As our beat-up jeep bounced wildly down St. Croix’s dirt roads, two gentle eyes stared up at me from the large flower pot wedged between my knees. Little legs pedaled along the interior walls of the pot but otherwise Footloose, a red-footed tortoise, seemed content with his journey. We pulled up to the Carambola Resort gate, informed the guard that we were heading to the dive shop, then proceeded to park.
“Dive shop?” I asked once the motor stopped.
My St. Croix-based friend shrugged, “They have a good one here. We can check it out on our way back. If we told them we were going to the Tide Pools, they’d have us park in the outer lot and the trail from there to the main path would be a bit rough with our friend here.” She leaned over and patted the unfazed Footloose on the head, “Ready to see your new home?” Then she grinned up at me, “Ready to see the Tide Pools?”
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen plenty of St. Croix’s beaches and shoreline highlights already over the past several days. But, as I’d noted from the air upon my arrival, St. Croix was blessed with numerous and impressive beaches. The entire southwestern tip of the island was engulfed in a thick border of sand and every visible cove beyond appeared fringed in more. As I’d already discovered, there were more coastal highlights than could be hit in a week and never mind proper attention to the island’s mountainous interior, 18th century stone sugar mills or its historic towns.
The Tide Pools had been at the top of our list though and it was now my last full day on the island – our last full day actually. My friend was flying out with me the next morning. She had moved to the island a couple of years previously and was now en route to her next adventure. As her former beach-walking buddy, I selflessly volunteered to help her revisit all her favorite spots one last time before moving. It was my chance to see what St. Croix held for the nature traveler and apparently the Tide Pools were essential. Though it was hard to imagine anything better than we’d already seen…
The alluring seashore along the southwestern tip of the island that I had seen from the air proved to be part of the Sandy Point Wildlife Preserve. This 2-mile swath of sandy coastline was even more stunning from the ground than it had been from above. Open for human enjoyment on weekends for part of the year, from April to August the preserve becomes the domain of nesting leatherback sea turtles. My friend gushed about attending night tours of this wildlife spectacle, quietly watching as the nest was dug, laid and covered, and even getting to lightly stroke the laboring mother when she was in her egg-laying trance. Having experienced this phenomenon of nature in Trinidad, I understood her enthusiasm. Here though I’d missed nesting season and had to settle for exploring the giant nesting craters that remained months after these massive creatures had returned to sea. Also on the beach, we found the test (i.e. skeleton) of a giant heart urchin that glowed brilliantly against the sand. Sea urchin tests are among the most fragile of beach finds, and are seldom intact. In all our combined beach wanderings, we’d each only once previously stumbled on heart urchins, and neither were so large. With rewarding finds like this, we could have spent hours and days wandering this beach, but storms brewed on the horizon. An ominous fog engulfed nearby Frederiksted, veiling its visiting cruise ship and transforming it into a nebulous form easily mistaken for a pirate’s vessel – an appropriate image given the town’s colorful past.
The Monk’s Baths at the north end of Route 63, between Butler and Hams Bays, were also impressive. I never would have found the small trailhead to the beach on my own, but my friend knew it well. The shoreline at the end of the trail was punctuated with jagged rocks and the name derives from a particularly large and rectangular pool that appears hewn into the stone. Local legend goes that the Knights of Malta carved this pool when they owned the island in the 1600’s. The pool seems quite natural though and a little research suggested that other than steps added in the 1930’s, it likely is natural. Either way, it’s an interesting formation that’s spectacular to watch as waves splash in. As an added bonus, the surrounding small pools are filled with mini-fish, snails, crabs and other wildlife.
