on the hilly island of St. Croix look out to the
CROIX, U.S. Virgin Islands ó The blue skies over St.
Croix are dotted with clouds that create just enough
shadow to cut the glare of sun on water. As my little
rental car wheezes up the steep, twisting road, the sea is
below on my right, a deep sapphire streaked with
my left, lush slopes in a thousand shades of green sweep
gently up, the creep of foliage interrupted now and then
by a house positioned for the best views of the water.
searching for the road to Cane Bay when I come around a
curve and enter what looks like a tropical rainforest.
Dense trees form a canopy over the road, their trunks
almost hidden by thick ferns and enormous leaves. Vines
and roots dangle from branches, and it feels like the
malevolent forest of fairytales.
I emerge into the flatlands, far from the sea, and it is
clear that Cane Bay is somewhere behind me.
is my first visit to St. Croix, and Iím finding
navigation a challenge. I am disoriented by driving on the
left and hampered by the lack of street signs. But I love
to explore new places, and this drive, full of wrong turns
and scenic distractions, is taking me to parts of the
island I probably wouldnít have visited if Iíd brought
Croix, which has been a U.S. territory since 1917, shares
the advantages of the other U.S. Virgin Islands, St.
Thomas and St. John, for a U.S. traveler: no passport
required; same language; same currency as on the mainland.
island offers plenty to entertain a visitor, starting with
the beaches. Cane Bay on the north shore is popular with
snorkelers, and Cane Bay Wall, where the bottom abruptly
drops from about 40 feet to a depth of more than 3,000
feet, is a favorite of divers.
Island Reef National Monument, a marine sanctuary just off
the islandís northeast shore, is part of the U.S.
National Park system. Mostly encircled by a coral reef, it
has one of the worldís few snorkeling trails and two
dive sites. Underwater markers tell about the sea life.
River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological
Preserve, created in 1992, offers scuba diving,
snorkeling, kayaking and hiking. It is an important
archaeological site with the physical remains of three
pre-Columbian cultures, as well as an important
environmental site with large mangrove forests. It also
has a bioluminescent bay, where micro-organisms called
dinoflagellates glow in the dark. Iíve booked a
moonlight kayaking tour of the bay.
of the islandís history involves the sugar industry. The
ruins of sugar mills are scattered around the island, some
of them incorporated into the landscaping of homes,
restaurants and resorts. Estate Whim Museum, created from
a restored 18th century sugar plantation, tells the story
of the slave labor used on the plantation. Visitors can
tour the Cruzan Rum Distillery and taste the rum, which
today is made primarily with molasses from elsewhere in
the islandís two cities, Frederiksted and Christiansted,
I can dine and browse shops and museums.
knew before I got here that Crucians, as island residents
call themselves, drive on the left side of the street. Iím
not clear why, since this is a U.S. territory, not
British. Unlike in Britain, however, the driverís seat
is on the left.
a little intimidated by trying to remember to drive on the
left," I tell the attendant at the airport exit as I
hand her my rental-car contract.
the secret," she responds. "You only have to
remember this: When youíre driving at home, youíve got
concrete ó pavement ó on your left. But here youíve
got grass. So just think: grab the grass. Reach out of
your car window and grab the grass because thatís where
youíre supposed to be."
the grass. I look at the shoulder of the road, green with
shrubbery and grass. As I follow the written instructions
to my hotel, I grip the steering wheel and repeat, grab
was the first time I got lost.
day I decide to tour the island, to go where the road
takes me. The island is only 28 miles long and seven miles
wide, so how lost can I get? Iím puzzled by the lack of
signage. Would it hurt to nail up a couple signs that
point east and west, to Christiansted and Frederiksted, to
the turn for Road 69 or Cane Bay?
road is lined with blooming trees and shrubs, the same
ones I see in Miami: the red-orange poinciana; pink and
scarlet hibiscus; bougainvillea in pink and purple;
clusters of tiny pink flowers that I donít recognize.
