The sun was rapidly disappearing when the cab, a pickup with four rows of benches in the back, deposited us at the Maho Bay Camps main office, a haphazard cluster of wooden buildings at the end of a narrow track leading through mountains on St. John, the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands.
We checked in, and the concierge handed us a map. Our tent-cabin, and the path leading to it, were marked in red. With our wheeled luggage clunking behind us, we began the trek up, through a maze of stepped boardwalks that crisscross one of the Caribbean's oldest eco-resorts.
Night was falling quickly, and the effect was like walking on a path suspended high in a lush forest canopy. After several wrong turns, we found our home for the week – a cozy frame tent with two rooms, a tiny kitchen, a little deck, and geckos peering impassively down at us from their perch on the rafters.
More than anything, the cabin reminded me of a tree house. The forest, by then, had become a symphony of croaking and chirping, with the other tents glowing amber in the enveloping darkness. We realized we'd need to dig out the flashlights to make our way back to the dining pavilion.
We'd chosen this resort because it held the promise of an environmentally responsible family vacation in a place where nature hadn't been banished by terraced hotels surrounded by infinity pools. Founded in 1976 by ecotourism pioneer Stanley Selengut, Maho Bay Camps is on a picturesque hillside at the edge of Virgin Islands National Park, with access to pristine beaches. When he decided to establish the camp, the term ecotourism didn't exist, but Selengut – who served as a consultant to the Kennedy administration and later helped found the International Ecotourism Society – had a vision of what it entailed. Think summer camp aesthetics and kibbutznik politics.
The camp, initially 18 frame tents, was built largely by hand, to minimize damage to the forest. The resort relies primarily on solar and wind power, and captures rainwater for guest use, laundry and housekeeping (Maho touts the fact its guests use an average of 25 gallons of water a day, compared to about 300 gallons at other resorts). Guests use shared toilet and shower facilities, and shouldn't expect to shower in hot water (though with temperatures in the 80s, would you want to?) While it has grown substantially (Maho Bay now has a sister resort, Concordia, elsewhere on St. John), the resort retains its light footprint: It's built with natural and recycled materials, and you never leave the boardwalk, so the forest remains healthy, teeming with plant and animal life.
Awakening the morning after our arrival, our sons were thrilled to discover a family of soldier crabs, with their gnarled grey-brown shells, living amidst the withered leaves beneath our tent-cabin. The forest, in fact, was full of life – exotic birds, iguanas, and the shy terra cotta-coloured salamanders that skittered over the boardwalk. Down at the beach, pelicans swooped by while a pair of storks, one white, the other blue-grey, perched on the rocks.
As we quickly discovered, the abundance of the forest was mirrored in the coral reefs that bracket the resort's two major beaches, Little Maho Bay and Francis Bay. Our sons, who are 13 and 10, had never snorkelled before, so we rented kid-sized masks at the little beachfront shop. Just a metre or two below the surface, they discovered a bay floor rich with spiky sea urchins, coral formations, eels, and all the tropical fish species familiar to dedicated Finding Nemo fans (Moorish idols, yellow tang and dory). The next day brought sightings of stingrays and barracudas. We heard sea turtles like to hang around the sailboats moored further out in the harbour, but we didn't venture that far.
St. John is well known for its snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities, and there are plenty of half-day or day-long guided trips out to the marine reserves within the national park. For those looking for more terrestrial experiences, St. John has an extensive hiking trail network through the national park and linking the beaches. Some lead to the ruins of the Danish and Dutch sugar mills that dominated the island's economy in the 18th century. United States National Parks Service rangers offer guided tours on some routes, and will also bring hikers back to the starting point by boat in the case of steep trails, such as the four-kilometre Reef Bay Valley hike.
Besides the standard beach activities (you can rent scuba gear, wind surfing boards, etc.), Maho Bay offers glass-blowing, a clay studio and its "trash to treasures" arts and craft programs, which recycle waste paper, glass and other packaging. Some of the crafty activities are geared to kids, but the pottery and glass classes are mainly for adults.
As for logistics, the Maho Bay week requires a certain amount of organizational work that sets it apart from the typical no-effort all-inclusive. We brought cereal and peanut butter and jam to cover breakfasts and lunches. The camp has a store with overpriced staples, and each cabin has a cooler, as well as a propane stove. There's a beach snack shack for those who don't pack a lunch.
If you're very determined and extremely budget conscious, it's possible to cobble together an evening meal using the tent's scant kitchen provisions, but the result will be provisional at best. The resort's dining facility, a covered open-air pavilion with a killer view, offers hardy meals and half-sized kid portions. Mostly, the pavilion is a terrific place to read or play cards after a day in the sun.
The meals, however, aren't as cheap as some may hope for, running $14 to $22 per entree (including salad). Indeed, for those planning a visit, it's important to expect a long list of room charges: Maho is not an all-inclusive, and the attractive nightly rate – $80 to $135 based on double occupancy – is a loss leader. We spent about twice that each day on food, drinks, supplies, rentals and activities. (There's something interestingly archaic about Maho Bay's decision not to become an all-inclusive, and I found myself wondering if it has something to do with Stanley Selengut's vision. After all, environmentalists believe consumers should pay full price for what they consume – no free rides.)
After a week, we all felt we'd had a bone fide eco experience, albeit one that depends on the big carbon footprint of airplanes and Jeep rides to get there. We'd spent six days camping in a semi-tropical jungle, generated little waste, and encountered nature in a way that was intimate, enriching and respectful. On the final day, the kids were paddling around one of the coral reefs when a New Jersey woman we'd met swam over.
"Do you guys want to see a nurse shark?" she asked. Nurse sharks are nocturnal, about the size of a big dog and don't attack unless provoked.
We followed her out past the end of the coral reef to a spot where the water was about five or six metres deep. Down below us, with its head tucked under a rocky outcropping, hovered the shark, sleeping peacefully despite our presence.
That shark and the other marine life off the Virgin Islands face mounting environmental hazards. It's fair to say that Maho Bay isn't making things worse.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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There's no airport on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, so travellers arrive in St. Thomas. From the airport, catch a cab or a shuttle bus to the ferry docks at Red Hook. The drive traverses the island; allow for at least two hours. Ferries to St. John depart from Red Hook every hour. Maho Bay Camps sends shuttles to the ferry docks in Cruz Bay, St. John, to collect visitors, and cabs are also available. The picturesque road to Maho Bay zigzags precariously through the mountainous terrain. For those with a love of switchbacks, there are also several rental agencies in Cruz Bay (see www.stjohnusvi.com/rentals.html).