St John and St Thomas: Virgin Islands hiking routesThursday, August 18, 2016 Hiking and Walking by Dakota R Whisler
“O’win, oko, o’win, oko, o’win, oko” the cadence of the oars digging into the emerald green waters brings a whisper of change across the sea. The beat grows ever faster and faster as their target nears. “O’win, oko, o’win, oko”. There will be a feast this night. “O’win, oko, o’win, oko”. This raid will mark either the end for the Caribs or their foreign invaders who have come to claim these islands. Cries go out to their gods, to the pa’u – the island, the palana – the sea, and to a’talɨ, the cave. Fire shoots out of the side of the giant wooden beast – a galleon, and the chants fade away to jovial music.
The Caribbean has a deeply rich culture, defined by countless battles between the cannibalistic Caribs, the peaceful Arawaks and Tainos, and the countless European powers that fought over each and every rock in the ocean for hundreds of years. In-between these great battles men and women struggled to survive, slaves fought for their freedom. And they all sang, and danced and made these desolate rocks, alone in the ocean, their homes. They would protect these homes with a fierce pride, great enough to drive off vast armadas, and pirate fleets, even at times using one to fight the other.
The modern experience is nowadays quite different. Rum and Piña Coladas, jewelry, cigars, snorkeling and sunburns are the most culture that one gets on a Virgin Islands vacation, and for most, that’s all that they could ever want, but for a select few, adventure can still be found.
Saint Thomas, the US Virgin Islands
The Island of St.Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands is where I was born and raised until I moved to the continental United States. The main port Charlotte Amalie, named after the Danish queen Charlotte Amalie of Hesse-Kassel (1650–1714), is a bustling center of trade that caters to tourists enjoying themselves on a cruise or staying at one of the many hotels on the island. This small port town will be our first stop to find some of the many ruins in the islands.
From right in the Harbor we can find our first ruin, Fort Shipley. Fort Shipley is not actually on St. Thomas but on Hassel island, a small island that was once connected to St. Thomas by an isthmus. The Danish government first separated Hassel Island from the main island in 1860 and Fort Shipley are the remnants of an old fort built by the British during their occupation of the islands during the Napoleonic Wars (1801-1815).
There are a few tours that will take you there for around $60-$100 but the island can just as easily be reached by boat or kayak (my preferred method). My grandfather always said that we came to the Caribbean on a pirate ship, and when kayaking you really get a taste of what is was like back then as the wind blows through your hair and salt of the ocean washes over you. Traveling so close to the water gives you a perspective akin to that of the first travelers to this region.
The island is small but offers some great views of the harbor and the historic French Town west of the Charlotte Amillie’s main harbor. If you headed out early in the morning and are starting to feel a bit hungry, the French Town deli can be seen from Hassel Island.
Once you have made your way around the ruins and have thoroughly explored Hassel Island, your next stop is to Neltjeberg Bay on the North Side of the island. Neltjeberg Bay can be reached by boat, or by foot (or by car if you know a good mechanic).
The trail to Neltjeberg are on the north side of the island, and the roads on St.Thomas aren’t well marked. Anybody on St.Thomas will be happy to give you directions, though those directions may be along the lines of “go over the hill, drive past Drake’s Seat keep going until the road forks, go down the hill, turn left at the surfboards towards Dorothea and then the Neltjeberg road is on the right”. As a local finding new places is admittedly confusing for me still, but getting lost and following inexact directions just adds to the adventure.
Neltjeberg Bay grounds are surrounded by historic ruins of the Neltjeberg Plantation. These ruins date from the Danish sugar plantation era (1690), when sugar cane was transformed into molasses and rum. The hike down to Neltjeberg from the main road takes about 35 minutes going down and twice that going back up, as the way is quite steep.
Once you have finished exploring the ruins of Neltjeberg Bay you can relax on the beach, only a few feet away. People sometimes camp out on the beach at Neltjeberg but on most days you will have the beach all to yourself.
St.Thomas is constantly being developed and land is being bought up everywhere so it isn’t certain how long these ruins will be left standing.
The next stop on the adventure is to the neighboring Island of St.John.
