Grab a kayak, and a dose of history, in St. Thomas
- Last Updated: 4:18 AM, December 2, 2012
- Posted: 5:08 PM, November 30, 2012
When it comes to a quick, easy Caribbean getaway, the US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix) are hard to beat — with American, United and Delta offering nonstop flights from the NYC area throughout the high season. This means you can go from winter chill to chilling on a beach in about four hours.
Of course, since it’s the Caribbean, you’ll be rewarded with picturesque white-sand beaches, a turquoise-tinged sea and warm breezes rustling the palm trees.
It’ll be hard, we know, but put down the piña colada and rouse yourself from the lounge chair, because there’s a slew of water sports awaiting: snorkeling, sailing, paddle boarding and kayaking among them.
And how about combining a couple of those activities with, say, a little history lesson? Yes, we know you didn’t fly to a tropical isle to bone up on high-school subjects, but the guided Virgin Islands Eco-tours’ Historic Hassel Island Kayak, Hike and Snorkel expeditions offer plenty of adventure — along with lots of cool factoids about what went down on the islands before they became a sun-worshippers’ paradise.
Hassel Island — an attractive, mostly uninhabited spit of land near the busy Charlotte Amalie Harbor — doesn’t look like much, but this tiny isle teems with history. Throughout the centuries, folks wanted to secure the harbor — it was an important entry point and stopover for ships in the Caribbean— and Hassel Island was a natural place to set up defenses.
The Danes first arrived in the 16th century, followed by the British in the early 1800s, who constructed forts and garrisons (as well as a leprosarium and a hospital). Then in 1917, the US took over and built naval facilities used throughout World Wars I and II. (Hassel was also occupied briefly, earlier this year, by the cast of “The Real World: St. Thomas,” who stayed in one of the island’s few private homes.)
I saw several of these historic structures on my three-hour tour, which kicked off with a relatively easy, 20-minute paddle that landed our group on the part of the island facing the inner harbor. A steep climb led us to the ruins of a Colonial-era British garrison, which included an old cemetery, a cistern, scattered shards of pottery and a clearing with spectacular views of neighboring St. Thomas.
Post-climb, we strapped on snorkeling equipment and had barely swum a few yards from shore before all sorts of creatures started popping up along the reef: sea anemones, colorful tropical fish, a school of big-eyed squid traveling together in an orderly line. (Best of all, we were the only ones out there, and since the group was small, I effectively had my very own, very knowledgeable snorkeling guide.)
Then it was back in the kayaks, where we made our way over to the island’s Creque Marine Railway, an incredible feat of mid-19th-century engineering whereby ships (some weighing hundreds of tons) were hauled from the water for repair and maintenance. You can wander all around the site, where much of the facility still remains and is being restored: the slip’s thick steel rails, the enormous steam-powered winch and flywheel, giant random pieces of machinery. In the grass, you can spot rusty anchors, an antique diving bell (it resembles a big upside-down flower pot) and even the shell of a MASH-era jeep.
Should you prefer to experience Hassel Island completely by sea rather than on foot, you can do that, too. But don’t paddle around in just any old boat; opt for a see-through kayak, entirely molded in clear polycarbonate and mounted with LED lights. Clear Discoveries offers this nighttime kayak trip, in the harbor, in the shadow of Hassel Island, daily. On the 1½-hour tour, you can expect to see plenty of fish — glide right over ’em and just look down! — possibly a stingray or sea turtle, and even a sunken cannon or two. And even if you don’t spot much underwater life, it’s a peaceful (and unique) way to spend an evening.
But the easiest option is to stay someplace where all sorts of water activities are available right outside your hotel room. The Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas offers its guests free unlimited use of kayaks, paddle boards, snorkeling equipment, windsurfers, Hobie cats and more — and you can set off right from the resort’s beach. Or, just book a sail on the Lady Lynsey, the Ritz-Carlton’s luxury catamaran, where you can lay back and let someone else do all the work.
Virgin Islands Ecotours offers daily three-hour ($99/person) and five-hour ($143/person with lunch) tours, all equipment provided. 877-845-2925; www.viecotours.com
Clear Discoveries offers daily nighttime kayak tours at 7 p.m. Single and double kayaks are available. $45/person. 340-774-2990; www.cleardiscoveries.com
Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas has rooms from $419. The Discover With You package, valid through Dec. 31, includes room, breakfast for two, a $100 hotel credit and private sailing lesson for two, starting at $449/night. www.ritzcarlton.com