- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2004

Staring into the turquoise Caribbean Sea while sipping a tropical drink topped by a tiny paper umbrella, I suddenly realized what makes St. Croix so special.

My first inkling was the sign outside Off the Wall Beach Bar: “No shirt, no shoes, no problem.” Then came the comment by island resident Hope Gibson, seated at the adjacent bar stool: “If you need to be entertained, you’re … out of luck on St. Croix.”

“That’s it,” I said to myself. As one local Cruzan with whom I chatted conceded, “St Croix isn’t a love-at-first-sight place.”

Instead, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands offers a comfortable, laid-back middle ground between the frenzy of shopping, commercialism and noisy night life on St. Thomas and the tomb-quiet setting of St. John. St. Croix (rhymes with “boy”) combines just enough attributes of those nearby islands to satisfy most travelers, then adds its own unique flavor.

That includes the roast-pig-on-a-spit party held each Saturday along Mahogany Road. Then there are the red-roofed pastel buildings in the picture-book harbor town of Christiansted, one of the prettiest in the Caribbean.

Colorful names — the likes of Body Slob, Little Profit and Rust Up Twist — remain from times when the island was divided into sugar-cane estates owned by planters from Denmark and neighboring Caribbean islands.

Also adding color to the canvas are the seven flags that have flown over St. Croix. Columbus landed there during his second voyage to the New World for the Spanish queen, in 1493. Settlers from the Netherlands, England and France followed. The island also was granted for a time to the Knights of Malta, a religious order that traced its roots to Jerusalem in the 11th century.

Denmark took possession in 1733, after also acquiring St. Thomas and St. John, and held the island for nearly 200 years. Despite the Danes’ inexperience in colonizing and the island’s distance from their homeland, St. Croix flourished under Denmark with a plantation economy based on sugar cane, cotton, tobacco, molasses and rum. The United States, concerned about the security of the Panama Canal, purchased St. Croix and its sister islands in 1917 for $25 million.

Not surprisingly, given this checkerboard history, St. Croix retains vestiges of influences from its past. Cars are driven on the left (British) side of roads. English is the primary language, although some Spanish is heard, as is the local patois.

I describe the predominant architectural style as Danish-Caribbean. In Christiansted, the old Danish capital, yellow, pink, salmon and other pastel buildings line narrow streets. Sidewalks are covered by overhung second-story balconies, which were designed to shade pedestrians from the burning sun. Boutiques and galleries occupy the ground levels of buildings, often below apartments of their owners.

RESTORED WATERFRONT

Most major historic sites are grouped in the meticulously restored waterfront area. Fort Christiansvaern was built by the Danes beginning in 1738 and, despite its deep dungeons and a collection of imposing cannons, never was involved in a battle. The fort’s battery provides an excellent spot from which to photograph the old town and harbor.

The Post Office and Customs House once was a warehouse; slave auctions were held in the courtyard. The Steeple Building just across the street was built in 1753 as a church, but now it houses a museum with displays tracing the island’s history from the time of its earliest Indian inhabitants.

Nearby Government House served as both the residence of governors of the Danish West Indies and seat of the colonial government. The oldest central section, built in 1747 as a home, has touches reminiscent of the luxurious life of wealthy planters and merchants at the time when sugar was king. Standing in the elegant ballroom, one can easily imagine Danish noblemen and well-to-do plantation owners leading their ladies in a waltz.

The other major town is sleepy little Frederiksted, a somewhat fading shell whose residents wait in hope for the return of cruise ships to its deep-water dock. Since they stopped coming several years ago, many vendors’ stalls along the waterfront of the once-bustling little community have stood quiet, and a number of buildings have lost their paint and dignity.

What is a hardship for those who depended on cruise passengers for their livelihood has a plus side for visitors. The absence of oceangoing behemoths spilling their visitors-for-a-day onto shore means a much less crowded island environment. Despite the somewhat run-down condition of Frederiksted, I found a charm and sense of real life there that in ways has a less theme-park feeling than renovated, squeaky-clean Christiansted.

Frederiksted contains a few sites of historic interest. Restored, russet-colored Fort Frederik, built 1752 to 1760, hovers over the now-quiet harbor next to the once-busy cruise-ship pier. It houses a small local history museum. In adjacent Buddhoe Park, the proclamation freeing the slaves in the Danish West Indies was read in 1848.

Equally appealing to me were the broad, tree-shaded streets lined by an eclectic mix of architecture. After the town was destroyed by fire in 1879, Victorian wooden buildings, many adorned by fanciful gingerbread trim, were constructed on top of the original stone and brick foundations. Even the KFC outlet, which could add a jarring note, is housed in an old, rather nondescript structure.

Given the small size of St. Croix — its 84 square miles make it not much larger than the District of Columbia — visitors may take in the major sites during a single day. Then, if they wish, they can return to some of the best beaches, most of them on the western part of the island.

Whether taking a guided tour or driving yourself, virtually every itinerary includes several must-see attractions. The Whim Greathouse presents an immersion in life as it was on a 19th-century sugar plantation. The three-room home is surrounded by a cookhouse, windmill, sugar factory, rum still and other structures that combined to make the estate a self-supporting entity.

Anyone with an interest in antiques will delight at furnishings in the oval, high-ceilinged main house. I was especially taken by a graceful mahogany bassinet with slotted sides to admit gentle breezes. Among other pre-air-conditioning efforts to cool the environment were 3-foot-thick outer walls constructed of an unlikely combination of stone, coral, lime and molasses, and a waterless moat surrounding the house to capture the breezes.

PLANTER’S CHAIR

Of interest in a different way is a wooden planter’s chair with long arm extensions. The guide said it was used by plantation owners, at the end of a long day on horseback wearing tight boots, to elevate their legs so swelling would subside enough to allow the footwear to be removed.

