bohemian rhapsody

a mecca for expat creative types and earthy nonconformists, st. croix is an island beauty with an american accent
fLIGhT of fANCy

By seaplane, the 35-mile hop from Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, to Christiansted’s downtown harbor on St. Croix takes only 25 minutes.

by baz dreisinger photography by steve simonsen
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ISLAND BACChANAL

Clockwise from top left: The bonsai bonsai sashimi tuna burger at Bacchus; Jody Starr, a Bacchus server, presents the “big bad wolf” (pork prime rib wrapped in bacon); Cane Bay; Carambola Beach.

On a balmy Friday night

in St. Croix, Elizabeth’s at H2O, packed to the hilt, was a study in contrasts: The décor in this wooden beachside bar was modest — and the karaoke was anything but. Two high-heeled ladies flaunting minidresses duked it out over Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song”; a local boys softball team took a mighty swing at Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”; and six vacationing Miami Heat cheerleaders treated the hooting crowd to a choreographed rendition of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”
I’d barely sipped my first Cruzan rum-and-soda before the familiar question sounded: “How many generations are you?” My new friend Nicole, a St. Croix local, was doing the asking; she’d run into an old buddy, and reminiscences of high-school days had swiftly turned to barroom genealogy. “Nine,” her friend replied. “You?” “Five generations, on my father’s side,” said Nicole, whose last name, Canegata, carries a lot of weight here; it even graces a nearby ballpark. Her question was one I’d heard uttered like a mantra since arriving on St. Croix less than 24 hours before. As soon as I knew someone’s name, it seemed, I knew her lineage. Quickly I grasped why: On this largest of the United States Virgin Islands, where residents hail from near and far, those with long-standing roots — who are not merely local but Crucian — are precious and few. From the tourism magazines I’d leafed through on the plane, I’d clipped a snarky cartoon depicting the diverse denizens I could expect to find on St. Croix, including “Rasta Mon: back to nature in stereo”; “Yacht Ya Ya: drinks and hoists the sails, in that order”; “Hippie: loved the 60s but can’t remember ’em”; and my favorite: “These guys are not game-show hosts — they’re in real estate.” I was a St. Croix “type” too: stateside resident toying with the notion of an island move. I’d long pondered the idea for the same reason myriad American Caribophiles do: The U.S. Virgin Islands serve up the beauty of the Caribbean wrapped in the conveniences of America. Luxurious St. John, though, is a bit pricey for the humble pocket, and St. Thomas is a bit too bustling for my taste. But mellower, sleepier St. Croix is an island that avidly
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prides itself on its low-key way of life and local culture. It’s an island that attracts a different kind of devotee. From native Crucians returning home, to organic-living free spirits looking for a rootsy roost, people have been flocking to St. Croix. Was there a place for me among them?

LURED BY ITS HISTORY, I checked into the Buccaneer, a
sprawling, 138-room luxury hotel on 340 acres that evolved from a tobacco and indigo plantation that dates to 1653. Opened as a resort in 1947 and run for three generations by the Armstrongs, one of St. Croix’s oldest families, the Buccaneer is a beguiling mix of old and new. Amid the 18-hole golf course, eight tennis courts, water-sports center, three beaches and four restaurants, part of the original 17th-century manor house remains, and the main building is where founding father Alexander Hamilton lived as a boy. For all the loftiness of its legacy, though, the Buccaneer instantly rubbed me the right way with simpler things. The staff greeted me as if I were an old friend — no “mister” or “miss” here, but “Welcome, Baz!” I sat on my terrace sipping a complimentary cocktail and drank in the panorama: jade-and-russet mountains framing an azure sea animated by a lone kayaker taking a sunset paddle. The property was so expansive and its three beaches so vast that world beyond my view became a distant afterthought. In the evening, I made my way to nearby Christiansted, a charmingly preserved slice of Europe and one of the bestkept secrets in the Caribbean. Since Columbus landed on the island in 1493 and called it Santa Cruz, St. Croix has flown the
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ST. CRoIx
Buck Island Cane Bay

• •
henry E. Rohlsen airport

Christiansted
Point Udall


23 miles

frederiksted

buck island is the stuff of everyone’s caribbean fantasy, and pristine turtle beach — with its gleaming stretches of white sand and electric-blue waters — proved why.

