Destination: St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

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St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

Just 40 miles south of St. Thomas and St. John, there’s a cruiser’s paradise waiting to be discovered—again.

In salt water so clear you’d swear it wasn’t there as you looked down through it, I hovered, horizontal and almost motionless, over a massive brain coral several feet below, watching tiny, electric-yellow goldies flit over its surface. Drifting with the current over a ridge, I came upon a grotto on the far side that was alive with light and color. A large school of blue tangs shimmered along the reef’s surface, purple bodies and hot-blue fins contrasting vividly with the green vegetation clinging to the grotto’s standing coral and the crumbled white coral that littered the sandy ocean bottom.

I held still and let the current carry me across another ridge, where elkhorn coral rose up in a massive forest. I watched transfixed as a stoplight parrot fish moved lazily beneath a canopy of outstretched coral arms.

I was snorkeling on the west end of Buck Island, part of the Buck Island Reef National Monument, just off the northeast coast of St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S.V.I.). I’d come at the invitation of a friend to tour the island, located just south of the islands of St. Thomas and St. John. St. Croix has its own charm and history and, by comparison to its northern neighbors, is far more laid back and far less overrun by hordes of cruise ship passengers.

And it’s far easier to visit than many other Caribbean destinations. Elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Bermuda, U.S. citizens traveling by air, land, or sea must carry a passport. But since the U.S.V.I. are a United States territory, American citizens traveling to or from St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas are considered not to have left the U.S., and thus do not need to present a passport. Currency in St. Croix is the U.S. dollar, as well.

Measuring 28 miles long and 7 miles at its widest point, St. Croix is the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. With all the beauty and warmth of a made-for-cruisers tropical destination, this island, which lies entirely in the Caribbean Sea, has a distinct history and cultural heritage that set it apart from other Caribbean islands. Its rich and diverse history stretches back to its discovery by Christopher Columbus, and it is alive even today with the architecture, national parks, historic landmarks, botanical attractions, food, music, and traditions that are an integral part of island life.

One of only a few fully protected marine areas in the National Park System, Buck Island Reef National Monument was established by presidential proclamation in 1961, and expanded in 2001, to preserve “one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean Sea.” The 176-acre island and surrounding coral reef ecosystem support a large variety of native flora and fauna, including several endangered and threatened species, such as hawksbill turtles and brown pelicans. The elkhorn coral barrier reef that surrounds two-thirds of the island has extraordinary coral formations, deep grottoes, abundant reef fishes, sea fans, and gorgonians.

To explore the island or reef, you will need a boat. Five concessionaires offer trips to Buck Island from St. Croix under permits. Buck Island information (and a list of concessionaires) is available at the National Park Service visitor contact station at Fort Christiansvaern, in downtown Christiansted. Buck Island Reef National Monument is open year-round. There is no overnight camping on the island; the park is closed from sunset to sunrise to protect nesting sea turtles that come ashore at night. Anchorage is available overnight to boaters within the designated area on the west end of the island. There is no entry fee, but a permit is required to anchor within the designated area.

I raised my head above the waters, partly to clear my mask and locate my fellow snorkelers, partly to gauge how far I would need to swim back to Sea Quell, our host diving platform for the day, a magnificent William Garden-designed world cruiser built by Alloy Yachts, now resting on the hook in the designated anchorage area. Actively engaged in the worldwide charter trade, this motorsailer circled the world between 1997 and 2003 and now spends her time chartering primarily in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean (www.charterbrochure.com/seaquell). Of course, the captain would send the RIB out to get us if we asked, but we were all of a mind to stretch out and shake off winter’s dormant effects. A quick glance to my right revealed Christiansted, some 5 miles distant.

EUROPEAN INFLUENCES

Christiansted, formerly the capital of the U.S.V.I., is found on the island’s north shore and is considered by many to be the perfect place for travelers to begin their journey into St. Croix’s past. Christiansvaern, the imposing, yellow-brick fort built by the Danes to warn off would-be pirates and imprison those who were caught plundering the island’s ports, stands guard over Christiansted Harbor.

There is much to see while touring this historic port. For instance, Christiansted’s Steeple Building, the first church to be built on the island by the Danes, is now a museum housing artifacts from St. Croix’s Carib and Arawak Indian settlements, as well as the island’s diverse colonial past. Another church of historic note is Friedensthal Moravian Church, the oldest church of its kind under the American flag. Not to be missed, the Christiansted Apothecary, founded in 1828 by a Danish pharmacist, operated at the same address until its doors closed to business in 1970. It has now been transformed into a major cultural attraction displaying a wide range of historic objects and artifacts from the original shop.

St. Croix’s historical treasures, many of them preserved by the National Park Service near the old town wharf, reflect a time when the island was a prosperous commercial port, oftentimes plagued by looting pirates along its coastline. Seven flags—Spanish, Dutch, British, French, Knights of Malta, Danish, and, finally, the Stars & Stripes—have flown at different times over the island, influencing the island’s distinctly 18th-century European architecture. These days, colorful, well-stocked shops, and a fine selection of restaurants where good food beckons, are found in colonial-era structures near the center of town.

