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A Harmonic Convergence of all Things Lush and Green


© St. Petersburg Times

MAHO BAY, ST. JOHN, U.S.V.I. -- Spending a night at the revolutionary Maho Bay resort means listening to the constant surf and wondering how many crickets and frogs it takes to make that much noise.

It means feeling as if the overnight showers are somehow washing you clean. And it means having the tradewinds whisk the window curtains across your head as you try to fall asleep amid the rain forest serenade.

Completely lost on a guest at these moments is the revolutionary philosophy that married high-tech construction to ecological concern.

The two Maho Bay resorts, operated on the pristine edge of the immense Virgin Islands National Park, are acclaimed for the use of recycled materials in buildings and furnishings, and for the advances in use of solar power, energy-efficient machines and recycling of wastewater and packagings used here.

The original resort opened in 1974 on the Atlantic Ocean side of St. John and has 114 canvas-sided shelters, each sited on a platform 16 feet square. These "tent cottages" have beds and a propane stove, but guests use communal bathrooms.

Elevated boardwalks -- sparing the delicate topsoil most of the human intrusion -- lead through the trees from these tents down to the restaurant patio and to the cove that is Maho Bay.

While developer Stanley Selengut was praised for designing these ecologically benign cabins under a lease agreement with the National Park Service, guests decided they didn't want to rough it quite so much; after all, theirs is a tropical island vacation.

So in 1992, Selengut opened Harmony, a cluster of six, two-story buildings located above the tent shelters -- in height and price.

The shelters rent for $95 a night during the winter season, while the 12 Harmony apartments run from $150 to $180. For those prices, Harmony guests get a kingsize bed, walk-in closet, full bathroom (shower only), front and rear patios, a dining table with four chairs, a super-efficient refrigerator, tiny microwave, stovetop, pots, pans, dishes and cutlery.

There is a ceiling fan and an oscillating fan, and even a solar-powered oven on the back deck, where you could easily let the sun do the cooking while you lie on your chaise, a captive of the fabulous view of the bay and the neighboring islands.

The decorations are minimalist, cleverly focusing guests' attention on attractive items from native handicrafters from throughout the hemisphere. My room had masks, spears and woven mats created by Bolivians living in the Andes.

Minimalist, too, are the after-dark events: The restaurant ends its wine and beer sales when it closes after dinner. There is no nightclub or casino, and while there are occasional nature and history lectures to guests assembled at the dining patio's picnic tables, camp rules state no radio or CD players after 10 p.m. unless the listener is using earphones.

That leaves you to marvel at the night sky: Thanks to the lack of air and light pollution, it resembles a schoolroom chart of the constellations. Making do with what we have Selengut's magic is that the spacious Harmony room, resembling a studio apartment, is created with a myriad of reincarnated items:

The pastel-gray floor tiles are made from recycled clay scraps.

Tiles in the bathroom are from recycled light-bulb materials.

Wallboard is composed of recycled paper and gypsum.

Nails are from re-melted steel.

Railings and walkways are made of recycled plastic and wood composite.

Roof insulation was, in its original form, milk jugs.

Floor and roof decking is made from recycled newspapers.

Even the bed linens are made from unbleached cotton.

"All things being equal," Selengut has said, "people will choose to vacation in a place that is environmentally responsible."

Carrying that theory to its practical limit, all the cottages' electricity is generated by solar-powered photo-voltaic cells and a windmill. Guests are given a manual on how to reduce energy consumption and how to monitor its use via a computerized read-out mounted near the front door.

On the wall across from this tiny readout is the key-operated on-off switch for the cottage's electric power. This key is on the same loop as the front-door key, so when a guest leaves the cabin, he has to turn off electric power (to everything but the refrigerator) in order to lock the apartment door.

"People can be taught how to live in harmony with the world even when they are on vacation," Selengut told Travel Weekly magazine last year. "Harmony's living spaces maximize comfort and use the least amount of energy."

Having moved this far upscale, civil engineer Selengut next designed Estate Concordia and Concordia Eco-Tents, which opened in 1994. They are located on the small island's southeast side. Estate Concordia has only five units but each sleeps up to six. These cottages have dishwashers in them, and there is a swimming pool for the resort.

