From snorkeling to city life, the island of St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands is an easy trip for American families seeking warm weather and something different.
St. Croix is the perfect destination for a tropical family vacation–and it’s only a few hours from home. U.S. citizens don’t even need a passport to visit the capital Christiansted, snorkel off the North Coast, wander old plantations, and play water sports. From Point Udall, the eastern-most point in the United States, to the western port of Frederiksted the island abounds with natural beauty, historic interest, cultural charm and activities for all ages.
To celebrate the new millennium, the St. Croix Landmark Society and the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism have developed the St. Croix Heritage Trail (340/772-0598). The superb new fold-out brochure and map is a trip in itself. (For a copy and other information contact the U.S.V.I. Department of Tourism ( 800/372-USVI).
You can rent a car and follow the map and signposts at your own pace. (Part of St. Croix’s Danish heritage is driving on the left side of the road, but traffic is sparse and road surfaces are good.) Avis, Budget, Hertz and other agencies have desks at the airport, near the baggage claim. Plan to spend at least two days touring with the kids to do the island justice.
Or you can arrange a tour through your hotel concierge. An especially fun way is aboard an open-air safari bus, under the protection of its roof, with a knowledgeable local guide. We were fortunate to have the services of the expert and entertaining Sweeney of St. Croix Safari Tours (340/773-6700).
Start Your Tour in Christiansted
Most visitors arrive at the island’s airport, which is currently undergoing a major renovation, though with minimal inconvenience for travelers. It’s a quarter-hour drive into the capital, Christiansted, the prettiest port in the Caribbean.
The town is centered around a spacious waterfront square, the Christiansted National Historic Site, administered by the National Parks Service, all of it recently renovated and painted a warm yellow with dark green and white trim. (Open weekdays 8am to 4:45pm; weekends 9am-4:45pm. Admission $3 for adults 16 and over; under 16 free with adult.)
Fort Christiansvaern dominates the site, its cannons still trained on the entrance to the harbor, which it defended so well that the town was never successfully invaded. Kids will relish an opportunity to explore it, peer into several fully restored rooms and examine the big guns close up. Everyone will enjoy the view.
The site also includes the Steeple Building Museum (Open weekdays 9am to 4pm; Saturdays 9am until noon), the Danish Customs House, the Scale House, and the Danish West India & Guinea Company Warehouse, which was also a slave market until slavery was outlawed after a non-violent uprising in 1848.
St. Croix’s greatest architectural treasure, the Government House, a splendid example of the elegant, neo-classical Danish colonial style, is a couple of blocks inland. A twelve-million-dollar renovation of this imposing three-story building was just recently completed. You can walk inside its courtyard and climb the grand staircase for a glimpse into its impressive ballroom. (Free admission. Open weekdays 8am to 5 pm.)
Give yourself a couple of hours at least to stroll about town, especially along the lovely waterfront promenade, Strand Street, where shops and restaurants will beckon. (To narrow the field to your own special interests, find a copy of the St. Croix This Week, a pink, free monthly guide.)
The St. Croix Aquarium, in the Caravelle Arcade, in the heart of the shopping district, has tanks of brightly colored tropical fish and various marine life, guided tours with some hands-on experience, and an educational gift shop.
There’s regular ferry service out to Protestant Cay, the island across the harbor, where there’s a beach suitable for young children, a good hotel, and an okay restaurant that serves island specialties and features live entertainment most nights, including an astonishingly energetic Mocko Jumbie dancer on stilts in an exuberantly colorful costume.
Snorkel Off St. Croix’s North Coast
You might begin your tour of the island with a drive along the northern shore out to Point Udall, named after former Secretary of Interior Stuart Udall. On the way you’ll find many scenic views and several old sugarcane estates, in various states of disrepair. (Sugarcane was a major source of income until the 1960s.) The impressive new monument celebrates the new millennium–MM is 2000 in Roman numerals–and functions as a giant sundial, with compass points indicated by brass letters. Just before you reach the point, there’s a path leading down to a remote beach that few people ever visit–a great place for a picnic or a quick swim.
Buck Island Reef National Monument lies off this northeastern shore. Underwater enthusiasts should definitely plan a visit to its underwater snorkeling trail. There’s an easy, kid-friendly hiking trail to the highest point on the island, which rewards you with a spectacular view of the barrier reef and St. John Island. Small boats can be chartered for the excursion; ask your hotel concierge to recommend an operator that fits your particular needs, if you have small children or are inexperienced divers. Plan on leaving in the morning and spending the better part of a day.
