The week before we left for St. Croix, my husband turned to me and said worriedly, “I’ve been reading reviews of the island and there’s really NOTHING to do there, you know!” He was concerned about our trip as he knew how bored I’d been two years earlier on Nevis, another Caribbean Island, where aside from our house with its glorious swimming pool, there was nothing else to see. But the St. Croix flights and rental car were booked, the house was rented, and so I decided whatever this “nothing” was, we would make sure to do ALL of it.
We arrived in warm sunshine, picked up our left-side-steering-wheel American-made Budget rental car with nary a hitch, and drove off on the left-hand side of the road. (Driving side is the same as the UK, but every past owner of this island from France to Denmark to the US has been right-side driving, explain that someone, please.) Off we set, to our AirBnB rental house in the luxury estate of Judith’s Fancy. We arrived only to find that the house looked nothing like the glossy photos on the website, and, judging from the high height of the foliage in reality versus in the digital photos, we could see that at least a decade had passed since they were taken. Palm trees simply don’t grow that fast, nor does a pristine paint job peel in a year or two, salty sea air notwithstanding. My first action was to break the shower as the pipe head popped out of its plastic casing on my first touch. Then the afternoon’s rain introduced us to the leaking roof as puddles accumulated on the floor. However, the house grew on us, as its vegetation had on it, and we soon got accustomed to it all, especially as the swimming pool, crabs and all, worked just fine. In fact, hermit crabs are a typical part of the island. We enjoyed watching them scurry across our front lawn as we attempted to pick them up and examine their orange legs and bright purple claws before they used them to pinch our fingers off. The beach in front of our house (on the north side of the island) was excellent for collecting sea glass and not too bad for shells, though too rocky for swimming. We weren’t going to let that stop us having a sandy swim, though, so we found Cane Bay just ten minute down the road, equipped with its shade-providing palm trees. The narrow but softly sandy beach with enough room to throw a ball and warm, fairly calm sea water was perfect for a dip or two in the setting sun.
We decided to take our adventures further offshore. For $150 an adult and $125 a kid, three of us went hang-gliding, 1,000 feet above the waters off the main town of Christiansted. Alyssa was at first very upset to learn that a nine-year-old couldn’t do it due to lack of insurance but somehow, when the crew saw how confident she was and how much she enjoyed piloting the boat, the insurance issue melted away as the “extra $125” option came into clear view, and she had a happy go, too. She, Gabriel and I all enjoyed the views, though I wasn’t wild about the “now you can fly it” bit. Luckily that part was brief and ended almost as soon as it had begun, just before I took us into an accidental loop-de-loop.
There is plenty of other offshore St. Croix “nothing” (who are these idle online reviewers?). All five of us went on Big Beard’s boat trip to Buck Island, billed as the best snorkelling in the area. Alyssa had never been snorkelling before but seemed to get the hang of it pretty easily on the calm sandy-beach side of the island, where the boat stopped for beginners to “practice” – or, more likely, to while away an hour so Beards could make it a three-hour trip and feel good about charging us $75 ($60 for 12 and under). The waters on the other side of Buck Island, where we anchored for the real reef snorkel, were far too rough to be enjoyable (biggest waves I’ve ever had and I’m a snorkel pro) as the waves constantly went over and into the snorkel, resulting in large mouthfuls of seawater for all of us, and even an exciting bash on the head for hubby as he dived down to investigate the half-dead (but still clearly sharp) coral and was swiftly rolled into it by a passing current. To my amazement, Little Fearless was indeed that and snorkelled off happily with head down for an hour and more. I couldn’t take my eyes off her as, if I did, in seconds with that strong current, I’d find she’d be twenty feet away. I still managed to see a blue or stripey fish or two in very average snorkelling water. The boys had seen bigger fish the day before (and even a sea turtle) on their “Discover Scuba” morning experience with N2 Blue ($80 each) off the pier at Frederiksted (the second-biggest town on the island). That had been very worthwhile. One positive of the snorkelling was that the bumpy boat ride over made younger son turn a pale emerald shade and put him off repeating his constant previous nag of wanting to go deep sea fishing, something in which neither of his parents professed the slightest interest. A simple explanation that the half-an-hour bouncy boat ride that he had just experienced multiplied by eight precisely equalled a four-hour fishing adventure put him off completely. How coincidentally fortunate.
