On St Croix, Lost in Lush Scenery

                                                                 By Marjie Lambert,  mlambert@MiamiHerald.com                               

The blue skies over St. Croix are dotted with clouds that create just enough shadow to cut the glare of sun on water. As my little rental car wheezes up the steep, twisting road, the sea is below on my right, a deep sapphire streaked with aquamarine.

On my left, lush slopes in a thousand shades of green sweep gently up, the creep of foliage interrupted now and then by a house positioned for the best views of the water.

I’m searching for the road to Cane Bay when I come around a curve and enter what looks like a tropical rainforest. Dense trees form a canopy over the road, their trunks almost hidden by thick ferns and enormous leaves. Vines and roots dangle from branches, and it feels like the malevolent forest of fairytales.

Finally I emerge into the flatlands, far from the sea, and it is clear that Cane Bay is somewhere behind me.

Lost again.

This is my first visit to St. Croix, and I’m finding navigation a challenge. I am disoriented by driving on the left and hampered by the lack of street signs. But I love to explore new places, and this drive, full of wrong turns and scenic distractions, is taking me to parts of the island I probably wouldn’t have visited if I’d brought a GPS.

St. Croix, which has been a U.S. territory since 1917, shares the advantages of the other U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John, for a U.S. traveler: no passport required; same language; same currency as on the mainland.

The island offers plenty to entertain a visitor, starting with the beaches. Cane Bay on the north shore is popular with snorkelers, and Cane Bay Wall, where the bottom abruptly drops from about 40 feet to a depth of more than 3,000 feet, is a favorite of divers.

Buck Island Reef National Monument, a marine sanctuary just off the island’s northeast shore, is part of the U.S. National Park system. Mostly encircled by a coral reef, it has one of the world’s few snorkeling trails and two dive sites. Underwater markers tell about the sea life.

Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, created in 1992, offers scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking and hiking. It is an important archaeological site with the physical remains of three pre-Columbian cultures, as well as an important environmental site with large mangrove forests. It also has a bioluminescent bay, where micro-organisms called dinoflagellates glow in the dark. I’ve booked a moonlight kayaking tour of the bay.

Much of the island’s history involves the sugar industry. The ruins of sugar mills are scattered around the island, some of them incorporated into the landscaping of homes, restaurants and resorts. Estate Whim Museum, created from a restored 18th century sugar plantation, tells the story of the slave labor used on the plantation. Visitors can tour the Cruzan Rum Distillery and taste the rum, which today is made primarily with molasses from elsewhere in the Caribbean.

In the island’s two cities, Frederiksted and Christiansted, I can dine and browse shops and museums.

I knew before I got here that Crucians, as island residents call themselves, drive on the left side of the street. I’m not clear why, since this is a U.S. territory, not British. Unlike in Britain, however, the driver’s seat is on the left.

“I’m a little intimidated by trying to remember to drive on the left,” I tell the attendant at the airport exit as I hand her my rental-car contract.

“Here’s the secret,” she responds. “You only have to remember this: When you’re driving at home, you’ve got concrete — pavement — on your left. But here you’ve got grass. So just think: grab the grass. Reach out of your car window and grab the grass because that’s where you’re supposed to be.”

Grab the grass. I look at the shoulder of the road, green with shrubbery and grass. As I follow the written instructions to my hotel, I grip the steering wheel and repeat, grab the grass.

That was the first time I got lost.

One day I decide to tour the island, to go where the road takes me. The island is only 28 miles long and seven miles wide, so how lost can I get? I’m puzzled by the lack of signage. Would it hurt to nail up a couple signs that point east and west, to Christiansted and Frederiksted, to the turn for Road 69 or Cane Bay?

The road is lined with blooming trees and shrubs, the same ones I see in Miami: the red-orange poinciana; pink and scarlet hibiscus; bougainvillea in pink and purple; clusters of tiny pink flowers that I don’t recognize. But the island is mountainous, the winding road often high above the sea, and the scenery reminds me more of Hawaii than of Florida.

Once I come around a corner, and on my right, I see a long grassy slope above me where goats are grazing. I pull onto the shoulder to shoot a few photos of the bucolic scene.

Suddenly several dozen goats are coming toward me, running, loping, skidding down the hill, bleating and crying raucously. I hurry back into the car, worrying whether the fence at the bottom of the hill will restrain them. This must be how they get fed —someone pulls up in a truck and throws a bale or two of feed over the fence — and they are expecting food from me. By the time I drive off, the first wave of goats has made it to the foot of the hill, and they stand there crying at me. Fortunately, the fence holds.

A few turns later, I come unexpectedly upon the Divi casino, the island’s only one. I like to play blackjack, and more than that, I like to observe other players. I like the laughter, the stories, the impulsive decisions, the rueful remarks. But these gamblers are serious. No laughter, no stories. I move on.

One day I go to St. George Village Botanical Garden, where more than 1,000 varieties of plants grow among the ruins of a Danish sugar plantation. Here also, many of the plants are familiar — orchids, bromeliads, palm trees, mango trees, heliconia, gingers — and there are rare and endangered species of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as well. The ruins and crumbling walls have been incorporated into the gardens. Workers’ quarters, blacksmith’s shop, water wheel, sugar factory, lime kiln and other structures have either been restored or are partially overgrown by plants.

From there, I go on to Frederiksted, which is where cruise ships dock. Although it is the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix is not a busy cruise destination even in winter. In summer, it might be weeks between ships, and there are none during my visit. The waterfront has been spiffed up to make it more attractive to cruise lines, and I’ve read positive comments about some of the shops and restaurants. The Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts is here. Fort Frederik, built in the 1750s to ward off pirates, and Emancipation Park are just down the street. But many businesses are closed when there’s not a ship in port, and on the day I visit, the streets and sidewalks are mostly empty. I get a fancy grilled cheese sandwich for takeout from Polly’s at the Pier, then sit on a bench, looking out to sea while I eat.

