Maho Bay Camping in St. John, USVI: Exclusively for Drunk Hippies?

The day I went online to book an “eco-tent cottage” at St. John’s legendary Maho Bay Campground, I didn’t think my fiancĂ© was pregnant. But a few weeks later when we got to St. John and checked in, two different 99% accurate pee-on test sticks had us calling each other mommy and daddy.

It was her first time being exposed to my adventure-oriented (read: cheap) travel philosophy. And she had put up with my antics unbelievably well to this point–especially for a stereotypically crabby pregnant lady. The middle-of-nowhere studio apartment we rented on St. Thomas was fine with her. Eating grocery store food on our balcony instead of going out for lobster tail was fine with her. And she was perfectly okay with renting the Chevy Aveo instead of the Jeep Cherokee.

But even though she didn’t say anything right away, I could tell within ten seconds of forcing open our flimsy wooden eco-door that this Maho Bay thing wasn’t going to fly. And I couldn’t blame her.

For the unfamiliar, Maho Bay Campground is a environmentally-friendly alternative to hotels. There is an always-present emphasis–even an insistence–on Maho Bay’s extremely low environmental impact. Also, you can take glass blowing classes. Basically, it’s a place for hippies who accidentally end up in the Virgin Islands. It’s also a place for cheap dicks like me because the eco-tent cottages are only about $90 a night during the low season, and they come with a propane stove so you don’t have to eat out 3 times a day.

If the internet is your only reference, you’ll envision Maho Bay like this: a lot of attractive white couples kick back on their spotless eco-balcony and watch the sunset (while being enthusiastically conscious of the environment and its delicate balance.) If you want a more realistic vision, picture a maze of wooden buildings connected by ten million wooden stairs in a mountainside jungle. If it happens to be the low season (mid-summer through early fall) then all of the aforementioned wood will be damp and moldy and extremely slippery. There’s also a lot of lizards, soldier crabs, birds, and stray cats.

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Back in our little slice of this jungle, my fiancĂ©’s first attempt at getting out was in the form of a joke that I knew wasn’t actually a joke. She made a crack about the lizards giving our unborn child salmonella. While contracting a raw chicken disease from this tent wasn’t my first concern, I didn’t find the joke funny. Salmonella or not, a 3-to-2 lizard-to-human ratio is unacceptable to me in a $30 per night rental, much less a rental three times that. As a side note, humans did beat huge-ass creepy spiders with a ratio of 2-to-1, but I digress…

The woman’s second point was less humorous but even more valid. Because of her pregnancy, she had to pee a lot (particularly at night.) And because one doesn’t get one’s own eco-bathroom for 90 bucks a night, one has to walk up and down a bunch of the moldy, slippery death stairs to relieve oneself at the community restroom/shower facility. (These feature no-flush urinals, because letting your piss rot in a little plastic filter has minimal environmental impact!)

Once I walked the 10,000 steps to registration and upgraded us to one of Maho Bay’s Harmony Studio units she finally admitted that she had pretty much flat-out hated it. Even then, she tried to remain upbeat: “I’m sure I’d like it if I wasn’t pregnant and I could just drink all day long!”

Then I instantly understood: Maho Bay is a place for drunk hippies. If we had been drunk hippies, a Maho Bay eco-cottage would have been the end-all be-all of living arrangements. But we weren’t drunk hippies… we were a pregnant girl and some dude with questionable decision-making skills and a shaky credit score.

The Harmony Studios (conveniently located about 1,000 miles up the mountainside staircase labyrinth from registration) are basically eco-tents with real walls and private bathrooms. The stove is still propane, there’s no television, you’re expected to clean up after yourself, and your room is still inexplicably overrun by mosquitoes and ants (though the lizard-to-human ration is significantly improved.) All for only $100+ per night!

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Maho Bay also has an on-site restaurant. But it’s not that good and it’s not that much cheaper than going into Cruz Bay and getting a huge plate of delicious local cuisine (I strongly recommend Uncle Joe’s Barbecue.) Plus, you can get liquor in town whereas Maho Bay only allows beer and wine.

As far as the staff goes, the vast majority were friendly and competent. But there are probably a lot of friendly, competent folks over at the Wyndham too. And–although nobody was anything close to aggressively unpleasant to us–we did get an extremely weird vibe of cliquishness among the staff. As if we didn’t belong there (which, in retrospect, we probably didn’t.) I don’t want to say that we felt outright unwelcome, but it was something close to that. Maybe they suspected us of not minimizing our environmental impact, I don’t know. But I do know that we probably wouldn’t have experienced that at the Wyndham.

To ice the cake, Maho Bay has a rule that all guests must sweep the floor before they check out. Seriously. I pay $100 per night and they make me do the housekeeping? It’s borderline mind-blowing. When I pay $100 per night to stay somewhere, I want somebody coming to my room with icy drinks and calling me “sir” at a moments notice… not some lazy hippie telling me to sweep his floor before I leave.

I know what’s going to happen next… I’m going to get a million comments on this article from angry part-time tree-huggers who think I just “don’t get it.” Trust me, I do. I understand–even appreciate–the concept behind the Maho Bay business model. It’s a great concept. It’s the execution of the concept that blows.

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A fellow traveler told us that the place “used to be nice”, and that it was becoming run-down and crappy because nobody was sure if they were even going to renew the lease this year. That would explain a lot.

Still, I can’t help but feel like I missed something–some integral part of the whole Maho Bay “thing.” The place has been showered with awards, even in recent years. The Travel Channel featured it on “America’s Best Beaches.” Caribbean Travel & Life readers gave it a “Best of the Caribbean” award. The New York Times called it “the best value in the Caribbean.” Having been there myself, I find it extremely hard to swallow any of these accolades as being anything more substantial than trendy praise for anything that defines itself by environmental friendliness. Even I’m guilty of thinking the whole “save the environment” upsurge is pretty cool sometimes. But it’s a hell of a lot less cool when you’re actually there, “saving the environment” by bunking up with lizards and spiders in a moldy shack.

So in closing, I’ll just try to leave you with the same “ewwwww” feeling that I left Maho Bay with. When I woke up for check out on our last morning at the Harmony Studios, there was a dead lizard crushed to the mattress underneath my stomach. Maybe that could be used as a metaphor for my whole Maho Bay experience, but I want to wrap this up because my computer is emitting too many greenhouse gases.