The night-time bioluminescence tour from Salt River Marina with Sea Thru Kayaks ($60 each, cash only) was worth it simply, because there are only six other places in the world where the water lights up when you put your hands in and splash them around. After five minutes of watching the tiny-but-shiny myriad of bright sparkles each time you wiggle your fingers, you’ve been there and done that. Unfortunately, the tour is two hours long, and kayaking across the bay only takes up fifteen minutes of it, so there’s a lot of sitting in kayaks finger-wiggling. I did see something I’ve never seen before (which makes any experience worthwhile): we caught a jellyfish (released afterwards, never fear, nature-lovers) and got to put our fingers under its tummy and watch it light up in soft luminous yellow dotted lines as we tickled it. Very cool. The bright clusters of stars in the night sky, including the radiant Venus, as seen from the water, were also quite beautiful.
The island itself is remarkably untouristy. Frederiksted – or Fred’s Dead, as our daughter aptly called it – was indeed very quiet. I’m not sure that some shops even opened at all during our week-long stay, and the open hours of those that did, like everything else on the island, bore no relationship to those posted on their website (if they had one). We failed to tour the Cruzan Rum Distillery because it was not open when it should have been as per web – but after being denied entry ourselves, we then hung round the gate so we could laugh while the security guard repeated the same story to tourist after tourist, explaining that it was all the fault of the parent company back in the US, who wouldn’t give them full control of their own website. I suspect the parent company had no idea that they weren’t open and the island gang knew they’d better not post THAT on their website. “Closed for island time” might not be the excellence in advertising that the Maker’s Mark CEO was hoping for. I know him so I’m gonna ask and find out. Just my way of helping with tourism.
We would have played minigolf at Divi Cay (the only course on the island) but the problem here, ironically, was that the website said it was closed when it was actually open, and by the time I’d called them to check hours and discovered that “open Wed-Sun 5-9pm” is actually Caribbean Internet-speak for “open every day 2-9pm”, it was too late to go back to Monday afternoon when we had had some free time and play a round or two.
Polly’s at the Pier was literally the only establishment in Fred where you could get a decent meal (possibly ANY meal) and better for coffee or breakfast than lunch, unless you’re a celiac or vegetarian.
Christiansted is a better location all round, except for snorkelling. The town is almost fully-preserved as a historic 18th century UNESCO-type (or possibly actual-UNESCO) site, not really due to preservation efforts but more due to the fact there’s never been very much tourism here compared to other Caribbean islands, so it was never worth bashing down the old buildings in favour of glitzy shops with big modern glass fronts. It’s so much nicer as it is now, hooray for poor tourism.
We ate in so many good restaurants in town – Balter was a big favourite with its strange dragon fruit tapioca dessert (very tasty), as was Zion on Company St with its delicious Mediterranean pasta, pork chops, chicken with peas and dessert of coconut crime brûlée (until the coffee took over an hour to come, but this is “island time”, as we were regularly reminded, especially when places weren’t open as expected). We also enjoyed a Thai meal at Gallingal, where hubby declared the short ribs to be the best he’d ever tasted. Savant’s main courses were pretty good but the pecan pie was above-and-beyond, light and not too sweet. Most meals for the five of us were in the $200-240 range pre-tip. We were less impressed with hotel fare – we booked Christmas dinner at the Buccaneer Hotel, largely because it was one of the only places open but also due to the fabulous reviews on TripAdvisor – “best place I’ve eaten on the island” multiple times. I guess those critics don’t get out much. For $75 adult ($30 for kids 12 and under – yes, Gabriel, you are only 12, this is island time and you definitely haven’t had your last March birthday in this time zone yet), it was the worst meal we had all trip. The buffet was lacklustre without a single dessert of interest out of five offered, and there were only two meat choices (beef or pork slices), two salads and one soup. I managed to make an entire meal out of fried Brussels sprouts. From the terrace where we dined, the night view of the lights of Christiansted and over the ocean beyond almost (but not quite) made up for the meal.
Even outside of Christiansted, there are a few other good places to eat (except in Fred, as he’s dead, as explained already). Un Amore is now the only Italian restaurant on the island since Tutto Bene closed a year ago. The fresh bread was a good augur for the meal to come. Fettuccine with sausage in a cream sauce and a very fresh salad with carrots, tomatoes and generous dollops of gorgonzola cheese continued the good news, which was completed by a soft and creamy tiramisu.
Cocktails on the island vary a lot in strength and complexity. Universally- offered rum-based pain-killers helped ease the stress of being away for a week with three bickering kids. The mojito at the Galleon Restaurant was so strong I could hardly drink it, especially compared to the watery one at RumRunners, (though RR had above average bistro food, better than Angry Nate’s anyway, which I would give a miss in spite of the $3 mimosas and bottomless champagne offered with your meal). The food at Galleon was not as strong as the drink – Gabriel failed to find the lobster in his lobster mac and cheese, although Noah enjoyed the chef’s suggestion of chicken-with-whatever-I-feel-like-throwing-in-tonight pasta special.
