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Camping with the lizards on unspoiled St. Croix

Email|Print| Text size + By Kathie Ragsdale
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2007

ST. CROIX - For those who crave sun, azure waters, and palm trees - but also the wildness and healing properties of untrammeled nature - there is a place, near and affordable.

It is in the rain forest on the western side of St. Croix, the largest and least developed of the US Virgin Islands, far from the pricey resorts and gambling meccas found elsewhere on the island and in much of the Caribbean.

At Mount Victory Camp, one can awaken to the murmurings of barbary doves, share living quarters with delicate, pastel lizards, offer picnic scraps to a colony of tortoises, and still be moments away from uncrowded white-sand beaches, snorkeling, fine dining, and museums that detail the island's history.

The camp, part of an eco-farm, is a sprawling, hilly compound with a few tent sites and several screened-in platform dwellings, a bathhouse with solar hot water, and an open pavilion. We and other independent-minded campers gathered there at night to cook and share the day's adventures - not to mention whatever wine or rum we had brought.

"Something I love being part of is the ever-changing community atmosphere that is created here, week to week," said Eric Paxton Stauder, camp manager. "People meet and form lifelong friendships through sharing meals, drinks, and stories by the campfire.

"In any given week we host a blend of local islanders and visitors from all over North America and Europe," he said. The camp "has a way of attracting really friendly and interesting people, people that seem to truly care about their world and the people they share it with."

Of course, Mount Victory is not for everyone - but that is part of its allure. Chickens and roosters strut the property; the solar showers can be more invigorating than anticipated on a cloudy day; and if a guest should forget to close the gate after driving into the camp, the neighbors' cattle are likely to wander in.

Driving, especially on the narrow, vine-strung, and pocked road leading into the camp, is an adventure, as "Crucians" drive on the left and some side roads are barely wide enough for two cars.

But these are small matters compared with the joys of discovering St. Croix: the forested hills, clifftop panoramas, plantation ruins, coral reefs, funky beach bars, and laid-back lifestyle that turns more than a few visitors into residents.

We spent the first seven of our nine nights at Mount Victory in a tent we brought from home and made day trips to hike, kayak, snorkel, swim, and visit museums and gardens.

But we also made night trips, most notably to the Sunset Grill, on the beach 1.8 miles from the camp. Having left Boston in a late March snowfall, we felt as if we had been dropped into a postcard: We were escorted to an outdoor table just feet from the water, with a palm tree framing the setting sun, given a lime coconut drink, and served coconut-encrusted mahimahi and a salad studded with hearts of palm.

Fellow camper Robert Clark of Arlington, Texas, who said Mount Victory "helped me to find myself again," called his visits to the Sunset Grill "the best part of my evening."

"It was like heaven on earth," he said, "watching the sun go down and listening to the ocean. There is no better place to be in the world."

The Sunset Grill was just one of several stranger-friendly places we found to eat or drink; two of our other favorites were Rhythms at Rainbow Beach, an open-air bar that hosts good live music, and Montpellier Domino Club, set deep in the rain forest, best known for its beer-drinking pigs.

But the highlight of the trip was snorkeling near Buck Island, the 176-acre national park off St. Croix's north coast with its famous underwater trail. As a nonswimmer, I had never snorkeled before, but the guides at Caribbean Sea Adventures persuaded me that I didn't need to know how to swim in order to enjoy the below-the-surface extravaganza. One of the guides, Roy, towed me along as I clung to a life preserver, face in the water, and enjoyed a magical world I thought I would never see.

Large markers, about the size and shape of hay bales, lay at the bottom indicating where to go and what was ahead. "Now entering the grotto," I read as we passed over a tangled forest of coral branches reaching upward to almost within reach. "Blue tang," Roy said, as a school of blue fish zigzagged beneath us, and "barracuda," as a large cigar-shaped fish cruised past. Brain coral the size of boulders littered the ocean floor.

