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Virgin Islands Ecotours
Island Girl likes to head off the beaten path for a look around as much as the next gal, so of course when I heard about a kayak tour of a lagoon wildlife refuge that included a guided snorkel and hike around an uninhabited cay, I of course had to check it out. So I made a reservation, slathered on a thick layer of sun block, and headed off in my trusty jeep, Sasha, for a three-hour mini-adventure. Making sure I passed the little gravel road not once, but twice, despite the gigantic sign, I eventually arrived in front of the brightly colored Ecotours offices and what they call the "forgot-it" shop, for people who forget stuff like hats and sunscreen and whatnot. I found myself one of 13 intrepid souls in the afternoon group being led by one of our guides, Troy, through the basics of paddling a kayak. (Here Island Girl will digress for a brief but important note on kayaking for those who’ve never done it: kayaking is glorious fun, and very hard work. Your arms will hurt after. So will your shoulders. But don’t worry, it’s that good, I-worked-hard-under-the-Caribbean-sun hurt. Totally worth it. Trust me.) In the fragrant shelter of the mangroves we practiced paddling and learned from Troy about the unusual eco-system we were now bobbing around in, where trees live in salt-water and all kinds of sea-life is nurtured in the tangled, murky root system. After a healthy dose of knowledge I fully intend to pass off as my own, it was on to Cas Cay, known to many locals as Happy Island, where we beached our Kayaks and enjoyed a brief natural history tour of the land. Between the kayaking and then the walking, we were all more than ready for a plunge in the water by the time we got to the snorkeling part, and to be honest, I was a little nervous. I know it’s supposed to be totally irrational and all that, especially considering that I live here…and I practically live in the ocean…and I’ve never even seen one of them in the wild…but I’ve got this thing about sharks. So, as I secretly always do, I quietly hung back and let everybody else get in the water first. When nobody got eaten after a slow five-count, I was fine, and the snorkeling rocked. Under the expert guidance of Troy, and the other guide, Branden, I saw two octopuses, a porcupine puffer fish, a sea cucumber, a squirrel fish, two spotted eagle rays, and I could go on for days, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that if you ever get the chance to go snorkeling with a biologist or a professional marine tour-guide, here or anywhere, take it. I learned that the Virgin Islands are the enormously popular vacation destination they are in large part because of the delicate coastal and near-coastal eco-systems. These include decadent white-sand beaches with nice people that will serve you drinks and watch the kids as you lay in the sun counting your blessings, but also downy beds of sea-grass where turtles feed and frolic and fields of purple sea fans sway beneath delicate towers of living coral; all of that amazing life balanced on the edge of human civilization, just within our reach, but not quite within our grasp. Whoah! I think I was just possessed by Marlin Perkins.
What You Need To Know
Quite the workout: Island Girl needs to do more push-ups. My arms were tired from paddling, My legs were worn out from walking – but that may be because I (stupidly) went running before going on the tour. After we returned to our dry towels, our senior guide, Troy, told us that we had seriously worked out: We burned around 700 calories on our three-hour tour. We kayaked 2 miles, averaging 1,000 strokes. The way my arms are feeling now, though, I swear I must have stroked closer to 10,000 times.
Hours: Virgin Island Ecotours is open most days, and tour times are based in part on cruise-ship schedules. Call for reservations. Tours are cancelled only for lightning or other dangerous weather.
Best time to go: Sometimes it’s less crowded in the summertime, but the tours are very popular throughout the year.
Time commitment: 3 hours or more.
Cost: $65 for a two-and-a-half hour snorkeling and kayak trip, or $75 for a three-hour snorkeling, hiking and kayak trip.
ATM on-site: No, but they take credit cards.
Gift shop: Yes. They call it the "forgot-it shop," because it has bathing suits, sunscreen, hats, sunglasses and anything else you might need out there on the water, but forgot to bring with you.
Parking: There is limited free parking there. A taxi ride from Havensight is about $12; from Red Hook is about $10.