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Part II: A Very Varied Paradise - US Virgin Islands - St Johns & St Croix


ST. JOHNS
Most people come here by taking the 40-minute water ferry from St. Thomas. During the day the ferry is crowded with day-trippers, but it's a completely different experience after the sun goes down. I caught the day's last run, around 9 at night. It was magical. The ferry was nearly empty, the few passengers aboard were quiet, and a huge full moon lit up the water. I stood by the rail, with the slightly chill breeze beating against me, and watched the lights in the tiny seaport village of Cruz Bay grow slowly closer. It was clear that I was headed towards a special place.

Two thirds of this rugged, volcanic island is a National Park (including thousands of protected underwater acreage), making it the least developed of the USVI's three major islands. The non-park area contains excellent small hotels and guesthouses, large resorts, and fine restaurants. There's even a bit of nightlife. However, if bright lights really matter to you, stick to St. Thomas. St. Johns is for those who really love the Great Outdoors.

Waterlemon Bay Snorkel  USVI Tourism - Steve SimensonAnd great it is! More than 20 miles of hiking trails criss-cross the island, letting you get up close and personal with a stunning array of exotic flora and fauna. Thick tropical forests give way to arid, desert-like terrain. Geckos and iguana scurry past a salt-collecting pond; a bright yellow Bananaquit zips over your head; herons and egrets browse the waters of a mangrove lagoon. As you stroll along, you'll experience bits of fascinating history: ruins of Danish sugar plantations, ancient petroglyphs attributed to early Arawak Indians, a crumbling wooden shack. Then, suddenly, the trail ends as you walk onto the most pristine white-powder beach you've ever seen.

The National Park Service maintains a helpful Visitor Center close to the ferry dock where you can pick up brochures, trail maps and books, and learn about free guided ranger tours. We took an excellent birding tour on the Francis Bay Trail with a NPS guide. We walked through lovely forestland and ended up on a secluded beach. Along the way we spied masked boobies, pelicans, green-backed and little blue herons, a rare smooth-billed ani, and many other species.

For a modest fee, we also took a privately run environmental nature hike. Our guide, Scott McDowell, a self-described "bush-medicine specialist," pointed out many plants with curative powers and was a fount of stories about pirates, the ancient Tianos Indians, and other historical tidbits. The leisurely 2-mile hike took us along the Caneel Hill Trail from Cruz Bay to legendary Honeymoon Beach.

Honeymoon Beach  USVI Tourism - Steve SimensonSnorkelers and scuba divers, prepare for a rare treat. Because they're protected, reefs here have fared far better than others around the world that have been damaged by pollution and careless boaters. St. John's waters are home to at least 200 species of fish and over 40 species of coral. It's not unusual to see red snapping shrimp or hawksbill turtles as you glide along.

Our most memorable experience on St. John was the 6-hour snorkel tour given by Captain Sandra West on her well-tended motor yacht, "Sadie Sea." Sandi provided lunch and regaled us with hilarious tales of island life and history as we encircled the island. We stopped twice along the way to snorkel, first amidst tiny coral islets with the most diverse collection of coral and the largest starfish I'd ever seen; and then at the mouth of a mangrove forest. There, in the crystal-clear water, were tens of thousands of tiny baby fish protected from predators too big to swim inside the roots.

St. Johns has dozens of top-notch restaurants, and you'll have no problem finding a place to suit your mood, tastes and pocketbook. I do have one "must" recommendation: Duffy's Love Shack. It's a kind of New Millennium version of those tiki restaurants that flooded the U.S. in the 1950s: exotic drinks in wacky mugs that you can take when you leave, pupu platters, silly things to wear around your neck. But it's all done in a hip, tongue-in-cheek sort of way. If you're allergic to exotic dishes, the menu also offers burgers, sandwiches, and even grilled veggies. There's a Duffy's on St. Thomas, too, known for its "Tacky Tourist" parties.

By the way, St. Johns has more than 40 beaches to explore, and they're all beautiful. Some, like Hawksnest, Trunk and Cinnamon bay beaches, are popular and crowded; on others you'll find yourselves completely alone.

