It might've been another rum-soaked day in paradise had I not bumped into an adventurous couple from New Jersey at my hotel on St. Thomas. Just back from Virgin Islands Ecotours' half-day hiking/snorkeling/kayaking excursion, they brimmed with enthusiasm. "We snorkeled over a whole colony of sea urchins," said he. "And there's a spot in the lagoon where we saw hundreds of fish congregate around the wreckage of a powerboat." It was a welcome endorsement. On an island best known as a cruise-ship port of call with an abundance of duty-free shopping, lavish resorts and tony restaurants, a trip to an undeveloped backcountry seemed like the perfect complement to days and nights of highly civilized vacationing.
The next morning I found myself at the mouth of the Inner Mangrove Lagoon, a protected marine sanctuary on St. Thomas' southeastern shore. Nearby St. John is generally considered the U.S. Virgin Islands' prime eco-destination, so I was stunned to discover a place as serene as this on St. Thomas – a secret Eden just a few miles east of the island's bustling capital city, Charlotte Amalie. After a briefing from our guide, Virgin Island Ecotours' gregarious Troy Willock, the group saddled up its flotilla of kayaks and paddled off through a dense mangrove forest that was teeming with life: Herons flew overhead, barracuda darted below and lizards clung to branches heavy with verdant foliage. I was pleased to be working up a sweat instead of working on my tan, and a pleasant 30-minute paddle brought us to the shores of craggy Cas Cay for a light hike. As we marched single file, Willock provided narration, his dreadlocks swaying from shoulder to shoulder as he led us under a thick canopy of sea grapes. "Virgin Islanders make jam from the fruit," he said, "and pirates used the leaves to scratch treasure maps." He buzzed with enthusiasm and information, telling us about the poisonous bark of the manchineel tree and a low-lying succulent plant called sea purslane with tiny star-shaped flowers, considered a cure for scurvy by old-time sailors, thanks to its high vitamin C content. At last, we stopped at a shaded camp for a well-deserved water break.
"The ground is moving!" exclaimed a tattooed mom from North Carolina. She wasn't the only one who thought so: I had to rub my eyes to be sure I wasn't seeing things. "They're hermit crabs," Willock announced. "It's time for today's race!
"He drew a circle in the sand, then instructed each of us to pick a crab and place it in the center. The crab that reached the edge of the ring first, he explained, would be the winner. After much deliberation we selected our contestants and watched as their pink claws pulled them toward the finish. The crowd went wild. My contender's future in professional crab-racing looked dim, but Troy assured us that he had a reward for everyone, win or lose. A short hike brought us face to face with a series of tidal pools nestled at the base of a sheer volcanic cliff; through a giant blowhole a torrent of white water shot overhead. Not a bad consolation prize.
We completed the day's ecological triple play with an open-water snorkeling tour. The view beneath was just as my pal from New Jersey had reported: I spotted a 4 1/2-foot barracuda and dozens of game fish and reef dwellers: French angels, porcupine puffers, squirrelfish, wrasses, damsels, grunts – you name it. I hovered over a bloom of upside-down jellyfish and watched them pulsate near the sea floor, then popped my head above the surface and yelled to Willock: "It's amazing!"
"You should see it on a good day!" he called back. It was tough, however, to imagine a better day than this. Seeing this side of St. Thomas was like being let in on a beautiful secret and given the opportunity to appreciate this cosmopolitan island in a whole new way.
Virgin Islands Ecotours
Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Three-hour half-day tours cost $79 for adults, $49 for children under 12; five-hour full-day tours run $133 for adults, $69 for kids under 12, or $15 for small children with two adults.