Pleasures of the parks

A soul soothing escape

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Christiane Leferu

The Parks of the U.S. and British Virgins Islands are a source of inspiration and exhilaration for all of us who need to get in touch with nature and ourselves.

Park lands range from rugged mountain forests by beaches and bays to underwater enclaves teeming with tropical fish. They include historic sites such as former Danish plantations and sugar factory ruins, as well as shipwrecks and geological wonders.

An obvious lure for fitness enthusiasts and history buffs, the parks also attract bird watchers, biologists, archeologists, divers and poets.

Whether you're a local or a Virgin visitor, young or old, fit or fatigued, the pleasures of the parks are yours for the taking.

Half the island of St. John is National Park land, and much of it has well worn trails and beaches which are part of the U.S. Virgin Islands National park.

A Visitor's Center in Cruz Bay is where you'll find exhibits, videos, brochures, maps and books. It's also staffed with park rangers who assist with guided hikes, historic tours, snorkeling trips, cultural craft demonstration and evening programs at Cinnamon Bay Campground.

More than 20 official trails range from a simple ten minute jaunt up Peace Hill for a scenic grassy overlook to a strenuous hike up a cliff at Ram's Head with a view of magnificent windswept scenery scenery 200 feet above the sea. There are also spots where you can do nothing more strenuous than sit beneath a majestic mahogany and listen to the chirp of bannaquits.In the British Virgins, Tortola's Sage Mountain, at 1,780 feet, is the highest point in both the British and U.S. Virgin Islands. Vistas are astounding.

Here you'll find broadleaf elephant ear philodendrons and lacy ferns growing in the shade of mahogany, manilkara and white cedar trees. Hummingbirds flit among the trees and mockingbirds punctuate the solitude. Even though the mountain top gets only 100 inches of rain a year, the park has all the earmarks of a tropical rain forest.

Tree ferns, bromeliads and anthurium thrive in the mist carried up by the wind from the sea.Under the sea, off nearby Salt Island, is what may be the only national park in the world that owes its existence to a shipwreck. Rhone National Marine Park is centered around the wreck of the RMS Rhone, which lies beneath 20 to 80 feet of water, creating one of the top dive sites in the Caribbean. The broken steel hull of the great ship, which sank in 1867, is filled with colorful coral formations and tropical fish, including the queen angelfish, not usually seen in other Caribbean waters.

The origin of the giant boulders that make The Baths and Devil's Bay National Park the BVI's most popular destination remain a mystery. The huge rocks that are strewn along the beach on Virgin Gorda's southwest shore are granite, a stone not usually found south of the Carolinas. Theory has it that they were placed there by some race of giants, moved south by some ancient glacier or spewed up by the volcanoes that created the islands eons ago.

Kayakers at Cannamon Bay Beach in Virgin Islands National Park in St. John. photo by D.B.Bostdorf

Christiane Leferu loves to hike in the British Virgin Islands and in St. John's National Park.

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