Salt River Bay had been a highlight of my shore explorations. St. Croix is blessed with two “Bio Bays”, Salt River Bay being one of them, which are shallow, mangrove-lined inlets where bioluminescent dinoflagellates can be seen at night. I had, in fact, scheduled my St. Croix visit for the new moon for optimal bioluminescence viewing. It was with great anticipation that I boarded my kayak, coincidentally at the same beach where Columbus landed in 1493. We pedaled (no paddling needed for these foot-powered kayaks) around Salt River Bay in the twilight and when it was completely dark, we entered the inlet. The bioluminescent glow was nearly imperceptible initially, but our excitement mounted as we discovered that in some places densities were high enough to glow brightly in response to the water being disturbed. We splashed in the magical water and shrieked like little girls when we created an emphatically glowing wake by pedaling hard along a particularly dark section of water. It was exhilarating and my friend and I more or less had to be dragged out of the inlet by the guide. Even then, we lagged towards the back of the group and pedaled in circles to surf the waves as long as we possibly could.
We’d spent the week visiting one beach after another at different times and in different conditions. Our visit to Boiler Bay, just north of the popular Cramer Park beach, was timed in a short break between rainstorms. The radar showed a small gap in the storm, so we raced to the car and sped to our trailhead at Cottongarden Point headland. Our beach walk proved a blustery affair but well worth it. The choppy waters had churned many an ocean treasure onto the rocky shores, resulting in seaweed compositions of varied colors and textures that deserved to be framed. We made it back to the car just as raindrops from the next storm began to fall. Further to the east, and in sunnier conditions, we visited the Jack and Isaac Bays Preserve where a scenic hill-side hike led past Isaac Bay and onto the beach at Jack Bay. Another sea turtle nesting beach, this venue proved beautiful and perfect for beach combing. Getting to the trailhead also happened to pass the Point Udall sundial monument, providing a photo op for the easternmost point of the United States (including its territories).
The beach at Green Cay Marina provided my only views of iguanas on the trip. The beach is set up for dining, relaxing and recreational sports, but it also serves as an iguana sanctuary of sorts. Homemade signs along the main highway declare an iguana crossing and native green iguanas festooned the mangrove trees on my visit. The city beach in Frederiksted, on the other hand, was festooned in visiting cruise ship guests.
Both the beach and its Freedom City Surf establishment that offers food, drink, gift shop, board rentals and lessons seemed popular with cruise ship patrons. For locals and their friends though, this beach is known as a destination to search for “chaney”, chards of porcelain from the 18th and 19th centuries that were rounded into china money (shortened to chaney) by island children and are now used in place of gems in some jewelry. The chaney gods were not in my favor the day I looked, but I was rewarded instead with views of a giant live cushion sea star that a small boy from the cruise ship had discovered while snorkeling. He gleamed with pride as he ran down the beach to tell his parents all about it, impressing both them and me at a distance with his scientific knowledge and that afterwards he carefully return it to its ocean home.
Coastal features of course weren’t the only thing I saw while in St. Croix. We did drive through the Tropical Rain Forest… en route to beaches. It was lush and enticing, though hardly expansive and disappointingly devoid of wildlife, which actually was sort of the norm for island. I saw neither interesting birds nor even one of the allegedly abundant European deer introduced by the Danish for hunting in the 1700’s. We did, however, get a wildlife fix of sorts at the Mount Pellier Hut Domino Club. I’ll spare details here because the element of surprise is part of what makes it thrilling; but yes, you do want to try feeding beer to the pigs whether or not you like pigs, or beer for that matter. It’s quite entertaining.
We also ventured from the coast for food. My friend had been buying her produce from the same vendors at the La Reine Farmer’s Market every week and, being a local produce fan, I was thrilled to accompany her on her last visit. This excursion required a pre-dawn start so as to get to the fresh fish before it had sold out. For the fish, there seems to be a local-bias system in place. I watched as my friend’s husband was called on as others who had not yet been initiated were passed by. My friend’s husband had apparently stood in line week after week being passed over for the fresh mahi-mahi, wahoo, or tuna. At some point his persistence earned him his authorization to order from this particular truck-side vendor, one of the few that wasn’t selling “pot fish” as the locals call reef fish. Harvesting piles of small reef fish can’t possibly be sustainable for the reef, nor the island’s diving industry.
