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St. Croix

The largest of the USVI, St. Croix is 40 miles (64 km) south of St. Thomas. Plantation ruins, reminiscent of the days when St. Croix was a great producer of sugar, dot the island. Its northwest is covered by a lush rain forest, its drier East End spotted with cacti. The restored Danish port of Christiansted and the more Victorian-looking Frederiksted are its main towns; Buck Island, off the island’s northeast shore, attracts many day visitors.

Until 1917 Denmark owned St. Croix and her sister Virgin Islands, an aspect of the island’s past that is reflected in street names in the main towns of Christiansted and Frederiksted, as well as the surnames of many island residents. Those early settlers from Denmark and other European nations left behind slews of 18th- and 19th-century plantation ruins, all of them worked by slaves brought over on ships from Africa, their descendants, and white indentured servants lured to St. Croix to pay off their debt to society. Some of these ruins—such as the Christiansted National Historic site, Whim Plantation, the ruins at St. George Village Botanical Garden, and the ruins at Estate Mount Washington and Judith’s Fancy—are open for easy exploration. Others are on private land, but a drive around the island passes the ruins of 100 plantations here and there on St. Croix’s 84 square miles (218 square km). Their windmills, greathouses, and factories are all that’s left of the 224 plantations that once grew sugarcane, tobacco, and other agricultural products at the height of the island’s plantation glory.

The downturn began in 1801, when the British occupied the island. The demise of the slave trade in 1803, another British occupation from 1807 to 1815, droughts, the development of the sugar-beet industry in Europe, political upheaval, and a depression sent the island on a downward economic spiral.

St. Croix never recovered from these blows. The freeing of all of the slaves in the Virgin Islands in 1848, followed by labor riots, fires, hurricanes, and an earthquake during the last half of the 19th century, brought what was left of the island’s economy to its knees. The start of Prohibition in 1922 called a halt to the island’s rum industry, further crippling the economy. The situation remained dire—so bad that President Herbert Hoover called the territory an “effective poorhouse” during a 1931 visit—until the rise of tourism in the late 1950s and 1960s. With tourism came economic improvements coupled with an influx of residents from other Caribbean islands and the mainland. For years Hovensa Oil Refinery was an economic stimulus, until it shuttered its doors in 2012. Currently, the economy is struggling and a number of businesses have closed.

Today suburban subdivisions fill the fields where sugarcane once waved in the tropical breeze. Condominium complexes line the beaches along the north coast outside Christiansted. Homes that are more elaborate dot the rolling hillsides. Modern strip malls and shopping centers sit along major roads, and it’s as easy to find a McDonald’s as it is Caribbean fare.

Although St. Croix sits definitely in the 21st century, with only a little effort you can easily step back into the island’s past.

POINTS OF INTEREST

CHRISTIANSTED

Christiansted is a historic Danish-style town that always served as St. Croix’s commercial center. Your best bet is to see the historic sights in the morning when it’s still cool. Break for lunch at an open-air restaurant before spending as much time as you like shopping.

In the 1700s and 1800s, Christiansted was a trading center for sugar, rum, and molasses. Today there are law offices, tourist shops, and restaurants, but many of the buildings, which start at the harbor and go up the gently sloped hillsides, still date from the 18th century. You can’t get lost. All streets lead back downhill to the water.

FREDERIKSTED

St. Croix’s second-largest town, Frederiksted was founded in 1751. While Christiansted is noted for its Danish buildings, Frederiksted is better known for its Victorian architecture. One long cruise-ship pier juts into the sparkling sea. It’s the perfect place to start a tour of this quaint city. A stroll around its historic sights will take you no more than an hour. Allow a little more time if you want to duck into the few small shops.

WEST END BEACHES

There are several unnamed beaches along the coast road north of Frederiksted, but it’s best if you don’t stray too far from civilization. For safety’s sake, most vacationers plop down their towel near one of the casual restaurants spread out along Route 63. The beach at the Rainbow Beach Club, a five-minute drive outside Frederiksted, has a bar, a casual restaurant, water sports, and volleyball. If you want to be close to the cruise-ship pier, just stroll on over to the adjacent sandy beach in front of Fort Frederik. On the way south out of Frederiksted, the stretch near Sandcastle on the Beach hotel is also lovely. Amenities: food and drink; water sports. Best for: snorkeling, swimming, walking.

ST. GEORGE VILLAGE BOTANICAL GARDEN

At this 17-acre estate, fragrant flora grows amid the ruins of a 19th-century sugarcane plantation. There are miniature versions of each ecosystem on St. Croix, from a semiarid cactus grove to a verdant rain forest. The small museum is also well worth a visit.

WEST END SALT POND

A bird watcher’s delight, this salt pond attracts a large number of winged creatures, including flamingos.

MID-ISLAND

A drive through the countryside between Christiansted and Frederiksted will take you past ruins of old plantations, many bearing whimsical names (Morningstar, Solitude, Upper Love) bestowed by early owners. The traffic moves quickly—by island standards—on the main roads, but you can pause and poke around if you head down some side lanes. It’s easy to find your way west, but driving from north to south requires good navigation. Don’t leave your hotel without a map. Allow an entire day for this trip, so you’ll have enough time for a swim at a north-shore beach. Although you can find lots of casual eateries on the main roads, pick up a picnic lunch if you plan to head off the beaten path.

CRUZAN RUM DISTILLERY

A tour of the company’s factory, which was established in 1760, culminates in a tasting of its products, all sold here at good prices. It’s worth a stop to look at the distillery’s charming old buildings even if you’re not a rum connoisseur.