About 10 years ago, my father and I decided that our Bucket List would consist of scuba diving on as many Caribbean islands as possible. Nearly a decade into that quest, we’ve been to Cayman, the Bahamas, Bonaire and Belize – a place we liked so much we visited twice. My husband agreed to join us in our adventures, so last week my newly enlarged family flew southeast over 1,200 miles to St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Like so many Caribbean nations, the people of St. Croix consist of a rich diversity of haves and have-nots, with perfectly coiffed mansions backing up to muddy little shacks. Unlike other nations, however, this diversity also extends to the flora and fauna – cactuses abound in the nearly desert-like conditions of the east end bluffs, but the ecosystem changes to thick, lush rain forest a mere 10 miles inland. The island itself is 25 miles long and 7 miles wide and has two main cities – Frederiksted, located in the quieter ‘west end’ and Christiansted, on the more bustling ‘north shore’. Originally a Danish colony, it was purchased by the United States in 1917 (along with the other US Virgin Islands – St. Thomas, St. John and the tiny residential-only Water Island) for the scant sum of $25 million. The European influence remains here – cars drive on the left side of the street, some menus are printed in both Danish and English and many native ‘Cruzans’ speak an English-based form of Creole.
Upon arrival at the Henry E. Rohlsen International Airport (unlike most Caribbean airports, it is spacious and air conditioned), we were whisked across the island to Christiansted where we caught a short ferry ride to our hotel – Hotel on the Cay – the sole residence on tiny Protestant Cay so every room offers breathtaking views of downtown Christiansted and it’s anchorage, which is home to hundreds of vessels of all shapes and sizes. Since the ferry runs every couple of minutes, we figured that this location would be our best bet to enjoy both the solitude of being on ‘our own island’ and easy access to the restaurants and happenings in town. From our friendly cab driver, we learned that the original use for the island where we chose to sleep was a burial ground. Apparently, at one point in St. Croix’s history the animosity between the then-dominant Catholics and minority Protestants grew so intense that Protestants were not allowed to be buried on the main island. Hence, ‘Protestant Cay’.
Christiansted, built in 1733, is a town steeped in history. Solid stone buildings in pastel colors with bright red tile roofs line the cobblestone sidewalks, adding a touch of 18th-century European architectural style. Because much of the town was constructed by African slaves, there are many African influences in Christiansted’s design as well. With narrow streets and a law prohibiting the tearing down of old buildings, the city is a cross between modern and medieval – picture flat screen televisions hanging from crumbling stone block. Also, air conditioning is at a premium here so many eateries are open to the elements. Along the boardwalk where the trade winds blow unhampered, this is fresh and inviting, but meandering through town it can be sweltering. The city runs at its own pace, particularly in the summer off-season: stores open and close whenever they want to, loud music is rare and the mood is very, very ‘irie, mon’!
That all changes in the morning, however. In the mid-1900’s, St. Croix’s main industry changed from sugarcane plantations to tourism, and a big part of that tourism is scuba diving. By 8am, Christiansted’s quiet boardwalk is filled with the sounds of tanks being filled, dive flags being hoisted and the buzz of eager divers. There is a reason for this. During our short seven-day trip we sampled dive sites on both the calmer, shallower west end and the deeper waters of the northern part of the island – where a deep trench lies below the Salt River site where Christopher Columbus once landed in 1493.
What we quickly discovered is that the underwater life here is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Patient sea turtles (like Estero Island, St. Croix beaches also host nesting turtles – Leatherbacks and Hawksbills) waited to get their picture taken, Caribbean reef sharks swam below our feet, bright green moray eels undulated in the bright coral reefs and thousands of iridescent fish provided for a constantly-shifting kaleidoscope of colors. Our favorite spot was the Frederiksted Pier, where we could easily have spent an hour checking out the teeming life on just one of the huge, soaring pilings.
Topside, the people of St. Croix are as friendly as the fish. Every single person we encountered – from street person to store owner – was genuinely happy, helpful and eager to share stories about their home island. From the Cruzan Rum factory to Gem, the beer-drinking pig, St. Croix is filled with colorful folk who pride themselves on enjoying life to the fullest. Maybe that explains why there are so many continental-born Americans here – we even met one from Fort Myers Beach who left our emerald shores to open a delicious eatery called ’40 Strand’.
Though it was tough to return from this idyllic vibe to the hustle and bustle of our regular lives, we were careful to bring home a souvenir we can hold onto when life gets too crazy – the memory of a week spent in a very special place, as we could all learn a thing or two from the people of St. Croix.
Keri Hendry Weeg