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Although the 21st century has definitely invaded St. Croix, with subdivisions, condo complexes, shopping centers, and modern strip malls, evidence of the past is everywhere across its 84 square miles. St. Croix contains the nostalgic ruins of some 100 plantations where sugar cane was once grown. Except for a few windmills and ruined Great Houses, that's about what's left of the slave-driven plantations that once grew tobacco and sugar cane.

Christopher Columbus named the island Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) when he landed on November 14, 1493. He anchored his ship off the north shore but was quickly driven away by the spears, arrows, and axes of the Carib Indians. The French laid claim to the island in 1650; the Danes purchased it from them in 1733. Under their rule, the slave trade and sugar-cane fields flourished until the latter half of the 19th century. Danish architecture and influence can still be seen on the island today. In a shrewd purchase deal with the Danes, the U.S. acquired the islands in 1917.

Today, the past is visible everywhere you go in St. Croix, from Fort Christiansvaern to Fort Frederick. Take the time to explore Christiansted and Frederiksted, where you can see the island's Danish roots.

Frederiksted

This former Danish settlement at the western end of the island, about 17 miles from Christiansted, is a sleepy port town that comes to life only when a cruise ship docks at its pier. Frederiksted was destroyed by a fire in 1879, and the citizens rebuilt it by putting wood frames and clapboards on top of the old Danish stone and yellow-brick foundations.

Most visitors begin their tour at russet-colored Fort Frederik, at the northern end of Frederiksted next to the cruise-ship pier (tel. 340/772-2021). This fort, completed in 1760, is said to have been the first fort in the Caribbean to salute the flag of the new United States. An American brigantine, anchored at port in Frederiksted, hoisted a crudely made Old Glory. To show its support for the emerging American colonies, the head of the fort fired a cannonball in the air to honor the Americans and their new independence. Such an act violated the rules of Danish neutrality. It was at this same fort, on July 3, 1848, that Governor-General Peter von Scholten emancipated the slaves in the Danish West Indies, in response to a slave uprising led by a young man named Moses "Buddhoe" Gottlieb. In 1998, a bust of Buddhoe was unveiled here. The fort has been restored to its 1840 appearance and today is a national historic landmark. You can explore the courtyard and stables. A local history museum has been installed in what was once the Garrison Room. Admission is $3, free for children 15 and under; it's open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 4pm.

The Customs House, just east of the fort, is an 18th-century building with a 19th-century two-story gallery. To the south of the fort is the visitor bureau at Strand Street (tel. 340/772-0357), where you can pick up a free map of the town.

The St. Croix Heritage Trail

A trail that leads into the past, St. Croix Heritage Trail helps visitors relive the island's Danish colonial past. All you need are a brochure and map, available at the tourist office in Christiansted. This 72-mile itinerary includes a combination of asphalt-covered roadway, suitable for driving, and narrow woodland trails which must be navigated on foot. Many aficionados opt to drive along the route whenever practical, descend onto the footpaths wherever indicated, and then return to their cars for the continuation of the tour. En route, you'll be exposed to one of the Caribbean's densest concentrations of historical and cultural sites.

The route connects Christiansted and Frederiksted, going past the sites of former sugar plantations, and traverses the entire 28-mile length of St. Croix. The route consists mainly of existing roadways. The brochure will identify everything you're seeing: You will pass cattle farms, suburban communities, even industrial complexes and resorts. It's not all manicured and pretty, but much is scenic and worth the drive. Allow at least a day for this trail, with stops along the way.

Nearly everyone gets out of the car at Point Udall, the easternmost point under the U.S. flag in the Caribbean. You'll pass an eclectic mix of churches and even a prison.

The highlight of the trail is the Estate Mount Washington, a strikingly well-preserved sugar plantation. Another highlight is Estate Whim Plantation Museum, one of the best of the restored great houses, with a museum and gift shop. Another stop is along Salt River Bay, which cuts into the northern shoreline. This is the site of Columbus's landfall in 1493.

