St Croix

The largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands is the richest in history, culture, and landscapes. St Croix (pronounced CROY) lies 40 miles south of St Thomas and St John, on the other side of the cavernous Virgin Islands trough. The 84-square-mile island is 22 miles long and 6 miles wide. Beaches line the straight west coast, giving way to a dense tropical forest in the northwest. To the south, rolling hills slope toward the sea. The island tapers to a point at its extreme east end, where the spare landscape is characterized by cactus and wild frangipani trees. The Taino, among the island’s earliest inhabitants, called the island Ay-Ay (the River). The Kalinago, who lived on St Croix several centuries later, named it Cibuquiera (the Stony Land).

Frederiksted, on the west coast, is a quiet, Victorian-style town where Crucians (CRU-shuns) come to enjoy the sunset and the island’s most laid-back vibe. Christiansted, on the north coast, is a bastion of historic sites, shopping, and creative eateries. In between, the countryside is dotted by great house and windmill ruins, built by enslaved Africans when the island was a major sugar-producing colony. Place-names like Work and Rest, Humbug, All for the Better, and Patience Grove evoke the island’s past.

Descendants of St Croix’s African slaves make up the majority of the population, but successive waves of Caribbean immigrants, many from Puerto Rico, have enriched the native society. Settlers from the Middle East, the U.S. mainland, Canada, and Europe, including Danes who can trace their roots back to the days of slavery and sugar, complete the island’s diverse population.

Nowhere is St Croix’s diversity more evident than in its music, food, and arts. You can spend an evening dancing to the infectious sounds of traditional scratch music or grooving to modern guitar jazz. Meals range from sophisticated fusion cuisine served in a historic town house to spicy fire-roasted chicken served from an open-air booth.

St Croix is the most overlooked of the U.S. Virgin Islands, in part because it has been unwilling to smooth out all of its kinks for the benefit of tourists. Visitors who recognize the value of this realism will be rewarded by a dynamic, fascinating, and ultimately awesome island. While the Big Island is unable to match the pizzazz of St Thomas or the untouched natural beauty of St John, it has something neither of the other islands does: authenticity.

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Christiansted National Historic Site

Christiansted, St Croix

Comprising five historic structures dating to the earliest days of Danish colonization, Christiansted National Historic Site is the natural starting point for any exploration of historic Christiansted. On the waterfront and surrounded by expansive lawns, the historic site is immediately identifiable by the yellow color of the fort and other buildings. The stunning contrast between the yellow buildings, blue water, and green grass is reason enough to come.

The heart of the site is Fort Christiansvaern. Built on the site of an earlier French fortification, the fort was designed to protect St Croix from attacks, enforce collection of customs duties, house Danish troops, and prevent slave insurrections on the island. Its bright yellow color was typical of Danish construction of the day.

The fort was completed in 1749, with significant additions made between 1835 and 1841. After 1878, when laborers rioted throughout the island, the fort was converted into a police station and courthouse. The National Park Service has restored the fort to its 1830s appearance.

The tour of the fort is self-guided, although park rangers are around if you have any questions. Some rooms have been furnished with period furniture to depict the lifestyle of the Danish soldiers and officers. The views of Protestant Cay and the Christiansted waterfront from the upper deck are lovely.

The attractive white Steeple Building at the corner of Company and Hospital Streets was the first Danish Lutheran Church on St Croix. Construction began in 1750, and the building was consecrated in May 1753 as the Church of the Lord of Sabaoth. The distinctive tower, with its four-tiered octagonal cupola, was added 40 years later. Pay attention to the large spans of tray ceilings, restored in 2004 but largely intact from the building’s 1750s construction.

Lutheranism was the official religion of the Danish, so church attendance by military officers, government officials, and members of Danish colonial society was considered mandatory. During the time the Steeple Building functioned as a church, there were two Sunday services. The first was conducted in Danish for the European congregation. The second was conducted in Creole for nonwhites.

In 1831 the congregation moved to a new church building at the corner of King and Queen Cross Streets, where it remains today. Many of the original church furnishings are still in use at the present-day church. The Steeple Building was then used variously as a warehouse, hospital, bakery, and school before becoming part of the National Historic Site.

Visitors can view a life-size mural depicting the way the building would have been laid out during a church service. There are also a few small exhibits, and National Park Service staff and volunteers may be present to answer your questions.