GoD BLESS AMERICA

President John f. Kennedy declared tiny Buck Island and its surrounding reefs a national monument in 1961.

flags of seven nations: Spain, France, the Knights of Malta, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Denmark, and the United States, which purchased it in 1917. Christiansted was built by the Danish in the 18th century with archways flanking cobblestone streets and wood-shuttered homes painted in warm yellows and blues. Strolling my way down eerily quiet Strand Street in the moonlight, I glimpsed another era. Outdoor dining at Zebos was clue one that St. Croix was, well, different. A basket of fresh-baked, whole-grain bread was set before me. Gourmet menu offerings featured free-range chicken, organic greens, ceviche and vegan chipotle soup. All in all, more Northern California than Northern Caribbean. Nicole, a friend of a Crucian friend of mine back home, served as my night-life welcome committee. We started at the Fort Christian Brew Pub, a popular waterfront bar with live music. From there, we moved to the rooftop bar Parrot’s Cove, where patrons had kicked off their Birkenstocks and were grooving to a reggae band. After greeting most everyone in the club, Nicole introduced me to Ben Jones, who’d relocated to St. Croix from Georgia and, in 2003, started an organic farm on the island’s west end. The next morning, Nate Olive, sporting a plaid shirt, flipflops and a banana-leaf hat, drove me in his pickup truck to the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute. On the dusty ride through the subtropical forest, he told me he’d followed a girlfriend from Georgia to St. Croix in 2001, lost all his belongings in a shipwreck, and accepted Ben’s job offer: program director of the 200-acre farm, which hosts classes, nature retreats, community dinners and immersion stays for holistic-minded tourists and university students. The wholly self-sustained farm is, said Nate, a “campus” where “nature can be easily enjoyed,” as well as a kind of city upon a hill — “to inspire people to live more sustainably. When you turn on a faucet or a light switch, you should know where the water or power comes from. When you eat dinner, you should know where every bit of food on your plate comes from. Traceability.” We pulled into the farm. “I live over there,” Nate said, putting the truck in park. “Above the sheep and mango area.”
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LIGhT fooTPRINTS

Carambola Beach Resort nestles into the St. Croix landscape. opposite: Nate olive, the program director at the Virgin Islands Sustainable farm Institute.

I strolled into the wooden community center. Half a squash was perched on the counter; the aroma of fresh biscuits was intoxicating. On the fridge were pictures of the usual suspects: Jerry Garcia, Bob Marley and President Obama — superimposed on the body of a yogi and dubbed Ombama. Introductions followed: Here was the Colombian intern, a chemist from the University of the Virgin Islands, a National Geographic exec. Keith Weitzman, the chef, hailed from Chicago; he’d worked at a chic New York City eatery, radically revised his pace of life by moving to St. Croix and been liberated from behind the bar at the Brew Pub. I spent the morning meandering through banana orchards and mango trees and sunflower rows, ogling pineapples and rabbits. Keith was busily cooking for one of the farm’s infamous donation-only, “slow food” dinners, to be held that night — slow food, of course, being the polar opposite of all things fast-food. “We’re having lamb tonight,” said Ben. Sure enough, it was traceable: its legs, shank and abdomen were soaking in the sink.

