Immerse yourself in the diverse cultural mix of Caribbean and Danish influences on a vacation to the most populated island in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Though it is the most largely populated island of the U.S. Virgin Islands with approximately 55,000 people inhabiting more than 84 square miles, St. Croix also is the most tranquil of the islands. Though a U.S. territory, the Danish influence from bygone eras is evident everywhere from the arched walkways of the pastel-colored buildings in the island’s capital, Christiansted, to the historic Fort Frederik, named after the King of Denmark who purchased the island in 1754. There also are hundreds of sugar windmill ruins that have been heralding Danish sugar production on the island for 200 years.
The United States purchased St. Croix from Denmark in 1917, and today, the island holds a lively fusion of Danish culture combined with American and Caribbean influences. In fact, on my recent visit, I shared my taxi ride with snowbirds from the United States returning for the season, a honeymooning Danish couple drawn to the island’s heritage, and even our taxi driver was from further south in the Caribbean. This is the melting pot of St. Croix, the “Crucian” blend, (not to be confused with Cruzan, the rum manufactured on the island!).
The mountainous island of St. Croix has a visual contrast between its West End, rich with botanical gardens and rainforests, and its East End, with hills barren in places occupied by mountain goats. “On one side of our condo is a yacht club and across from that is a goat farm. That’s kind of how St. Croix is,” says Linda Fonger, a St. Croix resident who is originally from Michigan.
Walking along the old streets of Christiansted, you pass Danish ruins amidst new boutiques and salons. Yet it works, because the ruins add a certain character to the town. A focal point of the capital is Fort Christiansvaern, meaning “Christian’s defense,” a golden-colored fort along the waterfront that was built shortly after the Danish purchased the island from the French in 1733. (St. Croix flew under many flags, including British, Spanish and Dutch.) The fort is fascinating not just for its cannons poised to fire but also for the detention cells that once held runaway slaves.
Another interesting historical tidbit: Rachel Faucett Lavien, the mother of Alexander Hamilton (a founding father of the United States), was jailed here for leaving her husband, a much older man whom she was forced to marry. She eventually remarried, and Alexander grew up on the island, later saying that his experience with international trade and finance in Christiansted was the most useful part of his education.
A walking tour of the town encompasses just a few blocks. In addition to the fort, highlights include the Old Customs House, the bright yellow Government House, which was the former seat of the Danish West Indies government, and a Lutheran church more than 250 years old.
The streets are lined with boutiques and duty-free shops, but for local St. Croix goods, my favorites are Tesoro on Strand Street for its colorful hand-painted placemats, mahogany dinnerware, and sculpted art from steel drums. For jewelry, Sonya on Company Street, is popular for its original Crucian silver and gold bracelets featuring a locking “C” for St. Croix, which has since morphed into interlocking symbols of all kinds worn throughout the Virgin Islands.
Sure bets for good dining in town include Rum Runners along the boardwalk, which is famous for its steak and seafood offered at reasonable prices, or Kendrick’s for fine dining amidst a historic 18th century house featuring Caribbean continental cuisine. Look for Chef Kendrick’s special pan-seared swordfish piccata which is a favorite of American Major League Baseball players when they visit St. Croix for the annual Queen Louise Home Golf Tournament which raises money for the Queen Louis Home orphanage. (Plan on spending around $50 per person for a three-course meal at Kendrick’s, not including drinks.)
Bacchus is another great fine-dining find that has a terrific wine list and has been recognized with the Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence 10 times. For a casual mainstay, Cheeseburger’s in Paradise just outside of Christiansted is like going to a friend’s outdoor barbeque with pub-type food and regular prices. However, though the restaurant was around long before Jimmy Buffet sang about cheeseburgers in paradise, the restaurant had to change its name to Cheeseburgers in “America’s” Paradise after a Buffet lawsuit claiming title to the original name. Bet Buffet can’t make hamburgers like these guys.
A five-minute ride from Christiansted is the island’s most luxurious resort, The Buccaneer. It’s romantic while family-friendly at the same time. A former estate that began renting out rooms to men of importance in the mid-1700s—including the father of Alexander Hamilton, who with his wife and two young sons lived in the hotel for years—the remains of a sugar mill still herald the entrance to the resort, which is on the registry of National Historic Hotels. And like 250 years ago, the resort is still family run today, by a 9th-generation St. Croix family.
Today the resort is spread over 340 tropical acres, has three beaches, pools, tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, jogging trails and first-class service. It offers stunning ocean views, especially at sunset with Christiansted’s glimmering city lights in the distance. Some of the accommodations were previous estate quarters, such as in the Great House (site of the original estate house). The resort has ample accommodations to fit families—especially the family cottage suites with a decorated kids’ room, a great complimentary kids’ camp and guest laundry facilities. Rates at the Buccaneer start at $295 during the off-season, $400 peak season. Daily breakfast is included in the rates.
