Getway: Travel to St. Croix and you may get hooked

Kathie Ragsdale

Glance at the arm of many a St. Croix woman and you may see a silver or gold bracelet encircling her wrist, clasped shut by a horseshoe-shaped link.

The bracelet is called "the St. Croix hook," and while it represents love, it also symbolizes the pull of this Caribbean paradise - the largest and least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

St. Croix's allure extends to everyone from those seeking natural wonders to underwater-sports enthusiasts to vacationers who simply want to curl their toes in warm sand and sip some of the island's renowned Cruzan rum. It's an easy island to get hooked on.

Just 28 miles long by 7 miles wide, and home to some 55,000 people, the island endeared itself to my husband and me as soon as we first stepped off a plane into tiny Henry E. Rohlsen Airport (where free samples of rum are offered to new arrivals).

Now officially part of the United States as an unincorporated territory (no passport required to visit), St. Croix has a history that includes occupation by seven nations and the population is a mix of nationalities, including the offspring of slaves who once worked the sugar cane plantations, transplants from other Caribbean islands, a few Europeans (mostly of Danish descent), and continental Americans who have either resettled on-island or live here as snowbirds.

It's a place with a "wild side," - the western end, home to rainforest, jungle hiking trails, cliff-top panoramas and beaches, such as Sunset Beach, where locals always seem to outnumber tourists. The less rugged eastern end also has its natural attractions, most notably a coral reef that draws snorkelers and divers from around the world with its diverse and wildly colorful varieties of fish.

And there is culture too. Frederiksted, on the western end of St. Croix, is the smaller of the island's two cities (the other is Christiansted), and the grittier of the two. It's six main streets are choked with small shops, convenience stores and eateries, as well as several crumbling, abandoned buildings - part of the legacy of Hurricane Hugo, which ravaged the island in 1989. But Frederiksted also has a welcoming waterfront, where once-a-month outdoor jazz concerts draw locals and visitors alike.

And the city of 1,000 has an assortment of fine restaurants, including the renowned Blue Moon jazz club (www.bluemoonstcroix.com; 340-772-2222; dinner entrees, $23 to $29) and the ever-so-French Le St. Tropez (340-772-3000; $17 to $36).

To the north are laid-back beach bars like the Sunset Grill, which also serves exceptional food including a signature coconut-encrusted mahi (www.sunsetgrill-stx.com; 340-772-5855; $23 to $30). Head north too to the Domino's bar, known for both its beer-drinking pigs and owner Norma's killer "mamawanna" rum drinks.

Christiansted, some 50 miles to the east, is brighter and more touristy, with pastel-colored buildings dating back to the Danish occupation, a National Historic Site including Fort Christiansvaern (1738) and numerous galleries and jewelry shops.

Sonya, Ltd., is maker of the original "St. Croix hook" bracelet - wear the hook facing toward your heart, your heart is taken; facing away, you are available. Variations of the bracelet can be found in other shops, along with other "storytelling" jewelry, such as necklaces and bracelets strung with up to five gold or silver beads, signifying the category of the hurricanes their wearers survived.

Christiansted is not to be outdone on the restaurant front, offering, among others, the Savant, featuring fine Caribbean food (340-713-8666; $16 to $33); Restaurant Bacchus, steaks and chops (www.restaurantbacchus.com; 340-692-9922; $30 to $40); and Cafe Christine, fine French food (340-713-1500; lunch only).

The keynote of St. Croix's natural attractions is its "underwater trail" of coral and fish life in the 880-acre Buck Island Reef National Monument, off the northeast point of the island. Numerous outfitters take guests to the reef and provide snorkeling gear. Divers can choose from a half-dozen dive shops.

For landlubbers, St. George Village Botanical Gardens toward the western side of the island offer visitors a chance to examine colorful native flora set among the ruins of a 19th century plantation. And the Salt River Bay National Park, where Christopher Columbus landed, is home to the largest remaining mangrove forest in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

A 25-acre former plantation on the northern side of the island, Estate Little Princess, is headquarters for the The Nature Conservancy in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Eastern Caribbean.

Guardian Richard Gideon is only too pleased to show visitors around and point out the natural wonders, and the solar-powered features, on the property. Gideon is someone who hopes he never gets promoted from his current position. "I don't want to leave St. Croix," he said.

The Nature Conservancy also maintains the new 60-square-acre East End Marine Park on the island, where it is helping protect the sea turtles that regularly nest there. When the turtles aren't nesting, beach strolling along the Nature Conservancy-owned Isaac Bay and Jack Bay is spectacular - and very private.

Perhaps most alluring about St. Croix is how most of the people you meet have a laid-back approach to life. Prepare to get hooked.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: American Airlines (www.aa.com) has flights through either San Juan or Miami. U.S. Airways (www.usairways.com) and Delta (www.delta.com) also offer travel with connecting flights.

STAYING THERE: St. Croix boasts a variety of accommodations, including resorts, the Carmabola (888-503-8760; www.carambolabeach.com; rates from $260) in the north and Divi Carina Bay Resort and Casino (877-773-9700; www.divicarina.com; rates from $189) on the east end, and the venerable Buccaneer (800-255-3881; www.thebuccaneer.com; rates from $340), near Christiansted. In Frederiksted, the best bet for a hotel is the Frederiksted Hotel (340-772-0500; www.frederickstedhotel.com; rates from $110). There are also numerous villa, cottage and campsite rentals.

GETTING AROUND: Numerous agencies offer rental cars and taxis are plentiful. Be aware "Crucians" drive on the left.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.usvitourism.vi/

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