Cinnamon Bay Beach  USVI Tourism - Steve Simenson

ST. CROIX
St. Croix was, without a doubt, my favorite of the three U.S. Virgin Islands. I was drawn to its wide-open spaces, which reminded me of the best parts of Northern California. I loved its ancient sugar plantations and stone windmills, the rough seas of its windward side, the slow pace. I was content to spend only a few days on the other two islands, but on St. Croix I could easily have kicked back for a much longer time. And, most telling, I was sorry when the time came to leave.

We arrived on St. Croix via seaplane, taxiing up to a dock in Christiansted. Built by the Danes in the mid-18th century, this small and charming town is composed of graceful neo-classical buildings, many of which contain hotels, shops and restaurants. Everything is lovingly maintained. Each block is filled with unique architectural details and fascinating historical artifacts. In fact, the entire area around the wharf has been designated a National Historic Site, including Fort Christiansvaern (1749), which once protected townspeople from pirates.

Fort Christiansvaern  USVI Tourism - Steve SimensonThe island's other large town is Frederiksted, where cruise ships come to call (though not nearly as many as in St. Thomas). Rent a bike if you want to really explore the ins and outs of the town and its Victorian gingerbread architecture. Every other Wednesday Frederiksted hosts "Harbor Night," an evening celebration with outdoor bands, dancing, art and food.

There are two basic ways to enjoy a visit to St. Croix. You can opt to stay in either Christiansted or Frederiksted, with town life right outside your front door; or you can book into one of the island's many resorts, some more remote than others. In either case, you'll probably want to venture out and explore the rest of the island. The easiest way to get around is to rent a car, but taxis and busses are also available.

We stayed on the windward northern shore, far from either town. The little-traveled coastal road in this area ended at our resort, the Sunterra Carambola, where my huge, ground-floor suite of rooms sat smack-dab on the beach. At night, with the tropical breezes wafting through the sunporch screens, the scent of jasmine, and the never-ceasing sound of crashing waves, I was in heaven.

A "must-do" on St. Croix is an excursion to Buck Island Reef. The only underwater National Monument in the U.S., 176-acre Buck Island and 704 acres of surrounding water and coral reef have been protected since 1948. Many endangered species nest here, including hawskbill, leatherback and green sea turtles. The marked snorkeling trail is easily maneuvered by first-timers and offers a richness of sea life that even the most experienced diver will appreciate.

On a trip like ours, filled as it was with hiking, snorkeling, sailing, kayaking, and birding, it's difficult to name one adventure that stands out above the rest. However, the horseback ride I took with Steve O'Dea, owner of Equus Rides, probably fits the bill. The horses were extremely fit, and the terrain – fields of waving high grass, seaside cliffs, and old stone windmills – was captivating. Best of all, the charming Mr. O'Dea took me at my word when I said I could ride. Our outing was no routine clip-clop along a well-worn trail, the kind where you're half-asleep in the saddle. No, indeed: that lightning-paced canter through grasses 10-feet tall, heart in throat the entire time, is something I'll remember the rest of my life.

Another good bet: the new, do-it-yourself St. Croix Heritage Trail, which teems with historical and cultural sites. Easy-to-follow markers lead to crumbling sugar plantations, the ruins of stone windmills, sugar-cane factories, and living cultural treasures such as the Lawaetz Museum. A 19th-century "greathouse" with original furnishings, it's still lived in by descendants of the original owners. Another stop is Whim Greathouse Museum, with its unusual, beautifully restored 18th- century sugar plantation mansion, windmill, cookhouse, and many other buildings.

By the way, while you're pursuing the Heritage Trail, be sure to stop at Smithen Garden, a simple roadside stand that offers sugar cane juice by the cup – far less sweet than you'd imagine. It's fun to watch the cane being pulped for your serving, while all around you the tall cane – the last surviving cane field on the island – bends in the ever-present tropical breeze.

Dining on St. Croix can be just about anything you want. Friday night's "Pirate's Buffet" at the Carambola is lots of fun (kids will love it). The food selection at this event doesn't end: you'll go back again and again to get your fill of jerk chicken, conch, stuffed crabs, barbecue baby back ribs, lamb chops – not to mention acres of salads, pastas, desserts, fruit. After dinner the entertainment begins. A steel-drum band plays, people rush to do the limbo (you may be one of them!), and the legendary Caribbean stilt-walker makes an appearance to dance and pose for photographs.

