By the time we found ourselves in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands in September of 1991, Rick and I were feeling like old hands at island hopping. We knew enough to rent four-wheel drive vehicles (we had a Jeep Wrangler here), to order seafood for dinner, how to find the best beaches, and to enjoy the features that make each island unique. As well, in St. Croix we hoped to find an island somewhat off the more traveled path.
Arguably, visiting the Caribbean in September is not the wisest of moves. Hurricane Hugo tore through St. Croix not two years before our visit. But errant hurricanes and occasional rain are the only real drawbacks to travel in early autumn. Although one can’t reason with the hurricane season, the rain is only a minor inconvenience. Indeed, we looked upon the brief showers, which passed in a matter of minutes and left blue skies behind, as a respite from the otherwise harsh sun. Heat is not really a problem either, because the islands are caressed by steady trade winds. And if one is willing to assume the risks of a hurricane passing through, he will be rewarded with lower rates and no crowds.
Between reserving our trip and taking off, many naysayers tried to warn us off St. Croix, though it would do little good since our tickets were non-refundable. However, all this negative talk had the effect of lowering my expectations of St. Croix. I’d heard about the looting and rioting after Hugo; I’d heard about high crime rates and hostile islanders; and I’d heard about the drug problems. And, as we boarded our flight to St. Croix from Puerto Rico, a mere 40 miles away, after a downpour that left the tarmac with two inches of standing water, I had dim hope that the weather would be very good. However, none of my fears were borne out. Everyone we encountered was friendly, and we saw little evidence of crime or drugs (though I don’t doubt that they were there). And the weather was great.
We had chosen a resort that suited our island style. We stayed at Chenay Bay Beach Resort on the northeastern shore of the island, directly opposite Green Cay. We had our own little cottage, complete with a kitchen which enabled us to eat breakfast and some lunches at home base. Our cottage faced the sea, and had a porch and chairs, allowing us to savor the sunset (or sunrise or any other part of the day) with a cool drink in hand. The resort was described as “barefoot casual,” and that it was (although it was a little painful to get around barefoot on the stone paths), featuring a beachside restaurant and bar that did not require the guests to dry off or cover up after making their way from the water.
The first thing we normally do after checking into our resort is to shed our clothes and jump in the water, or at least take a walk on the beach, but that was delayed this time. Because our room was not ready when we arrived, we availed ourselves of the proximity of the bar (and complimentary drink ticket) and ordered up some rum punches, the first of many. The first night rarely inspires us to venture beyond our resort for dinner, so we stayed for dinner at Chenay Bay, feasting on jerk chicken, conch fritters, rice and beans, and listening to the soft whisper of the Caribbean Sea lapping up on the beach. Meanwhile, the mosquitos feasted on me, leaving me to scratch myself awake every night.
The first full day on the island was given to exploring. But first, we had to fill our refrigerator with very expensive groceries (but far cheaper, quicker, and, in my opinion, more satisfying, than eating out for breakfast and lunch every day; we definitely learned a lesson in Antigua…). After stocking up, we embarked on our excursion around the island.
St. Croix’s roads were, by far, the best we’ve traveled in the islands. Inexplicably, even though we’re in the U.S., driving is on the left, but Rick is now an old pro at it. Armed with our Wrangler and our road map, we headed east first, as far east as one can go in the United States, to Point Udall. The East End Road hugs the coastline, offering glimpses of slivers of beach bordering various shades of the blue sea on the left, and rocky, dusty hills on the right. The eastern end of the island is arid and cactus-strewn.
Point Udall is reached by following a dirt road, the end of which is marked by a metal guard rail. We scrambled under the guard rail and carefully made our way down the steep, crumbly path to a point where the rocks jut into the sea, twenty feet above the water. There, the force of the constant tradewinds stirs the sea up into large waves which crash endlessly against the rocks, spewing spray into the sky. Well below us, in a cleft in the rock face of the east end of the island, we spotted a wide, sandy and secluded beach, accessible by treacherous looking paths down the side of the rocks. (I could tell that reaching that beach was a challenge Rick would relish.)
