As my horse moves through the tall grass, I lean back and close my eyes for a second, surrendering myself to the delicious late-afternoon warmth. There’s the distant hiss of the surf, never too far away on a Caribbean island like this. There’s the birds’ song.
And there’s the sound of my sister, quietly arguing with her horse.
We’re in St. Croix together, and I have Spirit Airlines to thank for this. Thanks to the newest route in their lineup, we were able to easily hop over here for a getaway.
Spirit has been operating in the area for 12 years, but this is the first time they’ve started running a service between Fort Lauderdale and this remote, heartbreakingly beautiful island in the United States’ Virgin Islands (USVI).
My sister and I got lucky that it’s such a great time to visit, and not just because of the weather. St. Croix is set to explode in popularity, as it’s undergoing a period of rejuvenation and structural investment following damage from two hurricanes.
The second hurricane ripped through in 2017’s unprecedented stormy season. It’s almost impossible to imagine skies as blue and seas as tranquil being lashed by that kind of weather, which is a nice testament to how quickly the island has gotten back on its feet.
No problem, it all seems to say.
Trace your finger clockwise round the curve of Caribbean islands to the east of Cuba, and you’ll find St. Croix just past Puerto Rico and to the south of neighboring St. John and St. Thomas. The British Virgin Islands are to their west.
As for getting here, 2018 has dramatically changed things for the better. Before this year, your options were limited and pricey. While major airlines run routes to St. Croix from a number of major cities, none of them are as frequent or affordable as the new Spirit Airlines route from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
And, when you get here you’ll find that, right now, it’s still quiet. If you time it right like we did, you can get the best in Caribbean hospitality with near-vacant beaches, empty roads and your pick of the best accommodation, restaurants and bars the island has to offer.
St. Croix Isn’t What You’d Expect
The Island Is Small
If you take a trip to the eastern tip of St. Croix, called Point Udall, you are as far east as you can get within the territory of the United States.
Christiansted, one of the island’s two towns, is the most early in the whole of the US. This is the utmost edge of my home country, and, here, everyday things can be a little different.
Take the roads, for example. For historical reasons, everyone on the island drives on the left-hand side; yet, since the cars are mostly American, they’re designed for the driver to sit on the left, as well. Whatever side of the road you’re used to driving on, you’ll probably find St. Croix a bit of a challenge.
Thankfully, there’s probably no need to rent a car (and if you really want a pair of wheels, rent a scooter or just take a jeep tour). The whole island is only 22 miles long and eight miles across at its widest point. There are plenty of taxis available and a bus service that runs between both towns every 45 minutes, from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
That’s right; there are just two towns, one in the east (Christiansted), and one in the west (Frederiksted). They’re often referred to together as the “twin city” of St. Croix, with a sum total of 50,600 inhabitants.
The Weather Is Perfect
There’s the temperature, which will always be a balmy 75 to 85°F (24 to 29°C). Thanks to the stabilizing effect of the maritime climate and the passage of the Trade Winds, St Croix rarely see the extremes of temperature you’ll get on the United States mainland. Unless something’s really wrong with the weather, you’re always going to have a pleasantly warm day.
Then there’s the look of the place. Faded Victorian-era architecture sits alongside modern vernacular structures, and everything is a blur of Dutch, British and contemporary American styles. It shouldn’t work—but somehow, it all makes for a striking architectural casserole that looks like nowhere else, even compared to nearby Caribbean islands
At first sight it’s a little confusing, a bit split-personality. But then you read up on the island’s history, and it all makes sense.
St. Croix Has a Storied History
If you’re a history buff, the history behind this island is reason alone to visit it.
As far as archeology and history can tell, the Kalingo were here first (also known as the Caribs, from which the surrounding sea is named) alongside the Arawaks. These were the native American tribes Columbus encountered when he landed in 1493—just a few centuries after they arrived via their own epic sea journey from South America.
The Spanish never colonized St. Croix, but they certainly had a catastrophic impact and, by the end of the 16th century, the island was regarded as uninhabited.
This is where things get a little crazy.
English and Dutch First
First, the English and Dutch settlers arrived. Then the Spanish invaded and kicked them out. Then the French kicked the Spanish out—until war with the English and Dutch forced the French to flee once more, leaving the island abandoned for another 38 years.
In 1733, the Danish West India Company purchased St. Croix and nearby St. Thomas and St. John, designating them the Danish West Indies. As with so many islands in the Caribbean at this time, St. Croix ran on slavery—up to 20,000 souls at a time, the ugliest chapter in the island’s history. It also saw some famous names, including Alexander Hamilton (now the subject of themed tours of Christiansted), who lived here as a boy from 1765 to 1772 before heading off to New York to continue his education.
The U.S. Bought St. Croix
In 1801, the tables turned again. Britain invaded and occupied the island, but by 1815 and the peace following the Napoleonic Wars, they returned the land to Danish control. A century later, Denmark sold it to the United States. And in 1927, the population of St. Croix formally and finally became U.S. citizens.
