Life begins at the end of your comfort zone: Beachcombing in St. Croix
By Kirsti Scott
I should have known we were in for an adventure when the people behind us on the plane started talking about their first trip to St. Croix. "Yeah, I was kind of surprised when I realized they drove on the left side of the road," one of them said. My husband, Matt, and I both looked at each other, just as surprised, and smiled. It was going to be a fun week.
You would think that before traveling across five time zones we would have planned a little more, but the trip to visit this island in the Caribbean was planned in about an hour. We learned that plane tickets for a trip we had canceled last year would expire in a few weeks so we decided to pick a warm location, get some hotel and car reservations, and head out. I had heard about St. Croix from Elizabeth Smith and Denise Fashaw, who wrote an article in Beachcombing about St. Croix's Chaney, so we thought we'd check it out.
“Chaney” is the local name for pottery shards found on beaches and at old sugar mill plantations scattered around St. Croix. And, while the only pieces of chaney I found were a few teeny, tiny pieces of sea pottery, we did have fun exploring the beaches of this 28-mile-long island, seeing the sugar mill towers, tasting the local breadfruit vodka, snorkeling off the uninhabited Buck Island Reef National Monument, and hunting for sea glass along the way. We stayed in the heart of Christiansted, the largest town on the island, located in the middle of the northern coast of St. Croix.
St. Croix is one of three U.S. Virgin Islands, located southeast of Puerto Rico. While it is now part of the U.S., St. Croix was originally inhabited by the Igneri, Taino, and Carib people. Christopher Columbus landed in 1493 and named the island Santa Cruz (St. Croix comes from the French), and then engaged in the first recorded conflict between the Spanish and a New World native population. Denmark, England, France, Spain, the Knights of Malta, the French West India Company, the Danish West Indies Company, and the Danish king all were in charge in St. Croix at various times until the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix were sold by Denmark to the U.S. in 1916. The Crucian culture and architecture on the island are a mix — thanks to the many people who have called St. Croix their home — with forts, sugar mills, Victorian buildings, and modern hotels, shops, and restaurants all mixed together. Hurricanes and storms have taken their toll on the built landscape, and there is no shortage of ruins and worn stone and tiles to be found around the island.
The main industry throughout St. Croix's history was sugar production, made possible by a large slave population. Slavery was outlawed by the early 19th century and enslaved people were freed in 1848, after the 1848 St. Croix Slave Revolt. Sugar mills and plantations still dot the landscape of St. Croix, reminders of its plantation history.
Today, the main industry is tourism. So, let's get onto touring!
A quick note about a custom in St. Croix that you should adopt while you are there. Instead of saying "Hi" or "Hello" to greet someone, on St. Croix you say "good morning," "good afternoon", or "good evening," depending on the time of day. Using a proper Crucian greeting will make a good impression, and you might bring the habit home from your trip.
One of my main goals of our trip was to do some beachcombing, so after a night's rest, we jumped in the rental car and headed out (on the left side of the road!) to Salt River Bay National Historic Park, site of an indigenous Taino village and the spot where Columbus landed on November 14, 1493. While there is little left to show where the village and later forts stood, it's a beautiful beach. We were welcomed by the ubiquitous chickens, which you can find pretty much everywhere on St. Croix, and a beach covered with coral, shells, and dried seaweed, and one tiny piece of sea glass.
All of the beaches in St. Croix are open to the public, so you have plenty of choices for beachcombing. However, in St. Croix you can't take home any seashells, corals, or sand, nor can you mail them off-island. Sandy beaches are made of the remains of coral and shells, shells serve as homes for hermit crabs, and many animalsÅ\including green, leatherback, and hawksbill sea turtlesÅ\use the sandy beaches for nesting at hatching. Customs agents at the airport will confiscate any contraband, so stick to picking up sea glass and chaney on your trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
We continued west from Salt River Bay, passing gorgeous Cane Bay Beach and other sugar-sand beaches along the north shore, heading to Frederiksted, the other main town on St. Croix. (I only almost killed us by driving on the wrong side of the road a couple of times that morning.) We grabbed lunch at Six Nine Restaurant, checked out the shops in town, walked past the fort, and headed to the beach.
Frederiksted Beach is just north of town the Frederiksted Pier, where cruise ships dock a couple times a week. Several people recommended the beach for sea glass hunting, and it turned out to be the best beach we found for finding beach glass. As usual, hitting a beach near a harbor or pier that's been used for hundreds of years was the best place to find sea glass and sea pottery. We came back a few times during our stay, and though it was different every time, we always managed to pick up a few pieces of glass and pottery.
North of Frederiksted Beach is Rainbow Beach, where you can rent snorkeling equipment, beach chairs, and jet skis. We rented snorkels and masks, and it was fun kicking out into the water, but there wasn't a lot to see. From Rainbow Beach, we wandered north on the sand and check out little beaches, where we found a few pieces of beach glass. We took refuge and grabbed lunch back at Rhythms at Rainbow Beach when a short rainstorm passed through.
