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Photos by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
Filled with lots of tourists and a port that's always clogged with cruise ships, St. Thomas has never been my favorite island. The pace always feels a little too pushy for me. But I really uncovered another side of the island when I decided to join an eco-excursion to Hassel Island, right off the shores of St. Thomas.
Located just outside of St. Thomas Harbor, Hassel Island is a historic slip of 135 acres. Originally a peninsula that formed the busiest port in the Caribbean, Hassel Island is now a part of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. The island boasts four historical structures as well as world's oldest surviving example of a steam-powered marine railway.
On the Virgin Islands Ecotours volunteer excursion to Hassel Island, I had the chance to kayak, hike and help clean the island's shores. I like to volunteer whenever I travel because it's a chance to give back and connect to a place on a deeper lever.
Heading off from picturesque Frenchtown Marina, I paddled twenty minutes in a two-person kayak with Karen, a St. Thomas local. We pulled our kayak up on the small Hassel Island beach, with 17th century ruins looming in the background. The shore is often lined with trash washed over from St. Thomas and our group of eight volunteers set to work filling 20 bags with plastic bottles, cans and straws.
While we worked, Frank, our tour guide, entertained us with riveting blues tunes played on his harmonica. With Frank's harmonies floating over us and a sea breeze caressing us, the cleanup seemed to pass quickly and when we were done, we started a hike to the historical ruins.
We hiked up to the island's historic ruins and it turned into a history lesson in disguise. A climb up rocky trails leads to the Garrison House, a decaying two-story structure, which served as a powder magazine, built by the British in the early 1800s. Another short hike brought us to Fort Willoughby, a water battery constructed by the British in 1778.
The remains include gun platforms, barracks and a guardhouse. The fort also offers stunning views down to the sea. Further up the shore, Creque Marine Railways stands as the world's oldest surviving marine railway, built in the 1840s. The original facility featured a marine slip with a cradle capable of lifting a 400-ton vessel. As we made our way back down the shore, Frank pointed out native herbs and bushes that are still used in medicinal "bush" teas by locals.
Gripping my paddle with tired arms and a satisfied spirit, I kayaked back to St. Thomas after the hiking, cleaning, and introduction to Caribbean history lessons were done. It's true that most visitors come to the Virgin Islands for snorkeling, beach-sitting, diving, and water sports, but glancing back at Hassel Island and feeling the pull in my muscles, I can't help but feel a sense of accomplishment that I have connected to this place on a deeper level than I ever expected.
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