Although we are always saddened to miss Mardi Gras in New Orleans, we were excited to arrive in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, a week before their “Mardi Croix” celebration. (“Tuesday Cross”…We are aware that makes no sense.) Finally, after a year and a half of cruising, we could dust off our capes, crowns, glitter, and beads.
Arrival by sailboat in Christiansted, St. Croix, immediately conjures up images of the golden age of sailing, and the colonial history of the island. If you look straight ahead as you enter the narrow coral reef channel into Christiansted Harbor, you can see at least a dozen large cannons pointed directly at you from the imposing fort on land. Clearly, there was no way to safely infiltrate this harbor when the cannons were manned and loaded.
Adjacent to the fort are two other legacies of the island’s history, the magnificent Customs House, and a cargo weigh station. The prominence of these structures identifies Christiansted as having been a major trading port. The interiors of all these buildings are now dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the island. A large display at the weigh station is dedicated to one of the most famous sons of St. Croix, Alexander Hamilton.
The main anchorage and pier in Christiansted are in an area called Gallows Bay. As the name aptly describes, this was the location of public executions that the Danish rulers used to enforce order on the island. All citizens, even children, were required to attend the executions. The history of St. Croix is captivating and it is palpable as you stroll down the old streets.
Christiansted also has a renovated boardwalk with easy access for dinghies, plenty of bars and restaurants, and several shops where you can get local goods as well as plan snorkeling, diving, sailing, and kite surfing adventures.
The beauty of this boardwalk is that, unlike so many other island cities, there is no cruise ship terminal anywhere nearby. This is not to hate on cruise ship passengers, but the lack of a cruise ship terminal creates a more even, relaxed pace among locals and visitors.
Thanks to a recommendation by our cruising friends, Mike and Jennifer aboard s/v Three Sheets, we anchored behind a large protective reef that made our stay smooth and calm, even in high winds and strong swell. The only drawback, if you can call it that, is that we shared our anchorage with the planes from Seaborne Airlines. Depending on the winds, they sometimes took off and landed right next to our boat. This made for some exciting times and good photo opportunities as we watched the planes descend on what looked like a collision trajectory toward ¡Pura Vida!, and veer off before touchdown. When Jennifer joked with one of the pilots, he stated “we always miss!”
No visit to St. Croix is complete without a tour of the distillery where they craft the island’s signature spirit, Cruzan Rum. Our new friend, Alex, who was our guide and chauffeur during our time on the island drove us to the refinery. The tour takes you behind the scenes and up-close to where the molasses is received, fermented, and aged. Naturally, the tour ends in the tasting room to sample anything you want, from mild flavored rums to dark and smoky aged ones. Our tour guide was vivacious and informative and even let us stick our fingers in the dripping molasses. That’s right, next time you have a sip of Cruzan Rum, we may have had our fingers in it.
The first week flew by, and it was time to dawn our purple, green, and gold. We realized that although we kept some Mardi Gras costume pieces when we sailed away, we were, perhaps, a bit hasty in purging our festive wardrobe. We did the best we could and headed out to the streets to celebrate carnival, island style. I have to say, that watching carnival parade floats while also having a view of the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea made all my nostalgia for New Orleans temporarily disappear. The parade route was also lined with food and drink vendors. I’m not talking just beers in go-cups, these were fully-stocked bars on the side of the road. The revelry was loud, festive, colorful, and at times a bit raunchy; just like back home!
A few days after Mardi Croix, we participated in the “Brew’s Clues” scavenger hunt to benefit animal charities. This event combined three of our favorite activities: helping animals, learning about the places we visit, and drinking. Come on! A charity event for animals sponsored by the local brewery? It’s like they knew we were coming to visit.
All this merriment made us decide to stay in St. Croix until after St. Patrick’s Day so we could catch the next big celebration. For a reason that still eludes me, the island has a huge parade and seaside party celebrating the Irish patron saint. Perhaps it’s the local disdain for snakes on an island; or a kindred spirit with the hardships the Irish have suffered; or, maybe, it’s just an excuse to wear green, drink early, and throw one hell of a street party!
But St. Paddy’s Day was still a couple of weeks away, so we sailed ¡Pura Vida! to Frederiksted, the other city on St. Croix, to explore the western part of the island. Frederiksted is a charming city with stunning colonial architecture. Except on the few days a month when a cruise ship arrives, the city has a sleepy, lazy, carefree feel that is reminiscent of long, hot, summer days in New Orleans. There is one exception: Sunday-Fun-Day! On Sundays, locals flock from all over the island to party on the beach near the Rhythm bar and restaurant. The normally quiet beach jumps to life with live music, beach games, water sports, and hundreds of scantily-clad people of all ages, shapes, and sizes.
Further down the beach, and closer to our anchorage, we also discovered a hippie surf shop and grill that was more our style. The Freedom City Surf Shop is the place to unwind and have a few sundowners while playing with the local dogs. Five friendly dogs, including a Great Dane, call the bar home. They don’t officially belong to anyone, but they have the best life of any dog I have ever met. They play in the surf and on the beach, sleep in the shade of palm trees, get food and affection from the bar staff and patrons, and generally love life. We were told that two of them are available for adoption, but I can’t imagine taking these dogs away from such a happy place.
St. Croix is very special for Kimberly and me because this is where we went SCUBA diving for the first time ever. You could say that this is the island where the dream was sparked that led us to our nomadic, island-hopping life. Our friends aboard s/v Kailani are also avid divers; together with them, and local friends Alex and Matt, we took advantage of this diving paradise and spent a lot of days, and one night under the sea. We sampled the diving across the island, from the reefs near Christiansted and Buck Island to the famous Cane Bay Wall, to the Frederiksted Pier.
The Frederiksted cruise ship pier is supported by concrete pillars that are completely encrusted with marine life. The water is surprisingly clear and relatively shallow (20-45 feet), creating a perfect location for underwater photography. Apparently, the local marine life is aware of this as they are very cooperative, and almost look like they are posing for us.
After spending several days enjoying the underwater world in Frederiksted, we picked up the anchor to sail east back to Christiansted for one last blowout on St. Patrick’s Day. Mother Nature had other plans! Although the distance between the Frederiksted and Christiansted anchorages is only fourteen miles, the winds were stronger than predicted and the right on the nose. The waves were much higher than we expected and we realized early on in the trip that it would take us far too long to make the journey, and it would be extremely uncomfortable the entire time. We turned ¡Pura Vida! around and headed back to our spot near the pier. Luckily, there is bus service between the two cities, so we would not have to miss the festivities.
We left early in the morning (ok, early for us, 9 am) to catch a bus to see the St. Paddy’s day parade. We made it to Christiansted in time to have Bloody Marys aboard Three Sheets and still catch most of the parade. Crucians know how to party! The streets were filled with floats, bands, revelers, dancers, drunks, children; all wearing green. There is one Crucian invention that all parades in the world need to adopt: the bar float. This is a float with music and a fully-stocked bar that serves the crowd and the revelers. While we were watching the parade, the usually quiet seaside boardwalk transformed into a mass of bodies gyrating to the beat of a DJ. It was still only around 3 pm. We heard that the party lasts all night, but we had a weather window to sail to the British Virgin Islands early the next day, so we headed back to ¡Pura Vida! to prepare.
We left St. Croix after a month, wishing we would have explored more, above and below the water. But we also know that we partied more than usual and we made new life-long friends. St. Croix is one of those places we could see ourselves settling down in the distant future after our life at sea. We will be back!