When Winter Blues set in, the perfect cure is sandy beaches, the warm sun and turquoise water. If you want a little Caribbean in your life and someone in your party doesn’t have a passport, check out the US Virgin Islands, particularly St. Croix! (Also, immediately either set that friend up to speed or get rid of them :).
My boyfriend Ben and I chose St. Croix as our first vacation spot together and we flew on American from Miami. Delta also has seasonal service from Atlanta and NY, and you can connect on JetBlue via San Juan or St Thomas. We decided to stay in Christiansted on the eastern side of the island, in the older section of town near the fort. The Hotel St Croix was originally built in the mid 1700s and it’s a beautiful colonial style three story building with many nooks and crannies and quaint spaces. There is a bar on the first floor called Club Comanche and a second floor walkway to the bar across the street. Inside the upstairs bar is a pool table, tabletop shuffleboard and a relaxing hammock. Hanging overhead is the original long wooden boat named the Comanche that carried over some of the first settlers into Christiansted. The hotel’s atmosphere is open and inviting; we had a cozy little room on the third floor under a sloping roof where we could occasionally hear the patter of the island rains. The only problem during our stay was that the water pressure in our shower was temperamental due to road construction. Otherwise the staff was quite friendly and the continental breakfast satisfactory. The greatest part about our hotel was the location– stumbling distance home from all the fun bars along the boardwalk! But I really enjoyed the architecture, and the beautiful wooden antique island furniture displayed on every level. I loved the daybed I could relax in with a book on the second floor and the old speckled mirror going up the stairs that made me look super skinny. However, if you object to roosters interrupting your morning, perhaps stay in a resort like the Buccaneer. The most prolific native inhabitant of St. Croix are the multicolored free range chickens and roosters strutting about town.
Once we landed, we took care of our rental car. We had originally booked with Budget, and even though we called in advance to ensure our Jeep reservation, upon arrival we were informed only small cars were available. So we cancelled that and went with Centerline Rentals instead. We discovered they have a much wider range of Jeep selection. Then we drove into Christiansted, checked into the Hotel St. Croix, and went to Angry Nate’s on the boardwalk for dinner. The dinner menu is very over priced for the quality of the food; lunch prices are more reasonable. I loved the nachos appetizer, they have their own house made nachos that are covered in the most delectable spices! I had the mussels for dinner, which I can only say, I’ve had better elsewhere in the world. The best part about Angry Nate’s was the excellent service and the people watching. The highlight of our night was the view from the boardwalk as we watched the new Supermoon rise over the marina. Being closer to the Equator, the Supermoon appeared much larger in the sky than it did back home up north.
Afterwards, following music, we came across the Scooter bar, a garage where you can rent scooters during the day and becomes a small bar at night. We met a lot of locals, and laughed and danced and sang along to the piano. We soon discovered that there are no open container laws in St. Croix! You can carry your drinks around with you everywhere, and it’s even legal to drink and drive, so long as you use a straw so as not to impede your vision! (According to the local cops.) Most people simply carry around tall white styrofoam cups with a straw and just refill it at every bar they walk into. St Croix is an alcoholics paradise!
The next day we wanted to explore the Old Town so first we checked out the Scales House, where Alexander Hamilton used to work as a customs clerk measuring and weighing goods, and then we got a private tour of the still-in-use Customs House from Janelle of the Parks Service who saw us exploring about outside and kindly invited us in. The Christiansvaern Fort is right next door, in a pretty park along the waterfront, and it’s only $3/person to do a self-guided tour. Lots of great info and historical facts are on placards in every room, including that Alexander Hamilton’s mother was once imprisoned there for leaving her first husband. Some of the best views of Gallows Bay are from the ramparts of the fort.
Back in our Jeep with the top down, we set off to explore the western side of the island. We learned very quickly that neither a GPS nor a paper map are very helpful. The GPS gets lost and the paper maps are outdated. None of the roads make much sense, they are always making weird jogs to the right or left, have odd intersections, and sometimes just disappear altogether. The worst part is that the roads aren’t labeled and you never know what road you are turning on. It’s a lot of guesswork, plus trying to remember to stay on the opposite side of the road!
We finally made it over to the west coast of the island near Fredericksted and found a perfect place for snorkeling; ready to test out our new ninja snorkeling masks. These are a new version that cover your whole face, and give you a far bigger view of the ocean. You don’t have to keep breathing through a tube in your mouth, you can just breathe naturally. It was such an wonderful new snorkeling experience! The Caribbean was crystal clear and I found lots of pretty fish to follow. Some friendly tourists walking by told us about some carousel horses buried into the sand further out in the water that made for an awesome underwater excursion.
