The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVIs) are like siblings, related by blood, separated by disposition. One is a popular socialite who wears glitzy jewelry and talks loud. One is laid-back and loves the outdoors. And one is an introvert with an abiding respect for history and culture. They are, in turn, St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix (or, as nicknamed by the locals, Rock City, Love City and Twin City).
I have a cousin who lives with her family on St. Croix, the largest of the three. Before returning to Europe in the spring, I decided to accept her offer to enjoy island life for a few weeks.
The USVIs are islands of contradiction. The approximately 110,000 islanders are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in presidential elections. The representatives they elect to the U.S. Congress also cannot vote. The islands and harbors are dotted with multi-million-dollar homes and yachts, guarded by pitbulls and rusty chain-link fences.
Tourists from the U.S. must remember to drive on the left. While driving, it is legal to drink from an open container but illegal to talk on a mobile phone. The roads are cratered with potholes so, of course, the government spends funds to install speedbumps.
The islands were first invaded around 4200 BC by natives of South America, moving northward up the archipelago. Wave after wave followed over the centuries, including more recently the Taíno and Arawaks (500-1400 AD). The Taíno left many words behind, including hammock, hurricane, tobacco, barbecue, canoe, cannibal, Caribbean, guava, iguana, manatee, mangrove, papaya, potato and savanna. They were enslaved by the next group, warmongering Caribs, around 1425 AD.
Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to make contact. He “discovered” the islands in 1493, during his second voyage, and named them the “Islands of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins.” According to legend, St. Ursula was a princess who went on a pilgrimage with, count ’em, 11,000 handmaidens. (Unfortunately, St. Ursula and the virgins ran into the Huns who killed them all.)
For a few hundred years, various European powers, including the Spanish, the English, the French, the Dutch, the Danes and even the Knights of Malta, fought over and held the islands. The indigenous tribes were mostly wiped out. Finally the Danes gained control of St. Thomas in 1672, St. John in 1694 and St. Croix in 1733. Needing cheap labor to produce sugar, the colonists enslaved thousands of Africans and brought them to the islands. The plantation owners prospered until the bottom fell out of the sugarcane market and slavery was abolished in the mid 1800s. During WWI, the U.S. feared the islands might be seized by Germany for use as a military base and so bought them from Denmark.
When Columbus and his fleet of seventeen ships arrived at St. Croix in 1493, they were looking for fresh water. A couple of dozen armed crewmembers put ashore at Salt River Bay, the site of a native village, where they helped themselves to what they could find, including some Taíno slaves. Soon after, they were met by a large canoe full of angry Caribs who bid them bon voyage with a shower of arrows. Both sides suffered casualties. This was the first known hostile encounter between Europeans and Native Americans. Today, the Salt River Bay National Historical Park is marked only by a faded sign near the beach.
A high-school friend of mine directs the archaeology and anthropology program at a major university in the States. He put me in touch with the program manager of the Christiansted National Historical Society, National Park Service, who suggested I explore the area near the 1493 landing.
The remains of a fort, controlled at various times between 1641-1733 by six different European nations are hidden in the overgrowth. Several entities wish to excavate and study the area, once funding becomes available. I found a weedy trail near the beach and hiked through brush up a small hill to what I imagine is the earthworks of the triangular Fort Flamand (aka Fort Salé). The fort was situated on the site of previous Igneri, Taíno and Carib villages. Nearby, the Taíno once played a ceremonial game on a court, moving a rubber ball soccer-style to score. Salt River Bay was also a popular anchorage for pirates watching the channel for Spanish treasure galleons to rob.
Rose gets her way
While visiting, I joined a sunset cruise to Buck Island on the red-sheeted sailboat, Roseway. Right away, they put me to work hoisting sails, a good CrossFit-style workout.
Roseway is a Grand Banks fishing schooner built in 1925. She was named after “someone who always got her way.” During WWII, she guided ships through the minefields and anti-submarine netting protecting the harbor in Gloucester, Massachusetts. In 1975 she was transformed into a windjammer with accommodation for 36 passengers. In 1977, Roseway starred in the TV remake of Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous.
Roseway serves as the platform for the World Ocean School, a nonprofit organization providing onboard educational programs for kids. She summers in Boston and winters in the USVIs. The ship is a registered U.S. National Historic Landmark.
Valentine’s Day with the Captain
At 5 a.m. downtown Christiansted was a ghost town. A hot ghost town–nearly eighty degrees. About thirty runners gathered at an invisible starting line near the Customs House to run the 29th annual 8.4-mile Toast To The Captain race. Mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings. “Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!” a runner said. Seventy-one-year-old Teddy Seymour, the Captain, arrived last and nodded to all.