Saint John island
St.John can be reached by boat, barge or ferry. They leave from the east end of St.Thomas and take you across to St.John’s only settlement, Cruz Bay. Outside of Cruz Bay, the rest of St.John is part of the national parks system and is filled with old ruins and hiking trails.
One of the most famous ruins and walking tours on St.John starts at Cinnamon Bay, you can walk or bike there, but the easiest way to go is to pay a few dollars for a Safari Bus that will take you around the island and will let you off at either end of the trail head.
Cinnamon Bay was one of the most prosperous sugar cane plantations on the island. The cane’s juice was squeezed out between iron rollers powered by a horse mill, then flowed into a boiling room. In 1903, the Danish West India Plantation Company bought Cinnamon Bay and began growing bay rum trees to produce bay leaf oil, which was used in popular colognes and lotions known as St. John Bay Rum.
While on your hike, don’t be afraid to pluck some of the bay rum leaves. West Indian bay leaves are thick and shiny. The darker the leaves, the more mature and robust the flavor of the bay leaf. In the Caribbean they are used in a variety of teas and recipes, but my favorite way to use them is in Hot Cocoa. Just put a few leaves in the bottom of your cup and it adds a whole new deepness to the flavor.
Reef Bay Hike
Some other famous ruins can be found on the Reef Bay trail. This short 2-3 hour walking tour takes you deeper into the island’s forests, past waterfalls and ancient Taino petroglyphs predating the arrival of Columbus in the Islands.
The Reef Bay Hike ends with the well preserved Reef Bay Sugar Mill.
In 1864, William Marsh, then the manager of the plantation, purchased the operation at public auction. In 1855, the mill was converted to steam power after slavery was outlawed on the island, and by the early 1900’s, this plantation stretched was thriving and stretched across the valley.
In 1908, a fifteen-year-old girl was crushed in these gears, which caused many of the local to believe that the mill was haunted. The mill and plantation eventually fell into disuse and was sold to the Rockefeller’s conservation project in 1955.
Finally, no trip to St.John is complete without a visit to the Annaberg sugar plantation.
Annanberg sugar plantation
Established in 1718, can be found on a hill overlooking the bay and although not hidden in the jungle or at the end of a hike, Annaberg is the largest plantation structure on St.Johnas of 1780, was one of 25 active sugar producing factories on St. John.
A trail leads through factory ruins, slave quarters, windmill and other remains. Placards and signs along the trails describe how sugar was produced and discuss plantation life and the history behind sugar plantations on St. John and in particular Annaberg.
The windmill at Annaberg, one of the focal points of the site, was built possibly between 1810 and 1830, and was one of the largest in the islands.
Other activities in The Virgin Islands
Hiking around these islands can be very tiring. Between the humidity the lack of shade in many places and the bugs, I always feel deserving of a treat. On my way back to Cruz Bay I always stop at Colombo’s Famous Smoothies. Cheap, fresh, and friendly, Colombo’s is always a great treat after a long day of hiking through ruins. You can also get your smoothie with locally made Cruzan Rum.
If you have more time in the United States the Virgin Islands enjoy all of the many other hikes and tours, go snorkeling, kayaking, boating, and diving and live life to the fullest. Adventure is always waiting just around the corner, it just needs to be found. If you enjoyed the ruins on St.Thomas and St.John, hop on a quick 30-minute flight over to the big island of Puerto Rico and check out the Camuy Caves, the El Yunque rainforest or the petroglyphs in El Cavverna del Indio. Take a look at El Murro and the Castillo San Cristóbal in old San Juan.
Having grown up in the Virgin Islands I can tell you that each island is rich with history and culture that most people just pass right over. The British Virgin Islands are right next door and I would recommend the Baths on Virgin Gorda to anyone who is traveling around the region. You can just keep island hopping down through the Dutch and French West Indies all the way down to South America. Once you’re there, check out the great adventures there. The Mayans has a wonderfully interesting culture and we’ve actually covered them a bit already – Mayan ruins and Mayan temples – Chichen Itza, Coba, and Tulum.
Oh, and one last thought. The Virgin Islands are now actively promoting friendliness and helpfulness towards foreigners and tourists, so don’t be worried to ask some of the locals where to find more things to do and see, it’s our honor and responsibility to do so.