On the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John, two eco-resorts come of age.
Tue, Apr 21, 2009 at 04:14 PM
Photo: Lisa Selin Davis
Thirty years ago, long before LEED, Energy Star, or any other official green building guidelines existed, Stanley Selengut leased 14 acres of land along the two smile-shaped coves of Maho Bay on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John. Over the next few years, he built 114 one-room wood-and-vinyl tents behind the turpentine and kapok trees, perched along wooden walkways that hovered over the soil so visitors wouldn’t damage the ground cover as they walked down to the beach or up to the restaurant pavilion, which was tucked back on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Water and electricity lines were laid beneath the walkways, precluding the need for trenches. “When I finished building the place, it looked like it had grown there,” Selengut says. The Maho Bay Campground is one of the country’s oldest—and perhaps crudest—eco-resorts.
Selengut, who turned 78 in April, is an accidental ambassador of eco-tourism—the word wasn’t even in vogue back at Maho’s beginning—and indeed had no intention of becoming a green developer, or wielding environmentalism as a marketing tool. He started as a U.S. importer of Latin American crafts in the 1950s, helped set up craft cooperatives, and consulted for the Kennedy administration. In 1976, he was working as a housing consultant for the Rockefellers, who introduced him to the Virgin Islands when the land along Maho Bay was up for rent. “I never dreamed of turning it into a big business,” he says. “When I got there and looked at the land and fell in love, I took a long lease.”
Five years later, he started buying land along the southeastern side of the island for what eventually would become Maho’s spiffier, greener sister resort, Concordia. The resorts became popular destinations for environmentally conscious travelers, and today, business is booming. Concordia’s restaurant opened this spring, and eventually a performing arts center, yoga pavilion, crafts center, and residential component—along with what Selengut says will be affordable housing for both residents and guests—will follow. But as Concordia expands and its future brightens, Maho’s star may be dimming. Selengut owns Concordia’s land, but Maho’s lease will finally be up in 2012, and it looks like the owners won’t let Selengut extend it. It’s a bittersweet time for Selengut as he, and Maho’s many faithful visitors, face what could be the end of an era.
I imagined that St. John would be overly touristy, but when I showed up in late January—in the lull between Christmas and spring break—I was surprised at how exotic and peaceful it seemed, and by how much its 28 square miles of terrain varied. The west and north sides are lush and busy with tourists, but the east side is nearly empty, with vast fields of fuzzy, red nipple cacti on promontories stretching out to the sea. Dramatic volcanic mountains are everywhere you look. Two thirds of the island is designated as a national park, and there are only two traditional resorts there—the Rockefeller’s Caneel Bay and the Westin. Of course, that’s likely to change when Maho’s lease expires. You can feel the tension in the air, the pressure to seize what little land is both undeveloped and free from park protection—which is precisely what makes Maho so precious.
About 20,000 people camp at Maho every year, nearly 80 percent of them repeat visitors. Nearby mansions reaching to the very edges of their half-acre lots spring from the cliffs, but Maho is a place where frazzled Americans can live simply. The staff of 60 consists largely of college kids and middle-aged earthy types who live in tents above the restaurant, and many of the younger folks are taking advantage of Maho’s work-exchange program: For 30 hours a week of toiling, you get free housing, 40 percent off meals (food is not cheap anywhere on the island), and discounts on all manner of activities.
Not long after it opened in 1976, Maho got a glowing write-up in the New York Times, and its popularity grew. Once the word was out about his private eco-paradise, Selengut decided to start sending out a detailed questionnaire to each visitor to learn how he could improve Maho, which he continues to do today. He took what he’d learned from thousands of responses and years of trial and error to form his second resort.
In 1990, he opened Concordia Eco-Tents using a slew of new materials and processes to make this second venture more environmentally sound. Tents at Maho were made of polyvinyl and pressure-treated pine (not the most eco-friendly materials), and they didn’t generate energy or collect rainwater, so Selengut spent a fortune on electricity bills and trucked water in. “We didn’t have a lot of options back then,” says Maho’s vice president, Maggie Day.