In 1987 Teddy became the first black man to sail solo around the world. He started and finished on his 35-foot sailboat, Love Song, in Frederiksted, St. Croix. It took him sixteen months. Having little money, he made only twelve stops. Teddy was born in New York and attended Central State University, Ohio, on a track scholarship, where he was an All-American.
At the whistle, we headed off through the dark streets. About three miles out of town the skies lightened. At four miles the rolling hills of Southgate Road began to slow me down. By the time I started up long Lowry Hill, I was drenched. Then the wasp stung my leg. (Locally they’re called jack spaniards.) I paused at the top to dump a bottle of water on my head. Fortunately, the rest of the way through Tide Village and back into town was mostly downhill. The Captain finished close behind me.
Rust Op Twist, Whim and Little La Grange
St. Croix was a major sugar producer in the 1700s and 1800s with nearly 30,000 acres under cultivation. Using African slaves for labor, the Danes operated 375 sugarcane plantations. The island was dotted with nearly 150 windmills during this time, 115 of which are still standing today.
I stopped to take photos at the Rust Op Twist (Rest After Work) plantation ruin, one of the best preserved on the island. Then toured Whim Plantation Museum with its Danish neo-classic manager’s house, slave quarters and windmill. The Whim plantation dates to at least 1751.
Drove to Estate Little La Grange on Mahogany Road. Little La Grange has been in the Lawaetz family since 1896, when Carl Lawaetz accepted an offer to become assistant manager of the 400-acre farm. When he arrived from Denmark, the home was empty except for a carved wooden Indian. Carl asked Marie, a childhood friend, to join him on St. Croix and become his wife. Throughout the home are photos, furniture and mementos that tell the story of the Lawaetz family at Little La Grange.
I was given a tour of the museum by Shelli Brin-Olive, wife of Nate Olive, director of the nearby Ridge to Reef Farm. Ridge to Reef is the first USDA-certified organic farm in the USVIs and home to the Sustainable Farms Institute, a non-profit educational program. Nate, an Atlanta native, took over the farm from some friends when his boat sank. Shelli said she and Nate are now farming organically at Little La Grange as well.
Further along Mahogany Road in the rain forest, I found the steep rocky road leading to the workshop where a group of artisans craft household items from mahogany and other native woods. The program is called LEAP, the Life and Environmental Arts Project. The shop is open-air under a high metal roof and is filled with workbenches, saws, lathes, sanders and works in progress.
The craftsmen harvest only deadwood. Swietenia mahagoni, the species found in the Caribbean, is no longer commercially available. They also work with two other rare hardwoods, saman and thibet.
A founding father in St. Croix
Christiansted, the former capital of the Danish West Indies, has preserved its downtown full of 18th-century Danish-style buildings. I toured the National Historic Site, including Fort Christiansvaern, the Customs House and the Scale House, where countless barrels of sugar, rum and molasses were weighed before shipping to Denmark.
I was particularly fascinated by Alexander Hamilton’s connection to St. Croix. Hamilton (of the ten-dollar bill) was born out of wedlock on the island of Nevis to Rachel Faucette and James Hamilton, son of a Scottish laird. Rachel was earlier married, against her wishes, to Johann Lavien of St. Croix, an older man. She walked out of the marriage in 1750. Lavien responded by having her jailed at Fort Christiansvaern for several months. Upon her release she traveled to St. Kitts, where she met Hamilton. He eventually abandoned Rachel and their two sons, citing infidelity (possibly because she had never divorced Lavien). To support her children, she kept a small store in Christiansted. In 1768 she died, leaving Hamilton an orphan at age 13. For a few years, he distinguished himself through his work at an export-import firm. In 1773, 18-year-old Hamilton left for the British colonies, never to return. He became chief staff aide to George Washington, an influential interpreter of the Constitution and the founder of the U.S.’s financial system.
Where Andy and Red escaped
Drove down the dirt road at the west end of the island to Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine three-mile stretch of beach. It’s a key nesting area for endangered sea turtles–leatherback, hawksbill and green. The beach is closed to the public weekdays and during the nesting season. During the months of active nesting, biologists, rangers and volunteers monitor the hatchings and collect data. All along the beach are craters, staked and numbered, where turtles had nested in the previous season.
In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) escape to Zihuatanejo, a small fishing village in Mexico. This last scene of the movie was filmed at Sandy Point.