We also kayaked at Salt River Bay National Park on the north side of the island, wandered through St. George Village Botanical Garden, and hiked to the lighthouse at the tip of Hams Bluff on the island's northwest corner for a view of sea-pounded cliffs and beaches.

But it is impossible to travel far on St. Croix without finding reminders of its history.

The lighthouse at Hams Bluff rises above an area known as Maroon Hole, a surging tidal pool, and Maroon Ridge, the land above it. Maroons was the name given to fugitive black slaves in the West Indies in the 17th and 18th centuries and this hilly, less accessible part of the island is where runaway slaves sought refuge during St. Croix's sugar cane plantation era. Local legend has it that some of them flung themselves from these cliffs rather than be captured and returned.

At one time, the island was divided into plantations that relied on slave labor to produce sugar and molasses for rum. The ruins of windmills used to grind the cane can be found all over the island, including at the Estate Whim, one of several former plantations that have been converted to museums.

The descendants of many plantation workers still live on St. Croix, and the island has a significant population of Rastafarians. It is common to see men in long dreadlocks and Rasta hats walking the streets of St. Croix's two cities, Frederiksted and Christiansted.

Of the two places, Christiansted is the more affluent and touristy, with numerous restaurants, shops, and boutiques. Frederiksted, with its abandoned buildings, casual bars, and restaurants, is grittier, but still visitor-friendly.

For our last two nights, we decided to go deluxe and moved into one of Mount Victory's screened-in platform dwellings, each of which has a kitchen with cold water sink, a two-burner cook stove, cooler, pots and pans, and basic cooking utensils.

We stayed in Saman dwelling, named after a variety of tree on the island, after newlyweds Gregory and Jennifer Boulos of Pittsburgh had described its attractions before leaving at the end of their honeymoon.

"Listening to the morning rain on the roof," Gregory said, "while a cool breeze blew through the hut, and a view of the rain forest all around us, it is truly paradise."

Kathie Ragsdale, a freelance writer in Chester, N.H., can be reached at wildogfarm@aol.com.

If You Go

What to do

St. George Village Botanical Garden
127 Estate St. George Frederiksted
340-692-2874
sgvbg.org
Sixteen acres of sugar plantation ruins and historical structures. Adults $8, age 60 and older $6, children under 12 $1.

Buck Island Reef National Monument
2100 Church St. No. 100 Christiansted
340-773-1460
nps.gov/buis/
The park, mostly underwater, is 850 acres and includes the famous underwater trail for snorkelers. Half- and full-day trips available through Caribbean Sea Adventures (340-773-2628), Big Beard's Adventure Tours (340-773-4482), Buck Island Tours (340-773-3161), and Diva Buck Island Charters (340-778-4675).

Whim Plantation
52 Estate Whim, Frederiksted
340-772-0598
stcroixlandmarks.com
Sugar plantation from late 1770s. Adults $10, seniors $5, children 6-12 $4.

Where to stay

Mount Victory Camp
Creque Dam Road, Frederiksted
866-772-1651
mtvictorycamp.com
Eco-farm camping 1.8 miles from beach: platform dwellings ($75 per night for two adults, two children) with linens, electricity, and two-burner stoves; bare tent sites ($30 per night); modern bath house; solar showers.

Frederiksted Hotel
442 Strand St., Frederiksted
340-772-0500, 800-595-9519
frederikstedhotel.com
Pleasant in-town waterfront hotel. Doubles start at $110 Dec. 1-April 15. Bar and pool.

Where to eat

Sunset Grill
Route 63, one mile north of Frederiksted
340-772-5855
Beachfront restaurant with outdoor tables, hammocks, fresh fish, and island specialties. Lunch $6-$13, dinner entrees $16.50-$32.

Blue Moon
340-772-2222
Famed w/pterfront jazz club with Cajun flair. Entrees $23-$29.

Avocado Pit
59 Kings Wharf, Christiansted
340-773-9843
Best bet for breakfast or lunch while exploring Christiansted. Everything from granola to spicy tuna to chicken wraps, breakfast $3.50-$14, lunch $6-$14.

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