But the island is mountainous, the winding road often high
above the sea, and the scenery reminds me more of Hawaii
than of Florida.
I come around a corner, and on my right, I see a long
grassy slope above me where goats are grazing. I pull onto
the shoulder to shoot a few photos of the bucolic scene.
several dozen goats are coming toward me, running, loping,
skidding down the hill, bleating and crying raucously. I
hurry back into the car, worrying whether the fence at the
bottom of the hill will restrain them. This must be how
they get fed ó someone pulls up in a truck and throws a
bale or two of feed over the fence ó and they are
expecting food from me. By the time I drive off, the first
wave of goats has made it to the foot of the hill, and
they stand there crying at me. Fortunately, the fence
few turns later, I come unexpectedly upon the Divi casino,
the islandís only one. I like to play blackjack, and
more than that, I like to observe other players. I like
the laughter, the stories, the impulsive decisions, the
rueful remarks. But these gamblers are serious. No
laughter, no stories. I move on.
day I go to St. George Village Botanical Garden, where
more than 1,000 varieties of plants grow among the ruins
of a Danish sugar plantation. Here also, many of the
plants are familiar ó orchids, bromeliads, palm trees,
mango trees, heliconia, gingers ó and there are rare and
endangered species of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto
Rico as well. The ruins and crumbling walls have been
incorporated into the gardens. Workersí quarters,
blacksmithís shop, water wheel, sugar factory, lime kiln
and other structures have either been restored or are
partially overgrown by plants.
there, I go on to Frederiksted, which is where cruise
ships dock. Although it is the largest of the U.S. Virgin
Islands, St. Croix is not a busy cruise destination even
in winter. In summer, it might be weeks between ships, and
there are none during my visit. The waterfront has been
spiffed up to make it more attractive to cruise lines, and
Iíve read positive comments about some of the shops and
restaurants. The Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts is
here. Fort Frederik, built in the 1750s to ward off
pirates, and Emancipation Park are just down the street.
But many businesses are closed when thereís not a ship
in port, and on the day I visit, the streets and sidewalks
are mostly empty. I get a fancy grilled cheese sandwich
for takeout from Pollyís at the Pier, then sit on a
bench, looking out to sea while I eat.
streets behind the waterfront are shabby. Buildings are
deteriorating, windows boarded up.
is more inviting, although if you walk a few blocks
uphill, past the shops and galleries, you encounter
similar crumbling buildings. But down by the water are a
boardwalk and a marina. They donít exactly bustle in the
offseason, but neither are they deserted. There are people
in the restaurants and bars, and boats sail across the
harbor. A seaplane returning from St. Thomas swings low
across the shore, lands on the water, taxis to a dock.
Danes ó who ruled St. Croix for 184 years, longer than
any other country, and ultimately sold the island to the
United States ó set up government in Christiansted. Five
buildings from the colonial era, including the Customs
House and Fort Christiansvaem, remain on the waterfront
and make up what is now designated a National Historic
wander around the park, have a hoagie at Angry Nateís on
the Boardwalk, then get lost driving back to my hotel ó
although with each trip, I puzzle out a little more of the
route. By the end of my trip, I can find my way back to
the hotel with no wrong turns.
staying at the Hibiscus Beach Resort, a low-key hotel with
38 beachfront rooms. The hotel offered a bargain ó $300
for four nights in July ó on LivingSocial.com, one of
the deal-a-day sites, and I grabbed it. I have a
second-floor room with a deck and a lovely view of the
water, and the hotel has a small restaurant and a fun bar,
all of which make it conducive to doing nothing productive
ó which is what this particular vacation is all about.
read, nap, go to the bar for a glass of wine, stare at the
vista of blue water and palms trees from my deck, walk
along the sand. Late one morning, I see an instructor lead
four or five would-be snorkelers into the water and give a
lesson. Another day, I watch a young man ride a
chestnut-colored horse along the waterís edge and offer
rides to the few people on the beach. One evening I sit
down for dinner in the restaurant and learn that itís
karaoke night. Some things I just canít escape.
