The blue skies over St. Croix are dotted with clouds that create just enough shadow to cut the glare of sun on water. As my little rental car wheezes up the steep, twisting road, the sea is below on my right, a deep sapphire streaked with aquamarine.
On my left, lush slopes in a thousand shades of green sweep gently up, the creep of foliage interrupted now and then by a house positioned for the best views of the water.
I’m searching for the road to Cane Bay when I come around a curve and enter what looks like a tropical rainforest. Dense trees form a canopy over the road, their trunks almost hidden by thick ferns and enormous leaves. Vines and roots dangle from branches, and it feels like the malevolent forest of fairytales.
Finally I emerge into the flatlands, far from the sea, and it is clear that Cane Bay is somewhere behind me.
This is my first visit to St. Croix, and I’m finding navigation a challenge. I am disoriented by driving on the left and hampered by the lack of street signs. But I love to explore new places, and this drive, full of wrong turns and scenic distractions, is taking me to parts of the island I probably wouldn’t have visited if I’d brought a GPS.
St. Croix, which has been a U.S. territory since 1917, shares the advantages of the other U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John, for a U.S. traveler: no passport required; same language; same currency as on the mainland.
The island offers plenty to entertain a visitor, starting with the beaches. Cane Bay on the north shore is popular with snorkelers, and Cane Bay Wall, where the bottom abruptly drops from about 40 feet to a depth of more than 3,000 feet, is a favorite of divers.
Buck Island Reef National Monument, a marine sanctuary just off the island’s northeast shore, is part of the U.S. National Park system. Mostly encircled by a coral reef, it has one of the world’s few snorkeling trails and two dive sites. Underwater markers tell about the sea life.
Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, created in 1992, offers scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking and hiking. It is an important archaeological site with the physical remains of three pre-Columbian cultures, as well as an important environmental site with large mangrove forests. It also has a bioluminescent bay, where micro-organisms called dinoflagellates glow in the dark. I’ve booked a moonlight kayaking tour of the bay.
Much of the island’s history involves the sugar industry. The ruins of sugar mills are scattered around the island, some of them incorporated into the landscaping of homes, restaurants and resorts. Estate Whim Museum, created from a restored 18th century sugar plantation, tells the story of the slave labor used on the plantation. Visitors can tour the Cruzan Rum Distillery and taste the rum, which today is made primarily with molasses from elsewhere in the Caribbean.
In the island’s two cities, Frederiksted and Christiansted, I can dine and browse shops and museums.
I knew before I got here that Crucians, as island residents call themselves, drive on the left side of the street. I’m not clear why, since this is a U.S. territory, not British. Unlike in Britain, however, the driver’s seat is on the left.
“I’m a little intimidated by trying to remember to drive on the left,” I tell the attendant at the airport exit as I hand her my rental-car contract.