CHRISTIANSTED, St. Croix, US Virgin Islands — Even before I was able to see daylight’s gift — a sea shimmering in a crayon box of blues from turquoise to midnight — my hands told me I’d made it to the Caribbean the night before, their rough, wrinkled winter skin showing just a hint of the smoothness to come.
My partner, Lina, and I decided to visit the largest of the US Virgin Islands (84 square miles) because it offered a little bit of everything: plentiful beaches, green hills, lively town centers, and historic sites. St. Croix has the reputation of being the poor relation to glitzier St. Thomas and lusher St. John, but we found a rich culture here, born of the island’s Danish past, its once-mighty sugar trade, and its cordial Cruzans, as the native islanders are called. Add to that pristine islands to visit, water sports, and even a rain forest to explore and you can see why we were hard- pressed to squeeze everything into a week’s stay last month.
We based ourselves in a centrally located, budget-friendly waterfront apartment along “condo row” in Christiansted, the larger and more tourist-driven of the island’s two towns. With hens and roosters wandering all over, the countryside never felt out of reach. Our street, lined with palm trees and a rainbow of bougainvilleas, also led to working-class neighborhoods and public-housing developments, daily reminders of the poverty here. We never felt unwelcome or unsafe, but for those who prefer more upscale and tropical settings, mid-level to pricey beachfront resorts and villas cover the island.
Strike up a conversation with a local or a fellow tourist and you’ll immediately be asked, “Have you been to Buck Island yet?” Put St. Croix’s jewel on top of your list. Surrounding the uninhabited island, a 30-minute boat ride from Christiansted, lies the underwater Buck Island Reef National Monument, a protected reef system that includes a short marked trail. While some of the coral is in tough shape, the clear water nonetheless offers the area’s best snorkeling. Unless you have access to a private boat, you’ll need to use one of the National Park Service’s six concessionaires. Unfortunately, no outfitter allows enough opportunity to also experience the island’s hiking trails.
After an hour in the water, we climbed back aboard and compared notes. I sought out Oliver Martin, 15, from Marion, Pa., who, with his dad, were the only people near me when I witnessed a heart-stopping sight.
“I knew it was a shark right away,” Oliver said proudly. “It had that fin on top. I was a little nervous, but not too much.”
I agreed. With the help of a deckhand, we concluded it was a lemon shark, probably about 5 feet long. We also were treated to sightings of a large school of shiny blue tang, iridescent parrotfish, long-bodied trumpetfish, and camouflaged Nassau grouper. Apparently I was the only one to see a barracuda flash its teeth.
With Buck Island checked off the list, Lina and I devoted a couple of days to the island’s history. St. Croix contains the only known site where one of Columbus’s expeditions set foot on what is now US soil, in 1493. Before then, the area was populated by various indigenous tribes. From the hilltop visitors center at Salt River Preserve National Historical Park (once a private home), we saw sweeping views of the sea, northwest St. Croix, and Salt River Bay, where Columbus ventured.
Park interpreter Anibal Colon Jr. led us to the patio to bring the imagined scene to life. “Columbus anchored his fleet off the shore there,” he said, pointing to a curve in the bay. “And see that space between the house and those palm trees? That was where the Carib Indian village was.” The area can be reached by car as well, and is marked with only one small sign.
Six other rulers have occupied St. Croix since Columbus’s Spain: Britain, the Netherlands, France, Knights of Malta, Denmark, and, since 1917, the United States. (Columbus named the island Santa Cruz, or Holy Cross, and its natives were called Cruzans. The French renamed it St. Croix.) Africa’s influence is equally felt, as the island’s socioeconomic system was based on slave labor for more than 150 years. Today about 80 percent of US Virgin Islands residents are descendants of slaves, and their culture lives on here in lilting West Indian dialects; music, especially quelbe, a fusion of rhythms and chants created by plantation workers; and cuisine, such as seafood callaloo, a spicy, thick soup with greens and okra.
Denmark’s influence is most strongly felt in Christiansted and Frederiksted, the western city where cruise ships dock. Even some street signs are in Danish and English. The park service maintains seven sites in downtown Christiansted, where crumbling neoclassical buildings mix with restored ones and gift shops and restaurants stand beside historic sites. The most magnificent is the sprawling canary-yellow Fort Christiansvaern, built by the Danes in 1738 to protect the harbor. Continued...