Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer On the Way to Magen's Bay

By Paul Gerald

MARCH 1, 1999:  National Geographic had said it was one of the 10 best beaches in the world, and you’d think they would know their beaches. So with one day in the U.S. Virgin Islands, my friend and I decided to aim for Magen’s Bay Beach.

The island of St. Thomas, U.S.V.I., is one of a dozen green humps sticking out of a great blue sea. Magen’s Bay is an armload of warm, calm water on the north side of the island. And right along the bicep of that arm is Magen’s Bay Beach, the long, white, sandy object of National Geographic’s affection.

Our day started on the south side of the island, when we were herded off our cruise ship with the other 1,500-or-so passenger-cattle. The tender weaved through the six other cruise ships in the harbor and dropped us at the town dock in the main village, Charlotte Amalie. A good 10,000 people, just in for the day, were already flowing through the “Shopping Mecca of the Caribbean,” so-called because it’s duty-free and there’s no sales tax.

We briefly got sucked in by a man who said they were giving away gold necklaces to people from our ship. We got away, goldless but financially intact, and hailed a covered-pickup taxi. Passage across the island is $4 each, and it would have to rank among the greatest public-transit purchases.

First you get up above Charlotte Amalie and look down on the hillsides sprayed with houses, the light blue harbor filled with towering white ships, the deeper and bluer water outside, and the cliffs along the land. It took four photos to get it all in.

Next you drive past Drake’s Seat, the legendary lookout of Sir Francis Drake. From there you’re actually looking down a ridge about 15 miles long with just its high points above the water. It looks like the tail of a giant green swimming dinosaur.

At the very top of the island you find the “world-famous Mountain Top,” which is an odd kind of jungle-themed tourist mall, with a bar at the end that has killer daquiris and a super-killer view. St. Thomas is the highest of all the islands right around it, so the view from the top, especially with a daiquiri and a warm breeze, has been known to cause bliss-outs.

And right off the corner of the bar’s big deck, about 1,500 feet below us, down among the tree-covered hills, is the sliver of white that we were heading for.

By the time our taxi dropped us at Magen’s, it was clear that a lot of other folks knew about it. Our most recent report was from 10 years ago, when 50 people were there. My first thought when we arrived was that every subscriber of National Geographic was there. There’s only about 35 feet of sand between the trees and the water, and in most places there were two or three rows of people. There’s also a bar with waiters roaming the beach.

We thought we’d get even more away from it all, so we rented a kayak from a Frisbee-tossing dude who also rented Hobie Cats and floats. When we paddled out a little ways, to where a couple of guys were fishing from their skiff, there was a plunging splash behind us. We turned to see a pelican popping out of the water and flying away. There were 10 or 15 of them flying around and occasionally diving in, sometimes within 10 yards of us.

Back at the beach, my friend went the sunbathing route, but to me, the quintessential moment of a Caribbean trip – the whole point of one, just about – is getting in the water. There is a reason National Geographic ranked Magen’s so highly, and it’s not the bar or the equipment rentals – and certainly not the crowds it gets now. It’s the shade on the sand, the long slow slope as you walk into the water, the near lack of waves, and the diving pelicans.

And the jumping fish, too. There were little-bitty silver fish that would all jump at the same time, hundreds of them, like a silver wave whipping across the water. There was a bigger fish that would do a sideways-flop landing. The coolest was one that would leave the water at about a 10-degree angle, so he flew a foot off the water but landed about 20 feet away.

In my personal moment of peace, I was floating on my back, watching the pelicans and feeling the warm sun on my stomach. There might as well have been nobody on the beach at that point. Suddenly all the water around me seemed to wiggle, and something flew right over my face. The little-bitty silver fish had just jumped over me. I took it as their way of saying welcome to Magen’s Bay.

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