We were not alone in savoring the drama of the pounding surf. There were three others there as well: a bearded professor from the University of the Virgin Islands (who took our photo), his son, and their “houseguest.” Because the professor did not yet have a house, the “houseguest” was sharing a hotel room with the professor.
After watching the surf for a while, we made our way back up the hill, this time up a less steep path but one which was choked with thorny plants and cactuses. Rick and I then decided to attempt to head down to the beach (we were wearing swimsuits under our clothes). Apparently, the professor had the same idea because we were right behind him in his little Mitsubishi at the head of the path leading down to the beach. Rick invited them to join us in our Jeep, reasoning that they had a beter chance to make it to the beach (and back!) in our 4WD vehicle. So, the five of us packed into the jeep and headed down a path we later learned was not meant to be taken on by any sort of motor-driven vehicle (mules would have been wiser alternatives).
The road was rutted, uneven, steep and rocky. At any moment, I expected to be pitched headlong into the sea as the Jeep pitchpoled. Somehow, we made it to the beach, which didn’t turn out to be much of a swimmer’s beach after all because the reef began a few feet from the water’s edge. But it was mesmerizing nonetheless because of the pounding waves, coming one after another to shore. We headed back to the top of the hill by another path, which was only slightly better than the one we came down on.
After parting company with the professor, we headed toward the south shore of the island, remarkable for the vistas of the sea and beaches and two boarded up hotels, likely casualties of Hugo (one of which we later learned was for sale for a mere $6 million). Up on top of a hill, we sighted a yellow building which looked to be nothing less than some magnificent mosque, and was in fact the residence of an eccentric jetsetter known as the Contessa. As we made our way to the west, we passed the Hess Oil refinery, the largest in the world, and definitely an anomaly in paradise. Once at the west end of the island, we tried to find our way down dirt roads to a beach known as Sandy Point, a wildlife preserve and nesting ground for leatherback turtles, but didn’t make it to the beach because we were all too heedful of the “No Trespassing” signs.
Beyond the wildlife preserve, we rode along the western coast of St. Croix, passing the town of Fredericksted and the many fine looking beaches of that shore. At that point, we turned back east on one of the “scenic” roads through the mountainous rain forest, with twisting, turning dirt roads hugging the hillsides. The views were inspiring, offering vistas of hillsides tumbling into deep green valleys or falling down into the sea. At one point, it seemed like we were straddling the entire island, eyeing the south shore on one side and the north shore on the other, the mountains behind us, and the central plain before us. Photographs couldn’t begin to capture the wide and varied expanse laid out before us.
Eventually, we wound our way back to the North Shore Road, along which we passed Salt River (the only place in the United States where Columbus ever landed), and the pretty beaches of Cane Bay and Davis Bay, wondering if we wouldn’t have been better off choosing one of the hotels at that end of the island. (We could hardly have imagined at that time that a decade later, Rick's brother would be one of the owners of the Carambola Resort, which he has since sold.) And then we found our way back home.
Despite all the notable sights we saw after circumnavigating the island, I was disappointed for not yet having found any beaches that measured up to my expectations (though we would later). Our own Chenay Bay was not particularly wide, though crescent shaped and approximately a half mile long. And although the bottom sloped gently, it was covered with slimy sea grass. Other beaches we saw seemed small, or steep, or rocky; the recommended beaches were accessible only by passing through other resorts and paying an admission fee. Unlike most other vacations we’d taken, we spent a lot of time in St. Croix in the resort’s pool to get our water fix.
Christiansted was the venue for dinner that evening, at a restaurant called Calabash located on an arcaded street in the heart of town. Like most evenings, it rained for a short time, and we got caught in the downpour as we raced from our Jeep to the restaurant, which was located on a rooftop covered on top by a tent-like tarpaulin, but open at the sides. We were greeted by the hostess/owner with her young son, who guided us to a table at which we soon found ourselves wet and shivering because the wind was blowing the rain in. We moved to a drier spot, and I quickly became tipsy from “Calypso Daiquiris,” a deceptively cool and smooth concoction of various potent liquers. Fish chowder and conch fritters started our meal, and I had grouper with Calabash sauce.
