An Experiment in Ecotourism Thrives on St. John
Wake up in a solar-powered tent and snorkel in an aquamarine underworld while helping preserve St. John’s natural appeal. The Maho Bay resort has proven that there can be responsible, and sustainable, alternatives to your typical beach resort.
Standing in dazzling sand at the edge of Maho Bay, my legs tingle as aqua waters tickle my toes, tucked into snorkeling fins. Nearby, brown pelicans are plunge-diving in elegant exhibitions that end comically as they rotate their bodies to keep from going underwater. I wade in and sink beneath the surface to a kaleidoscope of exotic shapes and colors.
Yellow-and-cobalt-striped smallmouth grunts scoot about the more sedate blue angelfish. Four-eye butterflyfish and crimson stoplight parrotfish weave in and out of lacy sea-fan corals. Lurking along the rocks is what must be a tarpon, silver-scaled, seven feet long, and scary. I snorkel over ivory-tree coral and the solid mound of a century-old brain coral with labyrinthine ridges. I am so engrossed in this underwater world I don’t notice the squall until little pricks of raindrops needle my back. They hit the water around me in tiny turquoise explosions.
This spectacular expanse of sand and water is part of the magic of St. John, the smallest and easternmost of the U.S. Virgin Islands, whose bays and beaches are among the most pristine anywhere in the Caribbean. Since 1959 more than half of St. John has been protected as Virgin Islands National Park, a 7,200-acre sanctuary of mangroves and dry subtro-pical forest. Most of the land was a gift from Laurance Rockefeller, who visited St. John in the early 1950s and was quick to recognize its vulnerability.
The beauty that so captivated Rockefeller would go on to inspire an experiment in sustainable resort development beyond the park boundaries. On the hillside above my snorkeling haven, hidden beneath the forest canopy, is a cluster of modest tent-cottages that helped launch the ecotourism movement. They were built in 1976 by Stanley Selengut, a New York developer. On this fragile island, where residential development and sheer visitor numbers are all taking a heavy toll, Selengut set out to demonstrate that tourist resorts can protect delicate ecosystems while still offering travelers a close proximity to nature.
His Maho Bay Camps is a model for private developers and the National Park Service alike, says Robert Stanton, who served four years as superintendent of Virgin Islands National Park before becoming director of the Park Service from 1997 to 2001. “This is a textbook example of how development can be sustainable as well as compatible with the environment.” The concept Selengut pioneered 30 years ago has been validated by the million-plus visitors who have stayed in his Maho Bay resort without affecting the clarity of the waters I have just snorkeled. “I didn’t see why human comfort and environmental sensitivity couldn’t be compatible,” he says. “I still don’t.”
The ferry from St. Thomas to St. John brings me past dozens of islets, some tufted with green, some no more than rocky roosts where cormorants and brown boobies perch while foraging in the Caribbean Sea. We land in Cruz Bay, a sleepy city of open-air bars, courtyard restaurants, and laid-back bustle on the Manhattan-sized island. Although St. John is the least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Cruz Bay throbs with the drone of construction generators and jackhammers.
Reaching Selengut’s Maho Bay Camps is a 20-minute nail-biter of a trip around precipitous horseshoe bends that would raise the hair of a teenaged skateboarder. It doesn’t help that we are driving on the left-hand side of the road, a legacy of Danish colonizers who gave up the habit in their homeland long ago. White-sand beaches and emerald bays flash in and out of view before I am finally embraced by the lush tranquility of this rustic resort. Unenclosed buildings are set amid red-barked gumbo limbo and black mampoo trees fringed by oleander and frangipani bushes, their fragile white blossoms just starting to open.
My quarters are a short hike from the registration area along Mongoose Highway, a central elevated walkway connecting the camp’s facilities. The cottage is a simple, 16-foot-square structure of four-by-fours covered in translucent fabric and mounted on a wooden platform. A living area with kitchenette and couch opens to a sleeping alcove, where an anole lizard eyes me from a roof beam. Feathery tamarind leaves and the spreading fronds of teyer palms ring the deck. Over the treetops I catch sight of waves rolling in from the Atlantic to Little Maho Beach.
When Selengut, 78, first saw this 13-acre parcel of private land in the midst of a national park in 1972, he was smitten by its pristine beauty and began planning a resort with lodges on the beach a few steps from world-class snorkeling. He would invite friends cultivated during his years as a South American crafts importer and consultant on economic development to the Kennedy administration. “It was a complete indulgence for myself,” he says with a sheepish grin.
Stanton, then superintendent of Virgin Islands National Park, got wind that a hardcore Manhattan developer was planning construction near Maho Bay, one of the island’s most immaculate stretches of sand, with a coral reef rimming the point. Stanton came round to have a chat with Selengut. He told him about the fragile soils that lead to erosion. How every little disturbance on the hillsides sends runoff and pollution down to the beaches and into the coral reefs. How even parking off-road and walking on beach berms breaks down their delicate structure. Selengut’s construction, Stanton said, would eventually ruin the snorkeling for everyone, including the developer and his recreating pals. “He really took it to heart,” says Stanton. “He’s a quick learner.”