I must admit—I have a soft spot for the Virgin Islands.
My grandmother lived on the U.S. Virgin Island of St Croix for over 30 years. Whenever my family and I visited her, I was enchanted by the palm trees, the bright blue water, and the casual, Caribbean vibe that permeated the island.
The last time I visited was in August 1995, a couple months after my grandmother had passed. My mother, father, sister, and I ventured down to the islands, a trip that was part family vacation, part family obligation.
It was on this trip that my love for St Croix was cemented. From an exciting sailing voyage around the Virgin Islands to memorable visits two of the island’s national parks, it’s a vacation my family and I will never forget. Read on to find out why.
Sailing the High Seas to St Croix
For the first part of the trip, my parents chartered a sailboat and together the four of us took on the roles of captain and crew. We sailed from island to island, stopping at St Thomas, Virgin Gorda, Peter Island, Anegada, Jost Van Dyke, and Tortola.
The journey was filled with highs and lows, from discovering empty white sand beaches and watching glorious sunsets to a frightening day of sailing through the remnants of a hurricane.
After surviving the storm, we arrived in St Croix to begin the process of packing up my grandmother’s condo. While I was sad to say goodbye to our fearless vessel, I was ecstatic to be back on dry land.
I wanted to kiss the ground beneath my feet. After 10 days on a boat, it felt like home. I decided I loved St Croix.
Snorkeling Buck Island Reef National Monument
Let me just say this right now: Buck Island Reef National Monument has spoiled me for life.
Buck Island is an 880-acre reserve that includes land, a coral reef, and a lagoon. Located a mile and a half off of St Croix, most of the park is underwater and meant to be explored by snorkeling or scuba diving.
Due to its healthy habitat, the reef on Buck Island teems with life. While snorkeling through the gentle waters, I remember seeing schools of multi-colored tropical fish, large sea turtles, undulating underwater plants, and a shark, gliding across the ocean floor. I was thrilled (and terrified).
In the years since I have never snorkeled anywhere as vibrant or beautiful as Buck Island. And I’m not alone in this opinion—Smithsonian.com named it one of the best snorkeling destinations in the world.
The park is perhaps best known for its elkhorn coral barrier reef, which was formed over 7,000 years ago. Touted as the best barrier reef in the Caribbean, the elkhorn coral at Buck Island can reach up to an astounding 30-feet in height.
This is particularly amazing because coral reefs grow slowly and can be greatly affected by pollution, rising water temperatures, overfishing, and boats. As such, the reefs at Buck Island are delicate and remain closely monitored by the Park Service, as they attempt to preserve the site for another generation.
A Visit to Christiansted National Historic Site
Christiansted is a preserved colonial town, settled on the shores of St Croix in the 1700s. Named in honor of the reigning Danish-Norwegian monarch, Christian VI, Christiansted National Historic Site largely documents the activities of Danish settlers during the height of the sugar trade.
The Danish purchased St Croix from the French in 1733, after which they began to build Christiansted and the surrounding sugar plantations, often using slave labor. In fact, during the period of Danish rule on St Croix, more than 50,000 Africans became sold and enslaved on the island.
As a child, I remember Christiansted having immaculate grounds and brightly colored yellow buildings. I was fascinated by the large cannons lining Fort Christiansvaern and mesmerized by the sparkling views of the water. As it turns out, the cannons were used to protect the island from pirates and the yellow buildings resulted from Danish yellow bricks mixed with stone rubble, local coral, and ship ballast.
Today, the park has five historical buildings, including Fort Christiansvaern, and three small museums that depict the park’s history. The Scale House documents the history of the sugar trade and has a reproduction of a letter from famous St Croix local, Alexander Hamilton, while the Steeple Building is a historical church documenting the slave trade on the island.
Unfortunately, much of the island was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017. Luckily, all three parks, including St Croix’s third park, Salt River Bay, managed to reopen to visitors. However, the pier on Buck Island and the visitor center at Salt River Bay were destroyed and have not yet been rebuilt.
The best way to support places affected by natural disasters? Plan a visit. Tourism supports the national parks and the local economy, and trust me, it’s worth the trip. You may even fall in love with the island, too.
Jersey Griggs is a travel writer for hire. An amateur sailor and a self-professed aquaphile, Jersey loves living near the ocean in Portland, Maine. When not writing, she is likely doing something outside with her husband and dog. To learn more, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.