The next day was reserved for exploring Christiansted, the main town. Though still showing signs of being ravaged by Hugo, Christiansted was one of the prettier towns we’d visited in the islands. One gets an overall impression that it is yellow. Fort Christiansvaern, on the waterfront, is painted a deep ocher; the Lutheran church is banana colored; and most government buildings are legal-pad yellow. But the yellow is relieved by pinks, blues and greens. Most of the sidewalks pass under Danish-style arcades, protecting us from the sun. Side streets and alleys often lead to cool courtyards.
Rick and I do not go to the islands to shop, though if we were so inclined, Christianstead has much to offer a duty-free shopper. Despite not spending much time on shopping, on this trip, there were three items which were absolute musts: I was on a mission to buy a swimsuit (and finally having found a shop with suits I liked at the Buccaneer, I bought ALL of the suits I liked so as to avoid looking for several more years); we were going to buy our duty free allotment of Cruzan rum, which we had not at this point seen back home; and, after seeing so many islanders wearing the famous “Cruzan Hook” bracelet, I wanted one for myself.
Tuesday was devoted to finding the beach at Sandy Point. One of our many guidebooks directed us to follow the highway (distinguished by having a speed limit of 55 miles per hour!!) to its end, continue on the dirt road, and turn off at any point to find the beach. This time we ignored the “No Trespassing” signs, deciding that they couldn’t apply to the beach. After bouncing along for several miles along the rutted sand road, we finally chose to turn off and look for the beach. We found one path, but needed to find an alternate route because the main path was under water. We followed another, bramble-choked path and found ourselves on a narrow sliver of sand sloping into rough surf. This did not meet with our satisfaction, so we drove further along the road, choosing to try again after the road made a big right (north) turn. After a short walk past the sea grape trees, we found what we were looking for: a wide expanse of immaculate white sand, stretching for what appeared to be miles, clear azure waters with a sandy bottom, and not a soul in sight. No wonder leatherback turtles chose this beach to nest on! Given a choice, I would too! We lingered for about two hours, leaving only after the beach became too crowded (there were three people within our range of sight), satisfied that we had found St. Croix’s ultimate beach.
After absorbing our share of sun, salt and surf, we headed to Fredericksted for lunch. Though looking for someplace local to eat, we gave in to our craving for American junk food and went to Wendy’s instead. There, we ran into the professor and his son, and compared notes on the best sights to se.
Our next destination was Whim Plantation, the main house of which is said to resemble a French chateau, though only consisting of three rooms whose walls are crafted of stone, coral and molasses. Alas, we encountered one of the few drawbacks of off-season travel: Whim was closed for repairs.
Undaunted, we headed next for the Mahogany Road, which, bordered with mahogany and cypress trees, led us through some of lushest flora on this island. Some of the sights included ruined plantations, dating back several centuries to the days when sugar was king. Indeed, the island is crowded with the hollow hulks of sugar mills standing in mute testimony to the days when they were powered by wind, mules or slaves.
From the Mahogany Road, we made our way to Creque Dam Road, a private road suited only to four wheel drive vehicles, but one which was well worth the effort. There is actually a dam for which the road is named, but no water – at least not when we were there – for the dam to hold back. The deep gorges were covered with luxuriant growths of plants and vines, and ancient cypress trees, with their limbs intertwined and leafless, lining the narrow rocky road. The crests of hills offered views of the jungle, with occasional glimpses of the sea to be seen beyond the trees. Except for the road and the rudimentary dam, there is little here to remind us that St. Croix is an inhabited island. Nevertheless, because Hugo had stripped many of the trees of leaves, the rain forest was not nearly as lush as we might have expected.
