Lots of Caribbean islands are named for Saints. Nine to be exact. I’d never visited any of these sainted islands, and I’m not sure I could even name them all. As travel started to reopen recently, I decided I felt safe seeking out an island adventure, especially as a vaccinated traveler. But I wanted to stay within US Territory for this first time away from my home state in over a year. After such a prolonged distant-travel dry spell though, I very much craved the sense of adventure that comes with discovering a new place. Hawaii – been there. Puerto Rico – done that. But the US Virgin Islands and its three small saint-named islands of St Thomas, St John, and St Croix – not yet. USVI was the clear winner! The time had come to finally visit a Saint Caribbean island.
Then how to choose which of the three? Each has great beaches and beautiful turquoise blue water, but each also has a different character. St Thomas is often described as glitzy compared to the others. It’s the busiest, most developed, and is one of the busiest cruise ship ports in the Caribbean.
More than half of St John’s is covered by Virgin Islands National Park, so is the least developed. It’s immediately adjacent to St Thomas and the two are connected by a short ferry ride. Most travelers to one visit the other.
St Croix is located about 40 miles south of the other two, and is the largest of the three. It has a reputation as the most laid-back and authentic island. I wanted laid-back and authentic. So for me, St Croix was an easy choice. And it was wonderful! Just what we needed after the long darkness that has been the pandemic. Here’s some of the great things I found to do in St Croix.
Kayak through a Bioluminescent Bay
St Croix is home to two of the world’s remaining 10 bioluminescent bays. A Bio Bay is defined by the presence of dinoflagellates – plankton that glow a blue-green color when disturbed. We explored the Bio Bay at St Croix’s Salt River Bay National Historic Park with Virgin Kayak Tours.
Virgin Kayak Tours sits in a wooden shack located within the small Salt River marina, right on the edge of this National Historic Park. In addition to the Bio Bay, the Park is also known for its mangrove forests and estuaries. Virgin Kayak Tour offers a daytime tour exploring the ecologic wonders of the Park. The Bay is also famously known as the location for Christopher Columbus’ landing in 1493. He named the Virgin Islands after St Ursula and her 11,000 virgin followers.
For the tour, Virgin Kayak Tours provides 2-person kayaks with a pedaling device and a rutter. We didn’t need to paddle. Not only was this a much easier way to glide across the water, but it also allowed us to keep our arms free for agitating plankton.
Our Bio Bay tour began at dusk. The tour is only offered certain nights of the month depending on the cycle of the moon. Too much moonlight interferes with the plankton’s “glow”. Fortunately, our first full day in St Croix landed on the last night before the moon brightened too much.
We toured the Bay with about 12 other kayaks, a guide, and a few other staff to keep us organized in the water. While kayaking across the Bay, we learned about the Bay’s unique ecology and history. The Bio Bay itself is in a small enclosed lagoon sitting across Salt River Bay from Virgin Kayak Tours headquarters. It took about 30 minutes of pedaling across the dark water to work our way there. Once at the Bio Bay, we could dip our hands in the water as we glided along, creating a trail of bluish green light. We saw this same light emanating off the other kayaks as they disturbed the water, too.
Then, just like SpongeBob, we grabbed nets from the back of our Kayaks and went Jellyfishing. Dipping the nets into the water created an even more impressive bluish green light trail, as if the whole net itself was made of light. In addition to the plankton, Bio Bays are also home to a specific type of jellyfish that also light up when agitated. And I was lucky enough to catch one in my net early on. I didn’t see it until it hit my net, and then suddenly I had a fluorescent blue glob inside. These jellyfish are harmless. I was able to remove it from the net and hold it before returning it to the water.
We had a great night with Virgin Kayak Tours. The Bio Bay tour lasted 2 hours and cost $60.
Explore Colonial Era Forts
Until purchased by the United States in 1917, St Croix was part of the Danish West Indies, and ruled by Denmark through much of its modern history. The two major towns on the island carry very Danish names – Christiansted and Frederiksted. Both are named for Danish kings. Forts were constructed in each of these towns to protect from pirates and foreign invaders. They also functioned as prisons and government centers. A customs house sits next to each.
Both 18th century forts still stand and are now U.S. National Historic Landmarks. Each offers a self-guided tour. We spent time walking through each fort during our time in St Croix. The tours offer important glimpses into the island’s colonial past and some understanding of the hardships faced by the slaves used to help build the island’s sugar industry.
Take a Tour to Buck Island Reef National Monument
Perhaps St Croix’s most popular activity involves leaving the island and boating out to nearby Buck Island Reef National Monument. Buck Island is a small uninhabited island 1.5 miles off the northeast coast of St Croix. It’s really not all that impressive to look at from afar. In fact, look at a picture, and you’ll immediately wonder – that mound in the ocean covered with stubby trees is St Croix’s most popular attraction?
Well, here’s the reason. Most of the Monument is under water – almost 18,839 acres of underwater lands to be exact. One of the great coral reefs in the Caribbean surrounds Buck Island. Snorkeling along that reef really should top any St Croix itinerary. Plus, on the island’s western edge sits Turtle Beach – consistently rated as one of the top 10 beaches in the world due to its pristine white sand and turquoise blue waters.
