Ed. note: This is the first part in a series by Women’s Adventure contributor Alyssandra Barnes, as she makes her way around the U.S. Virgin Islands and shares her travel tips. And yes, it’s snowing right now, so we are a little jealous.
First Stop: St. Croix
Most people, myself included, only have a vague idea of the oceanic area between Florida and Brazil. The Caribbean has always been deemed paradise; imagined as some tropical scene from a movie rather than a precise geographic location. Until the airplane landed in St. Thomas, I knew very little about the Caribbean outside of its reputation for crystal-blue waters. It didn’t take long to discover the far-reaching island chain of the Antilles, which includes thousands of islands, reefs, and inlets nestled snugly between the North Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea, is much more than a two-day vacation destination.
In the island chain, United States territories are some of the most popular destinations, including the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. Although all clumped together under the same title, each of the islands has a totally different feel. St. Croix is often glanced over since it’s removed from its sister islands of St. Thomas and St. John, but the slow and relaxed vibe of the island allows a visitor much more unrestricted fun.
The Island: The Ins and Outs
The largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix is also the most detached. St. Thomas and St. John are within sight of each other, and a ferry ride between them takes only about 15 minutes. To get to St. Croix from either of the other islands, the ferry takes almost two hours. (Note: As of June, 2013, the ferry is currently out of service but plans to resume sometime in 2014.) St. Croix does have its own international airport, so traveling there from the contiguous U.S. is a breeze. Island hopping is also simple by the seaplane, which takes about 25 minutes from St. Thomas to St. Croix.
Although it’s the biggest, St. Croix has the smallest native population (full-time residents) of the three U.S.V.I., coming in around 50,000. Not many cruise ships stop over on St. Croix, an event that can practically double the body count on an island. Since St. Thomas and St. John have much more tourist traffic, St. Croix tends to feel more natural and tranquil.
Hitting the Waves: Paddleboarding
Water sports are available year-round. Paddleboarding is one of the most popular activities and boards can be rented at most beaches or hotels/resorts. The wider boards are for beginners and easier to control because they are heavier. The slimmer boards require much more balance control and are less forgiving during weight shifts and swells.
Once the board in the water off the beach, you hop onto the board and paddle on your knees until you are a handful of yards away from the beach and swimmers or snorkelers. Then you’re free to stand up and travel out to sea. Steering the board is much like a canoe and rotating paddling sides is suggested for straight paddle distances. The proper technique to paddling is bending at the waist and taking long pulls with the paddle in the water, which works your abs and relieves some of the stress on your arms. If you’re paddling to see the seashore or cliff side, or have a particular destination in mind, begin your journey into the wind so during the return trip the wind will be in your favor.
Seeing the light: Exploring Bioluminescent Bays
St. Croix is home to two bioluminescent bays, thanks to jellyfish, glow worms, and dinoflagellates. Kayaking with clear kayaks is the most popular way to experience the bays at night to feel surrounded by the glow. The bay starts to glow when the water is stimulated, which guarantees wherever people are, there will be bioluminescent light. Besides the traditional paddle kayaks, there are pedal kayaks which are easier for inexperienced paddlers to maneuver.
There are, of course, other kayaking spots in the National Parks on the islands, including a kayak path where Christopher Columbus and his crew landed and rowed to land in the 1400s. It’s the only place where Columbus actually went ashore on what is now U.S. territory.
Taking the Wheel: Off-Roading
In the middle of the island there are almost 15 acres of undeveloped land known as the rainforest. (Although similar in appearance because of its overgrowth of flora, it’s not technically a rainforest.) Locals will give AV tours and guided off-road tours in Jeeps for small groups and journey to some of the best secret swimming holes, overlooks, and hiking spots.
The tours can last anywhere from a couple of hours to a whole day, depending on how much the group wants to see and the weather. Along with the beautiful rainforest sights, tours will include historical ruins and visits to tide pools.
St. Croix’s diamond-in-the-rough atmosphere provides an opportunity for exploration without the hordes of people that travel to the other islands. Even the biggest towns of Frederiksted and Christiansted on the west end of St. Croix have nowhere near the nightlife that places in St. Thomas have, but the trade-off is that the undeveloped and uncrowded parts of the island give it a much more adventurous and undiscovered vibe.