Tuesday night featured an island-style buffet at Chenay Bay, a chance to eat local cuisine with the accompaniment of a steel band. That evening really captured the island feeling: the soft trilling of the steel band, the gentle breeze ruffling the palm fronds, the rhythmic hiss of the sea, the caressing warmth of the evening air. But while the atmosphere was all comfort and ease, the food was hot and spicy, requiring us to slug ice cold rum punches and Red Stripes in rapid succession. The menu featured jerk chicken, so hot it puts Cajun cooking to shame; maufi, a fish based soup; roast suckling pig; buttered conch, a Cruzan specialty inspired by Danish butter; and other dishes featuring yams, fish, fruit and the other bounty of the island.
Thanks to our travel agent, on Wednesday we took a required tourist junket at no cost: a boat trip to Buck Island on a glass-bottomed boat operated by Mile Mark Charters. Buck Island is a national park and features a marked snorkeling trail, hiking paths on this island, and what National Geographic reputedly named as one of the ten best beaches in the world. The highlight of the cruise, which departs from Christianstead and takes about 45 minutes to reach Buck Island, is supposed to be the snorkeling, but Rick assured me that he has seen better. I myself had not yet fallen in love with snorkeling (owing largely to the fact that I’d only used ill-fitting rental equipment), so I observed the aquatic life through the windows on the floor of the boat, while Rick snorkeled the trail. Eventually, the boat made its way to the west end of the island to take advantage of the beach.
Buck Island’s beach is a side effect of the digestive process of the parrotfish, which dines on soft coral polyps while pulverizing and expelling the hard coral framework of the reef. Hundreds of years of these parrotfish deposits have resulted in a blinding sugary white swath of sand. We had to jump off the boat and swim for it, which was not exactly a hardship in these warm waters. The only thing that prevented Buck Island’s beach from being perfect was the presence of the other Mile Mark passengers; otherwise, it was ideal.
After returning to Christianstead, we went to the Grog Shop to stock up on our duty free maximum of six bottles of locally-distilled Cruzan Rum, which was not available in our area at home at the time. At $3 a bottle, it was cheaper than bottled water, and more plentiful as well. The proprietor kindly boxed the bottles in an aircraft-safe package, and we were all set. Later, at the Raleigh-Durham airport (back when it was a hub for American Airlines) on our way back to BWI, we could identify fellow island hoppers because they too were toting duty-free liquor.
During this shopping trip, I finally acquired the Cruzan Hook bracelet, designed in St. Croix, which is de riguer among most islanders, male or female, black or white. My bracelet is a narrow silver band; at one end is a horseshoe-shaped hook; at the other end is a loop wrapped in gold wire. The hook slips into the loop. Most versions of the bracelet which I saw were silver with gold wire, though I have seen various combinations of metals and variations on the clasp.
Our last full day on St. Croix was devoted to sailing. We chartered a trimaran, Rickochet, for a half-day sail. Rickochet was conveniently anchored in Chenay Bay, just opposite our cottage. Aside from our captain, Gordon, and his first mate, Rikki, we were the only passengers. Gordon waded to shore with a surfboard, and towed us to the boat on the board so our gear wouldn’t get wet. We sailed to the east for a ways, and then Gordon maneuvered through a narrow passage to get inside the reef that runs for miles along the northern coast of St. Croix between it and Buck Island. We dropped anchor, and then Rick and Gordon snorkeled for over an hour. While Gordon searched for lobsters and found none, Rick simply admired the undersea views, which he assured me were better than those at the Buck Island trail.
While Rick and Gordon snorkeled, Rikki and I chatted. Rikki is a realtor and businesswoman (she owns a bar called The Wreck) who has lived in St. Croix for about 9 years, having come from California. I quizzed her about the realities of island life and the opportunities for business for people like me and Rick. While sharing her insights, Rikki also told me about riding out Hurricane Hugo.
We had our last dinner at a restaurant called Duggan’s Reef, enjoying our last doses of rum punch, conch fritters, fresh grouper and wahoo, and sultry tropical breezes. In typical island fashion, the restaurant was right on the beach, with windows open to the sights, sounds, smells and sensations of the sea. Beautiful vacations like this one leave us vowing to return someday, but also knowing that there are so many other islands we want to explore before we retrace our steps. We were planning to go to Grenada, and perhaps Montserrat the next year…