For real West Indian island food, check out Villa Morales Restaurant in Frederiksted. It's not "uptown," and it doesn't claim to be, but it sure is friendly. While there you can try curry fish, goat stew, fungi, and plantains, as well as unusual liquors made from island plants.

Other good places to try: The Cormorant Beach Club is a truly popular eating spot. With its beautiful presentations of grilled fish and the freshest vegetables, it can be classified as "nouvelle Caribbean." The Cormorant's bar, by the way, is a fun place to hang out. The Terrace, at the Buccaneer, has superb views of the waterfront, and excellent traditional cuisine.

As you can see, though these three islands have much in common, they're really very different. Each, in its own way, offers a unique slice of Paradise. Come for a visit, take a bite, and find out for yourself.

When You Go:

Important Note: The area code for all phone numbers given below is 340 (unless otherwise indicated).

General Facts:

The USVI is an unincorporated territory of the United States, with a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. Everyone born on the island is a U.S. citizen. The U.S. dollar is the common currency, and English is spoken everywhere. More than 50 islands comprise the USVI, but most are uninhabitable. The three most well known are St. Thomas, St. Johns and St. Croix. Island temperatures range from 77º in winter to 82º in summer. U.S. citizens are allowed a duty-free shopping quota of $1,200.

Getting There:

Major cities on the North American east coast have direct flights to St. Thomas on Delta, US Airways, American, and Prestige. If you're coming from elsewhere, you'll probably need to change planes in Miami or Puerto Rico.

St. Johns:

Where to Stay:

I stayed at Estate Lindholm (800-322-6335; www.estatelindholm.com). An exquisite and very quiet gem of a bed & breakfast inn, it overlooks Cruz Bay harbor and beyond to St. Thomas. A lush tropical garden, overflowing with flowers, hummingbirds and exotic plants, is a great place to hang out. Rooms are spacious and beautifully done, and the people who own it are super! St. John's many resorts include the gracious and elegant Caneel Bay (888-767-3966) and the glamorous, extremely kid-friendly Westin (800-808-5020). For the eco-conscious, Maho Bay Camps is powered by sun and wind and is built almost entirely of recycled products (800-392-9004;
www.maho.org).

Restaurants:

Duffy's Love Shack (776-6065; www.duffysloveshack.com).

Activities:

Captain Sandra West (776-6922); Scott McDowell's guided hikes (774-1112; aquatours@islands.vi); National Park Service Visitor Center in Cruz Bay (776-6201).

St. Croix:

Where to Stay:

I enjoyed Sunterra Carambola Beach Resort a lot and would definitely return. The rooms are spacious and lush, the beach is beautiful, and you have the feeling of being tucked far away from the world (888-503-8760). The luxurious Buccaneer Hotel Resort has all the amenities (800-255-3881). On a smaller scale, Innparadise (713-9803; www.bbhost.com:8008/innparadise) is a charming B&B run by a former Atlanta couple, Paula and Tom Broadnax, who cater to African- Americans. In downtown Christiansted: European-style Hotel Caravelle (773-0687) overlooks the harbor and offers money-saving packages; the inexpensive Club Comanche, once home to Alexander Hamilton (800-524-2066); and the Pink Fancy Hotel (773-8460; info@pinkfancy.com), once a private clubhouse for wealthy plantation owners.

Restaurants:

Villa Morales (772-0556); Cormorant Beach Club (778-3920); Buccaneer (773-2100; www.thebuccaneer.com).

Activities:

Equus Rides (778-3502); St. Croix Heritage Trail (713-8563); Buck Island Excursions given by Mile/Mark Watersports (773-2628).

Our most memorable experience on St. John was the 6-hour snorkel tour given by Captain Sandra West on her well-tended motor yacht, "Sadie Sea." Sandi provided lunch and regaled us with hilarious tales of island life and history as we encircled the island. We stopped twice along the way to snorkel, first amidst tiny coral islets with the most diverse collection of coral and the largest starfish I'd ever seen; and then at the mouth of a mangrove forest. There, in the crystal-clear water, were tens of thousands of tiny baby fish protected from predators too big to swim inside the roots.

