Sitting here in North Carolina on this dreary, wet, chilly evening makes me yearn for St. Croix, where we were a few weeks ago. We chose the lesser-known US Virgin Island because it has so much variety, which means we were going nonstop to see everything, but that’s us. Below is the story I wrote for the Boston Globe, along with photographer Lina’s favorite photos. I couldn’t believe the paper didn’t use one of the iconic sugar mill. We spent more than an hour there shooting. And so it goes. I received several notes of appreciation from Crucians, who are so proud of their island.
By Diane Daniel
Ruins of a sugar mill near Cane Bay
CHRISTIANSTED, St. Croix — Even before I was able to see daylight’s gift a sea shimmering in a crayon box of blues from turquoise to midnight my hands told me I’d made it to the Caribbean the night before, their rough, wrinkled winter skin showing just a hint of the smoothness to come.
My partner, Lina, and I decided to visit the largest of the US Virgin Islands (84 square miles) because it offered a little bit of everything: plentiful beaches, green hills, lively town centers, and historic sites. St. Croix has the reputation of being the poor relation to glitzier St. Thomas and lusher St. John, but we found a rich culture here, born of the island’s Danish past, its once-mighty sugar trade, and its cordial Crucians, as the native islanders are called. Add to that pristine islands to visit, water sports, and even a rain forest to explore and you can see why we were hard-pressed to squeeze everything into a week’s stay last month.
A rooster wanders the grounds of Fort Christiansvaern in Christiansted
We based ourselves in a centrally located, budget-friendly waterfront apartment along “condo row” in Christiansted, the larger and more tourist-driven of the island’s two towns. With hens and roosters wandering all over, the countryside never felt out of reach. Our street, lined with palm trees and a rainbow of bougainvilleas, also led to working-class neighborhoods and public-housing developments, daily reminders of the poverty here. We never felt unwelcome or unsafe, but for those who prefer more upscale and tropical settings, mid-level to pricey beachfront resorts and villas cover the island.
Strike up a conversation with a local or a fellow tourist and you’ll immediately be asked, “Have you been to Buck Island yet?” Put St. Croix’s jewel on top of your list. Surrounding the uninhabited island, a 30-minute boat ride from Christiansted, lies the underwater Buck Island Reef National Monument, a protected reef system that includes a short marked trail. While some of the coral is in tough shape, the clear water nonetheless offers the area’s best snorkeling. Unless you have access to a private boat, you’ll need to use one of the National Park Service’s six concessionaires. Unfortunately, no outfitter allows enough opportunity to also experience the island’s hiking trails.
A sailboat departs Buck Island
After an hour in the water, we climbed back aboard and compared notes. I sought out Oliver Martin, 15, from Marion, Pa., who, with his dad, were the only people near me when I witnessed a heart-stopping sight.
“I knew it was a shark right away,” Oliver said proudly. “It had that fin on top. I was a little nervous, but not too much.”
I agreed. With the help of a deckhand, we concluded it was a lemon shark, probably about 5 feet long. We also were treated to sightings of a large school of shiny blue tang, iridescent parrotfish, long-bodied trumpetfish, and camouflaged Nassau grouper. Apparently I was the only one to see a barracuda flash its teeth.