Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Maho Bay Camps, St. John, USVI: 
Summer Camp For Adults

On the advice of friends who like adventurous travel as much as we do, we booked a week at the unique Maho Bay Camps in the middle of the St. John National Park (U. S. Virgin Islands). Our two kids in tow (ages 13 and 8, and seasoned travelers who also like adventures), we arrived on St. John a few days before Christmas.

We knew that the camp would be a bit primitive, but my first impressions were poor.  I admit that I tend to find fault where others may not when it comes to travel, and this experience was no exception.  My feelings about and for Maho Bay Camps evolved from one end of the spectrum (dislike) to the other (like) over the course of our week.  Here is a sampling of what I wrote to friends via my BlackBerry from beginning to end:

"We are in a small, primitive tent cabin for 7 nights in Maho Bay Camp, St. John, USVI in the middle of the national park. Things are FAR from perfect or even tolerable, especially for $170/nt (high season rates). Power keeps going out, monsoon rains deluge us, louts in nearby tents are yelling & screaming until 2a without regard for their neighbors, & prices for everything exceed those in Tahiti, for God's sake. The electricity was constant there, too, unlike here. And this is only our second morning. Wish we could fly home today, quite honestly.

"We are below the driveway - tent B10. Power was on & off all night. It rained so hard & so long (from 9p until after 4a) that I thought the monsoon had come.

"None of that bothered us that much. But by far the most irritating problem were the loud drunks (all young) in nearby tents who were talking & laughing at the top of their lungs until after 130a. If this happens again, we will have to move because the Maho Bay Camps staff obviously don't police it.

"Toilets are a long way away. And now the power is out (again) all over the island. They say it's not uncommon to lose power & that it is not likely to be back on until tomorrow some time. The entire island is dark. Not pleasant for what we are paying. Seems like Venezuela where I paid $10/nt & didn't care if the power went off for that price.
"EXPENSIVE! More so than even Moorea. We are eating kid meals tonight (chicken tenders) to avoid another hundred dollar very ordinary dinner here at the camp like last night. A 5-hour combo sail and snorkeling trip on the sloop "Pepper" cost us $380 today. Didn't see many fish but enjoyed the sailing & their rum!

"Walked down the aptly-named f***ing Goat Trail to Big Maho Bay for a stiff sundowner - beautiful! But then had to drag my fat ass back up the Goat Trail in the dark while half lit - not so fun. I like the many stairs and boardwalks in the camp per se, but not the treacherous, slimy, slippery, muddy Goat Trail. 

"Forgot to mention that the rain was so intense at times that it seeped through the membrane of the tent & splattered me in the face as I lay on my back in the pitch black darkness (because the power was out again) marveling at the torrent. 100 percent humidity means our wet stuff is still wet after being hung up to dry overnight (inside, of course). 

"All these experiences are tolerable or even pleasant except the sleep deprivation caused by loud neighbors.  
[Author's note:  To their credit, Maho Bay Camp staff patrolled our area the following night and kept things quiet after the 10:00 PM quiet time cutoff.]

"Snorkeling is FABULOUS EVERYWHERE!  We snorkeled at 9 different locations here & all were memorable (Little Maho Bay, Big Maho Bay, Trunk Bay, Hawksnest Bay, Francis Bay, Mary Point, Leinster Bay, Waterlemon Cay & Whistling Cay).

"A close-up of Little Maho Bay. Way in the background is Tortola, British Virgin Islands & in the foreground is a good view of the yellow sloop "Pepper," a modern boat designed like a typical 19th century Virgin Island sailboat once in common use. We went sailing & snorkeling on this boat. 

"We snorkeled from Little Maho Bay to Big Maho Bay & return this PM & saw an great variety of fish & 4 large green turtles, the turtles not 3 ft below us feeding on grass. Rented a car today to give us freedom to go to Waterlemon Bay, Trunk Bay, & other great snorkeling spots on St. John. Love the island!

"Had a superb pork ribs lunch this noon at Uncle Joe's Barbecue in Cruz Bay washed down by a cold Presidente!

"We went snorkeling again at Trunk Bay this morning & on the reef off Annaberg (Leinster Bay) this afternoon.  Both excellent viewing but the water's still murky & a bit cold.

"Believe me, I am enjoying the rum. 

"The common ablution block that contains the toilets is a long hike up many flights of stairs on the boardwalk built through the forest.  But I don't know why I bother traipsing up there at night.  I was told by several guys that the heavy nightly rains hide the sound of relieving themselves over the side of the deck onto the forest floor in the wee hours after too much rum.  I'll bet that makes the iguanas scurry away in a hurry.

"Vie's Snack Shack at East End today for lunch ($12 for conch fritters, $10 for scrumptious garlic fried chicken with rice & beans and Johnny cake) after swimming all morn at Trunk Bay (we got there early & beat the crowds). Also downed 2 Presidente pilsners at lunch. Now to Big Maho before sunset for more snorkeling. Bad news: Shelia's Pot in Cruz Bay has closed, along with her T shirts. They ran all the ladies selling stuff out of the dockside parking lot. 

"We found the Lime Inn Restaurant in Cruz Bay & had a wonderful lunch of shrimp cocktail (our 8 year old daughter consumed 2 orders), spicy peel'n'eat shrimp (Ruth & I each had an order), 2 beers, a Mojito, & 2 desserts. Total came to $99 before tip!.  And the Lime Inn is a modest place!  I was shocked.

We chatted with owner Chris Meyer who told us she & her husband started the Lime Inn Restaurant 27 yrs ago, making it the oldest in Cruz Bay. She told us Sheila (of Sheila's Pot fame) only cooks now during Carnivale.

"I've never been through so many hundred dollar bills so fast.  The C-notes are flying out of my pocket to pay for every meal.  Good thing I brought a wad of cash.

