Bay Coastal Walk
Excerpted From St.
John Off The Beaten Track
By Gerald Singer
The Reef Bay Coastal Walk provides an alternative route to the
historic Reef Bay Sugar Mill,
the petroglyphs and the Reef
Bay Estate House. By taking short trails, walking along the
beach and scrambling around small headlands, one can cover the entire
perimeter of Reef Bay. The distance between the Reef Bay sugar mill
ruins and Parrot Bay on the western end of Reef Bay is about 1.2
About the bay
Reef Bay refers to the large bay on the south side of St. John between
Cocoloba Cay on the west and the White Cliffs on the east. Within
the larger bay are three beaches one of which is an inner bay. On
the west is a beach called Reef Bay or Parrot Bay. The next beach
to the east is Little Reef Bay, named after the plantation whose
ruins lie amidst the vegetation behind the beach. The third and
easternmost beach makes up most of the shoreline of Genti Bay, which
is an inner bay of Reef Bay. Genti Bay is the location of the Reef
Bay sugar factory ruins, which lie at the end of the Reef Bay Trail.
A long line of reef extends parallel to the shoreline of Reef Bay.
The reef protects the beaches and coastline from the force of the
ocean swells. An extensive shallow lagoon lies between the shore
and the reef.
Parrot Bay was named after Rif Paret, an overseer on the Friis plantation
established in 1727 on the western portion of Reef Bay.
The larger Reef Bay, that encompasses Parrot, Little Reef and Genti
Bays, may also have been named after Rif Paret. Old maps of Reef
Bay show various spellings of the word Reef including Rif, Riif,
Riff, Rift and possibly Riss.
Eminent St. John historian, David Knight, feels that the name Reef
Bay is really a corruption of “Rift Bay” pointing out
“that the original name for this quarter was Rift Bay and
not Reef Bay.”
There also exists the possibility that Reef Bay was named after
the long barrier reef that is the most significant characteristic
of the bay.
Only Parrot Bay at the western end of Reef Bay can be accessed by
road. From the Texaco Station in Cruz Bay, take the South Shore
Road (Route 104) east to the Fish Bay Road. Go 1.7 miles to the
intersection of Marina Drive and Reef Bay Road. Bear left onto Reef
Bay Road and go up the hill. Turn left after the concrete strip
of road ends, about 0.2 mile from the intersection. Go 0.2 mile
further and park on the right side of the road across from the house
with the wooden shingle roof.
The path to the beach starts at the utility pole. The top of the
trail is steep. You will find a length of knotted rope secured to
various trees that you can grab onto for support as you descend
this steepest section of the trail. Be careful on the rest of the
path, as it too can be tricky and slippery at times, especially
after a rain. At the bottom of the hill, the trail levels off and
leads to the beach at Parrot Bay.
Walk east along the white sandy beach. It is a delightful walk
as there is generally a brisk and cooling ocean breeze. You will
also be treated to the sight and sound of the waves breaking over
the outer reef as well as to an excellent view of the unspoiled
south coast of St. John from Reef Bay to Ram Head Point and into
the inner valleys of Reef Bay. This is one of the few large areas
in the Virgin Islands that has not been developed and remains in
a pristine and natural state.
Much of the ground cover at the beginning of the line of first
vegetation is the edible sea purslane.
Further inland are seagrape and beach maho trees interspersed with
areas of mangroves.
About 30 yards before the end of the beach there is a small coconut
grove just inland. It's easy to get to and if you're in luck there
will be lots of coconuts to eat - hard ripe ones on the ground and
the even more delicious jelly nuts up in the tree.
At the eastern end of the beach you will come to some colorful
red and white rocks around the point going left. It's an easy scramble
over these rocks to the beach at Little Reef Bay.
The shallow lagoon gets much wider here. This is a habitat for
baby sharks, tarpon, bonefish and barracuda. The baby sharks, mostly
black tips, are quite a sight to behold. They are between one and
two feet long and, because the water is so shallow, their dorsal
fins stick out of the water, just like in the movies. Don't worry
about them biting you, they are very shy and timid and swim away
as soon as they see you.
As you walk down the beach at Little Reef Bay you will have an
extensive view of the south coast. The only human-made structure
in sight will be the chimney of the Reef Bay Sugar Mill abandoned
almost a century ago.
A narrow strip of soft white sand, fringed by maho trees and mangroves,
lies between the lagoon and the forested interior. Behind this vegetation
is an area of low-lying flat land that began to be cultivated in
1726, eight years after the Danish West India and Guinea Company
colonized St. John.
Of the twelve plantations in the Reef Bay watershed, Little Reef
Bay was the only one that never engaged in sugar cultivation and
was instead dedicated to cotton, provision crops, and the raising
of cattle and other livestock. Little Reef Bay historically provided
much of the food for the neighboring sugar producing estates of
The first owner of the land was Philip Adam Dietrichs, a Lutheran
priest in St. Thomas. Because pastors received a minimal salary
in those times, the governor of the colony presented the estate
to Dietrichs in order to help him make ends meet.
The task of clearing the land, planting the crops and building
the needed structures was performed by a small number of slaves
who worked from sunup to sundown on that arid and windswept parcel
of land in order to provide a supplementary income for the underpaid
man of God. Because Dietrichs lived in St. Thomas where he continued
to minister to his parishioners, an overseer was hired to wield
the whip and be responsible for the success of this marginally profitable
Dietrichs eventually left St. Thomas and returned to Denmark. The
estate was sold to Jannes Runnels and stayed in the Runnels family
for about the next 100 years.
In 1841 Catherine Michel, a free woman of mixed race, inherited
the Little Reef Bay plantation along with 26 head of cattle, 40
sheep, 8 horses and 27 enslaved human beings. It was a hard life
for all concerned, Catherine Michel, her six children, and the slaves.
