If you're a serious yachtsman, chances are you have cruised or chartered in the U.S. or British Virgin Islands, or at least considered the possibility. These paradisiacal isles offer flip-flop casual combined with pockets of jet-set luxury, attracting troops of visitors from around the world. So, we decided to go a little farther off the beaten path, seeking Caribbean adventure in the nearby, but lesser known, Spanish Virgin Islands aboard the luxurious Westport 96 Serenity Now. (The boat's name comes from a phrase in a popular Seinfeld episode where Frank Costanza screams the mantra to keep his blood pressure down!)
We were planning to rendezvous with Serenity Now in St. Thomas, and since the owners lived in nearby St. Croix, we decided to stop in and say "thanks" to them-it was a good excuse for checking out this often-bypassed destination. Despite its proximity to the Virgin Islands, one of the premiere cruising grounds in the Caribbean, St. Croix has never been a major destination for most cruisers. Thirty miles of open ocean separate it from the Drake Channel, and the island has never completely recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Hugo nearly two decades ago. Cruise ships have stopped coming to the island, and the loss of these tourists has depressed the local economy. Yet St. Croix is one of those unhurried, friendly gems that deserves a visit. The wall diving is superb, the restaurants are excellent, the people are some of the friendliest in the Caribbean, and the prices can't be beat. Fuel-a big issue these days-is up to a third cheaper than anywhere else because the island has it's own refinery. Captains take note!
Most evenings the local action in Christiansted (population 3,000) takes place on the boardwalk along the harbor. Open-air restaurants serve up mahi-mahi and tuna and pedestrians can take in the sunset on covered benches. Fort Christiansvaern, a yellow brick edifice built by the Danes in the 17th century, occupies the center of town, while at the other end of the boardwalk, a seaplane service provides flights every half hour to St. Thomas and the British Virgins. The other major settlement is Fredriksted at the opposite end of the 21-mile-long island.
St. Croix has been claimed by seven different nations, and most have left their mark on the island. The Brits gave them left-hand driving, the Americans left their currency, the Danes left their stolid, arched architecture. French Creole and Spanish are still spoken by large parts of the population. This hodgepodge of influences gives St. Croix its interesting, unique flavor.
We arrived on the island after dark, and the traffic on the narrow streets was already thinning out. The sweet sound of music in the distance led us to Pirate's Cove, a rooftop restaurant a couple of blocks in from the boardwalk. A two-man band was entertaining a T-shirt and baseball-cap crowd around the bar. Bobbi, our waitress, was a transplanted Chicagoan who had been here three years. Her greatest adjustment was to the slow pace of life on the island, though she has grown to love it.
We were up at dawn the next morning to check out the town. Many of the pastel-colored two- and three-story buildings overhang sidewalks sheltered by arches and columns. The summer morning quiet was broken only by an occasional car whizzing past. Shopkeepers swept doorsteps and put out their goods for sale. A woman with religious literature sang to the empty street, "We walk with the Lord, we talk with the Lord..." as a couple of elderly men gazed out at the harbor from benches in the park next to the bright yellow walls of Fort Christiansvaern.
On the boardwalk, dive boats were collecting tickets for a trip to one of the island's main draws, Buck Island Reef, off the northeast end of the island. The reef is a 19,000-acre government-protected wildlife monument considered one of the best reef systems in the Caribbean. Forests of elkhorn coral, huge sea fans, and parrotfish populate this lush, shallow reef and underwater signs explain to snorkelers what they're seeing.
That evening my hosts, Serenity Now's owner and his wife, led us to a superb culinary experience at Kendrick's, a restaurant on the edge of town that features an interior courtyard with open-air dining around a garden lit with white Christmas lights. Jane Kendrick, who with her husband, Dave, has run the restaurant for over three decades, announced that they managed to buy an 81-pound yellowfin tuna that afternoon. So we feasted on caesar salad and seared tuna in a beurre blanc with pineapple and cilantro coulis.
It was a delicious way to end our short visit to St. Croix, and the next morning we flew over to St. Thomas to meet the boat and its captain, Mike Tews, who was waiting to take us to the Spanish Virgins. The boat was a perfect vessel for the trip, a three-stateroom Westport built in 1991. Her new owners had conducted a complete refit, creating an interior that reflects her name. The modern, New York loft-style environment they designed provides an ideal refuge after a day playing in the hot tropical sun.
Guests are served by a crew of four, and can enjoy an inflatable tender and plenty of water toys, including two kayaks. Tews has logged extensive cruising time in the area, making him the perfect guide for adventurers looking to go off the beaten path in the Virgins.
My personal goal was a plunge in Mosquito Bay on Vieques's southern shore, but the weather wasn't cooperating. A tropical wave was passing through and the winds were producing heavy seas. The captain recommended a downwind trip to Culebra first, which promised an interesting coastline.
Less than two hours later, we arrived in Ensenada Honda-Culebra's largest and most protected bay-in a driving tropical rainstorm. At the head of the bay was the town of Dewey, a completely un-touristy town harking back to the old, pre-cruise ship days of the Caribbean. A small canal cut through the island to the open ocean on the western side, and we took the tender through to investigate possible anchorages for the next day. Both Culebra and Vieques possess a number of reef systems that protect the calm waters of anchorages.
However, even this quiet area showed signs of Culebra's development. At the entrance to Ensenada Honda was a cluster of condos, although rumor had it that-even in paradise-the condo market was a bit soft. Elsewhere on the island, luxurious homes were sprouting up in the hills above the western bays.
The next morning we cruised around to the western side of the island, which was completely calm despite six- to nine-foot seas churning the ocean offshore. Serene beaches beckoned, but just for variety we decided to go scuba diving for bombs. How often can you say you had the opportunity to dive for ordnance? Charterers who enjoy scuba diving will find Serenity Now a well equipped platform. In short order we were in 30 feet of water wandering over forests of huge sea fans, sponges, and suburbs of living coral. It took some searching, but sure enough, lying on the sandy bottom next to the reef, was a shell casing, with a single strand of fire coral clinging to the metal.
As we headed back to St. Thomas in heavy seas, Vieques could be seen in the distance. The larger of the two Spanish Virgin Islands, the Navy had continued bombing practice here until 2003, when protests erupted after a local resident was killed by mistake.
The most unusual feature of Vieques is Mosquito Bay on the south side of the island. It's full of phosphorescent plankton and the bioluminescence is so intense that a Spanish fleet once thought the glow was the work of the devil. They tried to close off the entrance with rocks to get rid of the plankton, but their effort had the opposite effect. On moonless nights now, a swim in Mosquito Bay leaves you bathed in sparks and waving long trails of incandescent water.
What better way to end an ideal cruise? If screaming "Serenity now!" doesn't trigger your relaxation mode, a few days in the Spanish Virgin Islands certainly will.
Serenity Now is managed by Camper & Nicholsons, (954) 524-4250; www.cnconnect.com and is available through all reputable charter brokers. She is based in St. Croix year-round at a rate of $36,000 plus expenses.