black bananaquits dart among the trees, many of which are home to giant termite balls built in the low crotches. Halfway down the 45-minute hike the trees open up, exposing a western view from the island, over Cinnamon Bay to Trunk Bay and beyond.
As I walk I try to make out the stone terraces that once divvied the island into 100 sugarcane plantations. Everything was a clear-cut then, except for the mangoes and cocoa tree. Men, women and children slaved over the farms, in tropical heat.
At the bottom of the trail, just across from the long sand beach at Cinnamon Bay, sit the ruins of a two hundred year old plantation. Buildings, like the terraces, were constructed from stone, brain coral and occasionally imported red and yellow bricks from England and Germany. Tall stone columns, still standing, at one time supported the big room used to store brown sugar, molasses, barrels of rum and crushed and dried sugarcane stalks. There was a boiling and distillery house next door, where they used to make St. John’s Bay Rum (cologne, not alcohol!). Sitting on one of the stonewalls, sweating from the hike, nearly meditating thanks to the quiet of the forest, I can almost see and hear the young children climbing the bay rum trees, carefully stripping the leaves, putting them into sacks and carrying them off to be distilled.