Plantations and Heritage Dominate St. Croix’s South & West
Follow the Heritage Trail signs and you’ll find yourself on the island’s main east-west highway, Route 70, Centerline Road or Queen Mary Highway. (Queen Mary was a leader of an 1878 labor insurrection.) The vegetation grows more luxuriant as you proceed west because the leeward end of the island gets more rainfall.
Near the west end of the island you’ll find the lovingly-tended St. George Village Botanical Garden, a must stop for anyone smitten with horticulture. Those interested in the island’s most famous product will find the Cruzan Rum Distillery just south on the road to the airport.
By this time you will have seen several old sugarcane estates and, if they have piqued the least interest, you must visit the restored Estate Whim Plantation Museum, where you’ll find 11 acres of well-kept grounds, a handsome 18th-century greathouse fully appointed with period furniture, the various machinery used to mill the juice from the cane, and the vats in which it was boiled down to sugar and molasses. Expert guides in distinctive local dress can give you more specifics. Duck into the kitchen for a fresh-fried Johnny cake, the local no-hole donut. The gift shop has the best selection on the island.
The southwest corner of the island is the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, an important nesting grounds for leatherback turtles. It’s rarely open to casual visitors.
Historic Fredericksted isn’t as impressive as the capital, but it’s interesting and well worth a stop for a meal, a stroll along the waterfront promenade–even if it’s inundated by crowds from cruise ships that dock at the island’s principal harbor–and a little nightlife. The town was burned during the labor insurrection in 1878, then rebuilt with the gingerbread embellishment popular during the late Victorian era.
Just north of town Route 76, Mahogany Road, leads off to the right into a lush tropical jungle. No visit to St. Croix would be complete without a drive through what remains of the tropical hardwood forest that covered the island before the trees were lumbered and cleared to plant sugarcane.
Adventure Outings & Recreation in St. Croix
The northwest end of the island offers the most for those who want to commune with nature at a slower pace. You can hike, bike or ride horses or even donkeys. St. Croix Bike and Tours (340/772-2343) offers two tours : one out to Hamm’s Bluff, near the northwest corner of the island, another more demanding one through the rain forest. Paul and Jill’s Equestrian Stables (340/772-2880), at Sprat Hall, north of Fredericksted, offer several expertly-guided tours–along with riding instruction, if needed. Make reservations at least a day in advance.
Golfers will surely want to play a round at St. Croix’s best links, Carambola Golf Course (340/778-0797), designed by the late Robert Trent Jones. The Buccaneer Hotel (800/255-3881; 340/712-2100) also has an excellent course with spectacular views, just east of Christiansted.
There’s plenty of good diving all around the island, but Salt Bay River National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, midway along the northern coast, offers the widest variety of water sports. Plus it’s the place where Columbus first landed on his second voyage to the New World. We especially enjoyed the three-hour kayak tour of mangrove marshes and beaches with Caribbean Adventure Tours, (340/778-1522), which also books hiking and nature photography tours. Colorful plastic sea kayaks are very safe and easily mastered, even by young children, who can also share a double.
There’s also windsurfing, employing the dependable Trade Winds off the northeastern coast. St. Croix Water Sports Center (340/773-7060), at the Hotel on the Cay, has rentals and lessons, as well as parasailing and other watersports equipment.
These are only a few of St. Croix’s more outstanding attractions. Get a free Heritage Trail brochure to plan your own outing and learn more about the island’s vibrant cultural life.
Planning a St. Croix Stay
For family-friendly accommodations, FTF recommends the Buccaneer (800/255-3881; 340/712-2100), St. Croix’s famous family-owned luxury resort, just east of Christiansted; the Chenay Bay Beach Resort (800/548-4457), three miles east of Christiansted; and the Sunterra Resorts Carambola Beach Resort (800/548-4457), a half-hour drive west of Christiansted.
FTF contributor David D’Agostino adds, “While in St. Croix, we had the pleasure of attending a dinner hosted by Victor Barrios, then General Manager of the Chenay Bay Beach Resort. Victor and his wife were two of the friendliest hosts I’ve ever encountered and they go out of their way to attract new guests and keep the old ones coming back. Chenay Bay offers completely redone one-bedroom and studio bungalows with full kitchens, and cozy living rooms and plenty of activities including guided Jet-ski runs through the bay. Their ocean view, open-air restaurant, like the rest of the resort, is comfortable, intimate, and inviting and worth a visit.”
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