Note: This travel feature about St. Croix was originally published in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
By Jeff Louderback
Savoring a cup of steaming coffee, Elizabeth Armstrong stands by an archway at The Buccaneer’s open-air Terrace Restaurant and gazes at the Caribbean Sea. Soon, she will guide a group of guests on a nature walk of the resort’s lush and rolling 340 acres.
The Buccaneer Beach & Golf Resort, St. Croix’s first hotel, is a gem among the luxurious resorts in this tropical paradise. It is one of the oldest family-owned properties in the Caribbean, founded in 1948 when Douglas and Rachel Armstrong opened an 11-room inn in the 17th century home where U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton lived as a boy.
“We call this a luxury playground,” said Ms. Armstrong, who operates the resort with her brother, Robert Armstrong. “Everything you need is right here, but if you want to visit island attractions, we can help make arrangements.”
The largest of the three United States Virgin Islands – St. Thomas and St. John are the others – St. Croix is diverse yet unspoiled. Trendy restaurants, cosmopolitan boutiques, and historic landmarks accentuated by a West Indies flair line the streets of Christiansted and Frederiksted, the island’s two cities that retain their 18th century Danish mystique. In St. Croix, isolated beaches with soft sugar-white sands and secluded coves where white-capped waves crash against rock-strewn shores are bountiful. From the lush rainforest and tropical flora found in the western mountains to the cacti-dotted sloping hills and jutting red cliffs on the east end, the island is a contrast in nature.
To experience the island’s natural splendor and rich history on your own, rent a car and venture along the St. Croix Heritage Trail. Extending from Point Udall, where a Stonehenge-inspired monument marks the easternmost point of the United States in the Western Hemisphere, to Frederiksted’s historic seaport on the western end, the heritage trail is a self-guided tour linking more than 200 storied sites.
Roadside directional signs to the trail’s sites are adorned with the image of a windmill, St. Croix’s signature landmark. The island’s landscape is dotted with the ruins of 300-plus windmills – remnants of Danish plantations from the 18th century. Homes and resorts and have sprouted around many of the mill remnants. Others are part of restored plantations where the one-time staple of Crucian life is interpreted.
Though sugar is no longer produced on St. Croix, rum is a libation exported worldwide from the island. The Cruzan Rum Distillery makes rum from a location once known as Estate Diamond, where the spirit has been manufactured for 300 years. Rum-and-punch seems as common in St. Croix as Coke and Pepsi, so it is appropriate that the distillery’s guided tour includes a rum drink.
Lined with restored West Indian townhouses, Christiansted’s narrow streets and alleys, lined with open to courtyards and arcades filled with an eclectic mixture of jewelry shops, fashion boutiques, gift stores, art galleries, and eateries. The “hook” and “knot” bracelets are unofficial symbols of St. Croix. Every jewelry store has its own version of one or the other, but the original designs are found at Crucian Gold and Sonya Ltd.
Fine dining spots like Bacchus Restaurant and the Bombay Club, both tucked away in restored townhouses where hand-cut steaks and local lobster are served, are scattered around downtown Christiansted. Steel pan and reggae bands perform at open-air bars and restaurants on weekend nights along the waterfront. A boardwalk is under construction and will stretch from the Christiansted Historic Site to Gallows Bay, where seaplanes make trips to and from St. Thomas.
On the island’s western tip, the often sleepy Frederiksted is best visited on Wednesday when cruise ships dock at the pier, which offers a panoramic view of the town’s historic waterfront shopping district and Fort Frederik, the striking brick red Danish stockade built in the mid-1700s.
A short walk from the pier, Santa Cruz Brewery is housed in a former sugar factory where plantation owners distilled rum from molasses. Once a rum distillery, Santa Cruz Brewery now produces the island’s first commercially marketed beer. A museum illustrates the history of rum production, and the fictional pirate Don Santa Cruz provides entertainment in the theater.
Frederiksted springs to life during Harbour Night on Wednesday, when shops bustle, steel pan bands perform and mocko jumbies (stiltwalkers) dance in the streets.
Any Crucian will say that a trip to the Buck Island Reef National Monument is a must when on St. Croix. An assortment of tour operators based in Christiansted offer reasonably-priced half-day and full-day sojourns. Snorkeling is the main draw at this natural wonder that consists of 880 acres – 176 of which are uninhabited land. The remaining 704 are coral reefs in aquamarine waters. The barrier reef surrounds most of Buck Island like a submerged fortress wall that rises 30 feet from the sea floor. At the eastern tip, an underwater trail meanders through coral grottoes and to the reef’s edge. Schools of tropical fish swim amid massive elkhorn corals. Sea turtles frolic in the distance.
After snorkeling the underwater trail, a picnic lunch on Buck Island’s West Beach is the reviving elixir to prepare for a 45-minute hike on a path that ascends to the island’s highest peak. St. Croix’s rugged mountains and the glimmering Caribbean Sea are visible from the top of an observation tower along the trail.
Back at The Buccaneer, some never leave the resort during their stay – especially golf and tennis enthusiasts.
Bordered by a nature trail where lizards and mongooses frolic, the neatly manicured 18-hole golf course offers a stiff challenge and spectacular hillside views of the sea. Tennis Magazine called The Buccaneer’s eight-court facility one of the 10 best in the Caribbean. The resort has three white-sand, palm-studded beaches. Whistle Beach, the most secluded, is where species of endangered turtles nest.
Guests who prefer the most luxurious accommodations choose The Buccaneer’s Doubloon villas situated on Mermaid Beach. The lavish villas feature a large sitting area, king-size bed ceiling fan, air conditioning, and furnished balcony overlooking Mermaid Beach and Christiansted in the distance. About a third of the floor space is devoted to the bathroom area, complete with a large vanity, spacious walk-in closet, and a whirlpool bath beneath a skylight.
In St. Croix, only the calendar changes. The warm air, the gentle breezes, and the colorful waters of the Caribbean Sea remain constant. Life should always be this good.