A tent with a view: Isle eco-tourism pleases - and preserves

In the throes of travel exhaustion and in the heat of the blazing midday Caribbean sun, I stared blankly at the gleaming, long, and slender fish snapping at pieces of discarded food under my dangling feet.

"You ever seen a barracuda before?" inquired the amiable ferry-dock worker, throwing cut-up fish in the direction of the sizeable sea creature.

A barracuda? No, I hadn't seen one. But less than two days later, floating over one of St. John's glorious coral reefs in Maho Bay, I was getting accustomed to face-to-face encounters with fierce-faced juvenile great barracudas and smaller, similar-appearing (but altogether harmless) southern sennets.

The smallest and least densely populated of the three major islands that make up the unincorporated territories of the US Virgin Islands, St. John is the kind of place that seems to insist upon a tranquil, mindful approach to daily life.

Northeast from Cinnamon Bay and up an even steeper, unpaved dirt road are the jointly operated Maho Bay Camps and Harmony Studios,favorite destinations of travelers in search of an earth-friendly vacation that winds up giving new meaning to the term "creature comforts."

Enveloped by uncut, untamed flora and fauna, the Maho Bay Camps and Harmony Studios (and their sister resorts, Estate Concordia and the Concordia eco-tents on the southeastern side of St. John) are the expanded legacies of an eco-tourism project that began in 1976, when environmentally aware tourism guru Stanley Selengut oversaw the design of 18 tent cottages with minimal impact on their surroundings.

Today, Maho Bay Camps includes 114 family-friendly tent cottages, with the addition of newer construction of the slightly more expensive and spacious Harmony Studios, which are perched high enough on the hill to provide enviable views of Maho Bay.

Joined together by three miles of elevated, wooden walkways over 14 acres, Maho's cozy, sparsely furnished tent cottages and studios were constructed with recycled plastics, glass, metals, newspaper, and clay scraps. The more upscale Harmony Studios offer bigger kitchens, complete with "solar fridge," microwaves, and two-burner propane stoves.

The Harmony Studios are also notable for utilizing low-flow toilets and showers, as well as passive solar design and photovoltaics.

On the downside, Harmony's aging solar-electricity-generating equipment appears to be in acute need of repair: Despite attention to minimizing power usage and a constant supply of sunny days, most of Harmony's guests - myself included - experienced serious and unpredictable water/power outages throughout our stay.

But what the Harmony Studios and Maho Bay Camps lack in luxury, they make up in atmosphere. The feeling is one of a harmonious relationship to the natural surroundings, which are made up of black mampoo trees, fanlike broom palms, fiddlewood, and fish poison trees, among other exotic varieties.

Composting and on-site aluminum/glass recycling (including an artistic glass-blowing enterprise that visitors are invited to observe) are integral aspects of the Maho Bay Camps experience.

What's more, the forest's various denizens greet travelers at every turn: Pearly-eyed thrashers, yellow-breasted bananaquits, geckos, color-changing anoles, tree frogs, and the occasional iguana can be spotted throughout the grounds.

At night, the unlit grounds darken and quieten down, save for each evening's brilliant symphony of birds and crickets. More frequently than one would expect, I was treated to the additional orchestral contribution of agitated brays of wild donkeys right outside my door, as the slow-moving animals made their way up and down the adjacent dirt road.

The most consistently enjoyable snorkeling on the island was found right off Little Maho Beach. The beach itself is not much to look at. But breathtaking coral reefs on either end of the beach - which include the unforgettable, giant brain-coral formations - contain the true treasures of this part of St. John.

In the space of an hour or two - drifting over the various coral formations - I glimpsed a spotted moray eel, partly sand-submerged stingrays, striped butterflyfish, angelfish, blue tang, squirrelfish, rainbow parrotfish, and, to my absolute delight, an endangered hawksbill turtle.

On the undeveloped southeastern tip of the island, I finally located Estate Concordia, Selengut's more recent eco-tourism project. Here, amid cactuses and thousands of hermit crabs, I opted for a stay in the cleverly designed Concordia eco-tents.

Each eco-tent is actually a spacious, two-story loft, operating on solar and wind energy (unlike the pricier Estate Concordia Studios, which are perched higher on the hill). To the left, they overlook the rocky coastline of Drunk Bay, and, to the right, crystal-clear Saltpond Bay.

The clean, airy eco-tents can accommodate up to six people; the newer units feature outdoor patio/dining areas, kitchens, efficient composting toilets, and ingenious, passive-solar-energy showers.

There are no on-site amenities to speak of at Estate Concordia, but its attentive staff and wonderfully remote hideaway location - and easy access to a number of uncrowded hiking trails and snorkeling bays - are truly the best features of this vacation spot.

At night, lulled to sleep by the sounds of Drunk Bay's crashing waves, bird calls, and the oddly soothing shuffle dance of the distant hermit crabs searching out their next meals, I could think of no place I had rather be.

r Call 800-392-9004 or see www.maho.org for reservations or more information about Maho Bay Camps/Harmony Studios or Estate Concordia/Concordia eco-tents. Be sure to inquire about the specific description of your unit, particularly at Estate Concordia, where there is less consistency in design and comfort in the studios.

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