Island of plenty: From big-name stars to beer-swilling swine,
St. Croix is more than sand and sun

March 13, 2005 - ST. CROIX - You can come here just to sit on the nice beaches, but that would be missing this U.S. Virgin Island's interesting history, underwater wonders, colorful characters and beer-drinking pigs.

Beer-drinking pigs? Yes, they exist and they are located at Domino Club near the rain forest. Pay the barkeep at the shanty $5 for a can of nonalcoholic beer and he'll take you out to the pigpens where giant black JR or one of his swine pals will crunch the beer can to get to what's inside. JR showed great enthusiasm for the task.

``It's a job I've always wanted, just drinking beer all day,'' commented our cabbie, Luthbert Lett.

Not far from Domino's, you pass the home of George Rawins. You'll know you're in the right spot when you see the barbed wire and American flag. Rawins has taken junk sculpture to new heights, his interesting/scary/provoking creations, which take up his entire yard, feature items he's found such as water bottles, Raid cans, plastic doll heads and a dead and dried out mongoose.

Some might proclaim it art. Others might just think 84-year-old Rawins has lost his marbles. The sculptures are not for sale, but donations are gratefully accepted.

Rawins wasn't in much of a mood to talk on our visit, but did say he started his projects in 1989, a significant year here as it's when Hurricane Hugo blew over, leaving a path of destruction. St. Croix locals are just now declaring themselves recovered.

My escort to Rawins' place was New York photographer Christophe von Hohenberg, who has vacationed on the island for years (his mother now lives on-island and owns a perfume store, Violette, in Christiansted). Von Hohenberg said he likes St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, because, ``It's real, and friendly. When you meet someone, they say, `Good morning, how ya doing.' ''

My companions and I met Von Hohenberg at the outdoor bar at Savant, a gourmet spot with a Caribbean-Mexican-Asian fusion menu. Tom Miller owns the impressive venue. He said he chose the name because Savant ``is all-knowing and sounds pretentious.'' Inside, Savant has a New York vibe, but the outside patio is the place to be, all island funky with a sculpted rock, grotto decor and a sailcloth cover if the weather is rainy.

Miller's wife designed the space. Her name is Kate Bartoudlus and she has experience - she also designed sets for movies including ``12 Monkeys.''

We met up again with Von Hohenberg (even at 82 square miles the island is not that big) at St. Tropez, a lovely French bistro with a playful barkeep/owner, located in Frederiksted, the island's second city and a funky place with rustic buildings.

Sleepy Fredericksted is very different from Christiansted, about 50 minutes to the east. In Christiansted, visitors will find impressively preserved Danish colonial buildings in pretty pastel colors. Shops including wonderful boutiques and galleries are located under delightful archways. Buildings of note include the Customs House, Scale House and Fort Christiansvaern, part of a National Historical Park.

In fact, St. Croix has three areas operated by the National Park Service - the others are Salt River Bay, where none other than Christopher Columbus landed in 1493 and where there are prehistoric and colonial-era ruins in a tropical ecosystem; and Buck Island Reef, an underwater National Park located five miles offshore, a must-do snorkeling and beach destination.

Like St. Thomas and St. John, St. Croix has been an unincorporated U.S. territory since 1917 (when the U.S. purchased the three islands from the Danish).

St. Croix has a fascinating history that includes occupation by seven nations (you can see the flags of each when you arrive at the airport). Cruzans, as the locals are called, don't vote in U.S. elections, but they do send a nonvoting member to Congress. Some 25 percent of high school graduates here join the U.S. military.

The Dutch arrived in the 1600s and brought African slaves. The Danes came for the sugar trade and eventually ended the slave-trading practice.

The island continues to have close ties to Denmark. Christiansted and Frederiksted are named for Danish kings, and March 31 is celebrated as Transfer Day holiday.

They've been making rum here since the 1700s. And Cruzan Rum has been made at its current location for a century. George Washington was said to be a fan.

Other industries include one of the largest oil refineries in the western hemisphere and farming including cattle.

The No. 1 place to stay on St. Croix is The Buccaneer, pink on the outside and charmingly Old World on the inside. The word genteel applies; the hotel is comfortable enough for families (there is a children's program) but also elegant enough for royalty.

Buildings on the property have foundations that date to the 17th century. American Patriot Alexander Hamilton lived here briefly as a child. In more recent times, The Buccaneer has been operated by the same family, the Armstrongs, since 1948 - it was the first property in the Caribbean to have screened windows, hot water and closets.

The Crown Prince of Denmark has stayed here. So has actress Kathleen Turner. Michael Jackson brought his entourage in 2000. Repeat island visitor Ted Kennedy has been known to dine and golf at the resort (he stays at the private home of a friend).

The Buccaneer boasts an 18-hole Bob Joyce-designed golf course, tennis courts that have been named among the best in the Caribbean by Tennis Magazine, fine dining including a lavish breakfast buffet and a spa.

General manager Elizabeth Armstrong, a distance swimmer, conducts nature tours of the grounds, lush with tropical plantings. Sea turtles nest on the resort's beaches. Egrets, herons and mourning doves are commonly sighted.

Other properties on the island include the Divi Carina Bay Resort, which has a small casino, and Carambola Beach Resort on the North Shore, which has a Robert Trent Jones golf course. There are also small inns and guest houses and rental villas.

Tourism is not as developed a practice here as in St. Thomas, 40 miles to the north. Think of St. Croix as more of a boutique destination.

Come for the beaches, but enjoy much more.

by Fran Golden, Boston Herald - USA