In order to visit Buck Island, the National Park Service requires that you go with a tour operator. Several companies offer half and full day tours of Buck Island. These generally include time spent on Turtle Beach and time spent snorkeling the Reef. We spent an afternoon exploring the wonders of Buck Island with Big Beard’s Adventure Tours. I personally can’t swim and have only attempted to snorkel once in my life. Despite my history, I ended up having a great time snorkeling the Reef with Big Beard’s. You can click here to read a full account of our afternoon at Buck Island.
Visit the Easternmost Point in the United States
Point Udall sits at the far eastern edge of St Croix, and is the easternmost point in the United States. A giant sundial marks the spot. It’s a popular place to visit due to this unique geographic fact, but also because of its great sunrises and views out across the Carribean.
St Croix is not a big island. It only takes 1 hour to drive across from one side to the other. We were staying in Frederiksted on the island’s west coast. Our drive across the island to see Point Udall gave us a great chance to get a good taste of all St Croix’s geography. Christiansted, the island’s main town, sits on the north coast, halfway across St Croix. The drive along the north coast from Christiansted to Point Udall is very scenic. Some of the island’s larger estates dot the hillsides there, and the winding road affords great views out across the Carribean. Plus on this part of the island, you can….
Eat Caribbean Cuisine at a Gas Station
Ziggy’s Island Market is a gas station, convenience store, and cafe, located along the road halfway between Christiansted and Point Udall. This is no typical convenience store. Tripadvisor ranks it as the #3 place to eat on the island! In addition to gas pumps up front, Ziggy’s has lots of pleasant outdoor tables out back.
Surprisingly, Ziggy’s was one of the few places I found on St Croix with a wide selection of traditional Caribbean favorites on the menu. It seemed to me that many of the restaurants on the island were trying to appeal to more traditional tourist palettes with fish tacos, burgers, steaks, and pasta dishes. At Ziggy’s I was able to try both Roti and Pate. Roti is a wrap filled with curry. And Pate is very similar to an Empanada. Deep fried dough stuffed with meat or vegetables. Mine was filled with Salt Fish (cod).
An important note though. We arrived shortly after 1 pm. At least half the menu was sold out by then. Consequently, I missed out on some of their other Caribbean selections. It’s obviously a very popular lunch spot.
Enjoy Live Music and BBQ in a Big Backyard
For non-traditional island food, check out Blues’ Backyard BBQ & Grill located just west of Christiansted center, along one of the main routes to Frederiksted. What I loved about this place, aside from some excellent BBQ, is the outdoor setting. A large bar sits in the center of a large yard. Picnic tables and other various outdoor seating options are then scattered throughout the large open outdoor space. A small stage sits towards the back, and live music is featured most days from 4:30-7:30.
The Brisket was really good and Mrs. TT is still raving about the Smoked Turkey. And on an island where eating out can be quite spendy, this turned out to be one of our least expensive meals.
And there is wildlife too! Large ground lizards slowly roamed between the tables. You know how sometimes you end up feeding birds when dining al fresco? Here we found that lizards like good BBQ too. Really!
Just Relax on a Perfect Beach
St. Croix boasts beautiful white sand beaches looking out onto turquoise blue water. And as much as I love to get out and explore all that a new destination has to offer, it was sure hard to leave the beach. I purposely chose to stay in Frederiksted on St Croix’s much quieter west side. You won’t find tall condo complexes or luxury resorts on the West End, and that’s the way I like it. It’s a very peaceful part of the island.
We stayed at Cottages by the Sea – a collection of beachfront cottages located on a long strip of sandy beach, about 1 mile south of the compact Frederiksted center. We walked a few steps out to the beach each morning, ate breakfast in our lounge chairs, floated in the ocean for awhile, returned to our beach chairs for awhile longer, and just soaked it all in. An island vacation at its best!
And at the end of the day, the sunsets…..
A Few Quick Tips for St Croix
Due to COVID restrictions and recent hurricane damage, two other great things to do in St Croix were closed. The Cruzan Rum Distillery offers a very popular tour of their facility. But the tours have been on hold during COVID, so we didn’t get the chance. The Estate Whim Sugar Mill is a restored 18th century sugar plantation offering important insight into the island’s slave history. It was closed when we tried to visit. It wasn’t clear on their website if this was due to COVID or due to recent hurricane damage.
Driving in St Croix
In order to see all that St Croix has to offer, I would recommend renting a car. But note – the Virgin Islands are the only place in United States territory where cars drive on the left-hand side of the road. This was not my first time, but it’s been a long while. Fortunately, I did not find it difficult to adjust. Also, many of the roads in St Croix are not in great shape – even some of the main roads. Lots of pot holes everywhere. I rented a Jeep and I’m glad we did. Its tires and suspension were better suited for the driving conditions.
I never saw a mosquito, but returned home with approximately 80 sandfly bites. I’ve since read that sandflies are a common issue in the Caribbean. Ironically, I had bug repellant with me. I never used it though, because these little buggers are truly no-see-ums. The bites really didn’t start to bloom until the last day of the trip and on the itchy plane ride home. As is usual, Mrs. TT hardly had any. Vampires take note. Leave her alone! My blood is apparently tastier.
The West End
The West End of the island is definitely more “run-down” than the areas surrounding Christiansted. But this personally doesn’t bother me. I prefer to get a better sense of local life when I travel, rather than letting a touristy resort form my impression of a place. If I had wanted glitzy Virgin Islands, I would have gone to St Thomas. For me, Frederiksted and the West End of St Croix was perfect. Authentically Crucian, fewer tourists, and awesome quiet beaches. You can click here to read my thorough guide to Frederiksted St Croix.