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

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"On Facebook," she patiently explained.

'How little we need'

Every day, when we got back from the beach, came a Maho ritual: the cold shower. This requires some explanation, especially given Mona's strong views on warmth.

Maho Bay Camps was created in the mid-1970s by eco-capitalist Stanley Selengut, sometimes called the father of ecotourism. In a "Dear Guest" letter found in every tent cabin, Selengut describes his brainchild as "a place to rest the soul and restore the spirit, and to find out how little we need in life to be truly happy and comfortable."

Some things we need, apparently: a nice restaurant, a store that sells French wine, a beachfront shop that rents kayaks and snorkeling gear.

Some things we don't: air conditioning, paved roads, television -- though you can access the Internet for a small fee -- and hot water.

It's not that Maho chooses to freeze its guests out of some misguided philosophical Puritanism. The cold showers are merely the most pragmatic way to shock them into preserving a scarce St. John resource. It works, too: According to Selengut's letter, campers use water at about one-third of the daily U.S. rate.

Ecological awareness wasn't what sold us on Maho, though. We're not that virtuous. The killer app was price.

Tent cabin A-18 cost the four of us $165 a night, and while we dropped a startling amount of money at the restaurant -- you can save a bundle by using the Coleman stove Maho provides -- the mere thought of hotel prices on St. John would have had us hunkering down at Rehoboth Beach instead.

I mean no disrespect to Delaware, but it wouldn't have been the same.

We loved the morning stroll up the boardwalk to the pavilion, where we'd soak in the view and plan the day over pineapple, coffee and French toast. En route, we'd check out the shelf where departing Maho-ites left sunscreen, paperbacks and half-consumed jars of peanut butter for those of us lucky enough to be staying on (a vote of thanks to whoever left the battered beach chair). In the late afternoon, tanned and salty, we'd rest our souls and spirits on A-18's small porch while playing "Where's Waldo" with camouflaged iguanas in the turpentine trees.

"Let's not wait 20 years to come back," Mona said one day. Good idea -- not least because Maho could be long gone by 2029.

Selengut doesn't own the 14 acres of hillside on which his 114 tent cabins sit. His lease expires in 2012, and he has been told it won't be renewed. Land is an even scarcer resource than water on St. John, and the owners are looking to cash in.

The Trust for Public Land, which has already donated considerable area real estate to the national park, is hoping to buy the hillside and arrange for Maho Bay Camps to stay open. But there's no guarantee it will succeed.

'The person who loves you'

When the day for the long hike came, it turned out that just Lizzie and I were going. The others opted for more beach time.

Half a mile down the North Shore Road, we found the beginning of the Maria Hope Trail. A steep mile or so later, we huffed across the ridge road that runs through the center of St. John and headed down the green and shady Reef Bay Trail, which ends at an old sugar mill on the south coast.

If we'd signed up for the Park Service version of this excursion, we'd have been dropped off at the height of land and hauled back by boat when we hit Reef Bay, thus avoiding the nasty uphill bits. But that would have been wimpy. Hadn't Deborah and I walked many miles past Reef Bay -- all the way to Ram's Head, in fact, diagonally across the island from Maho -- in 1988?

Well, no. We hadn't.

A closer look at the map revealed just how long a trek that would have been. A memory adjustment confirmed that I had conflated two trips. So Lizzie and I decided to make for Lameshur Bay instead. It was a few miles closer but promised beaches and views. More important, it would still give us plenty of time to talk, something to which we've always found hiking conducive.

Lizzie had been good about communicating from college, but it was wonderful to hear extended descriptions of friends she'd been making and classes she cared about. Topping her list was a Southern literature course for which she was reading "All the King's Men," and the day before she had read me a passage about how love makes a person over again.

"The person who loves you," Robert Penn Warren wrote, "has picked you out of the great mass of uncreated clay which is humanity to make something out of, and the poor lumpish clay which is you wants to find out what it has been made into. But at the same time, you, in the act of loving somebody, become real, cease to be a part of the continuum of the uncreated clay and get the breath of life in you and rise up. So you create yourself by creating another person. ..."

The context, in Warren's book, is a first, ecstatic love affair. But I found myself thinking that the concept of mutually molded identity applies to parents and children, too.

Reaching the bay, we walked out on a rugged, scenic spit of land where the biggest iguana I've ever seen bolted across the trail. After eating lunch near a ruined stone house above the beach, we reluctantly headed back.

Stone ruins are everywhere on St. John. "Part of the island's charm is discovering its history, sometimes barely visible just off road or path," a sign at Trunk Bay informs visitors. But "charm" is hardly the right word for the history those ruins represent. Most were part of colonial Danish sugar plantations, and during the island's roughly 130-year sugar era, the vast majority of its population was enslaved.

On our way up the hill, we stopped to examine an old platform for grinding sugar cane. It featured a lovely circular wall built with native stone, coral and imported brick, but it was more sobering than charming -- especially considering the guidebook entry I'd read about a 1733 rebellion in which nearly 150 slaves died "in battle, by their own hand, or by torture and execution."

Some of the rebels, it turns out, had holed up for a while near Maho Bay.

A girl who might sail forever

Back in 21st-century Maho, the real world wasstarting to intrude. Lizzie had to leave a day early to get back to school. Deborah saw her off on the morning ferry to St. Thomas, extracting a promise that she'd text us from the various airports where she'd be touching down.

But Mona and I had one last excursion planned.

We had signed up for a sunset sail on the Pepper, a bright yellow 23-foot sloop that operates out of Maho Bay Camps. Fred and Renee, the Pepper's captain and crew, had traded snowy winters in Massachusetts and Minnesota for the kind of warm-weather midlife adventure -- buy a boat and sail for a living! -- that can set even a landlubber like me to dreaming the Caribbean dream.

In it, every sail is at sunset.

There's always enough wind.

And as you glide past islands with names such as Great Thatch and Whistling Cay, home to a charming ruin once used by guards to intercept escaping slaves, they are invariably bathed in golden light.

It didn't last long, my escapist fantasy, especially after Fred and Renee started talking about what they have to do to survive. They can't afford to buy a house: Rent and utilities are ludicrously high; and they were really, really excited about a job they just landed caretaking some rich people's vacation place.

Mona, meanwhile, was looking like a girl who might sail forever.

She couldn't, of course. All too soon, we would find ourselves wading back to Little Maho beach and climbing those 118 steps. In Washington, college mail would be waiting, and in six months, like her sister, she would be gone. But as I watched her lean into the breeze in that golden Caribbean light, it seemed foolish to worry about what a return to mainland reality would bring.

Look what we'd gained, after all, since the last time we came home from Maho Bay.

Bob Thompson is a former staff writer and editor for The Washington Post. He can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.


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