morning of my kayaking trip, I make a dry run to the
unmarked put-in spot to make sure I can find it at dusk,
then keep driving until the road ends at a beach. The
narrow but pretty strip of sand is lined by palm trees and
sea grape and is busy with young schoolchildren. Then I
see the sign: This is where members of Christopher
Columbusí crew came ashore in 1493 during his second
excursion to the New World.
spotís "statement of significance" as a
National Historic Landmark says that it is the earliest
site under the U.S. flag that is associated with Columbus,
and that his crewís skirmish here with Carib Indians was
the first recorded conflict between Europeans and Native
Americans. The landing also marked the beginning of
European colonialism here ó St. Croix was under the rule
of six countries before the U.S.
I return for my kayak excursion that evening, I find that
I am paired with Ralph, a widower and retired business
owner from the Midwest. We are equally inexperienced; like
me, he has been kayaking just once before. Ralph is with
family ó three couples who have all pushed off from the
shallows by the time we climb into the last kayak, made of
a clear, resin-like material so we can see the
dinoflagellates in the water.
guys," he yells as we paddle toward them, "I got
guide tells us about hurricanes and boats that have sunk
in the bay. He talks about the native people of St. Croix
and how the arrival of Columbusí ships and those of
other explorers spread disease and wiped out the native
population. He leads us past a bird rookery, where in the
twilight, we can see dozens of white egrets nesting in the
trees, looking like cotton balls ensnared in the branches.
get to the bioluminescent part of the bay, we thread our
way through a marina, then paddle against a light wind
about three-quarters of a mile across the darkening water.
When we return, the wind will be at our backs, making the
like to tell you that Ralph and I hit a rhythm, that we
paddled surely and smoothly across the bay, but we didnít.
Ralph sat in front, and I tried to follow his lead as our
guide instructed, stroking in unison on the same side that
he did ó right, left, right, left. But I wasnít
surprised when Ralph, who had built his own business and
was accustomed to being in charge, unilaterally made all
the decisions about rowing and did not share them. His
strokes were unpredictable, and our oars kept crashing
into each other. So we moved erratically across the water,
falling farther behind the others, who acted more like
matter, it was a glorious night under a nearly full moon,
air temperature in the low 80s, water in the high 80s.
With no light coming from this part of the island, I saw
more stars than I ever see in South Florida.
it got darker, we saw fireworms that give off a green
luminescence during mating, which happens for only two or
three days around the full moon. We also saw newborn
jellyfish that glow a fluorescent green. One of the guides
caught some jellyfish and put them in jars, where they
looked liked tiny lighted donuts.
the main attraction was the dinoflagellates, just specks
of light. We dragged our hands in the water and they were
outlined in light, like a science fiction movie about
radiation gone wrong. The light flashed around our oars
each time we lifted them from the water. Best of all, we
looked right through our clear kayak bottom and saw
streams of light in the water, like pinstripes of tiny
bubbles running backwards, our own private miniature light
shows. It was spectacular.
one-cell creatures, the guide told us, were limited to
this small sector of the bay. As we rowed away, the lights
under our kayaks grew fewer and fewer, until there were
just occasional flashes. And then, nothing but darkness.
the day I left, as I drove to the airport, I thought about
what Iíd do differently if I made a return trip. Iíd
visit the rum distillery, stay at the same casual hotel,
find Cane Bay, and schedule my trip during tourist season
when there were enough visitors for the waterfront
restaurants in Frederiksted to stay open. Maybe Iíd take
the seaplane to St. Thomas for a day; maybe Iíd do a
different kayak tour. And then, when I looked around and
realized I was lost again, I resolved to bring a GPS unit.
of these hotels is in town. Unless youíre happy staying
on the hotel grounds, a rental car is recommended for
getting around the island.
