Our favorite place in the Caribbean is probably St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Being a U.S. territory, it’s easy to get to and does not require a passport, so you avoid customs coming and going. Another plus: we went in August, the quiet airport upon our arrival a welcome glimpse of things to come.
The Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort on the northern part of the island felt off-the-beaten-path in the best way: our half-hour drive from the airport to the south led us through rainforest and tiny towns, the rental car’s shocks taking a beating over ruts and divots in the dirt roads. At the northern coast, the road elevated for spectacular views and then, coming around a final corner, beginning our decent, we saw the Carambola Resort nestled under the canopy below, almost hidden, isolated and remote like something out of Swiss Family Robinson.
The layout of the resort also lends itself to this idea of remoteness, its individual structures strung over several lush acres, swallowed in rainforest. The shadows of palm fronds slid across the grass and sand, an empty hammock strung between leaning palm trees stretching just above the lapping, clear surf. On that first walk I eyed it, mentally calling dibs.
The footprint of the resort also invites solitude: the smart angles of each unit’s façade are such that the unit feels more private than it probably really is. At the back of our unit was a screened-in porch, where we ate breakfast each morning and played competitive games of Bananagrams in the afternoons, sunburned and tired, the sound of the waves punching the sand just a few feet beyond the screen windows. We usually kept the door to this porch open at night so we could hear the waves while we slept.
Because it was August, off-season, we felt like the place was ours, a private retreat, marooned like some spoiled version of Robinson Crusoe. We walked the short path to the beach each morning after breakfast and usually found it abandoned. If there were other guests on the beach, they camped a couple hundred feet away, out of ear shot. We swam, treaded water, laid on our backs with the Caribbean sun slicing through the humid sky in laser-like rays. I’d come back to shore, grab my mask, fins, and snorkel, and head right out again. My wife pulled her chair under the cover of the trees and opened her book.
And this is how the week went. The resort’s restaurant was almost empty, and we got to know our server, a friendly guy named Bruno who happened to be from a town in Massachusetts close to us. He gave us directions to his favorite restaurant in town, the locals’ restaurant, and we headed there the following day.
Christiansted, about a 20-minute drive from the resort over winding coastal roads and pitted back roads, was just as empty as everything else. The town felt abandoned. We walked the empty streets and took photos of Fort Christiansvaern, poked our heads into the few shops that remained open and chatted with the owners. We ate at that restaurant, Harvey’s, a family-run place on a nondescript side street. A couple locals sat at a bar—the rest of the place empty. The owner greeted us and told us about his restaurant, that his mother was the cook and the recipes all her own. He dropped a yellow legal pad on our table in lieu of menus, where he’d scribbled five or six options. He told us to just pick a main entre and they’d load it up with various sides. Later, we both agreed it had been the best meal of the trip. We thanked Bruno the next day for the suggestion.
One day we explored the remote Buck Island, hiking and snorkeling and again nearly alone. Another morning we hiked across the spine of the hills behind our resort to the hidden Carambola Tide Pools. Sweaty and exhausted, we soaked in the pools on the other side of a desolate rocky beach. The place felt undiscovered.
We struggled on the hike back, our bodies hot and weary, our legs rubbery. We couldn’t stop to rest because planting our feet for more than a moment invited the fire ants and gave them an easy route up our legs. We kept moving, and returned to our room tired but satisfied, like we had earned something.
And this is how the week went. It was late August and school was only a few days away, but I felt so far away, this place so remote and deserted, it was hard to imagine the routines of home. The Carambola Resort is not near a town—you feel yourself surrounded by its isolation: the rainforest to the south and Caribbean Sea to our north, and nothing but long and winding roads in either direction.
We visited St. Lucia a couple years later and had a quite different experience. It was April, still the shoulder of winter travel season, and while it still wasn’t exactly busy, we were far from isolated. Our resort, all-inclusive this time and therefore more controlled in a way we didn’t warm up to, sat on the edge of the town of Rodney Bay. While convenient to restaurants and shopping, we missed the privacy of Carambola in St. Croix. St. Lucia, to be fair, is lush with gorgeous natural scenery—the double-spike of the iconic Pitons are stunning—but the feeling that we were tourists, cogs in a tourism factory, we couldn’t quite shake. I’ve never been on a cruise, but this was what I imagined it might feel like.
Late each night, a party pirate ship left the harbor, the outlet just a few hundred yards from our deck. We’d hear the incessant thud of bass when it departed at midnight, a DJ blasting house music not just to the ship’s guests but to everyone, the whole island, lights strobing and flashing and illuminating the sea around it. We’d fall asleep knowing that the ship would be returning at some point—sometimes three a.m., sometimes six a.m., the brutal pounding of house music announcing their arrival a mile before they actually came into view. I couldn’t wrap the pillow around my head tight enough.
In St. Croix, we often took an evening drive to a roadside bar, always outdoors, thatched roofs and strung lights. We met more locals—often American expats who’d migrated to St. Croix looking for a different life than the one offered on the mainland. Back home, some might look at them as outcasts, perhaps, the people on the fringes, but I appreciated and even admired them, bold enough to throw caution to the wind and follow their dreams for something better, something less polished and less structured. People who wanted to paint their own blank canvases, Jackson Pollack-style, rather than a paint-by-number.
We were taught how to play the dice game Threes one particular night. I did okay and won a few bucks and made friends. Some nights we just talked to each other, sipping a Carib beer and eating conch fritters, feeling empty and good, emotionally detoxed.
On my birthday, our last day, we drove to Point Udall, the eastern-most point of the United States. We took a couple pictures to go with the photo of us down in Key West at the marker for the southern-most point in the U.S. Then we hiked down a trail to Isaac Bay to the beach below. Again, we were alone, as we had been all day. No lines for photos at the eastern marker. Just us.
My wife thought the sky looked ominous and that we shouldn’t stray too far from the vehicle. I thought it looked distant enough that we would be safe. Plus, this was an opportunity to explore one more time, just us, marooned on this deserted Caribbean Island. At the bottom of the hike, since it was my birthday, I couldn’t resist a birthday-suit swim in the sea. My wife sat in the sand and wanted me to hurry—the clouds looked closer.
Later, on the hike back, yes, I would get us caught in a torrential downpour. The storm would to hit us hard. Our clothes and backpacks would be soaked. But we’d weathered difficult storms before, and we would certainly have to navigate them again. So I swam—the mouthwash-blue water warm and somehow, even, baptismal. I kept swimming.