Land activities in – or rather, ON – St. Croix are limited but certainly enough to occupy a week. St. George Botanical Gardens, in the middle of the island, are marvellous. Many different kinds of fruit trees and vegetation are interspersed with 18th century semi-ruined buildings, including the old forge (still used to repair ironworks on the island), the greathouse (including 1970 addition, er why?), old water flume for powering the mill (very interesting), caretaker’s house (falling down and filled with bats) and the ruined mill itself, where molasses were made from the raw sugar canes. The estate also has a cacti section with many prickly varieties and a red-flowered aptly-named lipstick tree, as well as a gift shop with small beaded purses.
The Estate Whim sugar cane plantation is now a museum ($10 entry), and the only place on the island where the plantation and windmill are more than a pile of rubble. Here they have been restored very nicely, albeit using furniture and mills donated from other Caribbean islands. It was also interesting to see the old animal-powered cane mill that was used before wind power in the 19th century.
The famous Irish island cowboy Steve offers horseback riding ($100 +$5 booking fee, must book on the website horsebackridingstcroix.com), which includes a trot up to a ruined plantation for a sweeping ocean view and for those brave enough (yes, of course, Alyssa and I) horse acrobatics, including standing on them in front of the grand vista, and then wading on them into the ocean and jumping off into the waves for a great photo opp. (wear closed-toe water shoes or just don’t worry about soaking your sneakers). We went at sunset and enjoyed our hour’s ride much more than the preamble of required yogic breathing (“let’s be at one with our horses”) and detailed horse-by-horse descriptions, which took up the first ninety minutes before we could get actually riding. We were allowed to pick our own horse after that, but obviously none of us could, as we couldn’t remember which of the eight horses had which characteristics by the end of the lengthy individual descriptions. I felt like I was on an episode of The Generation Game, “toaster, I remember toaster, I get that!” and really just wanted to shout ” Get bloody on with it!” but I realised that would be unacceptable island behaviour. Usually that wouldn’t stop me but I don’t always want to be predictable. However, I’m sure my failure to be “at one with my horse” was the direct cause of Cheyanne deciding to suddenly bolt in the opposite direction of all his friends. My usual strategy in frightening situations is to shut my eyes and hope for the best, especially when I’m going at fifty and don’t have a helmet. However this time, I found a short accidental tug to the reins was all it took to cause a two-legged rearing stop to the vehicle, and I could then put it in a lower gear and move forward with caution. Just like my old Mini Cooper, in fact.
If I hadn’t started every day with coffee, I’d have been far more irascible. We feel quite certain that Twin Cities Cafe in Christiansted is the best possible start to the morning since it’s the only place on the island that serves cappuccino ($5, more than Starbucks!). The also-$5 fruit bowl is nice and fresh, and filled with pineapple, blueberries, strawberries, grapes and two kinds of melon. Yoghurt and granola at $5.50 felt like less good value. The homemade rum cake was warm and moist and fortifying (it’s five o’clock somewhere).
Cafe Fresco, set in the central courtyard of 18th century pink brick buildings has large and tasty omelettes (pick your ingredients) and sweet blueberry pancakes. The view from the top of the winding green fire-escape staircase in the courtyard out over the town below is well worth the quick climb.
Baked Cafe, two minutes from Fresco, is the kind of healthy-living establishment that my husband loves to hate. As soon as he sees the words “gluten-free” or an advert for karmic yoga, he wants out. His instinct proved only partially correct as although the peanut butter & banana toast was sub par, the smashed avocado with fried egg sandwich was yummy. No cappuccino, though.
If you want to eat simultaneous to enjoying an ocean view outside of Christiansted (as RumRunners and Angry Nate’s there are both dockside), Eat @Cane Bay has decent food (fish sandwiches, salads, burgers) and is right in front of a lovely beach where you can also snorkel. Off the Wall, just down the road, is literally right at the edge of the water (the other places are set back by a road or pier) and is great for a drink and to watch the tide cascading over the rocks, but there’s no beach.
For those who are Christian, or simply enjoy midnight mass, that time might be your only chance to see inside St. John’s Episcopal Church with its wide wooden beams and blue ceiling. We never found it open on any other drive-by.