From 1733, when the Danes bought St Croix, until 1754, the island was administered by the Danish West India and Guinea Company, a royally chartered slave-trading company that also sold land, traded in sugar and rum, and generally ran every business on the island. The Danish West India and Guinea Company Warehouse, located across Company Street from the Steeple Building, was the administrative and commercial headquarters of the company. During the second half of the 18th century, the warehouse complex was about three times its present size, containing customs offices, warehouses, and quarters for company staff and slaves. Today the warehouse contains offices.

The open yard in the center of the warehouse was used for slave auctions, and historians estimate that 40,000 Africans were sold here during the island’s slavery era. It is the only historic slave market under U.S. government protection, having been purchased by the park service in 2001.

The two-story Scale House, steps from the waterfront, is where hogsheads of sugar and puncheons of rum were weighed for the purposes of taxation before being loaded on ships to Europe and North America. Imports were also carefully measured, logged, and taxed here. The building you see today was built in 1856 and replaced a wooden weighing house first built in 1740.

A scale dating from 1861 is on display on the ground floor, which also houses a National Park Service gift shop and information desk.

The taxes levied at the Scale House were paid at the Customs House next door, a colonial-style building with a wide, sweeping staircase facing the sea. It is perhaps the loveliest of all the buildings in Christiansted. Part of the first floor dates to 1751, when it was part of a row of buildings in the Danish West India and Guinea Company’s warehouse. The existing structure was completed in 1841. The Customs House was the site of the town’s post office until 1927 and then housed the public library until 1972, when it became a part of the historic site. It is not open to the public.

It is said that Alexander Hamilton, who was born and raised on St Croix, once worked in the Customs House.

Buck Island

Buck Island, St Croix

Buck Island, a 180-acre island surrounded by almost 20,000 acres of protected coral reef and seabed, is located less than two miles from St Croix’s northern coast. Noted for excellent snorkeling, hiking, and one of the nicest beaches on St Croix, Buck Island packs a lot of punch for nature-loving visitors. The island and surrounding reef make up Buck Island Reef National Monument, which was declared by President Kennedy in 1961. President Clinton added 18,135 acres of seabed and reef to the monument as part of the U.S. Coral Reef Initiative in 1998.

Buck Island is a nesting ground for endangered brown pelicans, hawksbill, leatherback and green sea turtles, raptors, and the threatened least tern. The endangered St Croix ground lizard was recently reintroduced to the island and is thriving in its dry tropical forest. One of the largest barrier reefs in the eastern Caribbean surrounds two-thirds of Buck Island and has extraordinary coral formations, deep grottoes, abundant reef fishes, sea fans, and gorgonians.

The National Park Service manages Buck Island, and human activity is limited in order to protect the endangered animals and plants that rely on Buck’s pristine environment for survival. A half-dozen concessionaires are licensed to provide day trips to the island. Private boats must adhere to strict regulations; fishing and camping are prohibited and diving is allowed only by licensed dive boats from two specially designed dive moorings.

A challenging 1.5-mile hiking trail connects West Beach and Diedrich’s Point and passes through a dry coastal forest where flowering frangipani, Turk’s head cacti, and orchids grow. The trail climbs steeply to an observation point at mid-island, from which hikers are treated to exceptional views of the reef surrounding Buck Island as well as St Thomas, St John, and the British Virgins on a clear day. A scramble along the rocky shore between Diedrich’s Point and West Beach makes the trail into a loop. If you plan on hiking, bring a hat and twice as much water as you think you will need. While short, parts of the trail are steep and much of it is exposed to the blazing equatorial sun. Also bring appropriate footwear.

Licensed concessionaires offer half- and full-day trips to Buck Island. Half-day trips typically include snorkeling on the underwater trail and a short visit to the western beach. Full-day trips give visitors more time underwater and enough time to hike the island’s trail.

Bioluminescent Bay

Bio Bay, St Croix

Paddle out into certain parts of Salt River Bay after sunset and you will be treated to one of nature’s most remarkable shows. Bioluminescence is a natural scientific phenomenon, created by a species of plankton called a dinoflagellate that lives in the water of the bay.

Dinoflagellates are a microorganism, invisible to the naked eye, that lives in ocean water. In certain conditions—to do with the temperature, salinity, and amount of water flow—dinoflagellate blooms occur, where millions of these tiny organisms gather in one place. When this happens, you can get bioluminescence that’s visible to the human eye as light.

It is not unusual for marine creatures to emit some form of bioluminescence, especially species that live in the deep parts of the ocean where little if any sunlight penetrates. Undersea divers have long marveled at the glowing eels, fish, sharks, and coral that they see at night. Terrestrial creatures like fireflies and glowworms also emit bioluminescence.

