The Baths

The Baths

Nature’s Majestic Work of Art

 

Story by Claudia Colli

Photos Jason Smith

 

Described by some as the Eighth Wonder of the World, The Baths are the Virgin Islands' premier natural attraction

 

Although I live in the BVI year-round, I always look forward to a trip to The Baths. Maybe it’s the child in me; who can resist an adventure? Located on the edge of the sea and several stories high, these precariously balanced boulders form a labyrinth of water-filled grottoes that are made for exploring. But there is also the nature lover in me, awed by this majestic work of natural art. With its shafts of filtered light, the main chamber is reminiscent of a cathedral vault, while the surface of the boulders, etched by the weather and flecked with many hues of algae, is like a modern painting.


No wonder The Baths is the British Virgin Islands’ premier natural attraction. It has been touted as the eighth wonder of the world, and attracts countless visitors each year. Most of them come aboard boats: bareboats, crewed charter boats, private yachts and ferries. Day sail boats and other excursion craft generally come late morning and stay until 2 or 3 pm, which can cause a bit of a crunch during this period. To enjoy some tranquility at The Baths, it is advisable to get there ealy in the morning or late in the afternoon; best achieved if you can spend the night on Virgin Gorda, either in a hotel or on a yacht.


I most often come by Speedy’s ferry service from Road Town and take a taxi from the ferry dock in Spanish Town to The Baths. The taxi drops passengers off at a parking area above The Baths; here visitors take a short five to 10 minute walk along a sandy path that winds past dessert like cactus, scrub and smooth round granite boulders. I have come to The Baths accompanied by friends and family. My mother, not the most agile adventurer, was the ultimate good sport, following me down the path with blind trust. When my sons were small they would scramble up and down the boulders with the dexterity of a mountain goat, in turn leaving me in wonder and in terror.


Along with neighboring Spring Bay to the north and Devils Bay to the south, The Baths is part of the Territory’s national park system and is managed by the Virgin Islands National Park Trust. All are beautiful and all are well worth a visit. But when you have visitors, especially young ones, it is The Baths that you will want to see first.


The beach itself is comprised of patches of white sand interspersed between the large and awe inspiring rocks. Palm trees and seagrapes offer shade; there is a rustic beach bar selling burgers and hotdogs, picnic tables and restroom facilities; vendors sell sarongs and tea shirts.
But the real reason to be there is to enter the magical realm of The Baths, reached through a narrow slit in the looming boulders at the south end of the bay.


These boulders, which can be found throughout the shoreline from Devil’s Bay to Spring Bay were formed by volcanic uplift. About 45 million years ago an insertion of a large mass of hot liquid magma (called a batholith) created an uplift of ancient seafloor sediments, raising it above sea level. Called the Virgin Gorda Batholith, this hot liquid deposit slowly cooled beneath the arch of sediments. Intense weathering and erosion over the millennia removed most of the sediment dome that once covered the intrusion, and over the years the slabs split into smaller sections. Poised atop one another in seemingly precarious positions and weathered by the wind and the sea, these boulders formed The Baths as we know them today.


Although I have been to The Baths many times, I never fail to be amazed how beautiful they are. In the first chamber the boulders loom high above – a triangular space of mystical proportions, below is a quiet pool, sea green and still as a mill pond. Further along, there is one domed ceiling perfect for a Michelangelo – and it is hard to believe that it hadn’t been carved out by man. This, and other sculpted effects though, were caused by the eroding forces of the southeasterly trade winds and moisture.


Below the waterline is equally fascinating. Small light colored fish called palometas, dart between visitors legs, oblivious to the two legged intruders. Yellow and black striped sergeant majors can also be seen in these quiet pools. The rocks themselves are decorated with a collage of colors, textures and shapes caused by a multitude of marine organisms and plants, including a variety of red and green algae. Intertidal creatures such as nerites (locally known as whelks) also cling to the rocks, while fiddler and Sally lightfoot crabs (red with white spots) can be seen on the boulders and in sandy areas. Most of the rocks are free of harmful creatures, although it is good to watch out for spiny black sea urchins which can lurk beneath rock crevices. Their spines can be painful if they break off and become imbedded in the skin.


In an effort to accommodate the large number of people who want to visit The Baths each year, the National Parks Trust has installed ropes here and there to help people clamber over the slippery rocks. A few wooden ladders have also been erected to help them over the steeper rocks. Fortunately the effect is relatively non-obtrusive, and unless you are an eight-year-old, can be helpful. Even so, a degree of surefootedness and dexterity is necessary to enjoy the area to the fullest.


If you follow the trail of ropes, stairs and boulders you will eventually come out at Devil’s Bay. Beautiful in its own right, this semi circular swath of sand exudes quiet charm. There is no beach bar or vendors, just pure white sand speckled with boulders. The turquoise water shimmers off the shoreline beckoning beachgoers to take a dip, or snorkel the rocky perimeter in search of parrotfish, wrasse, sea fans and sea turtles. The truly adventurous can snorkel all the way around the rocky edge back to the beach at The Baths again.


But I prefer to go back the way I came, so I can once again enjoy the beauty of The Baths, and marvel at the geological forces that created this natural wonder.