By Sharyn Alden
Few places can sustain an aura of outlandish drama over hundreds of years. But St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, has pulled it off. As it’s transformed from a magnet for pirates to a Danish sugar colony to a Caribbean playground, St. Croix has kept the views dramatic but the ambiance blissfully laid-back.
That laid-back ambiance is the essence of St. Croix’s appeal. On my night flight from Miami to St. Croix, I did a quick assessment of my seatmates. Everyone around me looked like I felt – haggard, and in need of a fast reboot. They didn’t need dramatic settings, though they certainly looked capable of appreciating them. They needed R&R.
After visiting St. Croix for serious relaxation for more than 17 years, I knew what was coming. And I knew they had come to the right place.
They had come to a place with a colorful history, certainly. Columbus landed there in 1493, named the island Santa Cruz, and was promptly driven off by the local Kalinago tribe. After that, the island was swapped among a variety of imperial powers (and the Knights of Malta) until 1650, when it became a French possession. The French sold it to Denmark in 1773, and Denmark sold it to the United States for $25 million in 1916.
It’s the Danish influence that makes St. Croix so interesting. For my money, one of the Caribbean’s most picturesque towns is Christiansted, mid-island on St. Croix. Buildings with huge arched doorways, many made from a mix of stone, seashells and molasses, betray their 18th-century Danish origins. Houses with louvered doors, tile floors, and balconies with whimsical colored gingerbread lead into courtyards, old cobblestone streets, and boutique-filled alleys.
Christiansted is a riot of color. Red-roofed buildings are awash in shades of pink, yellow and turquoise. From almost anywhere you can see Fort Christiansvaern, the well-preserved yellow fortress overlooking the harbor.
The harbor has been designated a historic site – not hard to imagine when you see the hundreds of old stone sugar mills throughout St. Croix, and consider that much of that sugar passed through Christiansted.
Eating in St. Croix can mean wandering through quaint alleys and courtyards until you find island food that matches your mood. The venerable RumRunners, on the water at the Caravelle Hotel, can match most of those moods. To the clang of island music, people huddle around small tables and down fresh lobster and nicely prepared conch chowder.
There’s plenty to see at RumRunners – sometimes more than you bargained for. The last time I was there, the gentleman at the next table seemed more interested in staring at the floor than the ocean beyond, and the glass of island-made rum he was holding had nothing to do with it. Instead, it was the crabs – hermit crabs the size of your hand, scattered on the floor, waiting for crumbs. It was like the cats on Mykonos Island in Greece waiting for handouts at seaside restaurants, only with more scuttling.
On the boardwalk nearby, the only public webcam in Christiansted awaits. It’s very popular. Once, before the advent of FaceTime, I coordinated a webcam viewing with several family members who were back stateside, awaiting my appearance from St. Croix. As my airtime neared, I grabbed a nearby sign used by a previous webcam waver and held it up. I thought it said “Hi from St. Croix” on both sides. Not quite. The folks back home were treated to my “Just Married” sign. The questions were instantaneous.
Walk down the boardwalk and you can hop a water taxi ($7 roundtrip for the five-minute ride each way; look for water-taxi signs near the fort) to Protestant Cay, a small island in the middle of Christiansted harbor.
Protestant Cay (pronounced “key”) is the only beach in downtown Christiansted, and is highly recommended if you’re hanging out in town and are looking for an easy family getaway.
The powdery white-sand beach extends far into the water, making it a good spot for snorkeling. The Hotel on the Cay rents lawn chairs, and a restaurant, bar and watersports facility are nearby.
If it’s Tuesday, it’s a West Indian feast, and everyone is invited to the beach buffet. For about $30 a person you can partake of fungi, salt fish, lobster, plantains, stewed mutton, conch fritters, West Indian pea soup, curried chicken, red beans and rice, and a veggie dish called “stuffins” that looks like sweet potatoes but is really mashed potatoes flavored with catsup.
The buffet is spiced up by island entertainers, including steel-drum bands, limbo dancers, and Mocko Jumbies (dancers on stilts).
The setting, especially the hotel, is purported to be the inspiration for Herman Wouk’s famous novel Don’t Stop the Carnival, an inside look at what can be a hilarious, frustrating life for full-time, transplanted islanders.
Venturing beyond Christiansted, Buck Island Reef National Monument is like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean. The uninhabited, mile-long, half-mile-wide island was once a favorite stop of pirates like Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, and Captain Kidd. Today, its crystal-clear waters and white coral sands make it one of the best places in the world for snorkeling and scuba diving. Exploring the reef’s underwater grottoes is a dreamy way to spend a day.
Adventure guides can give you a 360-degree view of the reef, its history and its beauty. One of the best-known is Big Beard’s Adventure Tours, which offers several packages, including half-day and full-day sails. And yes, the captain has a full white beard.
Another great beach for exploring is Shoys Beach on the east end of St. Croix. It’s a bit of an undiscovered treasure, so keep two things in mind. First, the beach is located near gated private property, so you need to go to the Buccaneer Hotel and tell the gatehouse guard you’re going to Shoys Beach. A gravel road leads to a small parking area, and from there a sandy trail beneath large seagrape trees leads to the beach.
Second, this is a rather secluded beach. Come with companions, so you have backup should you lose your car keys (I’ve done that), and you have someone to watch your gear when you walk or swim.
Beachcombers, walkers and runners appreciate Shoys Beach. The packed-down sand makes it easier to walk while you unwind. A few feet away, snorkelers glide through the transparent water, following eels, rays, conch, and colorful tropical fish.
It’s all in a day’s work in St. Croix. And it makes for many relaxed, rested looks on that plane ride home.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, based in Madison, Wis.