Top 5 guide to St Croix
With great shops, bars, sights and celebrations, this glorious US Virgin Island is the perfect place to head this Christmas. Alexis Lipsitz Flippin offers the ultimate guide
A drive in the heart of St Croix is a dizzying ride through landscapes, cultures, even eras. One minute you’re cruising beneath a cathedral of mahogany trees; the next, colonial ruins appear under a tangle of pink bougainvillea.
One bewitching landscape fades into another, from dreamy stretches of rural serenity to sparkling sapphire seas and slivers of powdery beaches. Here and there the modern world rears its head, blaring signs for all-American brands and fast-food joints. But swing into either of the island’s largest towns, colonial Christiansted and Victorian-era Frederiksted, and you’re back in the time machine again.
St Croix is the largest island in the US Virgin Islands, at 215 square kilometres, but also the most sparsely populated – there are just 50,000 Crucians. It’s the most remote, too, split from its sister islands by one of the deepest trenches in the Atlantic Ocean. St Thomas may be the USVI’s glittering cruise-ship hub and St John the pristine park, but St Croix is the region’s sunny earth mother, a laidback beauty of mossy volcanic hills, cinematic beaches and lush rainforests.
Despite its bucolic, small-town feel, the island’s inhabitants are a polyglot mix, from Puerto Rican immigrants and European expats to the descendants of slaves who worked the 200 colonial plantations during the island’s period as a sugar powerhouse. The sugar plantations are gone, but the island is discovering gold in its agrarian roots. That rich volcanic soil has spawned a lively new generation of farmers raising food in the centrally located ‘farm belt’, along with a bevy of pioneering farm-to-fork restaurants.
St Croix not only has a fascinating agricultural past; its colourful history also includes famed 17th-century pirates such as Black Sam Bellamy, the so-called ‘Robin Hood of the Sea’, and an 1848 slave revolt that led to emancipation. Alexander Hamilton, he of the US Treasury and the hit Broadway musical, developed his accounting chops as an adolescent here. Add to that some of the Caribbean’s top shore-diving sites, hikes up swooping peaks and an underwater national park, and you’ll see that you can cover a lot of ground in St Croix, spanning a multitude of cultures, an ocean of eras.
LIAT flies direct to St Thomas from Antigua, with connections from most other destinations in the region. The most fun way to get to St Croix is to catch the ferry (www.qe4ferry.com). The crossing takes around 2.5 hours. Floatplanes also operate the route. St Croix’s Henry E Rohlsen Airport (www.viport.com; airport code STX) lies 10km southwest of Christiansted at Estate Mannings Bay on the island’s southern coast. Several major car-rental firms maintain kiosks at the airport, including Avis, Hertz and Budget. The oldest independent car agency in St Croix, Olympic Rent-A-Car (www.olympicstcroix.com), offers free airport drop-off and pickup. Otherwise, taxis and six- to 12-seater vans are on call at the airport for transfers. Taxi rates are standardised; expect to pay around US$16 for two people from the airport to Christiansted and US$12 to Frederiksted.
Plantations and pirates
St Croix not only has a fascinating agricultural past; its colourful history also includes famed 17th-century pirates such as Black Sam Bellamy, the so-called ‘Robin Hood of the Sea’, and an 1848 slave revolt that led to emancipation
Top 5 places to stay
1 The Buccaneer
The island’s premier resort has a 340-acre country-club estate with an 18-hole golf course, pools, shops, eight tennis courts, a spa and a handful of sandy beaches. It’s built around the ruins of an 18th-century plantation, and despite 138 rooms kitted out with all the mod-cons, proudly evokes an old-fashioned graciousness. Stay up in the hilltop Great House or in spacious seafront cottages.
• Doubles/suites from US$260/1,338; 5007 Shoys, Christiansted; www.thebuccaneer.com
2 The Fred
Opened in 2018, the Fred brings real boutique cool to St Croix, carving 22 cheeky, charming rooms out of the circa-1790s Totten House in a sort of preppy-meets-indy-band refurb. The beachfront inn has two porches overlooking the sea and is an easy walk to the town’s eateries or the Frederiksted Pier.
