By Bob Curley
Our visit to St Croix’s two cities was the best of times and the better of times, and we had a Dickens of a time deciding whether we loved Christiansted or Frederiksted more. Then again, why choose when you can stay and enjoy both?
Christiansted, the capital of the largest island in the USVI, is likewise the bigger of the island’s two cities. Founded in 1733, it’s famous for its yellow-walled, beautifully preserved Fort Christiansvaern, built by the Danish in 1749 to protect the city from their colonial rivals. Now a National Historical Site, the fortress is open for tours and visitors can climb its battlements for a sweeping view of the harbor.
The history of Christiansted doesn’t stop there, however. Walking the narrow streets lined with 18th and 19th century Danish buildings — many with covered galleries to protect the delicate skin of early settlers from the hot Caribbean sun — is a step back in time, especially at night.
In addition to other buildings that are part of the historic park, like the Danish West India and Guinea Company Warehouse, the Custom House, the Scale House, and Government House (the latter still occupied by the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands), walkers will find old homes and public buildings converted to new uses like shops, restaurants, and hotels. Several jewelry shops sell variations of the traditional St. Croix hook bracelet, including the originals at Sonya Ltd. and different designs at Crucian Gold and ib Designs. Another cool gift to seek out is jewelry made from “chaney,” bits of colonial-era pottery dug up around the island, polished, and set in gold or silver (Chaney Chicks is a good place to start your search).
A charming boardwalk fringes the downtown Christiansted harbor front, affording easy access to the landmark Hotel Caravelle (painted bright yellow like the nearby fort) and popular open-air eateries facing the sea, including Rum Runners, Shupe’s by the Sea, Angry’s Nate’s, and the local brewpub, Brew STX. A private launch departing every few minutes from the boardwalk is your passage to Protestant Cay, a small island in the harbor that has a hotel (The Inn on the Cay), a wide sandy beach, water sports rentals, and a beach bar.
The boardwalk and an old mill (now operating as a pizza joint and bar) are picturesque, but don’t miss the opportunity to explore the streets away from the water, where you’ll find some great shopping as well as Christiansted’s best restaurants, including courtyard dining at balter on Queen Cross Street and Zion Modern Kitchen on Company Street and, a little further toward the outskirts of town, the renowned Savant. The latter avenue also is home to the new Company House Hotel, which has rooms surrounding a hidden courtyard and pool, and the elegant BES Craft Cocktail Lounge, known for its meticulously crafted drinks made from local ingredients.
Christiansted dominates the busier east end of St. Croix; in nearby communities you’ll find bigger, resort-style hotels like the Buccaneer and restaurants like the La Reine Chicken Shack, a locals’ favorite. Heading west toward Frederiksted, opting to take the scenic Northside/North Shore Road will bring you to Cane Bay, a popular beach for swimming and watersports that also has some of St. Croix’s most popular beach bars and restaurants, like Eat at Cane Bay (great for live music), Off the Wall (known for its pizza and sunsets), and Ama at Cane Bay, the latest culinary outpost of acclaimed chef Digby Stridiron.
From Cane Bay it’s just a few miles more to the outskirts of Frederiksted, Christiansted sleepier sister city that’s just now awakening to its potential. Actually, Frederiksted seems at first glance to be the little brother to Christiansted: it, too, has a historic fort (Fort Frederick, built in 1752 and painted red, not yellow), and the two cities share many street names: the main thoroughfares of both are called Company Street, for example.
While Christiansted is arguably defined by its boardwalk, Frederiksted’s most prominent features is its deepwater pier, which stretches more than a quarter-mile into the Caribbean Sea. On some days, Frederiksted really is the quiet town it always was, but on days when cruise ships are in port the pier is packed with vehicles and vendors, small craft and souvenir stands line Strand Street, and the streets fill with visitors looking for adventures as close as scuba diving for seahorses off the pier and swimming at Rainbow Beach to excursions to the beautiful St. George Village Botanical Gardens or the Estate Whim plantation.
Locals and visitors tend to meet over coffee at Polly’s at the Pier or sandwiches at Turtles Deli, and once the cruise ships depart for the day Frederiksted settles down into its more familiar laid-back routine. Small boutique resorts like the trendy Fred and the charming Sand Castles on the Beach provide pleasant sanctuary for a slower-paced evening, with walk-to restaurants like Louie and Nachos with its open-air, second-floor bar/dining room and the in-town Lost Dog Pub and Pizza, a dive bar that has a funky patio out back.
For more upscale late-night drinks and blissful air conditioning, try the Tap Deck Bar and Billiards. Braata is the coolest restaurant in town, combining a rum bar with sophisticated dining influenced by traditional West Indian culinary traditions.