The streets behind the waterfront are shabby. Buildings are deteriorating, windows boarded up.
Christiansted is more inviting, although if you walk a few blocks uphill, past the shops and galleries, you encounter similar crumbling buildings. But down by the water are a boardwalk and a marina. They don’t exactly bustle in the offseason, but neither are they deserted. There are people in the restaurants and bars, and boats sail across the harbor. A seaplane returning from St. Thomas swings low across the shore, lands on the water, taxis to a dock.
The Danes — who ruled St. Croix for 184 years, longer than any other country, and ultimately sold the island to the United States — set up government in Christiansted. Five buildings from the colonial era, including the Customs House and Fort Christiansvaem, remain on the waterfront and make up what is now designated a National Historic Site.
I wander around the park, have a hoagie at Angry Nate’s on the Boardwalk, then get lost driving back to my hotel — although with each trip, I puzzle out a little more of the route. By the end of my trip, I can find my way back to the hotel with no wrong turns.
I’m staying at the Hibiscus Beach Resort, a low-key hotel with 38 beachfront rooms. The hotel offered a bargain — $300 for four nights in July — on LivingSocial.com, one of the deal-a-day sites, and I grabbed it. I have a second-floor room with a deck and a lovely view of the water, and the hotel has a small restaurant and a fun bar, all of which make it conducive to doing nothing productive — which is what this particular vacation is all about.
I read, nap, go to the bar for a glass of wine, stare at the vista of blue water and palms trees from my deck, walk along the sand. Late one morning, I see an instructor lead four or five would-be snorkelers into the water and give a lesson. Another day, I watch a young man ride a chestnut-colored horse along the water’s edge and offer rides to the few people on the beach. One evening I sit down for dinner in the restaurant and learn that it’s karaoke night. Some things I just can’t escape.
The morning of my kayaking trip, I make a dry run to the unmarked put-in spot to make sure I can find it at dusk, then keep driving until the road ends at a beach. The narrow but pretty strip of sand is lined by palm trees and sea grape and is busy with young schoolchildren. Then I see the sign: This is where members of Christopher Columbus’ crew came ashore in 1493 during his second excursion to the New World.
The spot’s “statement of significance” as a National Historic Landmark says that it is the earliest site under the U.S. flag that is associated with Columbus, and that his crew’s skirmish here with Carib Indians was the first recorded conflict between Europeans and Native Americans. The landing also marked the beginning of European colonialism here — St. Croix was under the rule of six countries before the U.S.
When I return for my kayak excursion that evening, I find that I am paired with Ralph, a widower and retired business owner from the Midwest. We are equally inexperienced; like me, he has been kayaking just once before. Ralph is with family — three couples who have all pushed off from the shallows by the time we climb into the last kayak, made of a clear, resin-like material so we can see the dinoflagellates in the water.