Back to Maho Bay: A family trip to St. John in the Virgin Islands stirs old memories

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By Bob Thompson
Sunday, May 16, 2010

It was our first evening on St. John. The four of us lingered on the dining pavilion at Maho Bay Camps, gawking at the blue-green sea below us, basking in the Caribbean moment.

But I was having trouble separating present and past.

Sunset streaked the darkening sky -- but weren't the reds and oranges brighter on our first Virgin Islands trip? Lights dotted the slopes of St. Thomas, the island to our west -- could it really have been so crowded back then? Cats stalked the pavilion in search of scraps -- were they new to Maho, or had we fed their ancestors two decades before?

In the spring of 1988, Deborah and I had chosen St. John for what would turn out to be our last vacation before we got married. We'd signed up for a week at Maho, a cluster of eco-friendly tent cabins on the island's northwest coast. Neither of us had been there before. Now we were back, with 19-year-old Lizzie and 17-year-old Mona for company.

We'd flown from Dulles airport to St. Thomas to find that the funky terminal of our hazy memories -- it looked like something out of "Casablanca" -- had been rebuilt. On the ferry to St. John we'd been soaked by spray, but nobody cared. At Maho, we made our way across the hillside boardwalk to tent cabin A-18. It had two beds, a couch, a cot, a fan and screens all around (we didn't immediately notice the iguanas in the trees).

"Steps to Beach: 118" read the sign on the boardwalk, so down we climbed.

Fish leaped. Pelicans cruised and dived. Dads launched themselves at small children like surfing sea monsters. Little Maho Beach will never make the best-in-the-world lists on which Trunk Bay, a few miles down the road, routinely appears, but it's a genuine white-sand Caribbean affair nonetheless, and it felt wonderful to be there.

Still, I remembered fleeing it, 20 years ago, in search of more exciting St. John shores. Little Maho was for families.

"What was it like when you guys were here before?" Mona asked at dinner. She may have just wanted to know about the salad bar or the hungry cats, but I took her question in its cosmic sense and mumbled something about how there'd been fewer of us back then. It's not easy to explain how parenthood remolds one's world.

What I might have said was:

"Two decades ago, you and your sister didn't exist. Then you became the absolute center of our lives. Now that you're grown and nearly gone, it's hard to remember what anything was like before you happened."

I spent the next week trying, though. At least when I wasn't too busy lying on the beach.


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