Magens Bay: Pirate hangout now a beach for tourists

07/11/2014 12:00 AM

07/10/2014 2:28 PM

Legend has it that Sir Francis Drake regularly anchored in Magens Bay with its spectacular white-sand beaches.

The 16th-century British privateer also reportedly hung out on the hillsides above Magens Bay in order to spot approaching Spanish galleons filled with gold and silver. Today that spot on the north side of St. Thomas is known as Drake’s Seat, a tourist attraction.

Magens Beach is long and narrow. The sand is pebble-free, eye-poppingly white, the water a Navajo turquoise beyond belief. The British Virgin Islands fill the horizon.

But Magens Beach, the most-visited beach in the U.S. Virgin islands, is probably the biggest tourist attraction on St. Thomas, a one-time haunt for pirates like Blackbeard and Capt William Kidd.

The water is remarkably calm because of the two peninsulas that form the elongated horseshoe-shaped bay that faces the Atlantic Ocean. It is a swimming beach with no reefs, the bottom flat and sandy. It is a great beach for families.

On my first visit to Magens Bay in the late 1960s, I dragged a heavy, oversized surfboard across the sand and into the gin-clear waters. There were modest waves. I paddled around until I noticed dark shadows down below. Sharks. I reported my find, only to be told that it was late afternoon when they typically came in to feed. Somehow I didn’t find that reassuring.

But the banana daiquiris ashore eased my shark fears. They were invented 60 years ago on the island by the late bartender Sonny Bernier.

Today, the beach offers watersports rentals, a restaurant, bathrooms, showers and, on weekends, crowds of locals who party to amplified music. It can be crowded and noisy. It gets 500,000 visitors a year.

Admission for nonresidents is $4 for adults and $2 for children 13 or older. There is a $2 parking fee. It is an $8 cab ride from Charlotte Amalie.

In 1946, islander Arthur S. Fairchild donated 500 yards of beach and 50 adjoining acres of forest and grass to the municipality of St. Thomas and St. John. The forest grove contained rare and unusual trees he’d planted. Today the trees, including mahogany, genip, turpentine and manpoo trees, are part of a small arboretum behind Magens Bay Beach.

A 1.25-mile hiking trail

starts in a mixed-dry forest and drops 500 feet into a moist-tropical-forest ecosystem before going through a mangrove swamp to the beach.The 250-year-old trail follows a route by early Danish settlers who established sugar cane plantations in the late 1600s.

You can also camp at Magens Bay Beach, but advance reservations are required; 340-777-6300 or www.magensbayauthority.com.

•  Information: 800-372-8784, www.usvi.net.

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