• Doubles from US$170; 605 Strand St, Frederiksted; www.sleepwithfred.com
3 Mount Victory Camp
How cool is it to spend a night in lush forest highlands, with a resident colony of red-footed tortoises and the stone ruins of colonial sugar plantations nearby? A stay at this ecolodge in St Croix’s western wilderness, 16km north of Frederiksted, is not quite glamping, but you can sleep comfortably in screened-in Arts-and-Crafts bungalows to the musical trills of tree frogs and Barbary doves.
• Bungalows/apartments from US$70/90; Northwest Hills, Frederiksted; www.mtvictorycamp.com
4 The Palms at Pelican Cove
It’s hard to overstate the good value of this hotel. Its 38 spacious, clean rooms are nothing fancy, but the Palms sits on one of St Croix’s most alluring beaches, with killer views and splendid snorkelling steps from the shore. At its heart is an open-air restaurant and lounge, and one of the largest pools on the island.
• Doubles/suites from US$209/339; 4126 La Grande Princesse, Christiansted; www.palmspelicancove.com
5 Renaissance St Croix Carambola Beach Resort & Spa
One of three original RockResorts built in the Virgins, the 28-acre Carambola is a class act, with a forested bluffside perch above a gorgeous beach and a celebrated 18-hole golf course. It was damaged during the 2017 hurricanes, but is set to reopen, better than ever, in mid-2020.
• Doubles/suites from US$292/318; Estate Davis Bay; www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/stxbr-renaissance-st-croix-carambola-beach-resort-and-spa
Top 5 places to eat
Celebrated chef Digby Stridiron has become a global culinary ambassador for West Indian food, and his first St Croix restaurant, Balter, paved the way for the world to follow, with locavore food and spirts in a colonial house in Christiansted. He heads to the other end of the island with his new place, Braata, another local-centric homage to all things Caribbean, opening in late 2019.
• 69A King St, Fredericksted; www.braatastx.com
2 Cast Iron Pot
Opened in 2015, this restaurant gets hurrahs for Chef Burton Peterson’s finely crafted island cuisine, elevating favourites such as saltfish gundy, stew chicken, red pea soup and Cruzan rum cake. Another big plus: Cast Iron Pot serves beloved St Croix brand homemade ice cream.
• 10A La Grande Princesse, Christiansted; Facebook: Cast Iron Pot Restaurant and Bar
Upscale Galangal sets a pretty table, with white linen tablecloths and gorgeous gold platters. The food is equally impressive, a contemporary Asian fusion mix of Thai, Vietnamese and French. There are seven different curries, and housemade ice cream in flavours such as mango, ginger and green tea.
• 17 Church St, Christiansted; www.galangalstx.com
4 La Reine Chicken Shack
Join the lines snaking around this crazy-popular open-air bar and restaurant. The slow-cooked, spit-roasted chicken and johnnycakes are essential, but an expanded menu includes a Saturday-night pig roast. A Coquito Festival in December honours the local coconut eggnog.
• 24 Slob A-B Estate La Reine, Kingshill; Facebook: La Reine Chicken Shack
5 Zion Modern Kitchen
The emphasis here is on farm-fresh ingredients and classic island dishes with a delicious modern twist served in the historic 18th-century Quin House, with its scuffed-up wooden floor and white wainscoted ceiling. Ask for a seat in the palm-fringed courtyard.
• 51 A-B-C Company St, Christiansted; www.zionmodernkitchen.com
Another vintage landscape
A 19th-century Danish sugar plantation has been transformed into a landscaped garden dotted with crumbling stone ruins. Look for rainforest heliconias, sweet-scented gingers and 65 species of palm trees
Top 5 places to visit
1 Buck Island Reef National Monument
St Croix’s star attraction owes its protected status to President John F Kennedy, who made the 176-acre island and its pristine necklace of coral reef a marine reserve back in 1961. Take an idyllic day trip to Buck Island to snorkel the underwater trails and coral grottoes. Concessionaires offer boat excursions for the 8km sail from Christiansted.