The eco-tents have futons, a sleeping loft, a propane stove and bathroom with shower. Plans call for 120 of the eco-tents on the 51-acre property.

All of which has proved to be immensely popular -- occupancy figures average above 90 percent, and in January and February, the staff at Maho Bay is offered the chance to rent their own tent-cottage quarters to guests. The employees who agree can double up with other staffers and keep the $95 Maho Bay collects from its guests.

This attitude of sharing is carried out by the guests, too. Those with groceries on hand as their stay ends are encouraged to leave the items in a food bank near the reservations desk, where new guests can cull them. Saturday is the best day for picking over the groceries, when you'll find everything from peanut butter to pot, said guest Ken Willis.

This Chicago-area landscape architect, finishing his second week in a tent cottage, related the marijuana incident -- "It caused quite a stir among the employees who noticed the baggie" -- but said his main memories would be the simple pleasures of hiking the national park's numerous trails, swimming in the calm bay and sharing meals with other campers.

All of which underscores Selengut's philosophy in building these resorts. Ecotourism, he has said, means "not destroying the environment, (but also) it has to do with sustainability, with allowing future generations to enjoy things we do. It's a very holistic approach to living in a place." If you go Getting there: St. John is one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, which lie about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami. There are no commercial flights to St. John, but American and Delta airlines fly to neighboring St. Thomas. Then you take a ferry to St. John from either downtown St. Thomas ($6, about 45 minutes) or from its tiny eastern harbor, Red Hook ($3, about 20 minutes).

Both ferries deliver you to the crossroads community of Cruz Bay. The thirsty or hungry can satisfy themselves at several nearby tavernas in the trendy Mongoose Junction mall, or at the down-to-earth burger stand at the foot of the ferry dock.

Virgin Island regulars know the name Pusser's as a favorite watering hole, and there is an outpost of the famed rum distillery a block from the ferry dock. Climb to Pusser's balcony restaurant and have some seafood, if you must, but do order a Painkiller, the trademark tropical drink fortified by Pusser's rum and topped with nutmeg.

Then, walk a block to the taxi stand and hop aboard the open-sided van that is Frett's Shuttle ($4) for the 30-minute, mountainside-hugging ride to Maho Bay Camps.

The lodgings are within the 11,560-acre Virgin Islands National Park -- more than half the park is underwater. Selengut has been consulted by the National Park Service on designing generic eco-friendly lodgings to be built elsewhere in the Park Service domain, including a 110-unit development in California's Simi Valley.

Staying there: The tent cottages at Maho Bay rent for $95 a night from Dec. 15-April 30, then drop to $60. The Harmony apartments range from $150 to $180 in the high season, then $95 to $125.

Neither of these facilities can accommodate guests using wheelchairs; there are no elevators, and the wooden boardwalks, with dozens of steps up and down the hillside, are posted with numerous signs warning how slippery they are when wet. Also, the boardwalk is not lit at night; guests moving to the communal bathrooms, restaurant, general store or beach must bring flashlights.

Eating there: While all the cottages have some cooking facilities, guests may also eat breakfast and dinner at a casual, open-air dining patio. The menu is posted daily on a chalkboard; you order and pay cash at a counter, then step back and wait for your name to be called. Beer and wine are available.

If you have a car or can wait for the shuttle, recommended restaurants in Cruz Bay are Asolare, Paradiso, the Seychelles and the Fish Trap.

What's doing there: Sailing, snorkel and scuba diving, fishing, boat rentals, day cruises and board games are offered by Maho Bay and concessionaires. Nature tours are available, from private operators as well as the National Park Service, (809) 775-6238. An easy walk and a worthy destination is the Annaberg Plantation Ruins, a sugar-cane mill operated by the Dutch in the 18th century.

For information: For more on Maho Bay Camps or the Estate Concordia lodgings, call the helpful people at (800) 392-9004; fax (212) 861-6210.

For general information on the U.S.V.I., call the Division of Tourism at (800) 878-4468.

Originally published March 2, 1997

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