Bioluminescence occurs in just a few parts of the Salt River Bay, and the quality of the display varies from night to night; generally speaking, avoid the week of the full moon, when the moonlight interferes with our ability to see the light from the water. When the glow is “on,” a cool, white light is visible when the water is disturbed—whether by a hand, paddle, or fish swimming below the surface.

The result is a magical experience—where the seemingly electrified water becomes a source of almost endless fascination. It is especially fun to paddle quickly through the dark water, startling fish, who swim ahead of your craft and look like meteors flashing through the water.

Salt River Bay kayak tours, including bio bay tours, are available from various outfitters. The bio bay is part of the larger Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, a wide estuary on the northern coast of St Croix best known as the site of a skirmish between Christopher Columbus and native people, on November 14, 1493—during Columbus’ second voyage. The story is that Columbus sent a longboat ashore at Salt River Bay in search of water when the party encountered several Kalinago in a canoe. The two parties fought, with both sides suffering casualties in the first recorded instance of Native American resistance to European encroachment. Columbus named the site Cape of Arrows, and a sandy shore at the western mouth of the bay is called Columbus Landing Beach.

In addition to its historical importance, Salt River Bay is a dynamic coastal habitat that plays a critical role in the area’s marine environment. Extensive mangrove forests that line the estuary act as a buffer between the sea and the land, providing a sheltered home for juvenile fish and filtering runoff from the land. The area is also a major bird habitat. Just past the mouth of the bay the sea floor falls away, creating the deep Virgin Islands Basin and its coral-covered walls.

There is no visitor center or museum at Salt River Bay; information and displays about the monument are kept at the Christiansted National Historic Site.

Whim Plantation Museum

Whim Plantation, St Croix

The best place to begin an exploration of St Croix’s history is at the Whim Plantation Museum. The elegant 18th-century Whim great house is the centerpiece of the museum. Oval-shaped and constructed of white stone, the great house is furnished with period furniture handmade from local hardwoods on St Croix.

Polished wood floors, broad windows, and airy breezes add to the atmosphere, while displays including a census of slaves and the ornaments of everyday life provide a glimpse into the running of the plantation. Other exhibits tell the story of some of the enslaved men and women who participated in the 1848 uprising which led to emancipation on St Croix.

Guided tours of the house are included with admission, while a self-guided tour of the grounds takes you to the only fully restored windmill on the island, a sugar factory, watch house, cookhouse, garden, and exhibit hall which houses changing exhibits about various aspects of St Croix history and culture. Be sure not to miss My Granny’s House, a lovingly restored traditional early 20th-century cottage furnished with handmade curtains, a traditional pie safe, and other reminders of everyday life in St Croix a century ago.

Whim was first developed as a plantation in the 1730s, but it was not until 1754 that sugar cultivation began on the estate, fueled by the labor of enslaved Africans. Whim was a medium-size plantation: In 1810, a peak year for sugar production on the island, there were 105 slaves at Whim and 130 acres under cultivation. A library and archives on-site has an excellent collection of material about St Croix and the Virgin Islands, including extensive genealogical resources.

Fort Frederik Museum

Fort Frederik, St Croix

Set on Frederiksted’s waterfront, this picturesque red fort is rich in history. The fortification served as the focal point of two of St Croix’s most important historic events: the 1848 abolition of slavery and the 1878 labor riots, better known as Fireburn. The fort houses exhibits that describe these events, as well as a UNESCO exhibit titled “The Slaver Fredensborg,” which remembers the slave trade by recreating the 1768 journey of the slave ship Fredensborg from Copenhagen to Christiansted via the Gold Coast of Ghana. The museum also regularly houses local art and photography exhibits.

Built between 1752 and 1760 to discourage smuggling along the island’s western shore, the fort was named for the reigning Danish monarch of the day, Frederik V. It was built on the site of an earlier earthen fortification, Fort St. James, which had been constructed by the English in the 1640s and was later used by both the Spanish and the French. It is said that the cannons at Fort Frederik fired the first-ever salute to the new United States flag on October 25, 1776.

Deep red in color with stunning views of the electric blue sea, Fort Frederik is a photographer’s dream.

Unlike Fort Christiansvaern, which is owned by the federal government, Fort Frederik is maintained by the local government. Until 1973, the fort housed government offices. Between 1974 and 1976 the fort underwent restoration before being opened as a museum.