History of another kind provides the backdrop for the St. George Village Botanical Garden. It occupies grounds that were an Arawak Indian village for 900 years, then a Danish sugar-cane plantation from 1733 until 1917. Ruins and restorations dot the 16-acre setting with more than 1,500 species of tropical plants. The ruins enhance the settings for gardens of cactuses, succulents and orchids.

As I followed the route outlined in the self-guided-tour brochure, I learned about 18th- and 19th-century plantation life. I could almost hear the pounding of the blacksmith in his shop, the overseer shouting orders from his house and the sounds of slaves as they toiled in the fields and did their daily chores in the stone structures that served as their homes. I marveled at the ingenuity that designed and built the flume that supplied water to the sugar and rum factory, and the sluice through which water flowed from a dam more than a mile away to power a wheel.

Experiences such as these, common on St. Croix, differentiate the island from other sun-and-sand vacation destinations. Which is not to say that outstanding beaches are wanting.

Davis Bay and Cane Bay, adjacent to each other on the northwestern corner of St. Croix, are rimmed by the kind of beaches that show up in advertising photographs. Palm trees cast shadows over fine white sand, and good swimming and snorkeling are just offshore.

Sandy Point, on the southwestern tip, is the largest beach in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In spring, leatherback sea turtles haul themselves over the sand to lay their eggs, then lumber back into the sea. Two other endangered species, green and hawksbill turtles, also participate in this annual ritual on this and other beaches around the island.

Even non-swimmers can enjoy a bit of snorkeling at Spratt Hall Beach on the west end. Fish come so close to shore, it’s possible for a person to stand at the water’s edge and spot them. Farther out, fish congregate in such numbers that when I told my wife I had just swum through several schools, she replied, “Those were entire universities.”

BUCK ISLAND

Much better known as a snorkeling mecca is the underwater national park surrounding Buck Island, 11/2 miles off the northeastern coastline of St. Croix. Snorkelers jumping off boats seem at times to be as common as the fish below as they follow sunken markers that trace the trail through the reef system.

The Buck Island barrier reef ranks among the best in the Caribbean, although some divers report that sections of it have died. In addition, St. Croix is almost surrounded by other coral reefs that offer 47 dive sites for scuba enthusiasts.

TROPICAL RAIN FOREST

Water of another kind is encountered at what’s known locally as the Tropical Rain Forest along Mahogany Road near the west coast. This little patch of lush vegetation differs from the low, scrub-covered hills around parts of the island. Despite its somewhat boastful name, the enclave technically ranks only as a tropical moisture forest.

We drove through most of its five-mile length, passing beneath a canopy of trees over the narrow winding road before realizing we had entered it. If you park your car and walk into the dense forest along one of the narrow footpaths, though, you’re suddenly surrounded by kapok, turpentine and mahogany trees; hanging vines; and oversized ferns. Mango, lime and other fruit trees are dwarfed by their larger neighbors, and the branches are filled with enough singing and twittering to delight any bird-watcher.

Around almost every curve of the roads, St. Croix serves up scenery and additional reminders of its history. Almost two-thirds of its gentle landscape and low, rolling hills once were covered by fields of sugar cane. The remains of more than 155 limestone mills that crushed cane to extract the juice recall the heady days when sugar and rum made planters wealthy.

It is this combination of past with present-day pleasures that makes St. Croix so enticing. It may not be a love-at-first-sight destination, but its laid-back charm makes it a place that visitors return to year after year.

Try the johnny cakes; take a Safari Tour

St. Croix combines the convenience of visiting an American destination — the same language, money and even electrical outlets — with the sense of being in a foreign place.

To enter in these security-conscious times, Americans need a passport or something else to prove U.S. citizenship, such as a birth certificate and photo ID.

American Airlines flies nonstop to St. Croix from Miami, and US Airways from Charlotte, N.C. A number of commuter airlines connect with St. Croix from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the islands of Tortola and St. Thomas.

Other than remembering to drive on the left side of the road, getting around St. Croix by car is easy. While there are fewer road signs than one might like, residents are very helpful. At times, I found them too eager to assist and was ready to drive on well before they had finished giving detailed directions to make certain I understood the route.

Those who prefer not to drive themselves may wish to join a St. Croix Safari Tour operated by Sweeney Toussaint. His 5½-hour narrated trips aboard an open-air bus stop at the major attractions around the island and cost $38, including admission fees, plus about $10 for lunch. Mr. Toussaint is as pleasant as he is knowledgeable and has become a bit of an island legend.

Dining at a local restaurant provides opportunities to mingle with residents and, if you wish, sample Cruzan specialties such as goat and the cornmeal biscuits called johnny cakes.

In Christiansted, Harvey’s attracts a crowd for lunch, the only meal it serves. Richie Harvey tends the tiny bar and waits on diners at about a dozen small tables. The menu, jotted on a small yellow pad, usually includes soup, and the red pea and callaloo soups prepared by Mr. Harvey’s mother have won recent awards. Some of the fresh fish was caught by Mr. Harvey’s father. Menu items the day I visited included entrees of stewed goat ($8), boiled kingfish ($10) and conch ($12), accompanied by huge portions of pigeon peas and rice, plantain, vegetables and other sides.

Not far away is Kim’s Restaurant, which has seven tables inside, two on the sidewalk and a bar with five chairs. Though the menu is limited, the fish, chicken and conch are served with rice or linguine, salad and johnny cakes. Prices are in the $10-to-$14 range. Inviting but potentially frustrating are blackboard specials that often sell out early. Kitchen service operates on island (read “slow”) time.

For more information about St. Croix, call 800/372-8784 or visit www.usvitourism.vi

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