On the western end of the island, and easily viewed from the open roadstead, St. Croix’s other main town, Frederiksted, also has a massive stone fort that was built to protect it from marauding pirates. The town has a laid-back charm and boasts a number of well-maintained Victorian houses and 19th-century churches, as well as the island’s only lighthouse. The lighthouse that towers over Frederiksted port from its vantage point on Hams Bluff, while built in the late 1800s, is a major navigational aid. Most cruisers visit by car, and moor farther east along the northern shore.

Away from the towns, visitors to St. Croix can discover reminders of the days when sugar cultivation was the island’s main industry. Dotted around the island are the remains of 54 sugar mills, where crumbling windmill towers rest in the shadows of stately 18th- and 19th-century great houses. Some of these, such as Estate Island Plantation Museum, have been lovingly restored to their former splendor and are now popular tourist attractions. Rental cars are available in Christiansted, but you’ll have to adapt to driving on the left-hand side of the road. This can be a little tricky at first, particularly in the towns. But once you are out on the main roads, which completely encircle St. Croix, you will be more at ease and able to appreciate the island’s topography, which ranges from rain-forest hills on the west end to semiarid desert in the east.

Curious to know about accommodations for cruising boats visiting St. Croix, I consulted two of my favorite sources, Exploring the Virgin Islands, by Joe Russell and Mark Bunzel (www.fineedge.com), and The Cruising Guide to the Virgin Islands, by the editors of Cruising Guides Publications (www.cruisingguides.com). While the anchorage west of Protestant Cay is well populated with local boats, visiting cruisers will find good holding and good protection in Gallows Bay or in the waters just east of Protestant Cay. Several marinas are available, including St. Croix Marine, a full-service marina and boatyard, where Sea Quell tied up for the evening once our Buck Island explorations were complete. As I wandered down the docks, I spied two Nordic Tugs pulling gently at their lines, moored safely in an island paradise awaiting further exploration.

 A REMARKABLE PAST, A COLORFUL PRESENT

East of Christiansted, the small island of Green Cay is the main landmark for the Green Cay Marina, and home to the Tamarind Reef Hotel, which could prove handy when the crew is ready for some shore time. Dinner or Sunday brunch at The Galleon, on the waterfront overlooking the marina, is a treat, particularly for those who appreciate its extensive wine list. Continuing east, Teague Bay offers some protection and is said to have government moorings to help protect the reefs that surround it.

Another interesting destination is Salt River Bay, part of the Salt River Bay National Historic Park & Ecological Preserve, located to the west of Christiansted. The bay is a virtual living museum—a dynamic tropical ecosystem with prehistoric and colonial-era archeological sites and ruins. It is home to some of the largest mangrove forests in the Virgin Islands, as well as coral reefs and a submarine canyon. Every major period of human habitation in the Virgin Islands is represented: several South American Indian cultures, the 1493 encounter with Columbus, the extermination of the Caribs by the Spanish, attempts at colonization by a succession of European nations, and enslaved West Africans and their descendants. More than a dozen major archeological investigations since 1880, together with historical research, reveal this remarkable story.

This location is the first and only positively documented of two sites associated with Columbus on what is now U.S. territory. On Nov. 14, 1493, on his second voyage to the New World, Columbus came upon the island that the then-dominant Caribs called Cibuquiera(“The Stony Land”). Columbus named it Santa Cruz (“Holy Cross”), which helped give the island its name today. The fleet of 17 vessels (including the Niña, veteran of the first voyage) dropped anchor off the Salt River inlet. The admiral sent more than two dozen armed men ashore in his longboat to explore the native village on the west bank and search for sources of fresh water.

The Visitor Center at Salt River Bay is open November through June. The hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. When the Visitor Center is closed, information may be obtained at the National Park Service visitor contact station at Fort Christianvaern, Christiansted National Historic Site. (Hours are 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. on weekends and holidays.) Park staff may be available for scheduled tours ashore at Salt River Bay. Those wishing to visit may contact rangers at 340.773.1460 two weeks in advance; rangers will do their best to meet your requests. Scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking tours can be arranged, too. Contact the Virgin Islands Department of Tourism at 340.773.0495, or the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce at 340.733.1435, for more information.

Visitors are sure to encounter some of St. Croix’s rich cultural diversity in the form of arts, crafts, and music at festivals that happen throughout the year. “Mocko Jumbies” (talented dancers who perform on stilts), reggae and calypso music, steel bands and salsa—all are among the vibrant sights and sounds that add to the island’s broad cultural mix. Many of these traditions are preserved and taught by The Caribbean Dance Company, established on St. Croix in 1977, which regularly shares the exuberance of its folk dancing with visitors.

And did I fail to mention that St. Croix is a diving destination for experienced and newbie scuba divers alike? There are more than 70 moored dive sites along the northern and western shorelines, with attractions that range from deep walls to reefs alive with tropical fish, rays, dolphins, and sharks. As you might expect, there are a number of certified dive shops to help you explore these underwater beauties.

Blessed with captivating natural beauty, extraordinary historic sites, and lively cultural traditions, St. Croix offers a mix of attractions that are worthy of your cruising plans. For more information about St. Croix, log on to www.visitstcroix.com. For more information about the U.S. Virgin Islands, go to www.visitUSVI.com.

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