Jack and Isaac Bay Preserve

Jack and Isaac Bay on St Croix

You will feel like an inhabitant of a desert at the Jack and Isaac Bay Preserve, home to St Croix’s best secluded beaches. These pristine, quiet bays are part of a 300-acre coastal wildlife reserve managed by the Nature Conservancy. The reefs, beaches, and near-shore waters of the bays are also part of the East End Marine Park, and they are protected by local law. Hiking trails at the reserve cut through a dry, open landscape dominated by guinea grass, wild frangipani, and manjack trees.

The beaches are important nesting sites for green, hawksbill, and leatherback turtles, and during nesting season the Nature Conservancy posts rangers on the beach at night to prevent poachers taking turtle eggs, a local delicacy.

Jack Bay, a broad crescent of white sand and sea grass beds, shaded by sea grape trees, is the farther west of the two bays. Isaac Bay is longer, straighter, and equally inviting although with less shade. If the water is calm, the reef can be fun to snorkel. Some people bathe in the nude here, although the practice is illegal in the U.S. Virgin Islands. There are no facilities, so bring plenty of water and don’t forget to carry your trash out with you.

Hiking is the only way to access Jack and Isaac Bays. The primary trailhead is a couple dozen yards west of Point Udall. There is space for a few cars, and the hike takes you down across East End Bay into Isaac and then Jack Bays. Along the way a side-leg trail takes hikers to the top of Goat Hill (600 ft.) for awesome views of St Croix, Buck Island, and Point Udall. There are trail markers along the way.

Whichever way you hike in, plan at least a half day for the excursion and bring twice as much water as you think you will need. An early morning start allows you to avoid hiking at the hottest part of the day.

Planning your time on St Croix

They don’t call St Croix “The Big Island” for nothing. It can take all day just to circle it, and more than a week to tap into all the attractions and activities it has to offer. It is an island that deserves to be explored at a leisurely pace.

St Croix is an easy but expensive day trip from St. Thomas: Seaplanes make the 15-minute flight between Charlotte Amalie and Christiansted a dozen times a day. Unless you charter your own transport, St Croix is not an easy day trip from any of the other Virgin Islands.

If you’re on the island only a day, explore Christiansted for a couple of hours in the morning and then get a taxi to Cane Bay beach, Whim Plantation, or the St. George Village Botanical Garden in the afternoon.

Getting to St Croix

St Croix’s Henry E. Rohlsen Airport (STX) is on the island’s southwest coast, nine miles south of Christiansted and six miles southeast of Frederiksted. JetBlue, American Airlines, and U.S. Airways offer seasonal nonstop service to St Croix from US hubs. If you cannot get a direct flight, route through San Juan, Puerto Rico, or St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, where you can catch a commuter flight with regional carriers.

Seaborne Airlines has up to 15 flights daily between St. Thomas and St Croix, leaving from the seaplane terminals on the Christiansted and Charlotte Amalie waterfronts. Nothing beats the convenience of the seaplane—there are no airport hassles and the water landings are thrilling—but beware the baggage restrictions; you will be charged 50 cents for every pound over 30.

Getting around St Croix

Taxis are widely available on St Croix. In addition to the airport and sea ports, taxi stands are located on King Street in Christiansted, near Government House, and on Market Street. In Frederiksted, there is a taxi stand near Fort Frederik.

Taxi rates are set by the government’s Taxi Commission, which also fields complaints on taxi service and can help trace lost luggage. The rate for one or two people from the airport to Christiansted is $16 per person, from the airport to Frederiksted is $12 per person, and from Christiansted to Frederiksted is $24 per person. Check St. Croix This Week for current rates.

Rent a car if you plan to explore or stay awhile. Reserve your rental car early for the best rates. Expect to pay between $40 and $55 per day, although you can sometimes find a better rate if you book early or for an extended period. National rental chains operate on St. Croix, as well as several well-established independent agencies.

Where to Stay

If you are looking for oceanfront accommodations, consider those located south of Frederiksted or west of Christiansted. If you prefer to be within walking distance of lots of different restaurants and sites, look for a hotel room in Christiansted. If you want to truly get away, consider staying a bit farther from the beaten track: in the rainforest, along the southern shore, or in a villa on the quiet east end.

When to Come

St Croix puts on some great annual events, and it is worth considering whether you can plan your visit to coincide with one. The annual Crucian Christmas Festival, which begins in mid-December and continues until Three Kings Day in January, is the biggest annual showcase of Crucian culture, arts, and music. The Agriculture Fair in late February, Half Ironman in April, and Mango Melee in July are also worthwhile.