St. Croix Beckons Scuba Divers, Alexander Hamilton Buffs & Sailors
By Brian E. Clark
Some 30 feet below the clear and calm waters of the Caribbean off St. Croix – the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands – an eight-foot-long reef shark cruised beside me, less than three feet away. Nearby, an even bigger shark swam within a few feet of another diver in my group.
Were we afraid?
Not in the least. These sharks weren’t there to nibble on us. Rather, they were tagging along to gobble up striped lionfish (pterois volitans) – an invasive species wreaking havoc in the region – that we were spearing.
“Reef sharks are kind of like big puppies tagging along for a meal, though you shouldn’t try to pet them,” quipped veteran diver Michelle Pugh. She’s a Southern California native who has run Christiansted-based Dive Experience on the northeast side of St. Croix for nearly four decades.
“And we certainly don’t hand feed the sharks,” said the 65-year-old Pugh, who’s won awards for her conservation work and is a member of the Women Divers’ Hall of Fame. “We also harvest the lionfish to make sashimi. And we filet them for customers, too, as well as feed some to Stanley the cat who comes by.”
Though the lionfish have long and toxic spines, my reef shark companion didn’t seem to care a whit. It swooped in and seemingly inhaled one after a guide from Dive Experience shot it and then released it from the tip of his spear.
But there was much more to see in the watery deep than strikingly beautiful lionfish, which are voracious eaters and have no known predators in the Caribbean. Over several days of diving, we encountered hawksbill and green sea turtles, numerous kinds of coral, as well as sea anemones, eels, crabs, lobsters, nudibranchs, octopi, stingrays, sponges and a wide array of fish, including barracudas, blennies, groupers and parrotfish.
After a two-tank dive one afternoon, I repaired to Shupe’s dockside restaurant just yards from Dive Experience with a couple of new dive boat friends for a crispy chicken sandwich with a dash of sriracha sauce and a locally brewed Leatherback lager.
Later, before returning to my digs at the cushy Buccaneer Hotel, I walked around downtown in the historic quarter of Christiansted, a former center of Caribbean commerce when the island was a Danish possession. It still boasts handsome buildings that looked like they hadn’t changed much since Alexander Hamilton – yes, that Alexander Hamilton – lived here in the 18th Century. The community also has more than a few feral chickens, which I dodged.
Sadly, homes where Hamilton, brother James, and their mother lived – before she succumbed to yellow fever in 1868 – no longer stand.
The erudite Hamilton left the island at age 16 after working as a clerk to a wealthy merchant, moving to Boston in 1772 and embarking on a historic career during and after the American Revolution.
It was the yellow-hued and bulky Fort Christiansvaern, which looks out over the blue waters of Gallows Bay, that drew me next. Hamilton’s mother was jailed here for several months in 1750 after she left her bitter husband Johan Michael Lavien, who a decade later accused her of desertion and adultery.
Her cell was in the west wing and had only a small window with a view of the bay. But it was far better than the conditions for runaway slaves, who – when captured – were kept and sometimes left to die in what can best be described as a basement dungeon, said Frandelle Gerard, who guides a three-hour Hamilton Walking Tour in Christiansted.
The ramparts of the fort faced out toward the water, as well as inward in defense of a potential rebellion by slaves – who made up the majority of the island’s population and worked in often grueling conditions in sugarcane fields. The town also had a number of free blacks, she said.
At the Buccaneer Hotel – where I was told the president-elect and his wife often dined when they visit the island – I stayed in a room that overlooked the Caribbean. And while I didn’t play tennis or golf, I did walk the grounds of the historic resort, which opened in 1947 as an 11-room inn and is on the grounds of a former cotton, indigo, and sugar plantation founded in 1653 by Charles Martel, a Knight of Malta.
Some of the resort’s buildings are made of stone, as is the round sugar mill structure that dates to 1733 and is only meters from the entrance. And it isn’t just the Bidens who have frequented the Buccaneer. Other celebrities include cyclist Lance Armstrong, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late WWII hero Gen. Omar Bradley.
Billed as the Caribbean’s oldest family-run resort, the Buccaneer offers sweeping views from its hilltop restaurant of Gallows Bay and Christiansted, which is just a five-minute drive away. It has three beaches and a complimentary kids camp (ages 4 to 12), where youngsters can participate in supervised activities including beach and pool games, crab races, nature walks, treasure hunts, and more.
Christiansted also offers sailing and snorkeling tours to Buck Island National Park, horseback riding, kayaking, golf and island tours to historic sites.
Several of my dive partners invited me to go sailing with them one evening on the Roseway, a 112-foot-long wooden, gaff-rigged schooner built in Essex, Mass. in 1925. Now operated by the non-profit World Ocean School based in Camden, Maine, it sails off New England in the summers and is based in St. Croix during the winter season.
Onboard, guests helped raised the ship’s sails under the direction of teens and 20-somethings who live, sail and study aboard the Roseway, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997 and is the only known surviving example of a fishing schooner built specifically with racing competition as an objective.
As the sun dipped in the west, the ship slid over the bay and my diving friends – whose daughter was part of the Roseway crew – and I toasted St. Croix with rum punches. It was a fitting end to too short a trip. But no worries, I’m sure I’ll be back.
For more information on St. Croix, see gotostcroix.com, visitusvi.com/st-croix or stcroixtourism.com. At press time, a negative covid-19 test was required to enter St. Croix. In addition, visitors and residents alike are required to wear masks and maintain social distance from others not in their group.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.