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Unspoiled alcove

Nature reigns at Maho Bay Camps on St. John, where guests discover the unadulterated beauty of the Caribbean.

By LARA CERRI AND TED McLAREN
Published November 12, 2006


ST. JOHN, U.S. Virgin Islands

The driving rain hammered the stiff fabric roof of our little tent-cottage, drowning out every other sound. It wasn't just audio noise the rain blocked; with each splat we felt farther and farther away from the cacophonous overload of strip malls, traffic, fast food chains and screaming billboards.

It was night, and the only light outside came from the moon and stars. We lay still, listening to the steady beat, happy to know that a place like this exists.

A place that turns rainwater into bath water.

A place that uses the sun to heat that water.

A place that transforms recycled material into art, right before your eyes.

We had heard about Maho Bay Camps from ecology-minded friends, and for five days last spring, we experienced the buzz. Since 1976, pioneering ecotourism promoter Stanley Selengut has lured travelers to his side of paradise, letting them soak in the natural beauty and then return home leaving truly nothing behind, not even footprints.

Last year, National Geographic Adventure magazine named Maho Bay one of the 10 best places to stay in the U.S. National Park System, calling it "somewhere between a luxury resort and the Swiss Family Robinson's digs." Two-thirds of St. John, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands chain, is a national park protected from widespread development.

The resort, which attracts about 20,000 visitors a year, is constructed from recycled building materials, including glass tiles.

Maho's cottages are connected by elevated wooden walkways that help prevent erosion by protecting low-level vegetation. The cottages all have small decks, most of them overlooking the azure Caribbean. We slept in comfortable beds, waking every morning feeling infinitely lucky that we found our way here.

Bring a flashlight, because a nighttime trip to the shared bathroom and shower complex is a bit of a hike and very dark.

As rustic as it was, our L-shaped cottage with the magnificent view didn't seem like roughing it at all. Every day started with a cup of freshly brewed coffee. We brought a shower bag that hung outside to rinse away salty water after snorkeling adventures. The sun warmed the water, and when it fell on our skin we felt cleansed in an altogether different way.

The tent-cottage came with a large ice chest there is a charge for ice, a propane camp stove and all the utensils needed to prepare food. We ate most of our meals on the deck: pork chops one night, scrambled eggs another morning. (We brought $100 worth of groceries from St. Thomas, but there are stores on the island, where you'll pay island prices. Read: expensive.) Bed and bathroom linens are also provided, fresh daily if you want to fetch them yourself.

Kindred spirits

At Maho, we felt a kinship with other visitors, who were, like us, committed to enjoying the beauty of the Caribbean island without sapping its resources. Could we do what people with a lot of money do without spending a lot of money?

We found out we didn't miss the maids or turndown service. Or air conditioning. Or windows.

We were protected from bugs by screens, and if we wanted privacy, there were canvas flaps that could close off the world. They weren't needed much because, through clever design, the cottages are placed not in orderly lines but in a jagged fashion that makes them blend into the mountainside and tree canopy. No one is staring into your cottage from theirs.

A pleasant walk down 165 wooden steps landed us on pristine Maho Bay beach. (The hike back to the cottage was not as leisurely.) From the beach, where the resort is barely visible, we snorkeled or hiked to nearby bays.

Our one luxury was a scuba trip, but we saw just as much while snorkeling. In the shallows of Salt Pond Bay we swam alongside a hawksbill turtle. For half an hour we watched her eat and swim, and felt a strong, peaceful connection to nature.

A sting from fire coral reminded us to be careful. Patches of dying coral, its usual vibrant color bleached white, reminded us of something else: that global warming needs to be taken seriously. We saw for ourselves that the rising temperatures of the oceans, plus overfishing and pollution, have stressed the living reefs.

Maho Bay isn't for people looking to shop, club-hop or dine at fancy restaurants. That's not to say, though, that there's nothing to do.

In the morning, you can hike to the hilltop pagoda for yoga classes or a massage. There's nothing like greeting the day with a sun salutation and the deep blue sea stretched out before you. There are art classes, guided hikes, snorkel and diving trips and other activities.

In the evening, head over to the glass-blowing studio for a demonstration by an artist in residence. The molten glass comes from recycled bottles.

Peace and quiet

We were content with the idea that the biggest tasks of the day were snorkeling to see a turtle and making something good to eat. Both of us finished novels for the first time in a long time, and relaxing on our beds, feeling the trade winds blow through the cottage, was enough activity for hours.

We looked forward to the nightly sunset and found ourselves bedding down and waking with the sun cycle. We did keep our cell phones charged, but we used them mostly as clocks.

A car is a luxury on the island; you can rent one in St. Thomas and bring it to St. John on the car ferry. That makes it easier to get to other sites beyond walking distance, but there are taxis and car services that can get you there, too. We had a car, but after a day we realized we didn't need it.

On the ferry back to St. Thomas, the young ticket taker asked "You leaving St. John? What a shame."

And we thought, how true. What a shame.

Information from the Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch was used in this report. Ted McLaren and Lara Cerri are St. Petersburg Times photographers. He can be reached at (727) 445-4171 or tmclaren@sptimes.com Reach her at (727) 893-8046 or lcerri@sptimes.com

 

IF YOU GO

Maho Bay

Maho Bay is an ecotourist resort on the north side of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. There are 114 basic tent-cottages and 12 studios, many with beautiful views of the Caribbean. Bathrooms and showers are in separate buildings. Room rates are $75 to $145 per night from April to December and $130 to $230 per night the rest of the year. Other accommodations offer amenities such as bathrooms and wheelchair access. For information, call toll-free 1-800-392-9004 or go to www.maho.org.

Getting there: There is no airport on St. John, so travelers normally fly into St. Thomas and take a ferry. Flights from Tampa to St. Thomas, connecting in San Juan, are about $500 in the high season. Ferries from St. Thomas to Cruz Bay, St. John, are about $25 round trip. Taxis are available to Maho Bay. The resort recommends "Mr. Frett."

Food: The resort has a restaurant, complete with vegetarian offerings, and you can cook in your accommodations. The tent-cottages have an ice chest and a camp stove. Shop on the island for groceries or bring them from St. Thomas.

What to bring: Maho Bay is a sandals-and-shorts place. In addition to clothes and toiletries, bring a flashlight, sunscreen and bug spray. All linens and cooking equipment are provided. Snorkel gear and other beach equipment may be rented.