Beach Resort: 4131 La Grande Princesse; 800-442-0121,
340-718-4042; http://hibiscusbeachresort.com/. On Pelican
Cove Beach on the north shore, three miles northwest of
Christiansted. Casual and moderately priced, 38 beachfront
rooms with terraces or decks (some obstructed views),
right on the sand. Restaurant, indoor/outdoor bar, small
pool. Rooms $150 through Dec. 14; $200 Dec. 15-April 15.
Beach Resort & Spa: Kings Hill; 888-503-8760,
Renaissance hotel on the north shore near the west end,
151 luxury suites (550+ square feet) in 26 buildings. Spa,
fitness center, pool, open-air restaurants, long
beachfront. Rooms from $186; from $245 starting late
Buccaneer, end of East End Road,
Christiansted;800-255-3881 or 340-712-2100, www.thebuccaneer.com.
Built on a former cattle ranch and sugar plantation on the
north shore two miles east of Christiansted; the remains
of an old mill are still on the property. Frommerís
calls it "St. Croixís pocket of posh." 138
rooms and suites, most with private patio or balcony;
golf, tennis, two pools, watersports, spa, and
restaurants. Rooms $225-$1,388 through Dec. 19,
$451-$2,363 holidays, $360-$1,943 Jan. 4-April 15.
Nateís, 1 King Cross St., Christiansted; 340-692-6283.
On the Christiansted boardwalk. Casual. Caribbean art on
at the Pier, 3 Strand St., Frederiksted; 340-719-9434.
Specialties are gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches,
main-dish salads. Caribbean art on display.
Joeís Northshore Eatery, 340-718-0055;www.rowdyjoes.com.
At the east end of Cane Beach. Creative, moderately priced
salads and sandwiches made with local ingredients;
house-made ice cream.
Museum Center for the Arts, 10 Strand St., Frederiksted;
Located just off the Queen Mary Highway. Small museum in
historic building, focuses on regional contemporary art.
George Village Botanical Garden, 1 St. George,
Frederiksted; 340-692-2874; www.sgvbg.org.
Open daily. Sixteen-acre garden on grounds of 19th century
Danish sugar plantation.
Frederik, on the Frederiksted waterfront by the pier;
340-772-2021, open Monday-Friday. Danish fortress built in
the 1750s to protect the coast from pirates, it was the
site of one of the islandís most important historic
events, an 1848 rally that led to the emancipation of
slaves in the Danish West Indies.
Estate Whim Plantation Museum, 52 Estate Whim,
Frederiksted; 340-772-0598. Open Monday-Saturday. Restored
18th century plantation with sugar factory ruins.
National Historic District, 340-773-1460;www.nps.gov/chri.
Five historic structures on the Christiansted waterfront,
including fort and Customs House. This also was the site
for slave sales. Open Monday-Saturday.
Island National Park, www.nps.gov/buis/.
The 176-acre uninhabited island is a U.S. national park.
Its coral reef supports several endangered and threatened
species including hawksbill turtles and brown pelicans.
Snorkeling trail, dive sites. To reach the island just off
the St. Croix north coast, CruiseCritic.com suggests Big
Beardís Adventure Tours (340-773-4482) or Buck Island
River Bay National Historic Park and Ecological Preserve,
A relatively new national park, established in 1992, it
still has few visitor amenities. Notable for its mangrove
forests, estuary, coral reefs, submarine canyon and
archaeological sites. It also includes the spot where
Christopher Columbusís crew came ashore. For a moonlight
tour of the parkís bioluminescent bay, I used Sea-Thru
Kayak Adventures, 340-244-8696;seathrukayaksvi.com.
Rum Distillery, 3A Estate Diamond, Frederiksted;
Tours Monday-Saturday in season.
Morgan Rum Distillery, Melvin Evans Highway and Route 663,
Annaberg and Shannon Grove; 340-713-5654. Tours