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.”
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.
After dinner I’m just in time to catch a lesson in the art area, a ramshackle collection of open-air buildings that evolved along with the programs they house. Greg Lee, a Maho staff member, is introducing a young guest from Phoenix to glass-blowing. Max Partridge, 4, chooses blue for his sun catcher, a dolphin design he selected after seeing a real dolphin today. Other guests are making ornaments to display at home as vacation souvenirs.
The recycling program does more than spare Selengut the cost of hauling off some of the 20 tons of trash the resorts generate each year. Besides making art from waste, he’s making money, too. Annual revenues from the art classes and souvenirs have topped $240,000 for two consecutive years. Selengut firmly believes that conservation programs such as these, set in a landscape as exotic as St. John, can have a profound effect on visitors. “After all,” he says, “we have them when they are relaxed and open to new ideas.”
For all its allure, St. John has survived a brutal past. It emerged from the Caribbean Sea around 100 million years ago, the product of alternating periods of underwater moun-tain building, uplift, and explosive volcanism. On his second voyage to the New World, in 1493, Christopher Columbus landed in the Virgin Islands and skirmished with Carib Indians on neighboring St. Croix. No lasting communities were in place in 1718, when the Danes began to settle St. John. By 1800 their sugarcane and cotton plantations had consumed most of the island. The colonizers used African slaves to clear-cut more than 80 percent of the native forests, forever changing the landscape. After the Danes emancipated the slaves in 1848, the sugar plantations declined and the freed slaves grazed cattle on unstable slopes.
The destruction that began with colonization is still evident along the Reef Bay Trail, which descends from the center of the island near 1,147-foot Mamey Peak to the south shore through an old river channel that locals call a “ghut.” Before the Danes arrived, it was a flowing stream. For this thin-soiled forest ecosystem that depended on plants to store water, “cutting down the trees was like clear-cutting a temperate forest and then scraping off the topsoil,” says Pat Dinisio, a Virgin Islands National Park ranger. On top of that, decades of sugar cultivation left St. John with virtually no freshwater other than rain.
Dinisio is ahead of me as the trail passes through a mile-long swath of the closest thing left to the original forest. The steep downhill slope spared this area from clearcutting. Bay rum trees and native West Indian locusts tower side by side with hogplum and sandbox trees. The dense canopy leaves us in an eerie half-light so enveloping I am nearly caught in the web of a golden orb spider. Its gossamer strands shimmer across the path in fleeting flashes of sunlight filtered through the branches of trees towering 100 feet. The weaver rests in the center on elegant orange and ebony legs.
I pause near a genip tree with a rust-red bole bulging like a medicine ball from its lower branches. Curious, I poke my finger into one small section, sending a mass of tiny insects scurrying. “Termites,” says Dinisio. “They’re good for St. John.” Termites eat the forest’s dead wood, turning it into nitrogen-rich excrement that rebuilds the shallow soil.
We pass the island’s largest kapok tree. Its odd-angled roots buttressing a gargantuan four-foot girth make it easy to believe spirits hover inside. From a thicket of undergrowth a Zenaida dove coos where-are-you, then shows its blue-gray head.
Dinisio stops beside a 150-year-old West Indian locust tree riddled with bullet-sized holes made by a yellow-bellied sapsucker, an infrequent island visitor. I spy a shy tree frog silently peering out from a bulbous locust seed, waiting for dark to begin its chorus.
After winding through the brick-walled remains of a Danish sugar processing plant, the trail opens onto the beach at Reef Bay. These reefs are suffering along with coral throughout the Caribbean. The Danes initiated the reefs’ demise by using coral for mortar in their brick buildings, but today most of the havoc is wreaked by warming seawaters, which in 2005 catastrophically turned much of the Caribbean’s corals into bleached skeletons. St. John has lost nearly half of its live coral in the past two years, says Rafe Boulon, the National Park Service’s chief of resource management. Humans add to the destruction by causing pollution, anchoring boats, and touching and collecting the delicate corals. Anchoring is now limited to only a few places in national park waters, and it is prohibited throughout the 12,700-acre Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, designated in 2001 by President Bill Clinton.
In addition to these threats, park officials say the reefs and St. John overall face pressure from the type of large-scale development that is hosting most of the 1 million tourists who flock here annually. New construction is gobbling up the 5,600 acres of private land outside the park, much of it to accom-modate park visitors. Land values have skyrocketed from a low of $15,000 an acre in the early 1980s to as much as $8 million today. “It’s build, build, build on St. John,” says Dinisio. “What tourists are coming here to love they are loving to death.”
Tourism’s footprints are least obvious on the island’s remote southeast side, where I stay for the next two nights in one of Selengut’s Concordia eco-tents. Open hillsides are covered with the crimson crowns of turk’s head cacti. From my porch I watch waves pound Drunk Bay Beach—wild, rugged, and empty. That night I am awakened by rain drumming down in gusts blown in on the trade winds. I lie listening until the spray on my face nudges me to the window above the bed. Just before zipping shut the fabric cover, I glimpse a cruise ship hovering on the horizon in moonlit mist. Back between the sheets, I begin calculating how much freshwater has collected from the roof and porch gutters into the cistern— enough, surely, to offset what I am using during my week on St. John. I drift back to sleep on a wave of optimism.
In the morning the mother-of-pearl gray of first light turns pink over waters that stretch east to Africa, unbroken by any landmass. A red-billed tropicbird soars past streaming long white tail feathers. To the west, Salt Pond Bay glitters in the sun. Its reputation for fine snorkeling lures me from the comfort of my eco-tent and around a rise to the trailhead. The path winds through a thorny scrub of oval-leafed pain-killer plants, prickly pear, and spiny-stemmed pipe organ cacti. White-as-a-sheet ghost crabs scuttle along the ground while smooth-billed anis glide across the forest openings. Snorkeling out over sea rods and finger-sized branches of staghorn coral, I watch a school of blue tangs turning in unison in a ribbon of sapphire. Over a bed of seagrass, yellow goatfish glide translucent gray beneath me.
And then I spot what I have most hoped to see—an endan-gered green turtle, a species with fewer than 90,000 nesting females remaining worldwide. This one is a juvenile of per-haps 100 pounds. A looming, immobile presence, its mottled gray-green back blends into the bay floor dappled with fil-tered sunlight. The turtle begins to move, one dark limb at a time. Pushing gently against a rock, it turns, pauses, then turns again—slowly, gracefully, like a dancer just waking up from a nap. It starts upward, swimming more quickly until it is almost vertical. Surfacing five yards away from me, it pokes its nose out of the water. I push off my mask and take a breath, too. And then it is gone.
Now every jade shadow below me holds the promise of another living creature flourishing in this secret underworld. I swim slowly back to shore, buoyed by the hope that other tourists can visit these bays, beaches, and forests without disturbing the wonders they harbor. As if in confirmation, a magnificent frigate bird soars overhead on motionless arched wings.
"Camp Caribbean" was the title of this story in Audubon's November-December 2007 issue.