Broadly speaking, Crucians (inhabitants of St. Croix) are considered such in two ways: Either as “born here” Crucians who arrived after 1927, currently making up around a third of the population, or “native” Crucians who have roots that go much further back.
When you visit today, you can still see remnants of the island’s multicultural history.
The island’s economy has seen almost as much change as its rollercoaster history. Traditionally it was based on agriculture, which became a heavy focus on colonial crops for export (mainly sugarcane). Then modern industry got a foothold, including the building of a major oil refinery. When this was decommissioned in 2012, St. Croix’s focus turned to tourism and, today, it couldn’t be more welcoming to international visitors.
How to Make the Most of Your Trip to St. Croix
As I said earlier, now is such a great time to visit as the island strengthens its infrastructure and gears its economy around tourism. It’s a perfect mixture of quiet and increasingly luxurious, and hopefully it’ll be that way for a while.
(But in case it isn’t, you should get yourself there as soon as possible.)
Beaches in St. Croix
For such a small island, St. Croix has an astonishing number of individually-named beaches— 33 in total. (But I guess this is the Caribbean.) All of them feature the same pristine white sand sloping down into glowing blue-green water.
To pick the right one on the right day, you should remember how the island’s climate works. Because of the trade winds, the terrain on the western part of the island gets a lot more rain. This means that, yes, it might rain, but it’s also lusher and greener on that side of the island. The east is desert-like in comparison.
For this reason, my recommendation is to head towards Frederiksted and check out the beaches arrayed around the town: Sprat Hill, Rainbow, Fort Frederik and Sandcastle. If you’re happy to cook yourself in rather fiercer conditions with less shade, try the easternmost tip of the island.
Close to Christiansted, The Buccaneer has one of the most beautiful beaches on that side of the island.
Adventure Activities in St. Croix
My top recommendation is to grab a trip to nearby Buck Island, an uninhabited island off the coast of St. Croix that is home to a truly spectacular 4,500-acre coral reef. (Note: Don’t confuse this with the other Buck Island and its associated coral reef, which lies to the north in the British Virgin Islands.)
This is an incredible spot for diving, snorkeling and sailing, all of which can be booked Big Beard’s Adventure Tours in Christiansted. (Note: You will need to go through a tour operator to visit the island, since the government protects it as a U.S. National Monument and controls visits strictly.)
Even if you don’t get out to Buck Island (but really, you should), the rest of St. Croix caters for all kinds of aquatic fun, with diving operators spaced evenly out along the northern coastline and clustered in the harbors of both towns.
When the appeal of the ocean fades, there’s the inland jungle to explore. Tan Tan Tours of Christiansted will put you into a jeep and take you on scenic tours across the interior, along some hilariously bumpy roads and judicious off-roading. And since the guides are gifted storytellers, they’ll teach you a lot in a very short amount of time.
St. Croix is also the home of two of the Caribbean’s rare bioluminescent bays, glowing at night with the light of three different microorganisms. The best way to see them is to hire a glass-bottomed kayak and paddle out for a look.
If you’d prefer exploring the jungle at a more leisurely pace, try horseback riding rescued horses with The Cruzan Cowgirls in Frederiksted.
Where to Eat on St. Croix
As you might imagine, seafood dominates mealtimes. Particularly the island’s signature dish, conch, a variety of sea snails that the locals douse in delicious butter or deep fry.
Modern St. Croix prides itself on pursuing sustainable eating practices, and menus tend to vary according with what the catch of the day is like. But you’ll also find more general Caribbean fare including jerk or rotisserie chicken and breakfast smoothies.
As for places to eat, my three top picks are in Christiansted:
Balter: Think Caribbean cooking with a focus on highlighting locally sourced ingredients, backed up with an award-winning wine list and outstanding service.
Savant: Almost as famous for its beautiful indoor setting as for the stellar quality of its food, this is the place to come if you want to splash out on a luxury dining experience.
As for Frederiksted, at the time of writing the newest restaurant in town is at The Fred, a brightly colored, trendily-designed hotel with a spa, restaurant and sun-lounge. Early reports say it’s terrific.
Things Could Always Go Awry, But the Locals Are Ready for It
It’s true that the island has made an impressively rapid recovery (consider the fact that in December of 2017, 75 days after Hurricane Maria struck, 60 percent of the island was still without power). St Croix is open for business in every sense. But you may still encounter glitches in your experience of the island, here and there. This is, of course, due to the remainder of the recovery effort.
The good news is that the locals know it, too, so they’ll be eager to help out. These resilient people were unfailingly friendly, polite and kind to us at every turn.
Whether you’re taking a tour, grabbing an evening meal or just out for a stroll, the locals will treat you with respect. And they’ll certainly look after you.