The streets behind the waterfront are shabby. Buildings are deteriorating, windows boarded up.

Christiansted is more inviting, although if you walk a few blocks uphill, past the shops and galleries, you encounter similar crumbling buildings. But down by the water are a boardwalk and a marina. They don’t exactly bustle in the offseason, but neither are they deserted. There are people in the restaurants and bars, and boats sail across the harbor. A seaplane returning from St. Thomas swings low across the shore, lands on the water, taxis to a dock.

The Danes — who ruled St. Croix for 184 years, longer than any other country, and ultimately sold the island to the United States — set up government in Christiansted. Five buildings from the colonial era, including the Customs House and Fort Christiansvaem, remain on the waterfront and make up what is now designated a National Historic Site.

I wander around the park, have a hoagie at Angry Nate’s on the Boardwalk, then get lost driving back to my hotel — although with each trip, I puzzle out a little more of the route. By the end of my trip, I can find my way back to the hotel with no wrong turns.

I’m staying at the Hibiscus Beach Resort, a low-key hotel with 38 beachfront rooms. The hotel offered a bargain — $300 for four nights in July — on LivingSocial.com, one of the deal-a-day sites, and I grabbed it. I have a second-floor room with a deck and a lovely view of the water, and the hotel has a small restaurant and a fun bar, all of which make it conducive to doing nothing productive — which is what this particular vacation is all about.

I read, nap, go to the bar for a glass of wine, stare at the vista of blue water and palms trees from my deck, walk along the sand. Late one morning, I see an instructor lead four or five would-be snorkelers into the water and give a lesson. Another day, I watch a young man ride a chestnut-colored horse along the water’s edge and offer rides to the few people on the beach. One evening I sit down for dinner in the restaurant and learn that it’s karaoke night. Some things I just can’t escape.

The morning of my kayaking trip, I make a dry run to the unmarked put-in spot to make sure I can find it at dusk, then keep driving until the road ends at a beach. The narrow but pretty strip of sand is lined by palm trees and sea grape and is busy with young schoolchildren. Then I see the sign: This is where members of Christopher Columbus’ crew came ashore in 1493 during his second excursion to the New World.

The spot’s “statement of significance” as a National Historic Landmark says that it is the earliest site under the U.S. flag that is associated with Columbus, and that his crew’s skirmish here with Carib Indians was the first recorded conflict between Europeans and Native Americans. The landing also marked the beginning of European colonialism here — St. Croix was under the rule of six countries before the U.S.

When I return for my kayak excursion that evening, I find that I am paired with Ralph, a widower and retired business owner from the Midwest. We are equally inexperienced; like me, he has been kayaking just once before. Ralph is with family — three couples who have all pushed off from the shallows by the time we climb into the last kayak, made of a clear, resin-like material so we can see the dinoflagellates in the water.

“Hey guys,” he yells as we paddle toward them, “I got a date!”

Our guide tells us about hurricanes and boats that have sunk in the bay. He talks about the native people of St. Croix and how the arrival of Columbus’ ships and those of other explorers spread disease and wiped out the native population. He leads us past a bird rookery, where in the twilight, we can see dozens of white egrets nesting in the trees, looking like cotton balls ensnared in the branches.

To get to the bioluminescent part of the bay, we thread our way through a marina, then paddle against a light wind about three-quarters of a mile across the darkening water. When we return, the wind will be at our backs, making the paddling easier.

I’d like to tell you that Ralph and I hit a rhythm, that we paddled surely and smoothly across the bay, but we didn’t. Ralph sat in front, and I tried to follow his lead as our guide instructed, stroking in unison on the same side that he did — right, left, right, left. But I wasn’t surprised when Ralph, who had built his own business and was accustomed to being in charge, unilaterally made all the decisions about rowing and did not share them. His strokes were unpredictable, and our oars kept crashing into each other. So we moved erratically across the water, falling farther behind the others, who acted more like teams.

No matter, it was a glorious night under a nearly full moon, air temperature in the low 80s, water in the high 80s. With no light coming from this part of the island, I saw more stars than I ever see in South Florida.

As it got darker, we saw fireworms that give off a green luminescence during mating, which happens for only two or three days around the full moon. We also saw newborn jellyfish that glow a fluorescent green. One of the guides caught some jellyfish and put them in jars, where they looked liked tiny lighted donuts.

But the main attraction was the dinoflagellates, just specks of light. We dragged our hands in the water and they were outlined in light, like a science fiction movie about radiation gone wrong. The light flashed around our oars each time we lifted them from the water. Best of all, we looked right through our clear kayak bottom and saw streams of light in the water, like pinstripes of tiny bubbles running backwards, our own private miniature light shows. It was spectacular.

The one-cell creatures, the guide told us, were limited to this small sector of the bay. As we rowed away, the lights under our kayaks grew fewer and fewer, until there were just occasional flashes. And then, nothing but darkness.

On the day I left, as I drove to the airport, I thought about what I’d do differently if I made a return trip. I’d visit the rum distillery, stay at the same casual hotel, find Cane Bay, and schedule my trip during tourist season when there were enough visitors for the waterfront restaurants in Frederiksted to stay open. Maybe I’d take the seaplane to St. Thomas for a day; maybe I’d do a different kayak tour. And then, when I looked around and realized I was lost again, I resolved to bring a GPS unit.