THE ISLAND’S WESTERN BEACHES are generally acclaimed as its best, and well into sunset I found them flawless: velvety sand yielding to clear water. At Rhythms on Rainbow Beach, “Sweet Caroline” blared from the bar’s speakers, and I
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chatted to tourists and transplants sipping Coronas and feasting on onion rings. A few yards away at Dorsch Beach, I luxuriated in a very different scene: Here were Crucians whose roots went back generations, whose stereos blared reggae and soca. I parked myself on the sand to watch the fresh-out-of-class local children kick off their weekend with a rowdy swim. Back in Christiansted that evening, I dined at Bacchus, a century-old Danish house turned chic bar and restaurant, where gourmet didn’t mean hoity-toity. Serving up dishes with names like Pastafari and Lambda Lambda Lambda, Jody, my waiter, had long curly hair, a bushy beard and a blissed-out smile. For after-dinner drinks at Zebos, I met up with Norma Krieger, a St. Croix native and former New Yorker who founded the Society of Caribbean Artists. Clearly island life agreed with her; I fast decided she was the unofficial mascot for relocation to St. Croix. To call her glowing would be an understatement. Norma introduced me to Johanna Bermudez-Ruiz, a filmmaker who’d just finished a documentary about St. Croix’s Puerto Rican heritage. We sipped cocktails and chatted about film, art, the local music scene and brutal New York winters. “What do you think?” Norma gushed, waving her hand over the reggae-infused scene. And before I could reply, she did. “Isn’t this great? Why wouldn’t you want to live here?”
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ON SUNDAY, I AWOKE AS I DID every morning on St.
Croix: to the rhythm of the sea outside my window. I decided to spend a lazy day enjoying the island’s East End. Relishing an abundance of reggae on the radio, I cruised east along gray cliffs, past pale green hills and crashing waves on a winding road that brought to mind California’s Pacific Coast Highway. I spied the ubiquitous bumper sticker, Positive is How i Live, in bright Rastafarian colors. The stickers were remnants of a political campaign — Terrence “Positive” Nelson became St. Croix’s first Rastafarian senator in 2006. No matter; the slogan — part New Age self-help, part Rasta irieness — seemed so essentially St. Croix. After hours of East End beach-hopping and long swims, on the rocky sand inlets of Chenay Bay Beach and the silken waters of Shoy’s Beach back at the Buccaneer, I realized I’d hardly seen a soul all day. And that, I thought, was a heavenly treat — but the next day, I was craving some action. “You ready?” asked Alvin Phillips, my Jeep tour guide. He revved up the engine and blazed into the rust-hued wilderness, passing bright yellow Ginger Thomas flowers, bougainvillea bushes, and mango and papaya and dragon-fruit trees. Fearlessly jetting up rugged roads, he took a sharp left onto a jagged path no vehicle should have the gall to navigate. Just as I thought my hand would turn white from gripping the seat,
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Alvin turned off the engine. “Welcome to the tide pools!” he said. I slid into one of two cool, clear, rock-enclosed pools and soaked for a good half-hour, watching petite brown fish dart between my legs. A couple from Colorado, sporting full hiking gear, were the only others who’d ventured there; we chatted about their choice to give up life in Boulder for life in St. Croix. “It wasn’t too much of an adjustment, really,” they told me. “Different climate; same spirit.”

ALLURING AS ST. CROIX’S BEACHES WERE, none
proved as picture-perfect as one I sank toes into the next day: Turtle Beach, on Buck Island. A 19,000-acre marine park two miles off St. Croix’s north coast, Buck Island Reef National Monument is the stuff of everyone’s Caribbean fantasy, and pristine Turtle Beach — with its gleaming stretches of white sand and electric-blue waters — proved why. I’d sailed out on the Renegade, a gleaming catamaran operated by Big Beard Adventure Tours, and Big Beard himself had seen us off: Capt. John Macy, his beard as full and white as Santa’s, had moved from Oregon 30 years ago, when expats to St. Croix were few and far between. “No one doesn’t fall in love with Buck Island,” he said, shaking my hand vigorously. “Happy snorkeling!”
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Signposts along the underwater reef trail, blanketed by vivid elkhorn coral, explained how to spot trumpetfish, butterflyfish and parrotfish. Exhausted and sunned out, I made short work of lunch, which was rum punch and grilled mahimahi barbecued by the boat crew on the beach. Cruising back to the mainland at a leisurely pace, I talked with the crew — all were transplanted continentals; one admitted to missing nothing except Arby’s burgers — and took in Christiansted from a fresh angle: Framed by the sea, the 18th-century architecture seemed even more vivid, more stately, more breathtakingly beautiful. After all that go-go island touring, I was happy to spend a quiet couple of days at the Carambola Beach Resort & Spa, an ecolodge-style hotel on the island’s northwest coast. I luxuriated in its all-but-deserted white-sand beach and drank in its crimson sunsets. My cozy, wood-accented room was heavenly, thanks to two amenities: the mahogany four-poster bed, and a screened-in terrace that literally hangs over the sea. One morning, as it rained lightly, the rhythm of the drops on the sea merged with the pleasure of my four-poster bed, singlehandedly destroying all ambitions to move. Eventually, I tore myself away to drive to Frederiksted. Known as Freedom City — St. Croix’s slaves were officially emancipated there in 1848, following a slave revolt led by Gen. Buddhoe — Fredriksted was burned to the ground during a labor revolt in 1878 and promptly rebuilt in Victorian style. Plaques and statues commemorate the town’s potent history: Here lived the editor of the first free newspaper on St. Croix;

