Last updated: 12:00 PM ET, Tue June 07 2016

Water Island: USVI’s Beautiful Little Secret

Destination & Tourism | Noreen Kompanik | June 07, 2016

Water Island: USVI’s Beautiful Little Secret

PHOTO: Honeymoon Beach, Water Island. (Photo courtesy of Thinkstock)

It’s crazy that we travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands every year, and had never heard of a place called “Water Island.” None of our guidebooks had ever mentioned it. On our last visit, a 30-year resident of St. Thomas pointed it out to us as we stood at the marina. With a twinkle in his eye he said “see that place over there? That’s Water Island. One of our best kept secrets.” Intrigued, we decided to check it out for ourselves.

Almost hidden in a cove of Charlotte Amalie’s harbor, a mere ten-minute water taxi ride away, Water Island is the smallest of the four U.S. Virgin Islands. So named by the Europeans for its natural ponds of fresh water, this was a frequent stop for pirates seeking to replenish their ships’ stores of fresh water. Early European settlers used the island mainly for livestock.

READ MORE: The US Virgin Islands' 10 Best Beaches

The U.S. purchased the 491.5-acre island from Denmark in 1944 for only $10,000 with the explicit purpose of establishing a coastal defense installation on the island to protect its submarine base on St. Thomas during WWII.  But Water Island itself didn’t officially become part of the U.S. Virgin Islands until 1996.

In 1950, the Army vacated Water Island and turned it over to the Department of the Interior by an indefinite and revocable permit. The deserted island was leased to Walter Phillips, known today as the patriarch of the island, who constructed homes, roads and a hotel. He transformed the rocky rubble of Honeymoon Beach into the beautiful expansive beach it is today, lining the backside of the shoreline with rows of palm trees.

 In 1965, Edward McArdle took over the island, building the plush 100-room resort known as the Water Island Colony Club. The “commodore” of the club was none other than Leicester Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s brother. The resort’s name changed over the years before being destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 along with most of the other structures on the island.

Immediately after stepping off the ferry, we noted the island is a throwback to simpler times. There are no significant commercial establishments, no stoplights, gas stations, or shops, and many of its residents travel only by golf cart. Fewer than 200 residents, some on a part-time basis only, live on this sleepy island. Several residents traveling with us on the ferry had golf carts waiting at the pier to take boxes and bags home after a grocery run. One may find this inconvenient (along with the fact that even mail has to be retrieved in St. Thomas), but as one resident commented with a wry smile, “We don’t mind. It’s the cost of living in paradise.”

We picked up our pre-arranged golf cart at the pier. Navigating the hilly island proved a little tricky. Our map was hand drawn with no road signs or topographical features and most road signs were lacking. One stop sign we encountered, however, instructed us to “Stop. Den Go.” So it goes with the exploration of the island. We said to each other with a shrug, “We can’t get too lost; after all, we’re on an island!”

Though there is a smattering of residential homes, rental villas and an upscale eco-camp with tent cottages and cabins for the island’s few visitors, most of the isle is remote and uninhabited.

Our first stop was Honeymoon Beach, the beautiful wide strip of white sand, located in the cove of Driuf Bay. Crystal clear, calm aquamarine waters made for perfect snorkeling. Paddle boards, fly boards and dinghy boats are available for rent on the beach.

The aptly named Dinghy’s Beach Bar & Grill is the local hangout on Honeymoon Beach. Its cozy tiki bar and restaurant’s motto reads “We’re not nuts, just a little dinghy.” A sit-down menu with burgers, salads, sandwiches and locally caught lionfish is available with seating on the beach. A food truck carrying quick bites and drinks is a stone’s throw away.  And how appropriate when a pair of two-masted pirate-like vessels appeared in the distance.

Walking trails throughout the island make for excellent hiking with incredible views. The landscape is an interesting mixture of palm trees, cacti and volcanic rock formations. The remoteness of the island makes for a peaceful walk. The only sounds: wind blowing through the trees and birds crying overhead.

A combination of fascinating history and indescribable views greeted us at Fort Segerra — an abandoned fortification located on the top of a hill, built as part of the United States Atlantic defense strategies during WWII. The war ended before the fort’s completion, and the project was abandoned.  Self-guided tours are permitted at the visitor’s own risk.

Our first stop at the fort was to the underground tunnel leading to another cross-tunnel linking two massive unfinished shore battery emplacements. Two heavily rusted metal doors were the entryway. Its sole sentinel, a large lonely hermit crab, watched us warily before scurrying away to safety. Flashlights in hand, we opened the squeaking heavy doors, then, proceeded through the walkways and chambers of the tunnel. The only remaining evidence of past activity was electric boxes with wires askew.

A short walk up the hill led to abandoned underground ammunition bunkers and a large empty pillbox. An observation deck on the roof of the pillbox provided stunning 360-degree views of the ocean, other parts of Water Island and the many bays and inlets of nearby St. Thomas.

READ MORE: Where To Eat In The US Virgin Islands

We made one more stop on the way back to take a final look at the incredible surrounding vistas. I couldn’t help but remember a quote by an unknown author that says “Blessed are the curious, for they shall have adventures.”

A day on Water Island certainly was an adventure, and little did we know we’d get a little history and some very spectacular views thrown in at no extra charge.   

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