At Concordia, things were different. “Every time someone mentioned a new idea, we could incorporate it,” says Selengut. Concordia’s 25 eco-tents are solar powered, and contain composting toilets and private solar showers that use rainwater collected in cisterns on the roofs. Plus, they take advantage of cogeneration: They’re tapped into St. John’s main power grid, and any excess energy is donated back to the island supply. “They’re basically self-sufficient,” says Selengut.
Set along a cactus-strewn hill, Concordia’s tents are far more private than their tiny cousins at Maho. “Their views will never be obstructed,” says Selengut. Especially when you arrive from the relative austerity of Maho, Concordia seems incredibly comfortable—a few of its tents are even wheelchair accessible. One major inconvenience, however, is getting there. From downtown Cruz Bay, where the ferry comes in, you can take an open-air bus called Mr. Frett’s Taxi for $8 to Maho or hitchhike, but you’ll have to rent a jeep to travel the 12 miles to Concordia. That’s something they hope to change as Concordia expands—maybe by providing a shuttle, or giving visitors instructions on how to catch the $1 public bus, which runs regularly. The sting of impending development is softened some by Selengut’s respect for the land; he’s donated some of his property to a trust, and the rest he’s developed slowly to ease its impact.
In the late 1990s, Selengut ran into a problem: The more folks came to his increasingly popular resorts, the more trash they left behind. There’s no recycling on St. John, so visitors’ beer bottles and food packaging had to be carted out by diesel-fueled garbage trucks to the ferry that transported wastes to a landfill on St. Thomas.
“It drove Stanley nuts to have these things chucked out,” says architect Jim Hadley, who helped design the original tents. So Selengut’s team started crushing bottles and cans, adding the tidbits to decorative concrete. Then, in 1998, a glass artist named Larry Livolsi came to Maho and built a glass furnace, fueled by wooden palates left over from deliveries.
“At first we made simple stuff like paper weights and sun catchers and things you could simply press into molds,” says Selengut. Then artists started swapping glass-blowing classes in exchange for stays at Maho. The glass pieces got more beautiful—vases, pitchers, flowers—and guests wanted to take them home. Maho artists started making other goods: Sheets became aprons and purses, and scrap paper and dryer lint became homemade paper. Selengut built recycling and crafting stations for each material. Now, the classes and crafts of the Trash to Treasure Center, a collection of shacks tucked below Maho’s restaurant, recycles about 150 of the 240 reams of paper they use, melts 32,000 bottles, and generates more than $200,000 in revenue each year, enough to pay for the staff and power the facility.
The center makes only a small dent in Maho’s waste stream, but it certainly adds to the morale of both visitors and employees. Selengut hopes this strategy will be replicated in other tourism spots. He’s hired Jim Hadley to design an energy-efficient version that could be adopted and adapted by any resort. He’s already had talks with one of the world’s largest hotel conglomerates (he won’t name names) to develop such a center for a new resort in the Dominican Republic.
The fact that Maho’s legacy might reach to the furthest and most luxurious corners of the hospitality industry is all the more poignant as Maho’s future remains uncertain. “There’s just so much pressure to develop,” says Day. She is not the only one who laments the possible demise of Maho; locals and visitors have organized benefits and fund-raisers to support the resort. Day took me on a drive around the island, pointing out the multimillion-dollar mansions cropping up along the hills. “This is what will happen to Maho if it doesn’t go into preservation.”
The Trust for Public Land (TPL) has discussed purchasing the spot, but the organization isn’t commenting on the progress of the negotiations. “It’s just too early to say,” says John Garrison, director of TPL’s southwest Florida office.
Selengut is sad at the prospect of losing Maho, but he knows that the campground is a little worn out, and that the waste it generates is still staggeringly high, even with the creative recycling. “If I renewed the lease, I’d probably start replacing the Maho tents with eco-tents,” he admits.
Concordia’s expansion and the negotiations with the hotel chain make Selengut feel a little better, but he knows it’s only one tiny step in a long march toward sustainable tourism. “It’s just the beginning of the story,” he says. “The real test will be to see if it’s successful and if it spreads around the world.”
Story by Lisa Selin Davis. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2007.