Pigs, kill-devil and other beasts
On the North Shore Road, I stopped for lunch at Off The Wall, a beach restaurant. A talkative elderly lady with purple eye shadow told me about the Hollywood parties she used to attend, the politics of St. Croix and the looting that takes place after hurricanes. Of her ex-husband who cheated on her, she said, “Now he can’t afford the ferry ticket from St. John. I made him … and I broke him.”
Drove up the Beast, the legendary feature of the bike course of St. Croix’s Half Ironman race. As the IronMan website says, “Once you’ve conquered it (the Beast), you’ll never look at a hill the same way again.”
I stopped at the Mt. Pellier Hut Domino Club to visit the world-famous beer-drinking pigs. Tourists from cruise ships take “safari taxis” up the long, twisting, potholed road into the rain forest to serve cans of non-alcoholic beer to the pigs. The pigs happily crush the cans in their mouths, swill the beer, drip foam down their chins and drop the flattened cans to the floor. This is obviously a profitable attraction as the Hut has upgraded and expanded over the years. Hurricane Roger and Vic, two of the current performers, thrilled the crowd.
Rum production has always been a key component of the island’s economy. Rum (aka kill-devil) has even served as a medium of currency to help fund various military insurgencies, such as the American Revolution.
I toured the Cruzan Rum Distillery with the usual vats of boiling, foamy liquids and warehouses full of musty barrels. Founded in 1760, it has been managed by eight generations of the same family. While there, a truck full of molasses slowly drained its load. We were encouraged to stick our fingers into the sticky black syrup for a taste. The island also boasts the more recently built Captain Morgan distillery. (Captain Morgan is the sponsor of St. Croix’s Half IronMan race.) Compared to endearing old-school Cruzan, Captain Morgan’s plant is polished and corporate. Looks like a shiny new oil refinery. The brand’s marketing slickness is prominent in its display, movie, tour and gift shop. The staff avoided questions about aging, meaning they cook it, blend it, flavor it and push it to the market quickly.
Iggy on Point Udall
The eastermost tip of the island is also the easternmost tip of the U.S. Point Udall is the site of a Very Long Baseline Array Telescope (VLBA). VLBA is a system of ten radio-telescope antennas, each with a dish 82 feet in diameter and weighing 240 tons. From Hawaii to St. Croix, the VLBA spans more than 5,000 miles, simultaneously collecting extremely faint radio signals from objects in space. The array allows scientists to investigate the inner workings of galaxies and quasars billions of light-years distant.
Closer to earth, I saw a couple of iguanas at Cramer Park.
Frederiksted and emancipation
In Frederiksted, I toured Fort Frederik, built between 1752 and 1760 by the Danish government to protect St. Croix from pirates, foreign enemies and slave insurrections. An exhibit in the fort’s museum details slavery on the island with a focus on the Fredensborg, a ship that transported slaves to St. Croix and goods to Europe.
Slave-revolt leader, Moses “General Buddhoe” Gottlieb, is honored in nearby Emancipation Park, where on July 3, 1848, eight thousand slaves held a mostly non-violent demonstation until they were freed. Buddhoe controlled the mob, forbidding killing, burning and plundering. The rebellion ended when Governor General Peter Von Scholten proclaimed, “From this day forward the unfree of the Danish West Indies are henceforth free.”
My cousin and her family took me to Christiansted for the Valentine’s Day Jump Up. Carnival-like Jump Ups are held four times each year on St. Croix. The streets are closed, stores and restaurants stay open late, street vendors sell crafts and food, and bands play live music.
Colorful, athletic and slightly scary moko jumbies walk the streets. A moko jumbie is a stiltwalker and dancer. The term may come from moko (a reference to an African god) and jumbi (a West-Indian word for ghost). Mokos watch over the village and, due to their height, can foresee danger and evil. Moko jumbies have been a part of Virgin Islands culture for more than 200 years. At twelve to fifteen feet high, the mokos danced wildly at intersections and startled residents by peeking into second-story windows.
Staying at my cousin’s home in St. Croix has been a vacation from my permanent vacation. I’ve enjoyed the view from her family’s patio overlooking the ocean and Buck Island, the waves on the reef, the comings and goings of sailboats and launches, the salt ponds, stand-up paddlers, kite surfers, hawks and frigates overhead, snowy egrets in the shrubbery and hummingbirds in the hibiscus. Some days I could see the outlines of St. Thomas, St. John, Tortola and even Virgin Gorda on the horizon. Perhaps some of the Little Sisters too. Occasionally at night I could see their lights.
I’ve explored much of the island, yet the more I’ve experienced, the more I realize there is much more here to experience.
“Doan spoil yoh self” means quit while you’re ahead. Time to hop to another island–Cyprus.