Take Me Away to Maho Bay

maho-bay-1.jpgAlready longing for your next vacation? Today, Sarah shares a tropical vacation that’s proven fun, eco-friendly, and affordable for her family of four:

I’m not really a cold-weather person. In my humble opinion, once the holidays have come and gone, it could go right ahead and get on to spring. However, seeing as New England clearly isn’t in on my plan, I have only one recourse: a tropical vacation. And amazingly, I found the perfect solution that allows my family of four to spend a week in the Caribbean without completely breaking the bank.

I first heard of St. John’s Maho Bay Campground in high school, when I spent 10 days there on a biology field trip. Located on the protected north side of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the ecologically-focused Maho Bay Camps are comprised of 114 tent-cottages connected by wooden walkways on a hillside overlooking beautiful Little Maho Bay.


Each 16’x16’ canvas-walled cabin sleeps up to four people (twin beds, a daybed, and a folding cot) and includes a camp stove and large ice chest, pots, pans, and dishes, and sheets and towels. Because the cabins aren’t soundproof and can be close together, I was worried that my boys would make too much noise, but the campground is not only kid-friendly but pretty highly kid-populated. People come with babies, toddlers, all the way to teens. And even with all those kids, it’s still not a noisy place; something about the wind in the trees, or the birds singing, but I didn’t notice anyone having trouble taking a nap due to noisy neighbors. The campground has a quiet policy from 10pm to 7am, and campers are very considerate of others; mostly, everyone is so busy during the day that they’re more than ready to sleep by 10.

The experience at Maho is a lot like summer camp: a very casual atmosphere, cafeteria-style dining in the beautiful pavilion overlooking the bay, some unbelievable sunsets, shared bathhouses (not as strange as you might think – like college, only cleaner), and camaraderie with other campers. Many families return year after year, and get to know staff members and each other well. And each day there are organized activities: for example, yoga classes on top of the hill, batik classes in the textiles hut, guided snorkel tours of famous reefs, sailing tours, Saturday night taxi/bus to Coral Bay for socializing and dancing, and nightly glassblowing demonstrations in the glassblowing studio.

Maho takes its ecological footprint very seriously: they recycle all the glass used at the resort at the glassblowing studio, where resident glassblowers and visiting artists from around the country come to create artwork. By far the most popular activity with my boys, we went to the studio every night after dinner for the mesmerizing demonstration. And any of the pieces (e.g., wineglasses, vases, ornaments, beads) created while you watch will be available at the resort’s gallery once it’s finished firing, along with beautiful textiles from the batik artists on-site.

Also of ecologically minded note: by raising the cabins and walkways off the ground, the resort reduces its impact on the delicate flora (and fauna!) of the island: no erosion, damage to delicate native plants, etc. Maho also uses mainly rainwater for its bathing and flushing duties; they encourage short showers by putting a pull-handle on every showerhead and not heating the water. Admittedly for me, this is a low point of the trip (I’m a shower hog), but a minor trade-off for the warm weather, abundant sunshine, and spectacular beach.

The kitchen uses local produce and seafood as much as possible and composts food waste. You can eat at the restaurant or cook meals in your tent; the store at the resort sells all sorts of groceries in addition to ice cream, postcards, rum and beer, sunscreen, etc., but be forewarned: because nearly everything is shipped to the island on a boat, heavy stuff COSTS. We bring our own trail mix (for snacks) and peanut butter from home and make lunches with store-bought bread.

Little Maho Bay is 118 steps down from the main walkway. (One other quirk of the resort: much stepping. Your glutes, however, will be three inches higher at the end of your stay than they were at the beginning!) It’s peaceful, private to the resort, shallow, calm, and warm – read: safe for little ones. And with reefs on either side, including Sargasso grass and feeding Ridley sea turtles at next-door Francis Bay, there’s something for even the most adventurous members of your family to do, right on the beach. You can also rent a sea kayak, sunfish, windsurfer or snorkel equipment, or, more my speed, a beach chair. Because the resort is so popular with families, my boys almost always found other kids to play with on the beach, and if they were alone, made sand castles or bobbed around on the abundant floats and inflatables that kick around on the beach.


And here’s the kicker: a tent-cabin costs, per night, $135 during the peak winter season, and $15 for each additional guest. That means that TEN nights in Maho Bay over school break is less than $1700. It is, as the website says, one of the least expensive ways to see the Caribbean. Flights from Boston to St. Thomas are easy, with one stop in Philadelphia, and the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John takes about forty-five minutes. And herein lies the only other bummer about Maho: it takes, really, a day of traveling to get there. Which I thought was going to be horrible with my little boys the first year we went, but the excitement of plane, taxi, ferry, taxi, and all the people, sights, etc., kept them going without complaint the whole way. The second year was easier – they were so excited to be going back they couldn’t wait to arrive.

If you’re not quite so rustic a vacationer, Maho has other accommodations: Harmony Studios, located high on the hill, offer large studios with kitchenettes and private baths, as well as spectacular views. (Comfier, sure, but it’s a loooong hike down to the beach…) Their sister resort, Estate Concordia, is on the windward east side of the island, and offers state-of-the-art loft cabins with solar hot water and private baths, kitchenettes, and a restaurant and activities pavilion. This resort is not as convivial or as kid-friendly, but would make a spectacular writing retreat or a quiet couples vacation spot; the panoramas of Tortola and the BVIs are astounding. The eco-consciousness, however, is just as strong as the original resort.

Some of my happiest moments in the past three years have been sitting at a table in the pavilion, rum punch in hand, watching the sun set with my two little boys and one big boy, after a tiring but exciting day of hiking the sugar-plantation ruins nearby or snorkeling with angelfish at a nearby reef. It’s not swanky, but neither are little kids – my boys are as excited about our next visit as I am. What more do you need than a spectacular beach, perfect weather, a soft place to sleep, your family, and plenty of rum punch? I can't wait to head back this April.


Additional notes:

1. Obviously most people opt to head south during February break, but going in April is saving us big on airfare.

2. Tragically, Maho Bay Camps currently is scheduled to close July 31, 2011. The land is currently on the market and the Trust For Public Land has launched an effort to purchase the Maho Bay Camps land for permanent protection as a natural preserve. If the land acquisition is successful, TPL will enable the eco-resort to continue as it has for so many years. Those interested in supporting the Maho Bay Camps land acquisition efforts by the Trust for Public Land should email john.garrison@tpl.org for information.

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Image credits: 1 (Maho Bay); 2 – 4 (personal photos from Sarah)