Chenay Bay Beach Resort, with 50 West Indian-style cottages, sits on 30 acres of a former sugar plantation next to a natural preserve. The resort is family friendly and often offers package specials, including deals for diving vacations.
The city of Frederiksted, on the west end of the island, is more than 250 years old and feels every bit its age with rather ordinary blocks of buildings, though much renovation is underway. Nevertheless, it’s the site of St. Croix’s renewed cruise port, which is welcoming ships to the island for the first time in more than four years. [Read more in our St. Croix cruises article.] The town also has an admired French restaurant, Le St. Tropez, which has been family-run for decades and offers dishes for moderate prices.
The east end of the island is more remote, but houses the popular resort, Divi Carina Bay Beach Resort, with rates starting at around $207 for the off-season. All 200 rooms are oceanfront and each comes equipped with a refrigerator and microwave. (Tip: Stock up at the food store near the airport on arrival, or stop at one of the two small delis near the resort).
There’s a plethora of organized family activities at Divi Carina such as shuffleboard and horseshoe tournaments, sand castle build-offs, kayak and snorkel tours and movie nights, along with a small game room. East End Pizza & More is a new addition at the resort, featuring scrumptious gourmet pizzas for great family dining. Divi Carina offers a special where kids 12 and under eat free at resort restaurants. Additionally, the resort also boasts the first casino in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which has live entertainment almost nightly. Also on the east end is the South Shore Café, which is “always good” as a local says, for seafood and steaks.
A stone’s throw from the Divi Carina resort lies Buck Island Reef National Monument, one of the most popular spots for boating and snorkeling excursions off St. Croix (though tours are mostly accessed via operators further west toward Christiansted). Buck Island is a 176-acre uninhabited island that has nature trails, an underwater reef trail and beautiful beaches. On the weekends, you’re also likely to see a flotilla of local boats enjoying area waters. Admission is free.
If diving is your thing, the North Shore of St. Croix is the place to be, with its proximity to Cane Bay, for spectacular wall diving, and the Cane Bay Dive Shop is arguably one of the best dive shops in the U.S. Virgin Islands. [Read more in Best USVI Dive Sites.]
For adult luxury, Carambola Beach Resort & Spa is a secluded, luxurious resort nestled into a lush hilltop descending down to the Caribbean Sea not far from Cane Bay. Rooms are situated amidst 26 red-roofed buildings with screened-in porches and Spanish Colonial touches. Most of the buildings have also been going through recent upgrades. All rooms are spacious, each with a king-sized bed and a sitting area with a pullout couch. It’s good value for the luxury with "value" rooms (no ocean view) starting at $150.
If roughing it is more your thing, the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute, which recently began welcoming overnight guests, offers camping and farm stays on more than 100 acres of rolling green hills and valleys nestled in the highlands of the northwest corner of St. Croix. The “farm” was founded in 2003 by Ben Jones to promote local and sustainable agriculture with the hope of spreading this message to communities around the world. It has since evolved from a neglected farm with pastures into a budding “agroecology” development that is 100 percent solar powered. The farm also includes a school, orchards, gardens, tilapia pond and more.
Guests can enjoy simple pleasure like feeding the chickens and rabbits, volunteering in the gardens or hiking to the beach and old sugar mills, or partake in more ambitious programs like field laboratories, outdoor lectures, research projects and even leadership development. Camping, quaint cabanas and a luxury home are all available at various rates beginning for as little as $35 per night. [Read about the VIERS volunteer program on St. John.]
Consider an island tour of St. Croix that includes stops at St. George Village Botanical Gardens and the Estate Whim Plantation—both not to be missed. The Botanical Gardens are set amidst the ruins of a former sugar plantation with exotic trees like the Sausage, Cannonball, Indian Almond and Bay Rum (which is used for spice). Intermingled amidst the exotica are remnants of kilns used to fire coral for cement, a blacksmith’s workshop and other reminders of days past. The Whim Plantation features mostly intact remains of a sugar plantation, including its “Great House” and a wealth of interesting information on plantation life. Nearby is the Cruzan Rum Distillery, which is worth a quick visit.
Though St. Croix may be the least known of the U.S. Virgin Islands, it’s probably the most interesting without being overly commercialized. Vacationer Brad Fonger tells me that he and his wife explored places to retire and says that there is just “not enough to do” on St. John, while St. Thomas is “too busy.” On St. Croix, they got the feeling that the islanders are genuinely friendly. “Everyone says good morning, good afternoon and good night.” That’s the island where they found their perfect mix—that Crucian blend.
For more information, visit the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism.
Themes: Beach Vacations