Water Island

Water Island, 3/4 mile off the coast from the harbor at Charlotte Amalie, is the fourth-largest island in the U.S. Virgins, with nearly 500 acres of land. Irregular in shape, 2 1/2-mile-long Water Island is filled with many bays and peninsulas, and studded with several good, sandy beaches along with secluded coves and rocky headlands. Established as the fourth U.S. Virgin Island in 1996, Water Island was once a part of a peninsula jutting out from St. Thomas, but a channel was cut through, allowing U.S. submarines to reach their base in a bay to the west.

At palm-shaded Honeymoon Beach, you can swim, snorkel, sail, water-ski, or sunbathe. The beach has been significantly improved in the past few years, as loads of rocks and gravel were hauled off and trees and brush removed. The sand was sifted to get rid of debris, and a dredge removed the seaweed and deposited white sand on the shore. Today it looks quite beautiful.

There is no commerce on the island -- no taxis, gas stations, hotels, shops, or even a main town. Residents are totally dependent on Charlotte Amalie, lying half a mile away. It you're planning on a visit, bring water and your own food supplies and other needs. Don't count on it, but there is often a food cart on Honeymoon Beach, serving surprisingly good meals, including an all-steak lunch.

Water Island Lore & History -- To the native residents of St. Thomas, Water Island remains a land of legend and lore, having been settled by the Arawak Indians in the early 15th century. In the days of Caribbean piracy, as evoked by Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the island was used for both anchorage and fresh water, as pirates found numerous freshwater ponds here. Islanders on St. Thomas claim that millions of dollars in pirate treasure remain buried on Water Island, but so far no one has dug it up. An old leather trunk was once discovered, but it was empty except for one gold doubloon.

When European colonization arrived in the late 17th century, many Danes tried to use the island for raising cows and goats. White plantation owners and colonists shunned the island because of its arid land, so unlike the rest of the Caribbean, Water Island was farmed by nonwhite plantation owners. These were freed men of color who operated the plantations, like Jean Renaud, a free mulatto who owned the entire island in 1769, working it with 18 slaves.

In 1944, the United States bought the island for $10,000. The military began planning Fort Segarra here but the war ended before it could be built. Traces of "the fort that never was" can still be seen today.

In 1950, the Department of the Interior leased the island to Water Phillips, a developer, for $3,000 annually. He built homes and a 100-room hotel. Popular in the 1950s, the hotel then became the setting for Herman Wouk's 1965 novel, Don't Stop the Carnival. That novel remains even today one of the best-selling novels ever written with a Caribbean setting. Incidentally, native residents of St. Croix claim that the novel was based on a hotel being built in the harbor of Christiansted. The novel was turned into a short-lived musical by Jimmy Buffet in 1997. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo severely damaged the hotel, and it was shut down. It lies dormant today. The lease Phillips signed ran out 3 years later, and in 1996, Water Island was transferred to the federal government, in whose hands it remains today.

At present (and likely to remain so for a long time to come), no foundations have been poured on Water Island. Nothing has been inaugurated. The cost of developing roads, irrigation, and sewage lines in this eco-sensitive environment is a daunting challenge and a dream that, for the immediate future, remains too expensive an undertaking.

A ferry (tel. 340/774-2255; www.viferries.com) runs between Crown Bay Marina and Water Island several times a day for $5 one-way, $10 round-trip (Crown Bay Marina is part of the St. Thomas submarine base). If you prefer a guided tour, check in with Water Island Adventures (tel. 340/714-2186; www.waterislandadventures.com). For $65 (cash only) per person, including transportation and equipment, a trip to Water Island includes a cycling tour. In the 3 1/2 hours of the tour, beach time is allowed. Departures are from the dock at Havensight Mall or Crown Bay Marina.

Hassel Island

In the same bay, and even closer to shore, is Hassel Island (www.hasselisland.org). This island is almost completely deserted, and is protected as part of a U.S. National Park, which prohibits most forms of development. There are no hotels or services of any kind here, and swimming is limited to narrow, rocky beaches. Even so, many visitors hire a boat to drop them off for an hour or two.

A hike along the shoreline is a welcome relief from the cruise-ship congestion of Charlotte Amalie. The island is riddled with some trails which can be traversed, taking you across gentle hills with dry woods, lots of plants, and plenty of cacti -- you'll think you're in the Arizona desert. Beach lovers head for the western shore, where they'll find white sands shaded by sea grapes. You can also explore the ruins of early-19th-century English fortifications and mid-19th-century shopping and coal stations. Bring water and food if you plan to spend more than 3 hours. The rather barren island has little shade, so dress accordingly and make sure you carry plenty of drinking water.

A small ferry runs from the Crown Bay Marina on St. Thomas to Hassel, costing $5 to $10 round-trip.

A Historical Adventure on Hassel Island -- You can have an offbeat adventure by exploring Hassel Island. Taking in some 136 acres, most of this island is protected as a Virgin Islands National Park.

This island, which was connected to the mainland of St. Thomas until 1865 (end of the Civil War) when a channel was dug for easier passages of ships, has a rich history. During the early 19th century's Napoleonic Wars, the British occupied the island, and the ruins of two forts that the troops constructed here, Willoughby and Shipley, can be seen today. You can explore these ruins.

Hassel Island was once used by the Danes to defend the port of Charlotte Amalie. In 1840, the Danes built a marine railway operation for boat and sail repairs. As late as the 1960s, the marine railway was still in operation. It was one of the earliest steam-powered marine railways in the Western Hemisphere, as well as the oldest surviving example of a steam-powered marine railway in the world.

In 1978, some 95% of Hassel Island was sold to the U. S. National Park Service by its owners, the Paiewonski family. For almost 30 years, the island sat untouched and deteriorating. Today some efforts are being made to restore the island as a living testimony to the historical heritage of St. Thomas.

St. John

An even better option is a day trip to St. John (www.stjohnusvi.com/ferry.html), home of the world-famous Trunk Bay Beach. To get there, you can take one of many ferry services. Boats depart from Charlotte Amalie at Vendors Plaza or, more frequently, from Red Hook, and arrive in St. John's Cruz Bay. The one-way fare is $7 for adults from Red Hook and $11 for adults from Charlotte Amalie. The fare for children 11 and under is $1. Near the access ramp of the pier in Cruz Bay, St. John, you'll find rows of independently operated taxis and their drivers, who will take you on a tour of the island. Independent-minded visitors can usually get a 4-hour guided tour for $60 (often shared with another passenger or two). Cruise-ship passengers are generally charged $50 for a 2-hour tour. A full day (7 hr.) is $75 (children 12 and under, $65). If you want to skip the tour of St. John and head right to the beach at Trunk Bay for the day, simply negotiate a fare with one of the taxi drivers at the pier. Be sure to arrange a time to be picked up at the end of the day, too. The cost of a one-way trip is usually $5 to $10 per person, depending on how much the cabby thinks he can get out of you (note that $10 is the most expensive charge).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.