Sometimes a national park stirs up the imagination and the senses so much that it doesn't really matter what's actually there. That's certainly the case with Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands. Some people might say that there's nothing here; others will say Wow!
Salt River became an historical park in 1992, yet the literature says that the park is still in its developmental stage. It may look like it's just another lovely, deserted beach in the Virgin Islands, but it has a long, documented history. The area has been continuously occupied since about 400 A.D. A series of peoples from South America settled here. The Taino Indians built a village and ceremonial ball court on Salt River Bay. By the 1400s, the Caribs had conquered and enslaved the Tainos.
On November 14, 1493, Christopher Columbus's men landed here while on his second expedition to the New World. The Spaniards needed fresh water and took Taino slaves as well. A party of Carib Indians in a canoe intervened. The resulting fight left one man dead on each side. This was the first altercation between Native Americans and Europeans. Salt River is also the only place in today's United States where we know that Columbus's men landed. The Spaniards later ordered the extermination of the Caribs.
St. Croix, now a U.S. territory, lived under six flags: British, Dutch, French, French Knights of Malta, Danish, and now American. Several public buildings fly the six flags to show the island's history.
Salt River Bay is on the north central part of the island, facing the Caribbean Sea. It isn't easy to find the park. Though the directions are clear on the map, there are no corresponding road signs. On the mainland, some park units display their reassuring brown signs for miles before the actual entrance, but on the way to Salt River there's nothing.
With a couple of maps, a compass, and stops to ask for directions, we found ourselves on the beach where Columbus landed.
According to park statistics, Christiansted National Historic Site, the fort in the center of Christiansted, St. Croix, had 126,962 visitors in 2012. In contrast, the same year brought only 5,217 people to Salt Bay. I wonder how many gave up the search.
The beach is beautiful and mostly empty of people. Upscale houses have fences around their property and lots of "Keep Out" signs. A few local families come to swim and picnic on the beach. If you're looking for an empty beach, you'll enjoy Salt River. There are no visitor facilities, other than a parking area.
You can discern the remains of a British fort by the raised ground against a tree. Mangrove forests, with their complex, tangled root system, border the bay. The roots filter the water, protecting the coral reefs and offering shelter to turtles, fish, and shrimp. A much larger preserved area is underwater, where you can snorkel, or stay above water and kayak. For something different, take an evening kayaking tour. You'll see bioluminescent single-cell organisms that look like underwater lights.
A VIP, Volunteer in the Park, offers interpretation on Tuesdays and Thursdays until June 14. The visitor center for all three parks is in Christiansted National Historic Site, where you can pick up a brochure for Salt River.
From Christiansted, take Rt. 80, the North Shore Road, turn right immediately after the Salt River Marina. The Columbus landing beach is at the end of the road.