The largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix is perhaps the least known to cruise passengers, and that's a shame. The island -- home to the United States' easternmost point, Point Udall -- doesn't have the duty-free attractions of St. Thomas or St. Maarten. There's no prefabricated terminal in Frederiksted, a sleepy city on the west end that has been rejuvenated with extensive waterfront landscaping. There's no Senor Frog's, no Ripley's Believe it or Not.
Instead, St. Croix features scores of nature activities and water sports, from horseback riding through the rain forest to some of the region's best scuba diving and snorkeling. History buffs will love the numerous historic attractions, such as Fort Frederik, the Estate Whim Plantation and the Christiansted National Historic Site's numerous monuments, reminders of St. Croix's Danish heritage. Those who enjoy the offbeat will be thrilled to tour the Cruzan rum distillery or feed beer to the island's famous drinking pigs. (Captain Morgan also has a facility on St. Croix.) A burgeoning food culture, anchored by the island's extensive agriculture, is becoming internationally known. And beach bums have scores of choices, both on the west end and farther afield.
At the turn of the century, a rash of muggings gave the island a reputation for crime, which discouraged cruise lines from calling. But within the past decade, St. Croix has polished its image with new investments so it gleams. Now, Vice President Joe Biden regularly takes vacations there. The area surrounding the pier in Frederiksted is landscaped with lush gardens, cozy benches and a shopping area consisting of a range of gazebos. Lovely iron torchlights provide illumination and a period ambience that befits the restored 17th- and 18th-century Danish Creole buildings. The waterfront, too, is landscaped along Strand Street; you can walk along the boardwalk for great views and access to beautiful beaches.
A stop in St. Croix will show you some of the best aspects of the Caribbean, with the added ease of using U.S. currency, the English language and even your American cellphone. You'll leave amazed that you haven't heard more about this more "virgin" Virgin Island -- and will soon be plotting your return.
The Fort Frederik Museum, the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts and a handful of restaurants are all nearby. For many cruisers, the popular Fort Frederik beach, which is located within a 10-minute walk of the pier just north of the fort, is all they need.
In Frederiksted, visit Fort Frederik (just to the left as you exit the pier). Built in 1760, it's a National Historic Landmark. The one-time Danish coastal fortress houses historic artifacts pertaining to Virgin Islands' history. The fort has some intriguing claims to fame. On Oct. 26, 1776, a Danish soldier at the fort was the first foreigner to salute a ship belonging to the U.S. It was a big moment for the patriots. The fort also was the site of a major emancipation rally to free slaves in 1848. (Open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday. $3; younger than 16, free)
The Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts, which showcases revolving shows that primarily focus on regional artists, is a small institution in the center of town. It boasts two floors of gallery space, with a gift shop that offers souvenirs ranging from affordable note cards to gorgeous, handmade mahogany rocking chairs. The chairs are made to order, can be shipped and cost about $1,000 apiece. (10 Strand Street; open during cruise ship days with sunset jazz until 6:30 p.m.; otherwise, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; other days by appointment)
Historic Christiansted is a 17-mile cab ride from Frederiksted. History buffs should take the walking tour, which showcases structures such as Fort Christiansvaern, the Virgin Islands' best-preserved colonial fort and part of the National Park Service. Start at the visitor center, which itself has some history; it was known as Old Scalehouse when it was built in the mid-19th century. (Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $3; younger than 16, free). The renovated Government House is also worth a peek for its Danish Creole architecture and courtyard gardens. (Open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday)
The Estate Whim Plantation Museum, two miles east of Frederiksted, is a three-room historically restored plantation house that dates to the era of the Danes. Tour the house, restored windmill and sugar factory ruins. There's a fantastic gift shop onsite. (Open cruise ship days, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday; $10 adults and teenagers, $8 seniors, $5 children younger than 12)
Nearby, the Cruzan Rum Factory offers guided tours for $5 that include two cocktails and four tastings on a colorful patio built for groups; don't miss the single barrel. Note: The facility only accepts credit cards, no cash. (Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $5 or $4 if bought in online.) You can also check out the Captain Morgan Experience at the Diageo-owned Captain Morgan rum distillery, which opened a $5 million visitor's center in 2012. Tours of the plant are offered, complete with tastings, at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. and noon on cruise ship weekend days. $10 adults, $5 children.
