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

By Bob Thompson
Sunday, May 16, 2010; W18

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.

The unreal world

Lying on St. John's beaches was the agreed purpose of our Caribbean expedition -- along with avoiding various aspects of the real world. The trip was Mona's idea originally. A high school senior who had dealt impressively with college application stress all year, she wanted nothing to do with being home the week the fat and thin letters trickled in.

"I want to be at the beach," she'd said. It seemed like a fine idea to the rest of us, including Lizzie, who'd survived her own bout with admissions madness a year before.

On our first full St. John day, we packed books and a lunch and headed north to Francis Bay Beach. In the afternoon, I walked up a short, dusty trail east of the bay. It was my hope, later in the week, to get in a longer hike: Virgin Islands National Park occupies more than 60 percent of St. John, and I remembered an immensely satisfying day Deborah and I spent walking to the far corner of the island.

What would it be like to retrace those steps?

And to return to Mona's question: What had it been like to see the world as childless 30-somethings in 1988?

Deborah was 38; I was 37. We'd been together for three years, and we knew we were going to get married sometime. We also knew that if we wanted kids, we'd need to get going.

We didn't know when the wedding would happen. (I was divorced and shy of a repeat ceremony.) We didn't know if the kid-having plan was going to work, much less what it would mean if it didn't. And we didn't know how long Deborah's mother, who had cancer, was likely to be around.

At some point, we called home and got news about that. It wasn't good. The wedding question became more urgent: Were we going to have it while she could still come?

Somehow -- I can't recall the details of the conversations -- we decided to get married in a matter of weeks.

It was a tense moment for me, and it would be easy to leap to conclusions about why my memory of it fails. But those conclusions would be wrong, I think, because there's so much else about that 1988 trip that one or both of us can't remember.

Why did we choose Maho Bay in the first place? Someone must have recommended it, but we can't say who or when. Where was the tent cabin we stayed in? All we know is that, unlike A-18, it lacked an ocean view; had an isolated, jungly feel; and was surrounded by tiny, yellow-breasted birds called bananaquits.

Did we rent a car? My memory said no. Then Deborah reminded me about the hitchhiker we picked up who told us that her parents had moved to St. John with a group of other people traumatized by the Cuban missile crisis.

And where, exactly, did we go on that wonderful hike?

I thought I knew.

'Okay, it's less warm'

The next day we got up early, hoping to go snorkeling at Trunk Bay. No such luck -- the swells were too big, and by the time we arrived, park rangers had closed Trunk's famous snorkeling trails -- but we didn't care. We were at the beach!

Mona and her mother built a multi-turreted sand castle while Lizzie and I read and dozed. "We would love to invite you to come see it before it gets destroyed by forces natural or otherwise," Mona said, mimicking a talk on coral reef ecology we'd attended at the camp the night before. We roused ourselves to do so.

Eventually, we tested the water. A ranger had advised that broken bones, not drowning, were the worst-case scenario under the day's conditions. We managed to stay whole, perhaps because we didn't really try to swim.

Floating was satisfying enough.

A day later we found a more sheltered beach, on Leinster Bay, and put our rented snorkel gear to use.

Snorkeling is one of the great joys of St. John, as I'd learned in 1988. I'd forgotten the simple technique involved, but it soon came back, and we stalked brilliantly colored fish along the rocky shoreline. With the girls immersed in books again, Deborah and I ventured farther out, where we marveled at the sea turtle that our likable beach neighbors -- another two-daughter family, from Oregon -- had told us we'd find.

The hiking map I'd purchased promised ruins atop a nearby hill, and I couldn't resist checking them out. Soon I was standing alone at one of those astonishing viewpoints -- looking northwest toward Tortola and the other British Virgins -- that make tourists think: Wouldn't it be fabulous to live here?

We'd thought this before. In 1988, we briefly discussed buying St. John land. We had no children and good jobs, so I guess it could have been more than fantasy, but we never got as far as pricing anything.

Why not, the girls asked?

Transportation costs, we told them. Plus the fact that a few months later, we did something almost as impractical: We bought a run-down farmhouse in western Maine. The lesson here, clearly, is that childless people shouldn't be trusted with discretionary income. But we've never regretted the decision. The Maine house became a place where, unlike our city neighborhood, the girls could wander freely outdoors. There, too, for at least a few weeks a year, family time trumped work obligations.

The house made trips such as the current one rare and special: We seldom went on vacations other than to Maine. When we did, the girls turned out to be the kind of traveling companions who patiently endured 18-hour driving marathons, happily climbed claustrophobic cathedral stairs and cheerfully scarfed exotic seafood in out-of-the-way Venetian neighborhoods.

It was hard for us to accept that our days with them were approaching an end.

On St. John, I found myself drinking in their every move. Here was Lizzie, the girl who'd inherited her grandfather's mountaineering gene, testing her night vision by eschewing a flashlight as she strode barefoot around Maho in the dark. Here was Mona, the lover of sunshine and warmth, making it clear why she wasn't applying to schools in Minnesota:

"It's cold," she complained, immersed in the bath-warm Caribbean as the sun ducked briefly behind a cloud.

"It is not," I insisted.

"Okay, it's less warm," came the prompt reply.

Here were the two of them, introducing their parents to key questions of contemporary pop culture, such as: Did one of the Jonas Brothers sleep with Taylor Swift? And if so, did that make the virginity pledge he allegedly later took -- Mona got this tidbit from one of the feminist magazines she reads -- invalid?

The Jonas Brothers?

"They have black hair and funny haircuts," Lizzie said. "I only know what they look like from bumper stickers."

Bumper stickers?

"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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