St. Johns has dozens of top-notch restaurants, and you'll have no problem finding a place to suit your mood, tastes and pocketbook. I do have one "must" recommendation: Duffy's Love Shack. It's a kind of New Millennium version of those tiki restaurants that flooded the U.S. in the 1950s: exotic drinks in wacky mugs that you can take when you leave, pupu platters, silly things to wear around your neck. But it's all done in a hip, tongue-in-cheek sort of way. If you're allergic to exotic dishes, the menu also offers burgers, sandwiches, and even grilled veggies. There's a Duffy's on St. Thomas, too, known for its "Tacky Tourist" parties.

By the way, St. Johns has more than 40 beaches to explore, and they're all beautiful. Some, like Hawksnest, Trunk and Cinnamon bay beaches, are popular and crowded; on others you'll find yourselves completely alone.

Cinnamon Bay Beach  USVI Tourism - Steve Simenson

ST. CROIX
St. Croix was, without a doubt, my favorite of the three U.S. Virgin Islands. I was drawn to its wide-open spaces, which reminded me of the best parts of Northern California. I loved its ancient sugar plantations and stone windmills, the rough seas of its windward side, the slow pace. I was content to spend only a few days on the other two islands, but on St. Croix I could easily have kicked back for a much longer time. And, most telling, I was sorry when the time came to leave.

We arrived on St. Croix via seaplane, taxiing up to a dock in Christiansted. Built by the Danes in the mid-18th century, this small and charming town is composed of graceful neo-classical buildings, many of which contain hotels, shops and restaurants. Everything is lovingly maintained. Each block is filled with unique architectural details and fascinating historical artifacts. In fact, the entire area around the wharf has been designated a National Historic Site, including Fort Christiansvaern (1749), which once protected townspeople from pirates.

Fort Christiansvaern  USVI Tourism - Steve SimensonThe island's other large town is Frederiksted, where cruise ships come to call (though not nearly as many as in St. Thomas). Rent a bike if you want to really explore the ins and outs of the town and its Victorian gingerbread architecture. Every other Wednesday Frederiksted hosts "Harbor Night," an evening celebration with outdoor bands, dancing, art and food.

There are two basic ways to enjoy a visit to St. Croix. You can opt to stay in either Christiansted or Frederiksted, with town life right outside your front door; or you can book into one of the island's many resorts, some more remote than others. In either case, you'll probably want to venture out and explore the rest of the island. The easiest way to get around is to rent a car, but taxis and busses are also available.

We stayed on the windward northern shore, far from either town. The little-traveled coastal road in this area ended at our resort, the Sunterra Carambola, where my huge, ground-floor suite of rooms sat smack-dab on the beach. At night, with the tropical breezes wafting through the sunporch screens, the scent of jasmine, and the never-ceasing sound of crashing waves, I was in heaven.

A "must-do" on St. Croix is an excursion to Buck Island Reef. The only underwater National Monument in the U.S., 176-acre Buck Island and 704 acres of surrounding water and coral reef have been protected since 1948. Many endangered species nest here, including hawskbill, leatherback and green sea turtles. The marked snorkeling trail is easily maneuvered by first-timers and offers a richness of sea life that even the most experienced diver will appreciate.

On a trip like ours, filled as it was with hiking, snorkeling, sailing, kayaking, and birding, it's difficult to name one adventure that stands out above the rest. However, the horseback ride I took with Steve O'Dea, owner of Equus Rides, probably fits the bill. The horses were extremely fit, and the terrain fields of waving high grass, seaside cliffs, and old stone windmills was captivating. Best of all, the charming Mr. O'Dea took me at my word when I said I could ride. Our outing was no routine clip-clop along a well-worn trail, the kind where you're half-asleep in the saddle. No, indeed: that lightning-paced canter through grasses 10-feet tall, heart in throat the entire time, is something I'll remember the rest of my life.

Another good bet: the new, do-it-yourself St. Croix Heritage Trail, which teems with historical and cultural sites. Easy-to-follow markers lead to crumbling sugar plantations, the ruins of stone windmills, sugar-cane factories, and living cultural treasures such as the Lawaetz Museum. A 19th-century "greathouse" with original furnishings, it's still lived in by descendants of the original owners. Another stop is Whim Greathouse Museum, with its unusual, beautifully restored 18th- century sugar plantation mansion, windmill, cookhouse, and many other buildings.

By the way, while you're pursuing the Heritage Trail, be sure to stop at Smithen Garden, a simple roadside stand that offers sugar cane juice by the cup far less sweet than you'd imagine. It's fun to watch the cane being pulped for your serving, while all around you the tall cane the last surviving cane field on the island bends in the ever-present tropical breeze.