Of course, you'll want to stop and get to know the locals. We recommend a refreshment break at Smithens Market. Vendors at this market, which lies off Queen Mary Highway, offer freshly squeezed sugar-cane juice and sell locally grown fruits and homemade chutneys.

Sandy Point Wildlife Refuge

St. Croix's rarely visited southwestern tip is composed of salt marshes, tidal pools, and low vegetation inhabited by birds, turtles, and other wildlife. More than 3 miles of ecologically protected coastline lie between Sandy Point (the island's westernmost tip) and the shallow waters of the West End Salt Pond. This national wildlife refuge is one of only two nesting grounds of the leatherback turtle in the United States -- the other is on Culebra, an offshore island of Puerto Rico. It's also home to colonies of green and hawksbill turtles, and thousands of birds, including herons, brown pelicans, Caribbean martins, black-necked stilts, and white-crowned pigeons. As for flora, Sandy Point gave its name to a rare form of orchid, a brown/purple variety. The area consists of 360 acres of subtropical vegetation, including the largest salt pond in the Virgin Islands.

Park rangers are determined to keep the area pristine, and in doing so they have to face such problems as the poaching of sea turtles and their eggs, drug smuggling, dumping of trash, and the arrival of illegal aliens. Even the mongoose and feral dogs are a menace to the nesting female turtles.

Visitors are fascinated to see the leatherback sea turtle, the largest of its species, which can measure some six feet in length and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Every 2, perhaps 3 years, the turtles come back to this refuge to nest from March to July. The average female will deposit anywhere from 60 to 100 eggs in her nest. The survival rate is only one in 1,000 hatchlings. The refuge is also home to the green sea turtle, which can grow to a maximum of four feet and weigh about 400 pounds. These turtles come here only from June to September, when the females come to lay from 75 to 100 eggs.

Birdies also flock to Sandy Point to see more than 100 species of birds, five of which are endangered. Endangered brown pelicans, royal terns, laughing gulls, Caribbean elaenias, bananaquits, and yellow warblers are just some of the birds that call Sandy Point home. Three species of geckos (yes, that annoying insurance salesman), along with several species of reptiles also live here. The reptiles usually stay out of your way.

The wildlife refuge is only open to the public on Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm (admission is free). Activities include hiking, nature photography, and wildlife observation. To reach the refuge, drive to the end of the Route 66 (Melvin Evans Hwy.) and continue down a gravel road. For guided weekend visits, call tel. 340/773-4554 to make arrangements.

Sea Turtle Etiquette -- These are some of the most highly endangered species in the oceans. Catching even a passing glimpse of one is a magical experience, but you'll blow the chance unless you heed some basic guidelines. When you first spot a sea turtle, resist the urge to move in and get a closer look; you will only scare it off and ruin the opportunity for others to see it. Instead, stay still and watch at a respectful distance as it goes about its business, searching for food or gliding along gracefully. Keep an eye out for identification tags on their flippers or shells -- a sure sign these fellas are being closely studied and well protected. You should never approach a turtle or its nest, and never touch or try to touch one -- for your safety and theirs. While it seems harmless to humans, it is in fact quite stressful for the turtles (how'd you like to be chased around the grocery store by strangers all day?). Warning: Do not swim above the turtles; it will prevent them from surfacing to breathe and subject them to undue respiratory stress. And, of course, if someone offers you sea turtle shell, egg, or meat products, just say no.

Around the Island

North of Frederiksted, you can drop in at Sprat Hall, the island's oldest plantation, or continue along to the "Rain Forest". Most visitors come to the area to see the jagged estuary of the northern coastline's Salt River. The Salt River was where Columbus landed on November 14, 1493. Marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival, former President George H. W. Bush signed a bill creating the 912-acre Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve. The park contains the site of the original Carib village explored by Columbus and his men, including the only ceremonial ball court ever discovered in the Lesser Antilles. Also within the park is the largest mangrove forest in the Virgin Islands, sheltering many endangered animals and plants, plus an underwater canyon attracting divers from around the world. If you visit on your own, a taxi from Christiansted will cost $22.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.