If beaches and snorkeling are your thing, don't miss a half-day or day trip to Buck Island National Park, an 800-acre uninhabited island that is America's only underwater national monument. Located at Christiansted's harbor, Big Beard's Adventure Tours offers full-day (9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) and half-day (noon to 4:30 p.m.) trips on its catamarans. Price includes snorkeling gear, instruction and two stops, one at gorgeous Turtle Beach and another at the reef. The full-day trip also includes a barbecue lunch on a nearby beach. Reservations -- at least 24 hours in advance -- are required (866-773-4482; half-day sails: $70 adults, $55 children 6-12, $22 children 5 and younger; full-day sails: $99 adults, $80 children 6-12, $26 children 5 and younger). If you want to bring your own lunch, Buck Island Charters (340-718-3161) offers a similar experience but on trimarans and a bit cheaper. They also run the trips offered through the cruise ships.
The famous beer drinking pigs of Mount Pellier Hut Domino Club, a bar deep in the rainforest, have garnered YouTube views for decades. While the hogs have switched to the nonalcoholic stuff, it's still a hoot to watch them take a can from your hand and guzzle it like a pro. The bar itself attracts a fair share of rowdies; if you're in the mood, join them for lunch and a shot of owner Norma's local brew, mamajuana, a concoction of herbs, honey and rum that she pours from an unlabeled jug. Potent but tasty, the liquor can be bought as a souvenir ($25 for a fifth). (Open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily)
Paul and Jill's Stable and Farm on the west end of St. Croix, offers horseback riding just five minutes from Frederiksted. A 90-minute ride is $99 per person, cash only, and includes scenic areas such as the rain forest, pasture and hill view of the cruise ship harbor. Reservations, made at least two weeks before you cruise, are recommended. Rides take place in the late morning; afternoon rides are sometimes added if there's demand. (340-772-2880)
Scuba divers won't want to miss The Wall, a 13,000-foot underwater vertical drop that runs along the island's north shore. Most outfitters access it from Cane Bay, which is also a nice beach for snorkeling. Almost all dive operators in Frederiksted and Christiansted will set up your trip. You can also scuba the Canyon, a 350-foot submarine canyon where an ancient river once flowed, at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve. Incidentally, this is also the site where a Christopher Columbus expedition set foot in what is now U.S. territory on his second voyage to the New World in 1493.
Try kayaking with one of the many operators on the island. Tours go to various sites, including the mangrove forests in Altoona Lagoon, Christiansted Harbor or Salt River Bay, which is bioluminescent at night. Expect to pay about $45 for a half-day tour. Sea-Thru Kayaks VI rents clear kayaks, good for all ages (340-244-8696).
Christiansted's also got an arty side; it's adopted the SOHO moniker for its cluster of art galleries and studios. Among them are the Mitchell Larsen Studio (2000 Company Street, south of Hospital Street) for glass and photography; Maufe Gallery and Crucian Gold (1112 Strand Street) for photography and jewelry; and Folk Art Traders (2 Strand Street) for unique paintings and sculpture. Many stores in Christiansted and Fredericksted are closed Sundays.
If you're into historic walking tours or eco-tours hosted by locals who can give you the inside scoop, you can book an excursion through Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism (340-719-5455), which offers both types of tours for reasonable prices. You'll visit historic schools and churches on these 90-minute walks and learn about everything from slave rebellions to tsunamis.
On Foot: Visit the nearby Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts and the Fort Frederik Museum or stroll along the renovated waterfront. Shops and restaurants are also available, although the selection is not as great as you'll find in Christiansted.
By Taxi: Taxis congregate at the foot of the pier. The government sets prices. For most trips, you'll want to ask your taxi driver for a return ticket, so you can ensure your trip back. A one-way trip to Christiansted is $24 for two people, for instance.
By Car: Most rental agencies are based either in Christiansted or the airport, but Frederiksted has two: Budget is right across from the cruise dock, and Avis is 100 feet from the dock. Solar-powered car rentals are also available. Independent car rental operators will usually meet you at the pier with your car.
Best for a Half-Day Visit: Dorsch Beach is a white-sand expanse running south of Frederiksted. You'll find some snorkeling around the area. All beaches in St. Croix are public, and this area can get busy with locals on the weekends. The hotel Sand Castle on the Beach sells day passes for cruise passengers who are looking for chairs and umbrellas.