Dining on St. Croix can be just about anything you want. Friday night's "Pirate's Buffet" at the Carambola is lots of fun (kids will love it). The food selection at this event doesn't end: you'll go back again and again to get your fill of jerk chicken, conch, stuffed crabs, barbecue baby back ribs, lamb chops not to mention acres of salads, pastas, desserts, fruit. After dinner the entertainment begins. A steel-drum band plays, people rush to do the limbo (you may be one of them!), and the legendary Caribbean stilt-walker makes an appearance to dance and pose for photographs.

For real West Indian island food, check out Villa Morales Restaurant in Frederiksted. It's not "uptown," and it doesn't claim to be, but it sure is friendly. While there you can try curry fish, goat stew, fungi, and plantains, as well as unusual liquors made from island plants.

Other good places to try: The Cormorant Beach Club is a truly popular eating spot. With its beautiful presentations of grilled fish and the freshest vegetables, it can be classified as "nouvelle Caribbean." The Cormorant's bar, by the way, is a fun place to hang out. The Terrace, at the Buccaneer, has superb views of the waterfront, and excellent traditional cuisine.

As you can see, though these three islands have much in common, they're really very different. Each, in its own way, offers a unique slice of Paradise. Come for a visit, take a bite, and find out for yourself.

When You Go:

Important Note: The area code for all phone numbers given below is 340 (unless otherwise indicated).

General Facts:

The USVI is an unincorporated territory of the United States, with a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. Everyone born on the island is a U.S. citizen. The U.S. dollar is the common currency, and English is spoken everywhere. More than 50 islands comprise the USVI, but most are uninhabitable. The three most well known are St. Thomas, St. Johns and St. Croix. Island temperatures range from 77 in winter to 82 in summer. U.S. citizens are allowed a duty-free shopping quota of $1,200.

Getting There:

Major cities on the North American east coast have direct flights to St. Thomas on Delta, US Airways, American, and Prestige. If you're coming from elsewhere, you'll probably need to change planes in Miami or Puerto Rico.

St. Johns:

Where to Stay:

I stayed at Estate Lindholm (800-322-6335; www.estatelindholm.com). An exquisite and very quiet gem of a bed & breakfast inn, it overlooks Cruz Bay harbor and beyond to St. Thomas. A lush tropical garden, overflowing with flowers, hummingbirds and exotic plants, is a great place to hang out. Rooms are spacious and beautifully done, and the people who own it are super! St. John's many resorts include the gracious and elegant Caneel Bay (888-767-3966) and the glamorous, extremely kid-friendly Westin (800-808-5020). For the eco-conscious, Maho Bay Camps is powered by sun and wind and is built almost entirely of recycled products (800-392-9004;
www.maho.org).

Restaurants:

Duffy's Love Shack (776-6065; www.duffysloveshack.com).

Activities:

Captain Sandra West (776-6922); Scott McDowell's guided hikes (774-1112; aquatours@islands.vi); National Park Service Visitor Center in Cruz Bay (776-6201).

St. Croix:

Where to Stay:

I enjoyed Sunterra Carambola Beach Resort a lot and would definitely return. The rooms are spacious and lush, the beach is beautiful, and you have the feeling of being tucked far away from the world (888-503-8760). The luxurious Buccaneer Hotel Resort has all the amenities (800-255-3881). On a smaller scale, Innparadise (713-9803; www.bbhost.com:8008/innparadise) is a charming B&B run by a former Atlanta couple, Paula and Tom Broadnax, who cater to African- Americans. In downtown Christiansted: European-style Hotel Caravelle (773-0687) overlooks the harbor and offers money-saving packages; the inexpensive Club Comanche, once home to Alexander Hamilton (800-524-2066); and the Pink Fancy Hotel (773-8460; info@pinkfancy.com), once a private clubhouse for wealthy plantation owners.

Restaurants:

Villa Morales (772-0556); Cormorant Beach Club (778-3920); Buccaneer (773-2100; www.thebuccaneer.com).

Activities:

Equus Rides (778-3502); St. Croix Heritage Trail (713-8563); Buck Island Excursions given by Mile/Mark Watersports (773-2628).