When emancipation was declared in 1848, there were only two acres
of land under cultivation to support the Michel family and the slaves,
who were predominantly women and children.
Even after emancipation in the Danish West Indies, the former slaves
were bound to their estates by labor contracts, which they were
forced to sign. The “workers” on the Little Reef Bay
Estate were reluctant to continue laboring on that unproductive
and poor piece of land. Catherine Michel was ill, as were her children,
and by 1870 all had died, apparently of the dread disease leprosy.
Little Reef Bay was then sold to Henry Marsh who owned the neighboring
Par Force plantation where the sugar works were. In 1926 it was
sold to A. A. Richardson, the island administrator, who had 30 acres
of land under cultivation and a herd of 25 cattle. Richardson sold
milk, mangos, coconuts, bananas and limes that were produced on
In 1956 Little Reef Bay became the property of the Virgin Islands
(Information about the history of the Little Reef Bay Estate comes
from A Brief History of the Little Reef Bay Estate, by David Knight
and Historic Land Use in the Reef Bay Fish Bay and Hawksnest Watersheds,
St. John U.S. Virgin Islands by George F. Tyson.)
Finding the ruins
The ruins of the Little Reef Bay Plantation can be found just about
ten yards inshore of a patch of mother-in-law tongue or snake plant
(Sansevieria), that were once cultivated as an ornamental, but got
out of hand. They consist of long, pointed, variegated, dark-green
leaves that rise from the ground to a height of about three feet
and grow close together. The patch extends right to the beach line.
Another clue is a tall date palm that you should be able to see
further inland than the ruins.
If you're not keen on plant identification, here's another way
to find them: As you walk down the beach towards the east, there
are two places where vegetation extends into the water. At these
points you will either have to get your feet wet, climb through
the tangle of limbs, or find a passage through the bush inland.
The remains of the Little Reef Bay plantation lie behind the second
of these detours.
The ruins consist of a four-sided stone wall that once supported
a house made out of sticks woven together and then plastered with
mortar made out of lime and mud. This traditional construction is
known as “daub and wattle.” Just to the east of the
house is a taller wall that was a part of the plantation warehouse.
Also in the vicinity are the remains of a stone oven and the kitchen,
which traditionally was separate from the main house.
Turn of the century house
Just to the east of the warehouse ruins are the remains of an old
stone house covered with pink plaster. There are ornamental plants
and fruit trees near the building. In back of this house is a stately
date palm. Mother-in-law tongue, hibiscus and bougainvillea are
all growing in profusion around these ruins. Most of these plants
were obviously cultivated as landscaping by the inhabitants of the
house. Near the house are the remains of an old cattle corral, a
remnant of the fairly recent cattle-farming operation in the valley.
The estate house and warehouse were built in the late eighteenth
century; this house was built near the turn of the twentieth century.
History of the house
When the Little Reef Bay Estate was sold to Henry Marsh, a one-acre
parcel was split off and given to the one loyal servant, named Margreth,
who stayed with Catherine Michel and her family throughout the days
of deprivation and the horrors of leprosy. The house had remained
in fair condition, roof and all, until Hurricane Marilyn struck
in 1995. This property is called an inholding because it is still
privately owned and is not part of the National Park. The lack of
access to this and other inholdings in the park is currently a much-discussed
The best place for swimming in Reef Bay is at the eastern end of
the beach, near the rocks along the eastern shore (to your left
if you're looking out to sea). The beach is soft white sand, and
the entrance to the water is in sand and grass. The water is deeper
and the bottom is sandier and more comfortable than the beaches
at either Parrot Bay or Genti Bay. Another plus is the almost guaranteed
privacy afforded by the remote location.
The Little Reef Bay Trail
At the eastern end of the beach, the trail to the Reef Bay Sugar
Mill begins about thirty yards from the first large rocks. At the
beginning of this trail is an old stone cistern and animal watering
trough surrounded by hibiscus and bougainvillea.
The Little Reef Bay Trail connects the beach at Little Reef Bay
with the bottom of the Reef Bay
Trail near the sugar mill ruins. The well-maintained path is
a little over a quarter-mile long and passes over the rocky point
separating Genti Bay from Little Reef Bay.
The trail goes up a hill and then down again reaching an elevation
of about 75 feet. The environment is one of disturbed, second growth
History of the trail
Not long ago the Little Reef Bay Trail did not even have a name.
The account of how this trail became a clear readily passable pathway
with an actual name goes like this:
The highly popular guided Reef Bay Trail hike, organized by the
National Park and conducted by knowledgeable rangers, includes boat
transportation from the end of the trail at Genti Bay back to Cruz
Bay. This eliminates the necessity of the highly unpopular uphill
walk back to Centerline Road.
Before Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, there was a dock at Genti Bay.
Hikers were brought by dinghy from the dock to a larger boat that
would then make the voyage to Cruz Bay. After Hurricane Marilyn
destroyed the dock, the tour operators attempted to board their
passengers onto the dinghy from the shallow water near the shore.
Because there are often waves breaking near the beach, the task
of loading the dinghies with people unaccustomed to small boats
proved to be difficult and dangerous.
As an alternative to building another dock, it was decided that
Little Reef Bay, which is generally calm at the eastern end, would
be a safe place to put the hikers aboard the dinghy. (Years ago,
the only dock in the valley was on the eastern end of Little Reef
Bay because this was the only place in all of Reef Bay to have protection
from the wind, waves and swells while still having deep water access.)
The trail from Little Reef Bay to Genti Bay was then cleaned up
by park employed workers and has been given a high priority for
maintenance ever since.