With only three years left on its 37-year land lease, Maho Bay, the world’s first ecoresort, is starting to run on borrowed time. The question on everyone’s mind is: What will become of it?
Late at night, lying in the bed of a tent cabin, I hear the island of St. John come alive. Waves regularly rinse the beach. Frogs call out to one another. And somewhere nearby, a spastic iguana slowly crunches through the trees before it suddenly falls off a branch. This isn’t $1,000-a-bed resort living, though. This is Maho Bay Camps, where for about 100 bucks, you can spend a night in the world’s first ecoresort.
Open since 1976, Maho Bay sits on the north side of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands and is surrounded by a national park. Its 114 cabins are spread unobtrusively among 14 acres as a nearly invisible complex of buildings joined by a labyrinth of wooden walkways. Years before ecotourism
was even a word, Maho Bay was quietly defining what it means to leave a small footprint when traveling. But all this may come to an end because in a few years the lease will run out on this visionary facility, and the landowners want to sell. Asking price: $32 million.
The owner of Maho Bay Camps, 79-year-old developer Stanley Selengut, from Long Island, New York, isn’t willing to spend that kind of money on a campground. That basically leaves one option for saving the resort: A nonprofit like the Trust for Public Land would have to take ownership, turn the property over to the park, and hire Maho Bay as a concession.
To loyal Maho Bay guests, the resort is much more than a place to vacation. It’s sort of an extended family. Many guests have returned 15 to 20 times, many scheduling their trips to coincide with those of their friends.
The resulting atmosphere is much like an all-ages summer camp. Each guest buses his or her own dishes in the restaurant. Bathrooms are communal. Leftover supplies such as food, books, and suntan lotion go to the help-yourself center so they can be used by future guests. Everything imaginable is recycled, including lightbulbs, bottles, towels, bed linens, and dryer lint. Nightly entertainment may feature a talk by a marine biologist, music from local bands, glassblowing, or stargazing. During the off-season, volunteers work six hours a day in exchange for free room and board. (A large number of the island locals have been employed by the resort at one time or another.)
Maho Bay attracts about 20,000 guests a year, many of whom come from states along the East Coast. “We think the whole state of Vermont empties out during the winter,” says Maho Bay marketing manager Melody Smith, laughing.
“It’s the least expensive place to bring a family on St. John,” she adds.DESPITE MAHO BAY CAMPS’
reputation as a green destination, Selengut says his original vision had little to do with conservation. “I was going to build a little lodge right on the ocean, and a nice old couple would run it. They’d have a little scuba boat and a little sailboat. My friends would visit, I would visit, and if it lost money, who cares, because I could take my vacations as a tax deduction.”
When the news arrived that a New York builder had gotten hold of commercially zoned property, the park superintendent of St. John was irate. He met with Selengut, telling him that development could easily disrupt topsoil, potentially ruining the beaches and coral reefs. Selengut then agreed to construct a pedestrian community, with elevated walkways between the trees so nothing would be destroyed.
“In those days, the way you developed was you clear-cut the land, you built what you wanted to build, and then you landscaped with grass and palm trees,” Selengut says. Instead, he hired a few locals and built a series of 18 tent cabins, inspired by structures he’d seen on a trip to Africa. All the buildings were erected on hand-dug footings in order to minimize impact to the land.
From the beginning, the idea was for Maho Bay to be affordable, not elitist. “That was more of a challenge than the green part,” Selengut admits. “Being green, if you have endless supplies of money and want to charge $600 a night, isn’t that hard. But being green and remaining affordable doubles the challenge.”
Not long after Maho Bay opened, two things happened that completely changed the little camp: Neighboring hotels began to send their overbooked customers to the ecoresort, and a writer for the New York Times
came to visit and wrote an article that went on to be reprinted throughout the United States.
“We were full right off the bat,” Selengut remembers. “That gave me the feeling this wasn’t really a toy -- there was a real market for what is now called nature-based travel, or ecotourism. So that gave me the encouragement to put some real money into it and make it into a real business.”
As more cabins were built, Selengut’s curiosity about his customers grew. He would send every guest a personal letter with a questionnaire and a postage-paid return envelope addressed to his office in New York. Many of the suggestions he received in those replies came from professional landscapers and botanists and were directly incorporated into the Maho Bay design plan. Other ideas were a little different.
“One guest was an artist who worked in fabric,” Selengut says. “I went down [and found a] worker taking our waste sheets and tie-dyeing them and batiking them and sewing them into stuff. Somebody else found out that a kiln can fire ceramics using pallet wood [as fuel], so we’d go to the dump and get bunches of pallet wood and use it to fire the kiln. And then somebody came up with the idea that we could take the lint from the laundry and mix it with the office paper and water in a blender to make art paper. Every time I go down there, they’re doing something new that sounds like great fun.”TODAY, MAHO BAY CAMPS
and its sister resort, Estate Concordia, in progress on the other side of the island, are textbook case studies for ecoconstruction and sustainability. Estate Concordia improves upon lessons learned with Maho Bay and includes features like recycled building materials, solar power, and cisterns to collect rainwater.
Selengut and his staff are well aware of the Maho Bay deadline, but visitors to the resort have no idea it may soon have to close. There are a few points in Maho Bay’s favor: Most of the land is not beachfront, and the national park controls the beaches, so a resort might not buy Maho Bay if it doesn’t have any access to the water. Trust for Public Land is negotiating with the land’s owners in an attempt to purchase the land. Maho Bay is also well regarded in the local community, and its guests contribute to local businesses. And the ecoresort has a close relationship with the park; Selengut once served on the advisory board of the national park system.
But nothing is for certain in real estate. A wealthy billionaire might want to own a private estate and snap it up for himself.
Nevertheless, Selengut has thought of the worst-case scenario. If he loses Maho Bay Camps, he’s already planned to speed up construction on Estate Concordia, which, though up and running, still has sections to be developed. Unlike with the Maho Bay land, Selengut owns all the land for Estate Concordia. When finished, the new ecogetaway will be a similar size to Maho Bay and will accommodate the same number of people.
Estate Concordia offers a new level of comfort to guests, but, truthfully, it doesn’t have the lived-in feel that Maho Bay has. Plus, beach access isn’t as easy as at the original camp. And there are fewer clumsy lizards stumbling around the cabins at night. But at least for the next three years, visitors to St. John can still choose between the two.
“Originally, I took a 25-year lease, and then I negotiated for a 12-year extension,” Selengut says. “At that time, 37 years seemed like … God, I was in my 40s. Now I’m 79. Who would ever think that 37 years could pass so quickly?”