When dreaming of a window-seat view on a flight to the Caribbean, one color comes to mind: blue. Or, more specifically, that sparkling turquoise-blue that can only be found in nature when the water is crystal clear, the sand is white, and the sun is shining.
But anyone who has flown over the area in the seven months since hurricanes Irma and Maria caused widespread devastation has probably noticed another, less idyllic shade of blue: royal blue FEMA tarps covering the missing or damaged roofs of residents' homes.
On the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, which was largely spared by Irma but hit hard by Maria, the blue of the water finally overpowers the blue of the roofs once again. Ninety percent of all businesses have reopened, according to St. Croix Chamber of Commerce president Edgar Bengoa, and power has been restored. The island's oldest hotel, The Buccanneer, which played a vital role in post-storm rehabilitation efforts by housing relief workers for months, is fully operational, and the first new hotel in 31 years, The Fred, is welcoming visitors to Frederiksted. Restaurants from Savant and Balter to Zion and the new Uptown Eatery even came together in early April to celebrate the island's culinary scene with the St. Croix Food and Wine Experience — fittingly, this year, themed “Resiliency in Action.”
Still, traces of Maria's wrath remain on roadsides littered with downed power lines and hillsides that are less green than usual because there are fewer trees to shade them. But really, now is a better time than ever to visit St. Croix for a true taste of the optimistic, proud, and welcoming spirit that makes it so much more than a beautiful beach destination.
That is clearer than ever when lifelong resident Sharon Rosario, assistant director of communications at the USVI Department of Tourism (and, it becomes obvious about 15 minutes into traveling around town with her, the island's unofficial mayor), speaks about the annual Crucian Christmas Festival held in December.
“There was this giant tree down in the middle of the road,” she said, scrolling through photos of smiling Crucians in their gorgeous, bright costumes. “So we danced around it!”
It's clear at the St. George Village Botanical Garden, where another fallen tree is not only being kept alive, but an entire garden is being built around it for what will soon be a breathtaking outdoor wedding venue.
And it's clear at every restaurant or bar where someone from the continental U.S. is raving to a stranger-turned-friend about their decision to relocate there for good, post-storm leaks or home repair delays aside.
After all, it doesn't take long to become a Crucian “cousin,” as Rosario took to calling us, no matter where you're traveling from. Just don't let the relaxed rhythm of the Caribbean Sea hypnotize you into staying at your resort; you'll miss so much if you don't venture out for a roadside lunch, a gas station party (yes, that's a thing), or an early morning at the fish and farmers' market. Rent a car and explore the 28-mile-long island from end to end, and who knows — the next expat chatting blissfully about the vacation that changed their life's path forever could be you.
There are direct flights to St. Croix from Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, and San Juan. The average summer flight from New York City is about $300-400 round-trip, according to Google Flights, with a stopover in San Juan or Miami. Many cruise ships stop in Frederiksted as well. And U.S. citizens don't even need a passport.
Where to Stay
The Buccaneer, the oldest hotel on the island and the only one with an on-site golf course, played host to Michael Jackson on multiple occasions and was featured on Sean Lowe's season of “The Bachelor.”
The 70-year-old, bubblegum-pink resort in Christiansted has 138 rooms and a six-bedroom villa, all with ocean views, on 340 acres that encompass two pools and three beaches. There are family-friendly cottages, water sports, reefs for snorkeling, and an iguana trail kids can explore with an on-site camp counselor during the day while parents relax on one of the expansive waterfront balconies or in a hammock with a cocktail.
To book: Expedia.com, from $299 per night
The Fred, the first new hotel to open on St. Croix in 31 years and the only one that's both in town and on the beach in Frederiksted, is quaint and classic on the outside but quirky and wild on the inside. The pool and restaurant/bar are still under construction, but a large porch in front and a balcony lounging area in the back offer plenty of outdoor space and the bright blue walls, green couches, and giant rooster painting let you know your stay at the adults-only hotel will be anything but dull as soon as you enter. The cheeky “Sleep with Fred” T-shirts are a guaranteed crowd-pleaser if you're looking for a gift to bring home.
To book: Expedia.com, from $156 per night
Where to Swim
All U.S. Virgin Island beaches are public, so no stretch of sandy shore is out of reach. But to really feel like you're in on a local secret, walk through the mangrove tunnel to get to Shoys Beach, on the East End outside of Christiansted, where there are no amenities but also no crowds. Bring your own snorkeling gear and refreshments.
Mermaid Beach, on the grounds of The Buccaneer, features an on-site restaurant, beach volleyball, corn hole, paddle boarding, kayaks, and more. Plus, there are plenty of lounge chairs shaded by palm trees for those who need a break from the sun.
For snorkeling, there's no better spot than Buck Island Reef. President John F. Kennedy declared it a national monument in 1962 after being struck by its natural beauty. Big Beard's Adventure Tours will sail you out from the Christiansted Boardwalk, and after you search for sea turtles, lemon sharks, rays, and browse the stunning coral reef, endless rum punch is included on board.
Where to Eat and Drink
The candlelit courtyard at Savant feels like a scene out of a romantic movie, and that's because it was designed by owner Tom Miller's wife, Kate, who worked on film sets. The carved walls and twinkle-lit trees add so much to the ambiance you'll have to remind yourself to pay attention to the fresh seafood specials and powerful cocktails.
Uptown Eatery is the new kid on the scene in Christiansted, but it's run by two St. Croix culinary veterans, Dave and Jane Kendrick. The colorful island decor is complemented by a menu of local fish such as tuna and wahoo and homemade key lime pie.
Zion Modern Kitchen, a leader in the island's "Reef Responsible" sustainable seafood movement, welcomes guests into its palm tree-strewn courtyard for handmade pasta, grilled fish and meats, and Cruzan Rum cocktails infused with local ingredients.
For sunset drinks, surf and turf, or decadent desserts inches from the sand in Frederiksted, try the Beach Side Cafe at Sand Castle on the Beach. If it's a creative drink in downtown Christiansted you're in search of, the bartenders at BES Craft Cocktail Lounge will mix anything that suits your mood. Of course, if you prefer to learn while you sip, the Cruzan Rum Distillery is also a top-rated attraction.
And for a no-frills local treat, La Reine Chicken Shack is the can't-miss pre- or post-airport stop. The family-run joint is so popular it's been known to cook more than 360 fire-roasted chickens on a busy day. Grab a half-chicken in a to-go container with Johnny cakes, stuffing, tostones, and all the traditional fixings. For local sweets, hit Thomas Bakery on Queen Mary Highway for a guava or coconut tart.
What to Do on Land
Take in the first U.S. sunrise of each day at Point Udall, the nation's easternmost point. It's the site of a giant sundial, a monument to the Millennium, and the start of a scenic hiking trail down to Jack and Isaac Bays. Less outdoorsy visitors can browse the many jewelry shops of downtown Christiansted (getting a hook bracelet at Sonya Ltd. is practically a rite of passage for Crucian women), and then souvenir shop their way to the boardwalk.
History buffs will want to tour Fort Frederik, the proud site of the island's slave rebellion, and not far from downtown Frederiksted is an enchanting rainforest you can tour or just drive through on your own. You'll find seemingly endless greenery mixed with eccentric human touches like out-of-nowhere bakery carts and yes, those infamous beer-drinking pigs. It's non-alcoholic, they swear.
Note: The USVI Department of Tourism provided support for the reporting of this story.