Fish secured, we wandered the rest of the market, through the lines of tables laden in colorful fruits, vegetables, honey, hot sauces and other homegrown and homemade specialties. My friend chatted brightly with her favored vendors, many of whom had shared their local recipes with her over the months. One showed off a hat my friend had given her, another gave us a recipe for carambola juice and yet another explained the health benefits of moringa. The latter advice was from one of the market’s more unforgettable characters. He was a young, white guy who’d grown up on the island, been enlightened by Rastafarianism and was apparently making his living as an organic farmer, selling at the market as part of a cooperative with a couple of other local farmers. He had such a pure exuberance about the moringa he grew and the powder he derived from it that I found myself buying his supplements in the hopes that it was in fact the source of his positive energy.
Our food expedition also led us to the Sejah Farm to fill out our produce supply. Harking back to St Croix’s agricultural past as the “Garden of the West Indies”, this impressive farm packs a lot of productivity into a very little space. It raises goats, sheep, poultry and organic fruits and vegetables that are sold from its on-property market stall. Aspirations extend well beyond their market space though, as the owners inspire and train Crucians to grow their own produce and to buy locally. Both the owners and their produce were rather convincing… I’ve never seen larger bok choy in my life!
Despite all these adventures, my friend had made it clear that my St. Croix visit would not be complete without seeing the Tide Pools. The weather had pushed this particular outing to our last day, but as I looked down at Footloose in his not-so-little flowerpot, it was clear that this delay was for the best as it had led to the decision to bring him here. Footloose was a wild tortoise my friend had rescued from the road near her house. It was weak and dehydrated when she found it, so she built a pen in her yard and nursed it back to health, eventually naming it and regularly succumbing to its demands for head pats. She’d nurtured it a couple months longer than she’d planned but with her imminent departure, it was time to find a good home. We had considered various friends, neighbors and turtle sanctuaries in the area, but none of them seemed quite right. Footloose deserved to be loose and as we plotted our day’s adventure, it occurred to my friend that the forest en route to the Tide Pools would be perfect.
“So…” I looked at my friend perplexed before getting out of the car, “Should I leave him in the pot? It seems a little odd to walk through a resort carrying a tortoise.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” My friend said as she relieved me of flowerpot duty.
We boldly strutted across the property, then disappeared onto the forested trail. As soon we entered the woods, we knew we’d made the right decision. The mountainous trail wound through healthy forest filled with more bird activity than I’d encountered anywhere on the island. We found a particularly attractive bend in the trail and decided this was the spot to free Footloose. We provided one last fruit meal and one more head pat, then set him on the ground. We were nervous that he might’ve been pampered for too long and had become dependent on the largess of humans. But he seemed to relish the feel of damp leaf litter under his feet and had barely walked a few steps before stopping to savor the smell of a wild toadstool before devouring it. He was going to be just fine. We smiled contentedly and continued toward the Tide Pools.
We crossed a meadowy overlook, through a spontaneous stream inspired by the previous days of rain, down a muddy dirt road and finally to a stunning Annaly Bay (there is name confusion, Annaly is most commonly used but Wills Bay is likely the correct name). Our trek wasn’t over though. Tide was high so we clamored and scaled over and around rocks, cliffs and waves until we reached a sheltered alcove that opened onto a series of elevated pools protected by a natural rock wall. These weren’t the type of tide pools I expected from the name – there were no critter-filled viewing pools. The waters here were deep and housed a few tangs, sargeant majors and other reef fish, but they weren’t easily observed.
These pools were definitely more inviting for lounging than nature observation. Or so we thought… we’d barely settled in to relax when a large wave unexpectedly turned our protective barrier into a raging waterfall. We spent the better part of the afternoon romping through the waves, dashing for cover below overhanging sections of the wall when particularly powerful waters hit. My friend had been right, no visit to St. Croix would have been complete without a stop here.
We must’ve looked a sight returning to the resort disheveled with our now empty flowerpot. We dumped the evidence in the first trash can, tidied our hair a bit and nonchalantly strolled across the resort.
We were stopped in our tracks by a rather authoritative man’s voice, “You walk the trail down to the Tide Pools?”
My friend didn’t skip a beat, “Yeah! It was beautiful as always!”