Note: Sandy Point, which has traditionally been a popular site for cruise ship visitors, is closed during the week in the cruise season to protect the leatherback and green sea turtles that nest here April through June. During the summer, it's closed full time.
Best for Scuba Divers: Cane Bay, on the north shore, is a major destination for divers and snorkelers (an undersea wall is deep enough for naval submarines to launch practice missions; it drops some 13,200 feet just 25 to 40 feet offshore). While the beach itself isn't great, there are some terrific bars that also serve food at Cane Bay, including the legendary Off The Wall and eat@CaneBay.
Best for Active Types: Hotel on the Cay in Christiansted offers access to all manner of beach equipment and activities, from water scooters to parasailing. Just north of the Frederiksted pier, you can rent water sports equipment as well as beach chairs and umbrellas at Rainbow Beach.
Because it's the most agricultural of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix restaurateurs have access to a bounty of local produce. Consequently, the food there is the best that weve had in the Virgin Islands. Go local with chicken, served with curry, stewed or in a roti, or search out Caribbean lobster (sweeter than its Maine counterpart). Or try one of the more upscale restaurants that have opened; the St. Croix Food & Wine Experience keeps getting bigger every spring, and the international chefs it brings have encouraged restaurants to up their game.
Polly's at the Pier is an uptown coffee shop that serves its own microbrew, soups, salads, ice cream, desserts and cigars. It's also an urban-Caribbean art gallery -- with Wi-Fi. (3 Strand Street; 340-719-9434; open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday)
For lovers of healthy fare (particularly vegetarians), UCA's Kitchen is a local favorite. (Custom House at King Street; 340-772-5063; open Monday through Saturday, 12:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.)
The Blue Moon faces the water, and between the wild and wacky color scheme and genuinely good sandwiches and such, it rocks when cruise ships are in town. (17 Strand Street; open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday)
For a coffee-house-meets-deli ambience, check out Turtles Deli (37 Strand Street; open 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
Rum Runners is a favorite on the Christiansted Marina, either before or after a trip over to Buck Island. (At Hotel Caravelle on the Marina; 340-773-6585; breakfast 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Saturday, brunch 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday, dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. daily)
NBA star Tim Duncan hails from St. Croix, and his picture can be found at Harvey's, where you'll find authentic Caribbean favorites such as callaloo soup, oxtail stew, fried fish and barbecue chicken. (11B Company Street; 340-773-3433; open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
Fort Christian Brew Pub has a great view of the harbor and great pours of Virgin Islands microbrews created right on the premises. It serves burgers and fresh seafood. (Boardwalk; open from 11 a.m. Monday to Saturday, noon Sunday)
If you're looking for a leisurely lunch in a renovated Creole cafe, hunt out Cafe Christine, where you'll find refreshing salads, homemade duck terrine, a daily quiche and pies made with crusts so flaky, you'll swear you were in France. Reservations are recommended. (6 Company Street, in a back courtyard; 340-713-1500; open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday; cash only)
Elsewhere: La Reine Chicken Shack on the road between Christiansted and Frederiksted is popular with locals and tourists alike; on Martha Stewart's blog, she declared it her favorite after she made a holiday visit. Try the johnnycake, fried bread dumplings also known as "bake." (24 Slob A B, Estate La Reine; 340-778-5717; open 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; cash only)
You'll dock at the pier in Frederiksted, the island's second-largest town, unless your ship carries fewer than 200 passengers -- then it can dock in Christiansted. Frederiksted is on the island's west shore. Christiansted, which is larger, is about a 30-minute cab ride away.
People in St. Croix take religion and family seriously, and many shops and some historic sites are closed Sundays. Most excursions, beaches and restaurants, though, are open and ready for business.
The currency is the U.S. dollar, and many places also accept credit cards; a fair number of smaller restaurants are cash only, though. St. Croix has no sales tax. ATMs are readily found in Christiansted and Frederiksted.
English is the official language but often with a Caribbean twist of unique pronunciations and vocabulary thrown in. The island still attracts visitors from Denmark, so you might see some signs and menus in Danish, particularly in Christiansted.
A Crucian hook bracelet, with a horseshoe-shaped closure, which you can buy from numerous jewelry shops (Sonya Ltd. is the most famous). And of course, there's always Cruzan Rum.
The Virgin Islands' Cruzan rum is still made there; try a snifter of Cruzan Single Barrel or a cocktail made from its variety of flavors, including mango, coconut and passion fruit.