I was so enamored by my experience, so enthralled by my visit, that I couldn’t wait to tell friends. Here are my pictures, I wanted to say. Let me tell you my stories, I started to stammer. Until I realized that I didn’t want to tell anyone. I didn’t want anyone to know about the treasure I had found. I wanted to keep it all to myself.
It is a gem hidden among the more popular Caribbean destinations, a haven away from the tourist traps and tchotchkes that clutter the beaches and streets of so many other islands. It is not a place where you’ll get a Hollywood dining experience or a New York attitude. It’s a diamond in the rough, a phoenix fighting to rise from the ashes after a devastating loss of industry in 2012. It is a community of people strong in spirit, if not in numbers, under the nearly equatorial sun. A community of people with unmistakable pride in their island and a hospitality that extends far beyond the beachfront.
It is this community spirit that has the La Reine Chicken Shack humming on any given day. A nondescript stop along one of the many winding roads, folks crowded around picnic tables at lunch time, plates piled high with bits of chicken and Johnny cakes. The patio is a gathering place, people with their arms crossed, drinks in hand, every available chair surrounding the domino game splayed out before them. Behind the busy food counter is a frenetic movement, bags of orders being pushed out as fast as they can be handled, cars full of hungry diners arriving from every direction.
If you’re lucky, you might get in an invitation to Betty’s Kitchen while you’re on the island – a small, well-built wooden shack perched on the front corner of Betty’s own front yard. When Betty’s done in her kitchen – a peeling, white mobile truck parked in her backyard – the buffet on the flowered tablecloth will probably include fried okra, potato salad, conch in butter, fried red snapper you’ll pick to the bones, and a traditional Crucian stuffing to satisfy your sweet tooth. Don’t get on Betty’s bad side by being late for your seating, though, or she might withhold the ice-cold, freshly-pressed cherry juice.
During your Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism (CHANT) tour of Frederiksted, you might start to feel a little sleepy learning the history of Fort Frederick. Head for Polly’s for your caffeine pick-me-up – they might snicker a bit at your harried ways and coffee requirements, but they deliver the goods as long as you’ve brought some cash. You won’t be able to bring your coffee on the Gecko’s Island Adventures tour, but Cindy and Arlin will treat you right and make sure you stay safe on that ATV, even through the periodic island rainstorms. And a post-tour bite at the Beach Side Cafe will certainly end your afternoon on a high note.
In Christiansted, among the pastel walls lining the narrow brick streets, it’s Twin City Coffee that will save your day from hitting an afternoon lull. Take a short stroll down the block, just off the main path through a lush, tree-covered garden path, for a late afternoon meal at Café Christine, showcasing the great greens, meat, and seafood available on the island – and the daily selection of pies baked by Christine herself.
After a few days, when your heartbeat slows to a steady purr and your mind has filed away the frenetic concerns of your usual schedule, you’ll start to notice yourself becoming a part of the island’s extended family. You might bump into Kris and Whalen, purveyors of IB Designs in Christiansted, on your search for a signature island hook bracelet, with their infinite take on the classic design making for a beautiful keepsake. Along the beach in Frederiksted, as you take your seat at eat @ cane bay, Katherine will probably stop by your table to say hello, when she’s not busy hustling her staff or planning for the next Taste of St. Croix. If you’re lucky, the always amiable Ames might be your ride to the airport in his white taxi van when it’s your turn to depart the sunny Caribe spot. You might even ask him to pause on the side of the road on your way out of town so you can bid adieu to a handful of your new Crucian friends.
How can you get in on this community feel, this invitation to traditional plates and people, dirt paths that lead to scenic views, miles of sand, surf, and green hills that extend before you in every direction? Where is this treasured escape from the commercialized, tourist-y island culture so often found in the Caribbean?
Well, I’m not sure I really want to tell you.
I just want to keep St. Croix all to myself.
St. Croix has a lot of what most people can’t see. It hasn’t been overly developed and commercialized. It is sleepier and less traveled than its USVI sister islands. It has remained surprisingly authentic and uncomplicated – and its story is told in the land (sugar plantations, European, African and West Indian influences, and agriculture). The people are just themselves, not a modernized image of what they should be. The experiences are true – and stir the soul.
– Wendy Solomon, GoToStCroix.com
*Photo credit: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender; group photo – Wendy Solomon, GoToStCroix.com
**I was oh-so-grateful to visit St. Croix as part of a press familiarization trip hosted by the USVI Department of Tourism.**