A Green Getaway

The Virgin Islands" Maho Bay Puts Conservation First

Set on the edge of the U.S. Virgin Island’s largest national park, Maho Bay Camps is positioned perfectly for its role as one of the world’s most innovative eco-resorts. Maho Bay offers guests the use of some 114 tent/cabins built on 16-foot platforms. Maho Bay’s buildings, which include a restaurant and dining pavilion serving natural foods, a store, bathhouses and administrative offices, are connected by raised walkways to prevent vegetation from being trampled—and soil from being eroded.

Since 1977 when founder Stanley Selengut began the project, he has tweaked and perfected his recipe for combining tourism with ecological awareness. His newest project, the Concordia Estate, is a 25-minute drive from Maho Bay Camps on the more secluded southeastern shore of St. John. Vacationers can choose from studios or eco-tents, all of which provide stunning views of Salt Pond Bay. The units visually integrate into the landscape, and were constructed without the use of heavy equipment.

Maho Bay offers a stunning natural setting, which guests can take advantage of through a full range of activities, including hiking, kayaking, windsufing, sailing, snorkeling and scuba diving. There’s even glassblowing, using the raw material from recycled beer bottles.

Solar Electricity

Solar panels generate each eco-tent’s electricity, which is stored in ordinary RV batteries. A large cistern beneath the tent holds rainwater collected from the roof. Above the bathroom, a black barrel allows shower water to heat in the sun. But the resident must hand pump the water from the cistern to the barrel in advance. Selengut has gone out of his way to remove "magical switches" from the entire experience. "We took out the automatic pumps," he explains. "We set up a gauge so people can see how much water they"ll need to pump to have a shower. They"ll see how full the cistern is, and adjust automatically. Also, they monitor the electricity. People actively involved in supervising their resources become conservation-minded."

Understanding how everything functions in the tent is easy, and posted signs explain how the features work. "I want people to take back knowledge to implement these concepts in their own lives," says Selengut.

In Concordia, human beings are considered part of the environment. Guests throw their food scraps over the side of the balcony, where small crabs quickly gobble them up. Natural sounds easily penetrate the fabric walls and the fickle weather affects every aspect of daily life.

"NASA invented the material used in the walls," says live-in site manager Ted Copeland. "It’s a nylon mesh coated with a rubberized plastic. We built the tents" frames out of local wood and a recycled material called Choice Deck, which is made from recycled milk jugs and sawdust. These huts can withstand hurricanes. The walls are simply rolled up and the wind passes through."

The Waste Cycle

Perhaps the most ambitious resort feature, the composting toilets, empty into a plastic bin beneath each tent, and are designed to conserve water. Copeland says the toilets require little maintenance. "Once a week, we stir the contents, and dump in some peat moss and an enzyme that speeds waste breakdown." The resulting compost forms a rich soil.

Selengut adds, "My philosophy of ecotourism has three parts. I want to bring people into a sense of this place, staying for at least a week. It takes a day for people just to get the city out of their systems—they"ll complain that there’s a lizard in their room. If I can get them to stay for a while, pretty soon, they’ve given the lizard a name. Second, there’s the sustainability of the ecosystem: Along with running an environmentally friendly resort, this includes the management of invasive plants and feral animals, and the hiring of locals. Finally there’s the interpretive part: Our goal is to have each guest go home healthier or somehow richer."

But Maho Bay appeals to an audience broader than the environmental elite. Arthur Frommer of Frommer Travel Guides told USA Today that the resort was his favorite hotel. "It’s a glorious place with an interesting, unpretentious clientele," he said. "The setting is ethereal. It’s one of the great views in the world."

KAREN MADSEN, now a Boston-based grant writer for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, was an intern at E.