Roomy, With a View
Sunday, October 23, 2005
A winding drive lined with royal palms ends at a 19th-century Danish sugar plantation. Giant pink, yellow and purple orchids dangle from kapok trees in the St. George Village Botanical Garden. Butterflies flit around clusters of bell-shaped ginger thomas. Later on our four-day trip, we'll ride horses through an orchard beneath mango trees heavy with fruit, and past papaya and tamarind dotted white with resting egrets. As the horses near a sandy beach, they break into a canter.
No question: St. Croix is a beautiful place, its landscape sometimes reminiscent of Hawaii.
A third of the island lies on a fertile coastal plain. Unlike many Caribbean islands whose sandy soil supports little more than palm trees and brush, St. Croix enjoys tangles of flowering hibiscus, bougainvillea and frangipani. During our visit last summer, mangoes were growing in such profusion that people didn't bother trying to sell them -- they simply set them out along the road for the taking. Then, of course, there are the beaches -- dozens of them, ranging from okay to stellar.
Of the three U.S. Virgins, St. Croix is by far the largest -- 84 square miles, compared with St. Thomas's 32 and St. John's 19. St. Croix has the most historical attractions, the widest open spaces, the best diving and three of the islands' four golf courses.
Yet it is the least celebrated and least visited of the three. Last year, St. Thomas and St. John combined hosted nearly 530,000 visitors who arrived by plane, and nearly 2 million by sea. St. Croix: 133,000 visitors by air, a mere 25,000 by sea.
That's the bad news for businesses that rely on tourism, but by my lights, it's good news for travelers who seek to avoid the crowds.
Cruzans, as the locals are known, complain that their island is the stepchild of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Not the ugly stepchild, mind you, but the beautiful Cinderella who is overlooked when it's time for the U.S. territorial government based in St. Thomas to spend money and time promoting the U.S. Virgins.
Cruzans argue that their island offers the best of both worlds represented by their stepsisters across the way. Sam Halvorson, a Cruzan diver transplanted from Montana 18 years ago, summed it up in a compelling way:
"The rat race follows you from New York to St. Thomas," he said. "St. John is quiet and beautiful and great if you want to go camping, but there's not much going on. If you want a laid-back place that still has plenty of activity and shopping, St. Croix's the way to go."
Before the Rush
The price was right at the Sugar Beach condominium resort -- $99 for a suite with a sizable bedroom, kitchen and a porch overlooking the water. But the sand is hardly the consistency of sugar. It might more properly be called Kosher Salt Beach. And what's with the thick metal chain padlocked around the wrought-iron door on my porch? Is that a public housing project down at the end of the beach?
Turns out, yes. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But the padlock and chain are reminders of a second reason St. Croix has fewer visitors than its stepsisters: the perception that crime is a serious problem. As FBI stats prove, the perception is unfair. St. Croix, like all Caribbean islands -- in fact, like all parts of the world -- has some crime, and neighborhoods to avoid after dark. But crime is no worse than on other islands, and in fact less of a problem than on many. Why the bad rap?
Cruzans will hate me for mentioning it, but more than 30 years ago, tourism to the island was stopped in its tracks when five men gunned down 11 people, killing eight, at the Fountain Valley Golf Club (soon after to be renamed the Carambola Golf Club.).