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More than paradise 

Heritage Trail highlights St. Croix's historic sites

Azure water licks its way onto powdery white sand. The sun is warm, but the gentle sea breezes are cool and bitter with the taste of salt. People in brightly colored swimsuits lie on blankets strewn on the beach like conch shells. Time seems to creep along here in the Virgin Islands and for most people, that's just fine. But most people don't know that St. Croix, one of three U.S. Virgin Islands, has a lot more to offer than just paradise. The island has a rich history -- one that links European planters and merchants, enslaved Africans, free people of color, Caribbean immigrants and American settlers.

This year the island opened Heritage Trail, a 28-mile self-guided tour that spans from Fredriksten to Point Undall. Although the trail is well-marked with roadside signs, it's best to dish out the money for a tour guide if you want to get the full benefit. Guides talk about the island's history as if they are telling you a bit of family gossip. For example, while traveling to the eastern-most part of the island in a huge open-air safari bus, guide Sweeny Toussaint of St. Croix Safari Tours points out St. Croix's castle. Nadia Taber, a rich eccentric widow in her 70s lives there, he says. She is looking for a husband, but be careful if you are available, he adds. So far she has buried at least five of them.

Sweeny takes us to the farthest eastern end of the island. Olassi Davis, a celebrated island historian and professor from the University of the Virgin Islands, takes over and gives us an overview of the island's rich history. The first known inhabitants on the island were the Igneri (also known as the Pre-Taino or the Arawaks). When Christopher Columbus first visited the island, during his second voyage to the New World in 1493, he named the island "Santa Cruz" and discovered a population of Carib Indians, who were said to be cannibals who ate people in order to possess their spirits and inner strength. Seven different flags have flown in St. Croix: Spanish, Dutch, British, French, Knights of Malta, Danish and American, and in the 1750s, St. Croix was a significant producer of cotton and sugar cane. Some 200 windmills from that era are still on the island today.

Historic highlights of St. Croix include Estate Great Pond on the South Shore, where the ocean views and mangroves are sure to make you want to pull over and snap a few shots. The ruins of a great plantation house dating back to the 1800s can be found on the property. Made of coral and held together with molasses, it is typical of houses made by island natives. Other ruins on the property include slave quarters, the remains of a factory and storage buildings for sugar cane.

If you want to explore history in-town, you shouldn't bypass the town of Christiansted. The town's centerpiece is Fort Christiansvaern, part of the Christiansted National Historic site on the waterfront square. The bright yellow building was built by the Danes between 1738 to 1749 to ward off pirates and hold runaway slaves before emancipation in 1848. Inside the fort are four cramped prison cells four to five feet high -- too small for a grown man to stand upright. The windows at that time were left uncovered so that insects and other vermin could crawl inside the cells as punishment.

In the 1760s, more than 60 different West African tribes lived on the island, and somewhere within the boundaries of the nearby Buck-Island Reef National Monument is said to be the remains from an 1803 slave shipwreck. The Danish West Indian and Guinea Co. Warehouse is within walking distance of the fort. The building was the company's oldest and largest slave-trading compound.

Just two miles east of Frederiksted on Route 70 is the Estate Whim Plantation Museum, an 18th century home filled with furniture crafted by slaves from mahogany grown on the island. "There weren't no power tools in those days," says guide Thelma Clarke. "No indeed. Back then they made all this here furniture with elbow grease."

Continue your tour along North Shore Road for dramatic views of the sea and cliffs. Just west of Salt River Bay (Columbus' Landing) and east of Cane Bay, you will find Rust Op Twist, which means "Rest After Toil" in Dutch. It is one of the best historical discoveries you can make on the island. The 18th-century complex was once the center of a 420-acre sugar plantation and village. While there, you can see the ruins of a windmill used to process sugar, as well as a sugar cane factory, well tower and plantation house.

St. Croix has such varied and well-preserved histories that you can go just about anywhere on the island and step into the past. But the best thing about St. Croix's lessons is that you are never far from the beach.

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12/18/2014

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