2 Cruzan Rum Distillery
Take a guided tour of this vintage rum factory, where the alchemy of turning sugar to rum is charmingly detailed (and the scent of boiling molasses is a sugarholic’s dream). The leafy grounds include the 18th-century plantation house and a massive ficus tree.
3 Estate Whim Museum & Great House
This mid-18th-century sugar plantation has a handsomely restored Great House with thick walls of coral and molasses. Much of the rest of the plantation, including slave quarters, a windmill, and the sugar factory, lies in a state of beautiful decay, the sugar trade long finished.
4 Fort Christiansvaern
Cannons pointing seaward, this canary-yellow Danish stronghold dating from 1738 is the centrepiece of the fascinating Christiansted National Historic Site, where you can take walking tours that explore the fort, the 1844 Danish Customs House and the 1753 Steeple Building.
5 St George Village Botanical Garden
Another vintage landscape, the site of a 19th-century Danish sugar plantation, has been transformed into a landscaped garden dotted with crumbling stone ruins. Look for rainforest heliconias, sweet-scented gingers and 65 species of palm trees. Full-moon garden tours are accompanied by live music.
Top 5 places to shop
1 Crucian Gold
Metalsmith Brian Bishop and his family make beautiful and intricate Crucian jewellery, and are most famed for their designs fashioned with strands of gold and silver, inspired by nautical knots. It’s so woven into the fabric of Crucian life that even babies get knot bracelets.
• 1112 Strand St, Christiansted; www.cruciangoldjewelry.com
2 Estate Whim Museum Store
One of the island’s best shops for locally made souvenirs, Whim sells Cruzan market baskets made from rattan palm, moko jumbies, local honey, historical prints, cards made by the local nonprofit CASA and books such as Inkberry Tree, about the Cruzan tree and its long-ago tradition as the islanders’ Christmas tree.
• 52 Estate Whim Plantation Museum, east of Frederiksted
3 Farm Markets
St Croix is farmstand central. In Christiansted, hit Hendricks Market on Saturday mornings for fresh produce from Ridge to Reef Farm. Pick up heirloom tomatoes, salad greens and tropical fruit at ARTfarm’s farmstand in south St Croix on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Sejah Farm sells fresh veggies, meats, eggs and honey at their daily farm market (closed Sunday) in the island’s ‘farm belt’ in central St Croix.
4 Sonya Ltd
Sonya has been handcrafting fine jewellery for more than four decades. You can buy the distinctive St Croix Hook as a bracelet, necklace, earrings or rings – a real Crucian memento.
5 St Croix LEAP
The resident woodworker at this unusual shop uses only fallen mahogany (and other found woods) to sculpt items, from tables to cutting boards to gorgeous wood wind chimes. The approach is along a bumpy road – but it’s worth the effort.
• Rte 76, Frederiksted
Top 5 experiences
1 Diving and snorkelling Cane Bay Wall
St Croix has a number of prime diving and snorkelling spots, but few are as accessible as that from Cane Bay beach, where the legendary underwater ’wall’ – aka the Puerto Rico Trench – is just 300m offshore, dropping off some 975m. Marine life, from turtles to angelfish to corals, is abundant.
2 Foodie festivals & tours
St Croix is fully embracing a healthful farm-to-fork ethos, celebrating its proud agricultural heritage. Thousands visit the popular three-day Agricultural & Food Fair (AgriFest; www.viagrifest.org) in mid-February. Island chefs are showcased in April at the St Croix Food & Wine Experience (stxfoodandwine.com). Virgin Islands Food Tours (www.vifoodtours.com) offers tasting visits to secret spots beloved by locals.
