By Aldeth Lewin, Special for USA TODAY 4:14 p.m. EDT October 11, 2013
St. Croix is filled with natural, historical and cultural treasures that visitors can explore at their own pace. From a tour of a rum distillery to diving the deepest, underwater reef wall in the world, this laid-back Caribbean gem has something to offer everyone. One of the Caribbean’s top dive destinations, this island boasts so many great wrecks, reef and wall dives, you’ll have to come back for many years to see them all. Certified scuba instructors can take people at all levels of experience, and can even get a novice certified and diving during their vacation.
St. Croix was formed by the shifting of tectonic plates — not volcanically like most other Caribbean islands — and it resulted in a shelf or “wall” that runs along the north side of the island and vertically drops to 13,000 feet in places.
Sponges, sea fans and corals grow along the wall and sea life — including sea horses, lobster, turtles and tons of fish — make their home there. Night-diving the old Frederiksted Pier is another must, and its shallow waters and tons of sea life make it a great initiation for first-timers. Dive operations like Dive Experience, N2 The Blue, Cane Bay Dive Shop and St. Croix Ultimate Bluewater Adventures can lead you on an underwater excursion you’ll never forget.
Great snorkeling can be found at almost every beach on the island and many hotels rent or lend out snorkel gear to guests. Buck Island Reef National Monument is just 1.5 miles from St. Croix’s north shore and was declared a national treasure. Protected by the National Park Service, the island is home to several endangered and threatened species, including the St. Croix ground lizard, the brown pelican and Hawksbill, Green and Leatherback sea turtles. The pristine Turtle Bay is one of the best beaches on St. Croix and the reef around the 176-acre island is extraordinary.
Take a boat trip to Buck Island and hike the trail on the island, then jump in the water and follow the National Park’s underwater snorkel trail. Big Beard’s Adventure Tours, Caribbean Sea Adventures, Jolly Rodger, and Buck Island Charters all have Buck Island trips available.
For a thrilling nighttime adventure, kayak the bioluminescent bay at Salt River. Tiny organisms in the water glow when agitated, making the water below look just like the night sky above. Virgin Kayak Tours take people out in recumbent kayaks that go fast enough to leave a wake behind the boat. Sea Thru Kayaks VI use completely clear kayaks that have lights and allow you to see the life under the water from your kayak. Both offer tours through the Salt River ecological preserve.
Get off the beaten path with Tan Tan Tours, an off-road Jeep and hiking excursion through the jungle to the Annaly Bay tide pools. Choose a full-day tour, which comes with lunch and three swimming stops, or a half-day tour. Travelers can also take a tour that only goes to the tide pools, and private and custom tours are also available.
The most romantic scenic tour of St. Croix is on horseback. Paul and Jill’s Equestrian Stables will take riders through the rainforest and to some west end beaches. Equus Riding Tours provide riding tours along the north shore, up the hills of La Vallee and along the famous Cane Bay Beach. For added romance, take the sunset riding tour offered by Equus and watch the sun go down on horseback. Both companies welcome all abilities from first-timers to experienced riders.
If you have your own transportation, look for the brown and white St. Croix Heritage Trail signs that are posted throughout the island. Stop and learn about the island’s ecology, history and culture on your way to the next adventure. Some of the stops along the trail include the Whim Plantation Museum, Columbus Landing where Christopher Columbus landed on his second voyage to America, and the easternmost point of the United States, Point Udall.
The history of the island is long and full of fascinating characters and amazing stories. The Christiansted National Historic Site, managed by the National Park Service, is comprised of the imposing Fort Christianvern, Steeple Building Museum, Danish Customs House, the Scale House and the Danish West India and Guinea Company Warehouse, which also functioned as a slave market.
Out west, visit Fredericksted National Historic Site, featuring the Fort Frederick museum, the Customs House, the Victoria home and St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, built in 1848.
Rum played a large part in the development of the island and it still does. Two active rum distilleries are open daily for tours and tastings. One produces Captain Morgan rum and the other produces Cruzan Rum.
Visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Sandy Point Wildlife Refuge to learn about the endangered leatherback sea turtles that nest there. The beautiful sandy beach stretches for almost 2 miles around a large peninsula just outside of Fredericksted. The refuge is only open to beachgoers on the weekends and is completely closed during certain times of the year to protect the turtles, so call first. For a unique vacation experience, find out if you can volunteer to help stand guard at night while the enormous turtles come ashore to nest or ensure their tiny hatchlings make it across the sand to the ocean.
Visitors to St. Croix must visit the (non-alcoholic) beer-drinking pigs at Domino’s — a charming, ramshackle bar deep in the rainforest. Other attractions include St. George Botanical Gardens, the St. Croix Archaeology Museum, the Lawaetz Family Museum and the Apothecary Hall Museum.