We did manage to visit both forts. As can be said for many other things in both towns, Christiansted’s is well worth the visit, with its rooms of old muskets, low-ceilinged basement jail, explanations and photos of the history of the island and slavery thereon, cannons and cannon balls and sweeping ocean views. Fredriksted’s decaying fort is just balls, and views.
Point Udall has no balls but does have great views. It’s the furthermost eastern point of the United States, St. Croix being part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. This area is an easy half-hour drive from Christiansted but make sure you fill up with petrol before you go so YOUR husband doesn’t say “I think we had better go back” one mile before you arrive at your destination because he thinks he’ll run out of gas. Luckily, we didn’t listen to him as usual, and we made it to Udall (and even back to a petrol station). Once there, we looked as far east as we could (only water to see) and south (more water) and north (hello, Buck Island and vomitworthy snorkelling waves). On the way back if you take the southern route, you can see Castle Aurora on its own hilltop, owned by a Bulgarian Countess who recently passed away. Her descendants have just put it on the market for a mere twenty million bucks.
Blues Backyard Barbecue was just down the road from our house and served cheap hot dogs and pork burritos, and is very popular with the locals. Another local hotspot that you’d never find without GPS is La Reina Chicken Shack. Huge portions of roasted chicken with salad, dough cakes, beans and rice. The salmon balls were also tasty though I could only manage two of the four provided in my white cardboard container. All five of us could eat for $60 at either place.
I would be remiss not to mention shopping quality. Since the big cruise ships dock four or five a day in St. Thomas but only one or two a week in St. Croix, the island is happily devoid of mega-malls or streets lined with shops of luxury goods. We got the famous St. Croix hook bracelets in Christiansted from equally famous Sonya’s, the original designer of this famed jewellery, for the kids and hubby so they could all be pirates together ($55 for the smallest up to $200 for husband’s who wanted gold alongside the silver in his, ooh-arrr me hearties!). I preferred the Italian mosaic bracelet and earrings from Panache on King St and declared that this would be my only jewellery from the island, thinking that was a no-brainier as surely there couldn’t be TWO nice jewellery shops in this untouristy place. But the next day, Christmas Day in fact, and to our great surprise, the Tropical Bracelet Factory was open and hubby totally insisted I get the yellow and black diamond earrings that were so unusual (and discounted by 60%). Splendid, I’d be foolish not to, so I did.
We were surprised not to find the multitude of “All I got was this lousy” t-shirt shops that you’d expect in any tourist destination, but there were several very nice women’s clothes’ shops. We got our daughter a pretty and adjustable skirt from Asha’s, as well as a beaded bracelet from the same location. Made in India but marked up 10-20x, I’m sure. Well, India is a long way away and airplanes aren’t cheap.
Belle Femme Designs (also in Christiansted) has a mishmash of glittery sequinned gowns for the Hispanic customer (never saw one), short black dresses of various sizes, and sleeveless evening tops. It used to have a blue flowered wrap dress but my other half insisted (yes, he is very insistent about me getting nice stuff, how fortunate) I get it because it was something Jackie O would have worn. And to think, it’s Salma Hayek who’s the only person on his exception list – confusing!
Hotheads has many kinds of caps so maybe it should be called Cool Heads, and also a few nice but not cheap kids’ bikinis. They are cute, though, so we succumbed, and it was worn every day.
Big Beards, of the bad snorkelling, is also of the good kids’ sunglasses for $15, as well as various bug-repelling and water-sport products.
Molly’s (in both Chris and Fred, though never saw it open in the latter) has high end beach attire and brightly-coloured cotton dresses.
For art, you can’t do better than Top Hat Gallery in Christiansted, run by the lovely and Danish Hannah. The other small galleries are filled with the typical boring paintings of sea views, boats, and fish. Hannah’s featured the exceptional surrealist art of Victor Rodrigues Preza, who recently moved to the island from his native El Salvador. We are now the proud owners of two of his paintings. It was the only art we liked on the island, and we loved it. And somehow we got it in the luggage compartment on the plane home. Yay all round.
Since this is the first Caribbean trip where I haven’t threatened to get on a plane to London halfway through before I died of boredom, it was declared a huge success by all five family members attending. Hubby took it a bit far when he started investigating buying a house on the island. I mean, I LIKE it, but not enough to hang out there for long periods. Certainly not enough to plonk down a million on a house, thank you very much. At least, he doesn’t want to buy the castle…yet. Must distract him with something quickly….there’s always Tobago or Tortola for next year…as long as there’s a whole lot of the St. Croix kind of “nothing” to DO, that is!