3 Historic walking tours
The distinctive stone architecture of Christiansted owes much to the Danish people who settled here in 1733. Alexander Hamilton grew up here, and you can take a tour of his boyhood haunts. The streets of Frederiksted,
the island’s second-largest town, reflect its chaotic history; it was the site of a mass slave rebellion in 1848 and a labour revolt in 1878 that burned the town to the ground, then rebuilt with Victorian flourishes over the old Danish foundations. Crucian Heritage & Nature Tourism (www.chantvi.org) offers fascinating walking tours of both towns.
4 Kayaking the Bioluminescent Bay
Take a guided night-time kayak excursion in the historic Salt River National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve, home to a bioluminescent bay that shimmers with the electric energy of tiny dinoflagellates – just drag your hands through the starlit waters and a trail of sparks follows.
5 Seeing sunrise at Point Udall
There is no better place to watch the sunrise than at Point Udall, on the island’s East End. The sun rises here before anywhere else in the entire United States – it’s the easternmost point in the country. This is a beautiful seaside spot, marked with a Millennium Monument built to commemorate New Year 2000.
Top 5 places to LiME
1 BES Craft Cocktail Lounge
Frank Robinson, the former award-winning mixologist at Zion has opened this smart and stylish craft cocktail lounge, pairing his cocktail expertise with a tapas menu (saltfish gundy, purple potato fries, local tuna and mahi soup) that is sustainably sourced from the fertile fields and waters of St Croix. Robinson hews to the locavore ethos: he concocts his own rum infusions from island-grown fruits and foods.
• 53B Company St, Christiansted; www.facebook.com/BES.STX
2 BeachSide Café at Sandcastle on the Beach
This is about as laidback as a scene can be – the quintessential beachside bar for lolling about with your feet in the sand and your fingers gripping a cold one. It’s also a respectable restaurant – but hey, it’s all about drinking in those fiery sunset views and live music on weekend nights. Come for the popular Sunday brunch (10am-3pm) and take a snorkel off the beach.
• Veterans Shore Drive, Frederiksted; www.beachsidecafeatsandcastleon thebeach.com
3 Rainbow Beach Rhythms
Dip your toes in the turquoise waters of fetching Rainbow Beach and sample the speciality frozen drink at Rhythms: Lime in the Coconut. Music, from soca to reggae to old-school R&B, starts at 4pm every Sunday.
• Rainbow Beach, Frederiksted; www.rainbowbeachstx.com
4 Blues’ Backyard
What began as a barbecue food truck and drinking hang has become a party. Grab a picnic table spot and order Blues’ famed golden barbecue chicken, sloppy Jim’s (Sloppy Joe’s with BBQ brisket), homemade pot pies or ‘lamburginis’ (lamb burgers). A full bar and music in the backyard fuels the fun. y La Grande Princesse, Christiansted; Facebook: Blues Backyard BBQ
5 No Bones Café
This popular locals’ hang and sports bar has a delicious and surprisingly ambitious menu of pub grub (grilled mahi, conch in butter, roasted jerk pork). Expect a festive ambience and friendly welcome, not to mention chocolate martinis.
• Gallows Bay Port Terminal, Christiansted; www.nobonescafe.com
Why not tour the region this Christmas? Here are a few fetes worth flying to…
• St Croix is one of the best places to be for the festive season – the Crucian Christmas Carnival (15 December 2019-4 January 2020) features music competitions, pageants, cultural activities, local arts and crafts, plentiful food and drink, a joyous J’ouvert and colourful Childrens’ and Adults’ Parades
• Chante Noël (Chanté Nwèl), Martinique – Gather together to sing carols set to the rhythm of a live creole bands; parties held across the island from the beginning of December to Christmas Day
• Parang Festivals, Trinidad – Revel in Trini’s indigenous Christmas music. Seek out concerts and watch costumed bands parading through the streets – Paramin is a particularly lively spot
• Festival of Lights, St Lucia – Mark the official start of the festive season on 13 December – the day associated with the island’s namesake saint – with cultural performances, illuminations and fireworks
• St Kitts & Nevis Carnival, St. Kitts & Nevis – Indulge in fun and frolics from 23 November to 5 January!