ThE SPIRIT of ST. CRoIx

Clockwise from top left: Norma Krieger, founder of the St. Croix-based Society of Caribbean Artists; fresh crabs in Christiansted; sugar mill ruins via Tan Tan Tours; tide pools at Annaly Bay.

“foR SALE” SIGNS Think Caribbean homeownership is only for Ponzi schemers and James Bond villains? Well think again. The dream of buying a residence in the United States Virgin Islands can be surprisingly attainable, with familiar tax laws and real estate practices defining the process and the good ol’ American dollar making it happen. “And anyone searching for the Virgin Islands’ biggest bang for the buck need look no farther than St. Croix,” says veteran agent David fedeles of farchette & hanley Real Estate, in Christiansted. With a median home price hovering around the $600,000 mark ($229,000 for condos) and no shortage of available properties, thanks to our lingering economic blahs, the island is ripe for bargain hunting. We found a furnished, two-bedroom, two-bath Teague Bay home on the island’s eastern tip priced at $639,000 and boasting a heated pool, a full acre of land, and a glorious view of Buck Island to the north. And three miles west of Christiansted on Pelican Cove Beach, $249,500 buys a furnished two-bedroom condo with resort-style amenities and an ocean view. for more information, contact David fedeles or one of his associates at farchette & hanley Real Estate (800-964-9755; fedeles.com or buystcroix.com).
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here was the town’s first library (“old” replied the librarian when asked the exact age of the yellow-and-green building); here was the Ann E. Abramson Pier welcoming visiting cruise ships. The Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts, formerly a 17th-century sea merchant’s mansion, housed a photography exhibit, an artistin-residence program and a charming gift shop. Along the way, I noticed something else: People spoke to me here. Sure, Crucians were friendly enough everywhere, but here they were extra friendly. “Good morning, daughter,” they called out to me again and again, from street corners and storefronts, in that uniquely Crucian lilt. One man, his car sporting a Positive is How i Live bumper sticker, pulled over because he recognized me from the airplane. I asked him for a lunch recommendation. Home to a sizeable Rastafarian community, St. Croix boasts many vegetarian ital restaurants; he pointed me to two. I ate soy stew and tofu at Vegeria, a hole-in-the-wall gem, and finished it off with spicy callaloo soup and tofu kebabs at UCA Kitchen, a warehouse-style restaurant that struck me as St. Croix in a nutshell: Rasta meets hippie.

AS I MADE MY WAY back to the Carambola that evening,
I happened upon Cane Bay, a pristine, near-deserted stretch of beach on the island’s north shore. I took a long swim, then sipped a rum-and-soda at the Sprat Net Beach Bar, where I was the only patron. Calvin, who owned the place, had relocated here from St. Kitts years ago. Before long, I was playing with his son and holding his daughter on my lap. “So — could you make the move?” Calvin asked, as if reading my mind. I politely answered that the great challenge would be that if I did join the Crucian migration, I’d have a hard time settling among a single community here because I’d found something more than redeeming in all of them. The crunchy back-to-nature world up at the sustainable farm, the local arts scene that Norma heralded, the low-key Rasta community in Frederiksted, the highbrow wine-and-dine scene at Bacchus or Zebos in Christiansted. How different they were, and yet when I thought about what united them, one phrase returned to mind: Positive Is How I Live. From where I sat, looking out over lovely Cane Bay, all my escape-from-New York plotting and planning was dwarfed by a spectacular sunset. And now that I knew what existed so close yet so far from my stateside home, I felt blessed by options and CT+L awed by a sweetly Crucian moment. For ThE ESSENTIALS on St. Croix, turn to page 81.
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