May 5, 2002 – The clear blue sky contrasted beautifully with the lush greenery as our group of intrepid trekkers set off on a special locals-only Tropical Discovery Hike, led by Dagmar Sigurdardottir of Virgin Islands Ecotours.
As we descended nearly 500 feet in the two-hour hike of one and a half well-marked miles, one thing that became increasingly apparent was that the land side of Magens Bay is every bit as enthralling as the beachfront.
Fifty acres of the land we hiked through was donated to the Nature Conservancy in 1997 by St. Thomas resident Frank McConnell in honor of his mother, Virginia. Another 25 acres was a corporation contribution.
"The idea for the hike began two years ago," Sigurdardottir explained. "At first, we looked for a route that would lead from the beach, circle up the hillsides and return, that would be enjoyable for cruise ship passengers. Ultimately, because of the steepness, we decided on a one-way hike leading from a turn-off on Magens Bay road and ending at the beach."
A safari bus met our group at the Magens Bay beach entrance at 9 a.m. and took us to the trail head. There, we were offered bins for safe-keeping of any items we didn't want to carry on the hike. We were provided cool bottled water in handy sling-over-the-shoulder carriers, walking sticks, and lists of 48 of the most common trees, shrubs and vines lining the route, along with their Latin names.
Our group of 15 was divided in two, each with its own guide, to make the experience more intimate with nature and easy for asking questions and hearing answers.
As we embarked, it was apparent that time and effort had been taken to develop the trail. "We did follow the natural property boundaries, freeways and roads along the property, but we were lucky to have volunteers from the Nature Conservancy come down to make the trail easily accessible," Sigurdardottir explained. Trail construction began last September and was completed in February.
The trail is set in the area once known as Estate Canaan. Our first stop was by a guavaberry tree. We exchanged conspiratorial looks that said we'd be back for Christmas baking and liquor making time. "This area was the provisioning grounds for the plantation, Sigurdardottir said. "That's why this tree survived."
Many guavaberry trees, along with other hardwoods, were harvested from the area in the 1700s for profitable export and sale in Europe. This meant the forest we were walking though was relatively new re-growth, perhaps 100 years old, while the guavaberry tree was estimated at 200 to 300 years.
A tree that's not for climbing
Guava trees and genip lined our path next, as did the yellow prickle tree. This tall tree is aptly named for the bump-like prickles that cover its trunk. Its appearance quickly daunted our 8-year-old daughter, Nikki, from trying to climb it. Scaling the tree would not have been smart for another reason: The inner bark yields a deep yellow dye that was historically used for making madras print cloths. My finger ended up yellow after poking the tree in a few places, so it still appears capable of a fairly indelible stain.
Small, less well-maintained trails darted off in various directions. At one intersection, we looked through the brush to see the white walls of a building. "If you look down from Drake's Seat and spot the coconut groves, then look up, you see these white walls," Sigurdardottir said. "It's the ruins of the old plantation house."
This is where the greathouse sat, along with the sugar-processing factory. Estate Canaan first appeared on tax records in 1733. After being consolidated with adjacent Estate Scherpenjewel, it actively produced sugar through 1850.
The trail we turned onto was the route slaves would take from the flatter sugar-growing grounds nearer the beach up to this factory where the cane was processed. No concrete supports the stone walls that hold up our terraced trail, which means it dates from least 150 years ago.
Wild pineapple and sweet lime line this part of the trail. "After the hardwoods were cut and the soft woods were used for charcoal, the rock walls and natural vegetation were used to make fences," Sigurdardottir explained.
The sweet lime's thorns and the wild pineapple's saw-edged fronds certainly held us back from venturing off into the brush. Several hikers made the acquaintance of the sweet lime's little red fruit. Its tart interior proved sweet, and our sticky fingers made it obvious why this plant was once used for glue.
A familiar view from a fresh perspective
After passing a huge termite nest, we came to the wooden platform observation deck. The view of Magens Bay is breath-taking from this vantage point. The panorama at this angle appears very different from what you see from the beach below and the roadsides above. It's totally enmeshed in nature, surrounded by wild jasmine and native teyer palms.
We munched complimentary granola bars and sipped some water as Sigurdardottir brought out the fine china. "We found these shards when the trail was being cleared," she said, showing bit of broken pottery and china in her palm. Historical adviser David Knight pronounced the pieces of English sponge wear worthless; however, their discovery does date the use of the land back to the 19th century.
The trail took a decidedly downhill slant from this point. We moved from the dryer forest into a landscape of shrubs and mangrove wetlands, past several giant-size boulders cracked into odd shapes by centuries of earthquakes. "This was the road Arthur Fairchild built in 1927 when he started the arboretum," Sigurdardottir explained. Fairchild, a multimillionaire who bought a thousand acres of land around Magens Bay in 1916 for $10,000, had a love of palms that was evident in a beautiful stand of royal palms rising majestically among the mangroves.
The landscape here took on an alien appearance. Big holes were surrounded by stands of gray mud that looked as if a child were dribbling wet beach sand by hand to make a castle. We learned that these were the dwellings of nocturnal land crabs.
A heavy rain would make the walking here both slippery and sloppy, so there's a two-plank boardwalk that winds out to the beach. The large green leaves of the painkiller trees offer some shade. "Just put a leaf under your hat if you have a headache, and it will be gone," Sigurdardottir advised, quoting local lore.
For the hot and tired little band of hikers, the trail opening to the beach was a welcome sight. We assembled around a picnic table for a thirst-quenching drink of iced lemon grass, basil and mint tea and a snack of papaya, bananas and pineapple. Then it was everybody into the water for a refreshing swim.
Yes, the beach makes Magens Bay special. But to appreciate the natural attractions of the locale, to experience them fully — go take a hike!
The guided Tropical Discovery Hike is conducted by Virgin Islands Ecotours. For locals, the fee is $10; for tourists, it's offered as part of a $40 island tour. The hike is being marketed to one cruise line now, with plans to extend it to others next season.

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