A week or so ago we embarked on our second Caribbean expedition of 2016, flying into St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands where AVATAR and crew were awaiting us. Before our luggage was even unpacked, the boat was underway to a nearby anchorage to spend the night. Our anchorage was just off the beach of a resort where we enjoyed tropical cocktails while 737 jets took off from the very nearby international airport! Beachgoers all raised their iPhones to catch snaps and selfies as the aircraft roared overhead within a stone’s throw!
We didn’t spend any time in St. Thomas which, according to Capt. Rod, is a mecca for the cruise ship trade with some three to five cruise ships arriving in port daily, disgorging their thousands of passengers to throng the city streets shopping in duty free shops for liquor, perfume, and souvenirs. Cruise ships have their appeal, but for trekking aboard AVATAR we avoid them and their crowds like the plague!
Instead we motored our way east, looking for a quieter environment. We meant to overnight at St. John, a national park, but the sea swells created rolly anchorages, so after dropping anchor and pulling it back up again about five times in search of a peaceful night’s sleep, we finally headed straight to St. Croix. Currently we are berthed at Green Cay in a laid back marina where flocks of iguanas the size of dachshunds roost in the mangrove branches lining the channel, in company with flocks of more elegant snowy egrets.
Here we have been utterly charmed by the multitude of attractions on this sleepy island. Only one cruise ship per week arrives on the pier in quiet Frederiksted, leaving the town somnolent the remaining six days. Meanwhile the huge pier built to accommodate the weekly cruise ship has a reputation for being an awesome dive site, replete with frogfish, batfish, octopus, and more. It’s on our itinerary to check out in the next few days.
St. Croix is an 84 square mile island and its eastern shore, Point Udall (named after Arizona’s own Stewart Udall), is the easternmost point of land in all the United States and its territories. On the morning of January 1, 2000, news crews from around the US thronged the Udall Point to film the rising sun dawning on the new millennium. Of interest, the westernmost point of land in the US is in Guam, and is also named Point Udall after Stewart’s brother Morris Udall, so that America’s day begins and ends at a Point Udall. We drove out there yesterday and took in the scenic view of turquoise waters, waves breaking on the longest coral reef in the Caribbean, and sweeping vistas of the cactus studded hills diving down to meet rocky cliffs and beaches. Endangered leatherback turtles nest here, and Rod found the tracks of a recent arrival scraped in the sand where one had come ashore recently to lay her eggs in a sandy nest.
Diving is impressive here, and we’ve enjoyed some pleasant snorkels and a spectacular, although exhausting, dive on the reef off Cane Bay. Astoundingly, there is a 10,000+ foot ocean trench just offshore. The Cane Bay Wall, only a 250 yard swim from shore, is a spectacular coral wall that literally drops thousands of feet before hitting bottom. The downside is that the 250 yard swim from the beach in full dive gear was rather tiring for us septuagenarians, but once we submerged and began the actual dive, we were only breathless from the spectacular scenery. The coral here is gigantic in scale, taking on a prehistoric, jurassic look that we have not seen before. So-called sand chutes create alleyways that lead from the sandy bottom inshore to the rugged landscape of the wall. They are lined with sculptural branching coral, waving feathery fronds of sea fans, and a healthy multitude of reef fish, Caribbean reef sharks, turtles, lobster, eels, and coral and sponge growth in profusion.
Sadly I made this dive without a camera. In anticipation, I had assembled the underwater housing the day before, but when it came time to test it out, the camera itself failed irretrievably and is now a brick for the duration of the voyage. I have three more cameras with me, but the broken one is the only one that fits the underwater housing!
Nevertheless, despite its foreign flavor, one of the advantages of being in the US Virgins (as opposed to the nearby British Virgins and Spanish Virgins) is the availability of at least some of the infrastructure of home, including the United States Postal Service! So I have ordered a second underwater housing to fit a different camera, and today we are lingering in port awaiting the arrival of our package. Interestingly enough, packages shipped USPS from the mainland to here are considered local and are not subject to customs or duty. But for whatever reason, shipping via UPS or FedEx from the same departure point in California, is considered to be foreign transport and triggers the customs inspection delay.
St. Croix has been populated for at least 2,000 years, and measures its European influence from the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second trip to the New World. He landed at nearby Salt River, but was promptly chased off by the less that friendly natives. He named the island Santa Cruz, but the Knights of Malta later changed its name to the French version, St. Croix. Seven flags have flown over these islands across the centuries, sometimes multiple times – Spanish, Dutch, English, French, Knights of Malta, Danish, and finally the United States, which purchased the islands in 1917 for $25 million. Perhaps the strongest visible influence came from the Danes, who built the forts and associated towns at Christiansted and Frederiksted, where the architecture retains its Danish flavor with a great deal of charm, narrow winding streets, quaint shops, galleries of art and hand-crafted jewelry, and excellent restaurants.
Everywhere the island is littered with the remnants of more than a hundred sugar cane plantations that thrived here in the 1700-1800s, dependent on slave labor until the slaves were emancipated by the Danes in 1848 following a slave revolt on St. Croix. Crumbling stone walls, abandoned stone buildings, circular stone kilns and chimneys dot the landscape at every turn. We toured the inviting St. George Village Botanical Garden, built on the sprawling bones of one old plantation. The Cruzan Rum Factory on St. Croix is a thriving business, but it now imports the cane molasses needed to fill its bubbling million gallon fermentation vats from nearby Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic.
We have much more to see on St. Croix, but Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are also on our itinerary this trip, so we don’t dare linger too long. But I imagine we will return for a second visit next year as we revisit favorite spots.
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