"Everything here is out of sight except for the rum.  Booze is dirt cheap.  Example:  I bought 2 large bottles of premium Mount Gay Rum (made in Barbados) for $25.

"As much as I hate to admit it, Maho Bay Camps, in the middle of Virgin Island National Park (Laurence Rockefeller donated 2/3s of St. John to make up the Park in 1956), is wonderful. Yes, it is primitive (beyond rustic), in fact very much like an adult summer camp, but the primitivo aspects have grown on Ruth & me (more so than the kids, who miss having an in-cabin toilet & shower).  In fact we have moved from dislike to ambivalence to adoration of the natural beauty of the camp. 

"We were sold on the island (St. John) the first day. This place is idyllic. But it took us most of the week to become enamored with Maho Bay Camps, & we are hoping to come back in low season (June) when rates are $80/nt as opposed to $170/nt now in high season. 

"We've had a wonderful time on St. John & can't wait to come back. But still can't get over the fact that food is outrageous: a modest breakfast this morning (before catching the ferry to St. Thomas) at an outdoor, somewhat seedy local restaurant in Cruz Bay (main town on St. John) was $68 before adding a tip. Gas is $4.40/gal. which isn't too bad considering. Our 4WD Dodge Nitro rental car was $90/day including tax.

"At St. Thomas airport to go home, I was also surprised to be asked for documented proof that our kids were our kids. Good thing I brought our passports despite assurances that passports are not necessary here in the U. S. Virgin Islands. Home a bit after midnight if our Delta flights are on time."

So that's the story.  We ended up liking Maho Bay Camps very much, but it is definitely an acquired taste.  Each tent is made of wood suspended off the forest floor and has basic electricity for lights, as well as a box fan.  There were 2 receptacles in our tent cabin, one of which I used to charge my BlackBerry.  The roof appeared to be a plasticized canvas stretched tightly over the wood frame of the small cabin.  Each tent cabin comes with 2 single beds that can be pushed together, plus a rustic sofa that be made into a bed.  We also had a fold-out cot and mattress for our youngest.

Each cabin at Maho has its own small porch or deck with a clothesline for drying things out (when it's not raining).  It rained six nights out of seven, but never during the day (just like my experience of living for several months in Hawaii.)  Every tent cabin comes with dishes and silverware, a Coleman cooler (you buy the ice to keep things cold), and a propane Coleman camp stove that worked well.

Tent cabin life above the forest floor in the National Park reminded me of the Disney movie "Swiss Family Robinson" (for readers old enough to recall that classic).  The weather was mid-eighties days and mid-seventies nights.  We needed only the sheet and a light cover to stay comfortable and sleep well.

The Maho Bay Camps restaurant was very good.  The chef came from a well-known Cruz Bay restaurant.  We enjoyed delicacies like duck on Christmas Day.  Breakfasts were delicious.  Prices at the restaurant were like food prices everywhere on the island: through the roof but no worse (or better) than anywhere else.

There are many activities (sailing, scuba, snorkeling, etc.) offered at Maho, just like any top-rated resort.  The Maho Bay staff are well-trained and eager to make guests happy.  We didn't encounter even one sourpuss among them.

Parking for rental cars brought in by guests is free and adequate.

The views from Maho Bay Camp can't be beat, even at the luxurious Caneel Bay Resort.  Being in the middle of the national park overlooking Little Maho Bay and Big Maho Bay with its own private access direct to both world-class beaches and world-class coral reef snorkeling spots gives the camp a tremendous advantage, proving the old real estate adage that it's all about "location, location, location."  We adjusted to the rusticity because we looked all over the island and could not beat the location!

Here's what a local real estate agent told me about the camp and St. John when I complained during the first few days:

"Don't blame the island, mon.  Maho Bay Camps is a taste to be acquired, although not by me. ... It's true the power outages have been bad for the past six months and there has been lots of rain (payback, I guess, for a mild hurricane season.)"

Despite the bad start, we are now hooked on St. John.  We are definitely planning to return in June or July (assuming we can find good airfares).  After I've had a few days to reflect on our experience--we just got home late last night--I will write a few more impressions and details.  Overall, though, our advice about St. John is: Go!

Happy New Year!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like the worst nightmare to me. Natural beauty can be enjoyed without such horrid conditions. Compliments to you that you came away with a positive attitude. One last thing: peeing outside with ease is one of the many advantages men have. The toilet situation sounds like a giant disaster

12/30/2011 9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a few suggestions from a seasoned traveler to St. John and Maho Bay:

First, next time stop at the large grocery store at Red Hook on St. Thomas before you head to St. John and do a week's worth of shopping (that is what most St. Johnians do) so you can enjoy cooking your meals at your campsite when you are not in the mood or don't want to spend the money eating out or at the restaurant at MBC.

Second, if you are bothered by nearby neighbors who are noisy - just ask them to pipe down or let the MBC staff know so they can take action right away.

Third, the X-Mas vacation time is always at the end of the rainy season so bring ponchos with you so you can go out and about without getting drenched, enjoy a few good bottles of Cruzian with neighbors at your campsite if you have to "dig in" - and remember that the water is always warm even when it is raining lightly so enjoy a swim!

Last, have you ever heard of a CHAMBER POT? very handy when not wanting to climb the stair at MBC. Just take a large plastic bowl/container with you that has a lid in your suitcase, then empty in the facilities in the morning - you can then boil up a little water on the gaz stove and rinse it out.

Have a great time on your next trip to Maho, glad you changed your mind.

1/01/2012 5:33 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Thank you for your very helpful suggestions and advice, all valuable and much appreciated. We will take it next time we go, and we are planning to return to Maho Bay Camps in June for another week.

1/01/2012 6:35 PM  

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