After our vigorous swim, we headed back towards the north part of the island to meet our tour guide for horseback riding at a bar called Off The Wall. This is one of the most popular beach bars with live music during peak season. Grabbing some rum and cokes while we waited, the bartender was quick to warn us that we were about to meet one of the island’s most colorful and popular characters. Cowboy Steve. He showed up, held out his hand, and the minute he started talking, we were all fast friends. He was a former priest from Limerick, Ireland who decided after ten years that clergy life wasn’t for him forever, and took off to explore the world, met the Dali Lama in Tibet, and settled on a ranch in Texas for another ten years wrangling cattle where he met Angela Nixon, the writer for All My Children. She asked him to move to St Croix and personally take care of her estate and horses. 25 years later, he is a permanent fixture to the island and exudes positivity, Irish charm, good vibes and spiritualism. He asked us about prior riding experience before choosing our horses for the day’s ride. We met his friend Kiowa who is part native Cruzan and part Native American Indian. He has bright green eyes, a broad smile, a happy nature, and a great singing voice. We all held hands in a circle, introduced ourselves, took some deep breaths and meditated together. It felt great to be so calm and connected before embarking on a little journey of trust in each other and our horses.
We trotted down the road and up a small hill to an old stone sugar mill. It was used to grind up sugarcane using a windmill, an engineering method dating back to the long years of Dutch colonial control. The views of the sunset from atop this hill were so beautiful, I sat patting my horse, letting him graze on the tall grasses blowing in the wind, and felt such deep happiness and contentment.
The next thing I knew, Cowboy Steve was leading my horse slowly up the stone steps of the sugar mill and I got to go inside. Ben rode in next to join me and with patient coaching, Cowboy Steve had our horses side by side, and in total confusion of what he was asking, I found myself standing up in the saddle! It was completely crazy and fun!
Then we rode the horses through the woods and fields and down to the ocean. Kiowa and I just rode along the beach of Cane Bay while Ben (who has a lot more horseback riding experience than I do) and Cowboy Steve took their horses swimming far enough out into the ocean that they were able to spot sea turtles. Kiowa told me the story of when Christopher Columbus’s men first landed at St Croix in 1493, they encountered the natives and took captive a warrior woman. They raped her, and in revenge, she took a little green apple from a tree and broke it in half and with its juice on the point of her spear, managed to kill two of them. That “apple” tree is the manchineel, and Kiowa pointed it out along the beach and said to not touch any of it, as it’s so poisonous, rainwater hitting its leaves will burn your skin.
While they were out on their horses swimming in the ocean, Steve invited Ben and I to go kayaking that night with him and some friends for free out into a bioluminescent bay. We were overjoyed to accept the invitation!
So after we unsaddled and fed the horses, we followed Steve’s truck to his marine biologist friend’s house right on Salt River Bay. Using flashlights in the pitch black, Ben and I settled into a two-person tandem kayak, and pushed off from the pier. We paddled across the bay and up in close to the mangroves on the other side where Kristin, the marine biologist, showed us where the bioluminescence was strongest, because of the higher concentration of decaying material for the bacteria to feed on. It was one of the most magical things I’ve ever been so lucky to experience. I could trail my hand in the water or dip my paddle to create a shimmering eddy of sparks. It was like having fairy dust or a million fireflies trailing from my fingertips. In the meantime, the full Supermoon was quietly rising, a giant ball of luminescent light over the black shadowy mangroves. We were awe-stricken. No one moved a paddle. We could only stare at the moon, caught in a moment and in the wide moonbeam reflecting across the still waters. Suddenly Ben broke the silence with a long howl at the moon and Kiowa joined in and then we all started laughing and singing.
After our gooodbyes, we got back to our hotel for a hot shower, more than a little exhausted from our long day of adventures and definitely saddlesore. Word of advice: don’t wear shorts when going horseback riding. Jeans are a must!
We went for dinner and a nightcap at the steakhouse 40 Strand Eatery across from our hotel. They have a mac and cheese speciality where you choose from a list of toppings to create your own mac and cheese skillet. Along with a bottle of Merlot, and some bread pudding dessert, we crawled into bed thoroughly satiated.
Click here for the second part of Anna’s vacation diary, St. Croix Part 2
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Equus Rides. Horseback riding tour. TripAdvisor. Ask for Cowboy Steve. Cane Bay Beach, Frederiksted 00821 +1 340-642-4567 www.horsebackridingstcroix.com