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.).

Never mind that all five men were arrested and convicted, or that nothing remotely similar has even been rumored since. But the incident in 1972 became a symbol of fear around the world, and its prominence in the public psyche only grew after leftist lawyer William Kunstler volunteered to defend the "Fountain Valley Five" and turn their case into an international media circus. People who don't exactly remember the incident still have a hazy memory of hearing something about crime on St. Croix.

In the many years since, tourism has been hampered simply by the lack of tourism -- a crazy Catch-22. The airlines say they'll add more direct flights when the island has more hotel rooms, and hotel developers say they'll add rooms when there are more flights bringing guests, said Shaun Pennington, publisher of the St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John Source, three Internet newspapers based in St. Thomas.

Tourism officials are hoping the morass will end when ground is broken for a convention center. "A convention center will bring brand-name hotels, which St. Croix doesn't have, and brand names will bring more visitors, and that will bring more flights," said Monique Sibilly-Hodge, assistant commissioner of tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands, in a telephone interview after my trip.

I'm just glad I got here before the rush.

Yes, I'm put off by the padlock and the beach of kosher salt-size sand pellets, but that problem's easily solved. I head to other, pristine beaches.

On my first day, I drive a few miles and buy a day pass to the Buccaneer resort hotel. During the busiest winter months, the pass isn't always available. But I hit a slow period, and for $6 a person, spend the day enjoying the stellar ambiance and first-rate beach of the best property on the island -- one of the best in the entire Caribbean.

Landscaped gardens on the Buccaneer property sit on a hill that leads to a white beach with crystal water, shaded by trees. Our day pass gets my preteen daughter and me big comfy lounge chairs. When we tire of swimming and reading, we rent a kayak. After paddling around a cove, we venture beyond a rocky point and find our own private beach, then later paddle back to our lounge chairs and a pair of pina coladas, one virgin.

The day is nicely capped with dinner in downtown Christiansted, one of the best-preserved historic towns in the Caribbean. More than 100 brightly painted, neoclassical buildings erected during Danish rule in the 18th and 19th centuries line the streets and alleyways. We stroll the stores, which offer the same duty-free shopping as St. Thomas, and settle for dinner in a waterfront pub.

Shades of Coral

The snorkeling at Buck Island just off St. Croix's shores is better than at Australia's Great Barrier Reef, I promise my daughter, based on my Buck Island experience 20 years ago. How could that be? Well, of course it's not as extensive as the Great Barrier Reef, but in a given area, there is a higher concentration of red, purple and blue sea fans, spectacular elkhorn and brain corals, and colorful fish, I assure her.

We jump off the tour boat, and my heart sinks along with my body. The snorkeling isn't bad, but not even in the league of what I remember. The culprit: Hurricane Hugo, which devastated St. Croix in 1989. The island shows no signs of that disaster 16 years ago, but corals that can take hundreds of years to grow were scraped and plundered.

Corals farther out, in less shallow waters, were spared, and the diving remains terrific, I'm assured by numerous sources. Dive operators brag that in St. Croix, you can dive a reef, a wreck, a pier and a wall all in one day. The island's seven dive shops offer a package that allows you to dive with any or all of them: a six-dive package, for example, allows you to go out with as many as six dive shops for $250.

The island is best known for its wall diving at Cane Bay Drop-Off, the North Star wall and Salt River Canyon. At Cane Bay, for example, a wall with a 60-degree slope drops to a depth of more than 12,000 feet. Halvorson, of Dive Experience, describes scuba diving along the wall as "like being Spider-Man, able to go up and down a tall building."

I'm most intrigued by his description of night diving at a pier, where tall concrete columns are encrusted with corals and sponges, and all the creatures of the deep congregate en masse after dark.

"It feels like swimming in an enchanted forest, but instead of the animals being lions and tigers and bears, they're sea creatures like sea horses, frogfish, batfish, and squid and octopus that change colors, from red to electric blue, when we shine flashlights on them."

A frogfish, he tells me, has a little appendage on the top of its head. It waves the appendage around to attract other fish, and when the little fish come to investigate, they get eaten. Batfish are fun to watch because they're comical, with red lips, leglike appendages and big behinds, so that they look like big-bottomed ladies waddling along the bottom of the sea.

Alas, you must be certified to do night diving -- a resort dive course won't cut it. So I set off my final day to explore history and scenery.

In a rather rickety open-air Jeep, I hit the St. Croix Heritage Trail, a self-guided, 72-mile drive circling the island. St. Croix is dotted with the remains of 54 sugar mills, including factory chimneys and stone windmills. We stop at the Lawaetz Family Museum, one of several graceful old plantation homes restored and open to the public. The museum is closed on Sundays, but the caretaker is picking mangoes when we stop and invites us to join her.

Along the North Shore, near the famous diving wall at Cane Bay, we skid to a halt when I spot a beachfront, open-air restaurant -- the kind of place where shoes and shirts are optional and the food is homemade. The moment I spot it, I decide it's my favorite place on the island -- the kind of laid-back, family-owned joint with great local food that would never survive more intensive development.

A waitress there urges us to stay past dinner, saying that the Water's Edge has the best sunset in the Virgin Islands. Not having seen all the sunsets on the Virgin Islands, I cannot swear to that. But there's no doubt about this: It's a mighty fine sunset.

Hop around the rum factory ruins at St. George Village Botanical Garden.Off St. Croix, divers can swim among such wildlife as sea turtles.At St. Croix's luxurious Buccaneer resort, guests play in the sun and surf.