Saint Thomas, one of three gorgeous islands comprising the US Virgin Islands, has a well-kept secret on its western tip: Mermaid’s Chair—or Mermaids Chair; there doesn’t seem to be agreement on whether it’s possessive or plural.
Mermaid’s Chair is a unique strip of double-sided beach that creates one last elegant separation between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea on Rock City’s west coast.
That is, when you visit at low tide. High tide tends to cover the strip, making West Point, the (aptly named) western-most point of St Thomas, a temporary island you have to wade to.
You can easily see Mermaid’s Chair from above when your plane comes in on approach to Cyril King Airport. It’s on your left (north) once you see the mountain of Saint Thomas rise from the awesomely blue waters of the Caribbean.
And if you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse as you leave. If your plane makes its U-turn to the south over Water Island, the beach will be on the right side of the plane. If you turn to the north over Magens Bay, you’ll see Mermaid’s Chair on the left side of the plane.
Whether you live in the VI or you’re just visiting, if you’re physically able to make a trek that entails walking about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) in each direction, traversing about 500 feet (150 m) down, then up… do it.
It’s absolutely worth it.
The reason the secret is well kept? It seems difficult to get to. But it’s not really that hard. Schlepping back up the hill can be daunting, but it’s a great workout. You can even pull it off with kids if they’re patient and willing to break a sweat.
What to bring
If you’re going to take this adventure, you’ll want to bring some essentials. First, wear a comfortable pair of shoes. You can get away with sneakers, walking shoes, and if you’re really adventurous, hiking boots. Though the latter is probably overkill. If you’re going at high tide, bring water shoes if you own a pair. They’ll come in handy if you want to explore West Point, which, at high tide, is rocky, wet, and slippery.
Bring a backpack with a towel if you plan to swim, some bottles of water, a snack, and some sunscreen. You’ll be out in the sun for a while just walking to and back, plus whatever time you spend on the beach. You’ll definitely want the water on the walk back up the hill.
I also bring my Kindle since I’ll usually lay out on my towel, read for a bit, take a dip, read more, dry off, and get moving.
Make sure to bring a camera! Whether it’s just your cell phone or a fancy DSLR, you’re going to experience vistas like nowhere else. Get as many shots as you can! Incidentally, cell service is weak to non-existent in this location.
You can bring a beach chair if you’re willing to carry it. There are chairs on the south shore, but they’re reserved for renters of one of the homes on the hill. But, it’s not uncommon to have the beach to yourself, especially off-season. So, I guess what nobody sees…
When to go
Personally, I prefer low tide because more of the beach is accessible. Not only that, but the rocky areas of West Point, behind the brush west of Mermaid’s Chair, are significantly easier to traverse at low tide.
Add to that, I prefer afternoon. I realize it’s hotter at that time of day, making for a sweaty walk back up the hill. But your trip back to your car is going to be sweaty regardless. My preference for the afternoon boils down to lighting. As a guy who likes his camera, I pay attention to how the sun lights my shots. And being on the west side of the island, below a notable hill, the area is lit much better in the afternoon than in the morning or midday.
And, of course, off-season is the best if you’re looking for a desolate paradise. St Thomas’s tourist season runs roughly mid-November to the beginning of May. So any time in late spring, summer, and early fall will get you the best chance of fewer people. And if you prefer a crowd, well, I don’t think you’ll ever see a crowd. But you’re more likely to see people in-season, just like anywhere else on the island.
Where it is
To get to Mermaid’s Chair, you have to venture through The Preserve at Botany Bay, a very ritzy gated community that does not allow non-resident vehicles to enter.
Estate Botany Bay is at the western end of St Thomas, and you need to take Fortuna Road to get there. Google Maps sometimes isn’t hugely reliable on the island, but you can at least try including your starting point in the map below to show you how to get there.
Park outside of The Preserve at Point A shown in the map below.
Beaches in the USVI are considered public property and access must be ensured to everyday citizens. Therefore, while you can’t drive down to this beach, you can still enter The Preserve, but only on foot.
So, you’ve got to park outside of the gates and walk. Parking is along Fortuna Road, at your own risk. Stay off the road as best you can. Corners are tight and almost blind. Then again, parking in the VI is pretty haphazard anyway, and I have yet to hear of anyone getting a parking ticket out this way.
Getting down the hill
To enter The Preserve, you’ll be required to show a government-issued ID and sign a release form. They give you a nice little map of the community, which should help you get down the hill. It also acts as your pass on the property. Having only just read it when posting this, it turns out they can boot you if you don’t have it.
Everyone likes to ask whether it’s “a good hike”. It’s not a hike at all. The entire walk is actually paved. The first mile or so is a full-on road; the last half mile is two tracks for tires (photos below). Regardless, you won’t be off-roading to get there and there are no trails.
For the most part, if you stay on the sidewalk until it ends, then follow the road as it continues downhill, you really can’t get lost.
Here are your explicit directions to get from the entrance of The Preserve to the beach at Mermaid’s Chair:
- Take an immediate left after entering The Preserve and follow Botany Bay Way.
- You’ll pass Mandahl Circle on the right. Stick to your sidewalk and pass this new cul-de-sac.
- Next you’ll pass Threadneedle Way on the left. Stick to the sidewalk on Botany Bay Way. Along the route, you’ll come across wooden look-out stands that give you a great view of the Caribbean Sea to the south. Make sure to take a minute to enjoy them because all that concrete can make for a boring walk.
- At the next intersection, take a left down Mermaids Chair.
- Continue straight at the next intersection.
- The last intersection you’ll come to is a fork where you can either veer right, uphill and continue on the fully paved road, or veer left (uphill for a short time then steeply downhill) on the double-paved track. Go left.
- After going back and forth a couple times down the hill à la the typical roads on St Thomas hills, you’ll reach a circular endpoint to the road. Swing a left and follow the stairs down to the beach. You’ve made it!
Continue straight to make your way to West Point. Or behind the stairs to the left are chairs and a table for those renting one of the houses on the hill. There’s a smaller beach and lagoon there, as well.
Walk out across Mermaid’s Chair and you’ll approach West Point. There are beautiful spots all over this beach to lay out and enjoy the environment. It gets rocky as you work your way further west, especially after the palm on the north shore. Not too rocky to walk on (yet), but too rocky to lay out on.
On the north side of the beach (basically behind you if looking in the direction of the photo of the lone palm above), there’s a trail that will bring you through the brush. You’ll arrive on the very western tip of St Thomas where there are small pools you can hang out in as well as cliffs you can climb for some epic views. At high tide, this area is hard to traverse without getting wet.
The group of photos above were taken at high tide. This area is much more accessible (and less slippery) when you go at low tide. Climb the eastern cliff face to get a great view looking west toward Culebra, Vieques, and Puerto Rico. Below is a stitched panorama consisting of probably a dozen photos looking in that direction.
Work your way around to the east side of this hill and you’ll get the below view of the western edge of St Thomas, including Sandy Bay. You can also watch planes on approach to land at King Airport.
While you’re working your way down, and while you’re there, don’t ignore the flora and occasional fauna. You’ll trek past some incredible things. From crabs to humming birds, cacti to amazingly colorful flowers.
That’s about it. Now you don’t have an excuse to not visit the next time you’ve got a day free for an adventure.
Oh, and if you’re visiting on the last Sunday of the month, make sure to check out the Rasta organic farmers market in Bordeaux on your way back to civilization. It’s a great stop for local produce, homemade treats, and arts & crafts.
Note: All photos in the post are © Matt Wade. If you’re interested in using any of them, feel free to ping me on Twitter: @thatmattwade.