Black sand beaches have been getting a bad rap for what seems like forever. But if you’re looking for the exotic and uncommon on your Caribbean travels, then it’s time to stray from the nearly ubiquitous white sands and cross over to the dark side.
About those white sand beaches…
First, let’s get something out of the way: white sand beaches are generally made from fish poop. Lots and lots of fish poop.
Fish like parrotfish crunch on coral and rock all day, biting and scraping algae off with their powerful beaks. The mix of algae and inedible calcium-carbonate gets crunched then swallowed.
The fish live off the algae, but the pulverized coral gets pooped out to wash up onto shore creating miles and miles of sparkling poop for your Instagram photos.
Black sand is totally different.
What causes black sand beaches?
While white sand beaches are formed through slow accumulation, jet black shores can often be birthed in spectacular fashion.
You see, black beaches are formed through volcanic activity. So, imagine a picturesque volcano in the Caribbean with lush forests covering its slopes suddenly exploding in a fiery eruption.
Depending on the type of volcano, lava may begin rushing from the volcano’s peak down to the shoreline. Once there, upon touching our crystal clear Caribbean seas, the 1100 to 1250° C lava cools so quickly it can shatter into fine-grained black fragments creating sand.
Magically an entire black sand beach can be created in a single day!
Pyroclastic flows may also deposit vast quantities of volcanic material on shores producing a similar effect.
Either way, teeny tiny basalt rocks are spread across the shore.
What makes these beaches unique
Basalt rock isn’t just the building block of our beloved ebony beaches, they’re basically the original rock of our planet. Earth’s entire crust is mostly basalt making it the most common rock we have.
Geologically speaking, our black beaches don’t last long. While white sand is continuously being pooped onto our shores and replenished, black sand is generated through singular moments of volcanic activity. This means there’s only so much unless the volcano decides to bless us with more.
The finite amount of resources wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that basalt weathers quickly. So, while the action of the waves aided by Caribbean storms pulls sand off the beaches, the sand itself is breaking down.
One of the ways basalt breaks down is through literally rusting! Basalt is high in iron content. So, just think iron plus saltwater plus sun. The result can be reddish sand beaches over time.
The best black beaches in the Caribbean
You’re convinced, ebony beaches are magnificent wonders of volcanic splendor, but which stretch of black sand should you experience before they rust and weather away? Here are some of my favorites.
Woodlands Beach, Montserrat
Montserrat island is home to the all-so-active Soufriere Hills Volcano. And while the volcano has taken away the old capital of Plymouth by burying it under 40 plus feet of ash and volcanic debris, it also gifted the island with five new square miles of land and brand new beaches.
My favorite has to be Woodlands Beach found about halfway down the west coast. It’s nearly quarter-mile-long and bookended by two soaring onyx cliffs. The sand is a deep black while the water is gin tub clear.
Despite the exotic allure and Montserrat not being a big island, it’s decidedly off-the-beaten-path. That means it’s entirely likely you can have this beach all to yourself to live out your lost coast fantasies. (Except certain times of the year when sea turtles build their nests here.)
And for those who linger on Woodlands, the rewards are spectacular sunsets thanks to the beach’s craftsmanlike westerly alignment.
Coconut Beach, Dominica
While staying on Dominica (great for fishing villages, waterfalls, and a small island vibe) at the Picard Beach Cottages, Coconut Beach was a single step from my front door. Sprawling over half a mile south from that point, the sands here sparkle.
I clearly remember my first morning waking up here and stepping out to be greeted by this view. A few steps. A few more. I just walked down into the cool dark sands, dug my toes in, and just stood there, taking it all in.
Down the shore to my left, the beach arced away in a mix of greens, blacks, and blues. While I also knew that just a few dozen feet up the beach to my right at Le Flambeau Restaurant, they were already preparing johnny cakes.
It’s one of those fleeting moments of peace and mental serenity that just can’t be found anywhere.
Plage du Coin, Martinique
Located at the southern end of La Plage du Carbet in Le Carbet, Martinique, Plage du Coin is a black sand beach on the lighter end of the spectrum that also boasts some amazing flavors of the island. There’s Le Petibonum, one of Steve’s favorite places to taste the best of Martinique. Also on these shores are Ziouka Glaces’ gourmet ice cream plus Rhum Neisson Distillery.
Just slightly off the sand, you can also find the historic Canal des Esclaves hiking trail and Les Chutes du Carbet, a series of small waterfalls and pools nestled in the rainforest.
Basically, Plage du Coin is one of those rare Caribbean black sand beaches that isn’t remote. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. And that’s what makes it so special.
Playa Negra, Vieques
I know what you’re thinking. Vieques, the same island with the world-famous brilliantly white sands of Flamenco Beach, has a black sand beach?
Well, yes. It does. Playa Negra is exactly what the name translates to “black beach.”
Found on the southern shores of the island, this beach is unique on the island. While all the other beaches are your expected white sand, this beach gets its color from the erosion of Monte Pirata. The island’s tallest peak (topping out at 987 feet), Monte Pirata is an extrusion of Vieques’ black heart: volcanic bedrock. So when there are rains, the little peak erodes and that erosion finds its way to Playa Negra.
But finding your way to Playa Negra isn’t so easy. The beach is remote, secluded, and very much off-the-beaten-path. So, there are no concessions, little shade, and the chance of running into someone else is almost non-existent. No, Playa Negra isn’t a particularly famous black sand beach. And that’s just how we like it!
Should you visit black sand beaches?
I won’t go so far as to say that once you go black, you won’t go back. But, while I didn’t grow up with black sand beaches in St. Croix and, like many others, I’d previously dismissed them, I’ve come to love ebony beaches as the exotic wonders born of fiery origins they are. Exotic wonders that just might be the best beaches in the world.
So if you’re looking to really explore uncommon shores throughout the West Indies, you can bet that if you find your toes dug into black sand, you’ve found the right place.