South of Frederiksted is one of the most beautiful beaches we visited on St. Croix, Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge. Because it is a nesting spot for sea turtles, it is closed to the public from April through August and is open only on Saturdays and Sundays the rest of the year. We were lucky to be able to visit this wide, sandy beach at the end of a bumpy gravel road and float in the warm waves.
One morning we headed east to watch the sun rise at the easternmost point in the United States, Point Udall. A small crowd of early risers welcomed the new day in this scenic overlook. We took the Jack and Issac Bay Preserve Trail down to a couple of beautiful bays where turtles nest in the spring and summer. A half mile down the road is Whale Point trailhead, where we took the path down to a beach with smooth, surf-tumbled black rocks and coral.
The only beach in Christiansted, Cay Beach, is accessible via a super-short ferry ride to Protestant Cay, a small island in Christiansted Harbor. The water taxi runs all day from the Christiansted Boardwalk next to the King Christian Hotel and is $5 round trip. You can visit the small beach and get food and drinks at Rolling Smoke BBQ. We grabbed lunch, rented chairs, hung out on the beach for a while, then headed back to town.
We tried to find a path from the east edge of Fort Christiansvaern to Gallows Bay, but ended up finding a recent trash-dumping spot. Our only companion was one of the local iguanas taking a sunbath. We hopped back in the car and headed to the Buccaneer Beach & Golf Resort and Mermaid Beach. We found a few tiny pieces of sea glass on this little cove ringed with palm trees then headed to nearby Shoys Beach, a favorite beach of locals with access through a tunnel of trees. We found some pretty shells, urchins, and coral and added them to a rock sculpture in the shade of the trees, guarded by another iguana. A bit further east is Chenay Beach, which we hoped would be filled with sea chaney, but no luck.
The crystal clear water of the Caribbean will beckon you from wherever you go on St. Croix, and there are plenty of companies happy to help you take sail. One great way to get out on the water is a trip to Buck Island Reef National Monument. Full and half-day trips give you a chance to walk the beach of this uninhabited island and go snorkeling along the underwater snorkel trail, with plaques describing the fish and marine flora found in this elkhorn coral reef. We took a full-day trip with Big Beard's Adventure Tours, with a trip to Buck Island, a beach barbecue at Coakley Bay Beach (home to hundreds of hermit crabs), and punch made with local Mutiny Island Vodka.
We also took a sunset cruise with Caribbean Sea Adventures, which also took us out to Buck Island and back. We enjoyed drinks, live music, and at the end of our trip, we were all surprised when one of our fellow guests proposed to his girlfriend. (She said yes!)
Beverages & More
Speaking of drinks, there are a couple of rum distilleries on the island, plus a new vodka distillery, Sion Farm Distillery, that makes Mutiny Island Vodka. We had a delicious dinner and vodka tasting one night, with a view of the gleaming steel tanks of the distillery behind glass windows. The distillery uses breadfruit and water to create their line of flavored vodkas, which you can find in restaurants all over the island. Try a flight to taste all the handcrafted flavors. There's plenty for two people to share, as we learned when we ordered two flights.
We stayed at the King Christian Hotel, which is on the Christiansted Boardwalk, right next to Fort Christainsvaern. We had instant access to the water taxi, cute shops and boutiques, and the restaurants lining the wharf. We ate at all of the restaurants, which all have beautiful views, and our favorite was pizza at The Mill Boardwalk Bar Brick Oven Pizza. Dinner off the Boardwalk at 40 Eats and Drinks was under twinkling string lights in an outdoor courtyard.
Our favorite spots were actually in our hotel. We had breakfast every day in Caroline’s, which offers delicious breakfasts and special coffees every day in a picture-perfect setting. We grabbed breakfast to go from Virgin Islands Coffee Roasters to bring to the beach. And, we capped off dinner a couple of times with delicious handmade ice cream at Cream & Co. Our favorite spot in the hotel was Breakers Roar Tiki Bar. This nautical-themed tiki bar has dark wood, antique maps, and 30 inventive cocktails made from local ingredients and served in whimsical tiki mugs. I had too many of these, because I wanted to try each mug!
We did take a few breaks from beaches, boats, and beverages to take in the historical sights. We took a self-guided tour of Fort Christiansvaern from the dungeon to the barracks to the cannons on the roof with a 360-degree view. We visited the St. George Village Botanical Garden, set among the ruins of a 19th-century sugarcane plantation. For beachcombers, there’s a small display of chaney and clay pipes in a restored colonial-era worker's cottage and a seashell display from the St. Croix Seashell Society in the Great Hall.
Not much chaney, but lots of sea glass
We found only a few pieces of sea chaney but collected so much sea glass that we returned to Frederiksted Beach and tossed back the pieces that weren't quite ready. Hopefully they'll land back on the beach the next time we go to St. Croix, tumbled to perfection.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2022 issue.