Maho Bay Camps: A true eco-resort in St John, USVI

If waking to the sounds of thrumping tree frogs and the gentle sloshing of waves kissing a sugary beach — not to mention one of the most amazing sunrise views in the hemisphere — appeals to you, you need to move Maho Bay Camps to the top of your travel short list immediately. All this, and it’s a truly “green” resort, too.

Roughly 1100 miles southeast of Miami sits one of America’s most precious resources: the United States Virgin Islands. Named by Christopher Columbus for Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins, the former mouthful “Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes” has mercifully been shortened to the Virgin Islands, but it still casts the same kind of mythical charm over both first-time and regular visitors alike.

Today, the US Virgin Islands consist of three main islands: St. Thomas, known for its cruise-ship-friendly mega-port, Charlotte Amalie; St Croix, a (largely) working-class island boasting some excellent scuba diving; and St John, 75% of which is national park and therefore: pristine, lush, verdant. Think: America’s jungle.

Considering how untouched St John is, it makes sense for the island to host “green” hotels. In 1976 — long before the phrase “eco-resort” even existed — a visionary named Stanley Selengut decided untrammeled St John needed a self-sufficient hotel integrated seamlessly into the natural vegetation. To that end, he set about creating Maho Bay Camps. Today, Maho’s resort shines as perhaps the single finest example of an ecologically-friendly, low-impact resort in the world. Moreover, given its unspoiled, undeveloped location, this place is truly a hidden gem.

On the northwest edge of St John, overlooking idyllic Maho Bay — and the widest stretch of beach on the entire island — Maho Bay Camps are essentially numerous canvas-sided tent-cabins framed with composite lumber. In order to harmonize with the environment — rather than simply replace it — Maho’s tent-cabins are built onto raised 16′ x16′ platforms, and all the buildings, from the admin offices to the restaurant (at right), are connected by nearly three miles of raised walkways to prevent vegetation from being trampled. In fact, ground cover and other plant and animal life flourish beneath the raised walkways and tent-cabins, and the trees and shrubs grow emphatically around both, making the camp feel like a natural extension of the hillside.

For those who think “eco-resorts” have to be uncomfortable or primitive, let’s dispel that myth right now: Maho’s 114 tent-cabins are, while simple, more than adequate for comfortable, long-term living. In fact, each tent-cabin has —

  • electricity and a fan
  • two beds and a sofa
  • a propane stove and cookware
  • a lock box for securing valuables
  • an ice chest and storage containers for drinking water
  • killer views of a diamond-tipped bay
Need to know:

* Rates in off-season (May 1 – Dec 15) run $80/night. Rates in-season rise to $130-135/night.

* Guests need to bring two padlocks (one for the door to their tent-cabin and one for their room’s lockbox). Guests are also advised to bring: mosquito repellent, beach towels, and a flashlight.

What the tent-cabins do not have is running water or en suite restroom facilities (though their sister properties, Concordia Eco-Tents and Harmony Apartments, both offer this). To shower or use the toilet, guests visit one of several shared washrooms. Cleaned regularly and sprinkled liberally throughout the property, shared facilities are not the inconvenience one might think (though, admittedly, they do get muggy). Other ecologically-sensitive practices the resort has established include:

  1. recycling 100% of aluminum cans, glass, and clear plastic bottles (including using some of the glass in the on-site artists’ studio)
  2. installing rain water catchments that collect 345,000 gallons of rainwater per year, for use in the laundry and restroom facilities
  3. reusing 2000-7000 gallons of “gray water” per day as irrigation for the adjacent terraced orchard
  4. operating aeration tanks to break down wastewater
  5. saving 12,000-15,000 gallons of water per year with waterless urinals
  6. running high-efficiency photovoltaic roof panels provide energy for lights, appliances and other equipment
  7. morphing “trash” as diverse as garbage bags, old automobiles, ketchup bottles and light bulbs
To reach Maho Bay:

Fly into neighboring St Thomas (there are non-stop flights daily out of Ft Lauderdale, New York, and Baltimore). On the ground, take a cab to the ferry at Red Hook ($10/person), and then take the ferry to St John’s Cruz Bay ($5/person). In Cruz Bay, look for Frett’s Taxi, which runs a shuttle service to the camp ($13/person).

But the real reason to visit this resort isn’t to engage in recycling. The real reason, of course, is to relax and enjoy yourself. In addition to stunning views from each tent-cabin, the resort offers a variety of activities, including:

  • various water sports, such as snorkeling (turtles frequent a reef an easy 10 minute swim from the beach); scuba diving; sailing; and sea kayaking (Whistling Cay is an uninhabited island in the bay, perfect for picnics);
  • a variety of art classes, yoga, and massage;
  • land-based excursions, like hiking trips to preserved ruins (both self-guided and, um, guide-guided);
  • and of course, just 118 steps from the main boardwalk, there’s a large white beach spilling onto a sparkling aquamarine bay. If the dozen-or-so folks sunning on the beach seems oppressive, within 10 minutes, you can be sitting on Francis Bay — and probably have that beach exclusively to yourself for the bulk of that day.

In short, Maho Bay’s eco-resort is comfortable and thoughtful, discrete and beautiful. Enjoying one of the tents on this fabulous property will not only allow you to get as close as possible to enjoying nature — it’ll actually help you protect it.

Additional resources:

UPDATE: Maho Bay’s lease expires in 2011, and according to Selengut, “I can’t believe there are only two years remaining [on the lease]. When I signed the lease in 1974 thirty-seven years seemed an eternity. Thirty-five years flew by and now we must close Maho in July of 2011.”

Hope remains that the Trust for Public Land will be successful in their efforts to purchase Maho’s 14 acres from the private owners. However, as the time draws near, we must assume that Maho will close its tent flaps at the stroke of midnight, July 31, 2011.

Fortunately, this means there’s still time for you to visit … but you’d better hurry.