Kayaking, Volunteering, and a History Lesson on a St. Thomas Eco-Adventure

Frenchtown Marina

Perched on the wall of a crumbling 18th century ruin, I gaze down to the  the Caribbean Sea. Despite the sweat streaming down my back and my aching arms, I feel exhilarated.  Instead of  lolling on the beach and relaxing in the sun, I have just spent hours picking up trash that littered the shores of the tiny Hassel Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The benefits definitely outshine the appeal of  more typical island activities.

Just outside of St. Thomas Harbor sits Hassel Island, 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.

In Your Bucket Because

  • The trip offers an unusual perspective of St. Thomas.
  • It provides the chance to learn about native flora and history.
  • Great for history buffs, nature lovers, and those who want to give back when they travel.

Hands-On Hassel Island

Kicking 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 clean up seemed to pass quickly and when we were done, we started a hike to the historical ruins.

Garrison House, which served as a powder magazine in the 1800s

The hike was a history lesson in disguise. A climb up rocky trails leds to the Garrison House, a decaying two story structure built by the British in the early 1800s , which served as a powder magazine. 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. Cowell’s Battery perches atop Signal Hill and features mid-gothic masonry and an unusual figure eight structure. In the middle of Hassel Island, Careening Cove marks the original location of the island coaling station in the late 1800s. 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.


  • Hassel Island is rocky with uneven terrain so bring shoes with traction.
  • Bring sunscreen and a hat, there’s not much shade on the island.
  • Virgin Island Ecotours-(877)845-2925, www.viectours.com

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