“And what was in the flowerpot?” the uniformed man asked.
My friend and I exchanged glances, then my friend grinned sheepishly and tentatively replied “A tortoise…”
“Oh, good!” The man smiled reassuringly, “We could use a little more wildlife in those woods.”
Now we KNEW Footloose was in the right place.
Travel Tips –
- For those of you who don’t have a friend to crash with in St. Croix, there are plenty of nice accommodation options on the island. The Carambola Beach Resort and Spa is a beautiful property just down the bay from the Tide Pools on the island’s northwest shore. The Trumbull Trail to the Tide Pools can be accessed directly from the property and if you take the trail, you might just might meet a friendly red-footed tortoise named Footloose. Further up the hill from the Carambola Resort is Annaly Mill, a renovated 18th century sugar mill that can sleep up to six. On the northeastern shore of the island are The Buccaneer Hotel and Tamarind Reef Resort. The Buccaneer is said to be the longest-running resort in both the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean. Based on a 17th century estate that at one time housed the Danish Governor, the resort maintains historic elements within its modern facilities. The Tamarind Reef Resort includes a hotel, spa, restaurants and marina. It’s located on a great snorkeling beach and provides free snorkeling equipment, as well as kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, for guest use. As an added bonus, there are plenty of iguanas on this property.
- In addition to the national chains Budget and Hertz, cars may be rented from locally-owned Centerline Car Rentals and Olympic Rent A Car.
- The St Croix Landmarks Society is a great source for historic and cultural information for the island. They host several events throughout the year and run three museums. I wasn’t able to do this on my brief visit, but my friend recommended the Whim Plantation for its cultural shows.
- For a taste of local culture and wares, the La Reine Farmer’s Market is perfect. You can sample bush teas, find homemade hot sauces, learn traditional recipes, or simply gawk at an astounding array of tropical fruits and vegetables. The market is located west of the La Reine Shopping Center by the Chicken Shack (THE place for johnny cakes on the island) and runs from 6am until the supplies run out on Saturday mornings. Sejah Farm is another great produce stop and they are more than willing to accept volunteers for anyone wanting farm experience.
- For Bio Bay tours and other kayaking adventures, Virgin Kayak Tours at Cane Bay is excellent. Owner/ operator Bryan has a wealth of knowledge, specializing particularly in Pre-Columbian history.
- St. Croix is known for its diving and snorkeling opportunities. While I didn’t get a chance to try myself, my friend reports that all the island’s dive operators are very good. Some options to explore include: Dive Experience, Cane Bay Dive Shop, N2 The Blue Diving Adventures, and St. Croix Ultimate Bluewater Adventures. Snorkel trips to Buck Island are also very popular. Big Beard’s Adventure Tours, Jolly Roger Charters and Captain Heinz on Teroro II are popular choices, the latter being the one my friend used because of its small group size.
- Land-based tours of St. Croix can be arranged through Tan Tan Tours. The St. Croix Hiking Association also offers a few guided hikes that non-members can join, and their website has information on a few self-guided hikes including about the trail to the Tide Pools.
- Leatherback sea turtle nesting can be observed at the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge. There are a limited number of spots available and reservations must be made in advance by calling the Turtle Watch Program at 340-690-9452. More information can be found on the refuge website linked above or through the West Indies Marine Animal Research and Conservation Service.
- Art lovers will want to visit the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts (CMCArts) in Frederiksted. It supports and displays local and regional artists, as well as offering an array of events. Their gift shop is a great place for buying local arts, crafts and more.
- Rum lovers will be pleased to hear that the Cruzan Rum Factory not only offers tours of their historic distillery 9:00am to 4:00pm Monday to Friday, but they also have a shop with taste testing and are adept at packing rum for the flight home. For a bargain rate, they will wrap a travel-6-pack of rum designed to survive rough baggage-handlers. This parcel will not be charged as checked luggage nor will it count against your two bag quota and at least some of the products are sure to impress rum connoisseurs back home!
- For up-to-date St. Croix information and a list of upcoming events, check out the St. Croix Tourism website.