An Experiment in Ecotourism Thrives on St. John
The conversation stimulated a lifelong change in Selengut’s relationship with nature. A lean man who now sports a fringe of gray hair, he was trained as a civil engineer to design and build by overpowering the land. “I was just a kid from the Bronx who did Boy Scouts for a while,” he says. “I knew the value of nature, but the idea that what you put on the land is secondary to what is already there—that was new to me.”
So instead of lodges on the beach, Selengut built small cottages among the trees. Mongoose Highway, Iguana Alley, and a network of elevated walkways came first, constructed on hand-dug footings. Workers wheeled construction materials along the walks and hid pipes and electrical cables underneath them, creating virtually no disturbance to the ground cover.
Buildings came next. To conserve freshwater, Selengut erected rainwater catchments with gravity-flow piping to cisterns that supply the laundry and bathhouses. All told, low-flush toilets, waterless urinals, dripless spring-action faucets, and showers in the communal bathhouses have reduced the average daily water consumption to 25 gallons per guest—20 percent of the 125 gallons a day used at an average resort. Wastewater from sinks and showers is diverted into an organic orchard and garden, which provide fruits and vegetables for the restaurant and habitat for many of the more than 30 species of birds that breed on St. John.
A flash of brilliant jade catches my eye from the foliage overhanging my cottage deck. A green-throated carib hummingbird is flitting among the leaves of a strangler fig tree, a band of blue iridescence shimmering on its neck as it darts in and out of sunlight. The native Antillean frogs must be out there, too, pale gray creatures the size of pencil stubs hiding on the ground, waiting for dark to start their kikiki chorus.
A growling in my stomach reminds me it’s time to eat. I leave my hut amid a clamor of squeaks from yellow-breasted bananaquits, the wren-size official bird of the Virgin Islands. Up the Mongoose Highway and 28 steps later, I join an informal group of guests in shorts, T-shirts, and sandals who are already sipping Virgin Islands Pale Ale and enjoying broccoli-chicken fusilli. At $80 a night in this early December off-season, a Maho Camps cottage for two makes visiting St. John possible for budget travelers willing to take responsibility for most of their needs. Before we leave we will clean our own cabins, pile our bed linens on the floor, and donate leftover snacks and unwanted books to the help-yourself shelf.
Selengut designed every facet of this resort to minimize the impact on St. John. His water conservation, use of re-cycled building materials and alternative energy, and light-on-the-land construction techniques have earned him the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s highest award for impro-ving the environment and protecting public health. David Sollitt, executive director of The International Ecotourism Society, likewise heaps praise on Selengut. “He has been an innovative and inspiring leader of the ecotourism community, both in the Americas and worldwide,” he says.
Selengut insists he had no idea he was inventing a concept when he built the first 18 tent-cottages at Maho Bay, a number that has since grown to 114. “I was more inter-ested in pleasing the Park Service than anything else,” he says. When a travel article described the camp as a conscien-tious but somewhat rustic, not-for-everyone resort, Selengut was besieged with more than 3,000 inquiries. “Lo and behold, I realized there’s a market for this,” he says, a twinkle in his pale blue eyes.
The success of the original tent-cabins, and the looming expiration of Maho Bay’s 13-acre land lease in 2012, spurred Selengut to design a second, 51-acre resort on the dramatic southeast side of the island. He says he is hoping the land upon which Maho Bay sits will be bought by a conservation organization and donated back to the park system, which might hire a concession to continue running the Maho Bay resort (for more information, visit audubonmagazine.org). Comprised of 25 eco-tents and 9 studio apartments, Estate Concordia offers accommodations equipped with cisterns, photovoltaic panels, composting toilets, and solar water heaters. The roof and siding of the eco-tents are made of a laminated polyester, dubbed “Stanley Cloth,” that reflects heat while allowing in a soft translucent light. When the Maho Bay land lease expires, Estate Concordia will continue to offer low- to medium-priced accommodations for travelers looking for sustainable lodgings close to nature, says Maggie Day, vice president of Maho Bay Camps.
Meanwhile, adjacent to Maho Bay, Harmony Eco-Resort’s 12 studio apartments are hailed by Selengut as the world’s first upscale camping accommodations that rely exclusively on solar and wind power and are constructed with recycled materials. The relative simplicity of even high-end Harmony is part of Selengut’s scheme to immerse his guests in the place they have come to visit. Along with providing housing in the midst of native flora and fauna, he has fashioned a “trash to treasures” program that offers guests the chance to re-cycle, transform, and purchase the very waste they create. Under staff instruction, glass bottles become vases and earrings, frayed bedsheets are transformed into placemats and tapestries. Spent pallet wood fires three kilns, which bake guests’ clay creations. Sixty aluminum cans melt into a silvery starfish paperweight.