COVID Conscious Trip to St. Croix: What to Expect
Nothing about travel is really “normal” right now.
But by COVID-19 standards, my recent visit to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands was about as close to a pre-pandemic visit as I could have reasonably expected – maybe even a little more.
Venturing to the Caribbean in these troubled times is a mix of anticipation and anxiety. We did our best to limit the latter by carefully squirreling away a pair of precious N95 masks – the only type of face covering that provides significant protection to the wearer – to provide an added layer of safety in the airports and during our flights.
For its part, the U.S. Virgin Islands requires visitors to get (and produce upon arrival) a negative COVID-19 PCR test conducted within five days or travel, or a positive COVID-19 antigen test conducted within four months of travel. Travelers also need to fill out a coronavirus questionnaire on its online travel portal prior to arrival.
Touching down at Christiansted’s Henry E. Rohlsen Airport, we endured a longer-than-usual wait on the tarmac at a destination that normally admits U.S. citizens swiftly. The bottleneck was a two-step process where arriving visitors had their temperatures checked before entering the terminal building and were compelled to produce a copy of their COVID-19 test before proceeding to customs and immigration.
Most of St. Croix’s hotels and resorts are now open (the Divi Carina Beach Resort and Casino is one major exception, but that’s due to lingering damage from Hurricane Maria, not COVID), and we checked into the 12-room Sugar Apple Bed & Breakfast for a couple of reasons: the B&B is walking distance to the Christiansted pier and the beach on Protestant Cay, as well as the car rental agency we planned to use; it offered contactless check-in, a small guest count, and a private setting far from any crowds; and, most importantly, our daughter was working as the hotel manager. (We also spent a night at the Sand Castle on the Beach hotel in the sister city of Frederiksted, another smaller property with ample room for social distancing.)
The Sugar Apple is known for its vegan brunch, but hot food service has been suspended due to COVID; in its place is a vegan continental breakfast spread, available next to the courtyard pool. Rooms are cleaned thoroughly between each guest visit, with a waiting period mandated between bookings, and housekeepers do not enter rooms during guest stays.
OUT & ABOUT
Masking up, we ventured outside the gates to check out the boardwalk, which in our past visits had been a hive of activity at most hours of the day and night. The boardwalk remains the hub of dining and commerce in the city, but even during the busy days before and after the Christmas holidays, the crowds were much reduced.
That’s bad news for local merchants, surely, but visitors benefit from the combination of easy-to-get tables for waterfront dining and plenty of space to distance from fellow humans on the street and boardwalk. Bars on the island are closed, and a 4 p.m. beach curfew is enforced on weekends. But restaurants, from harborside favorites like Shupe’s and Rum Runners, were serving both food and drinks.
But what about the masks? On balance, compliance with the USVI’s mask mandate was good. A majority of island visitors and locals were masked on the streets and boardwalk, particularly when in proximity to other people. And mask policies at retail outlets and restaurants was strictly enforced: nobody was permitted to enter maskless, and masks could only be removed when seated at restaurants. Servers wore masks at all times, in most cases properly covering both nose and mouth.
We did almost all of our dining outdoors; one exception was a visit to the Leatherback brewery, which had outdoor seating but also a well-ventilated (garage doors rolled up) and high-ceilinged tasting room that we felt was a safe option for watching the NFL games on a Sunday afternoon.
Some places went further than others on COVID safety: at the popular Purple Papaya gift shop near the Christiansted boardwalk, for example, every person entering was required to use hand sanitizer in addition to wearing a mask at all times inside the store.
Like most Caribbean destinations, St. Croix doesn’t lack for COVID-safe activities. “Ninety percent of everything that happens in St. Croix is outdoors,” noted Andreas Conhoff, general manager of the Buccaneer resort. Masks are required on the short ferry ride to Protestant Cay, where there was plenty of space on the beach and the water to sunbathe and chase sea turtles. Tropical Tiki Tours, newly launched in the middle of the pandemic, offers harbor tours on an open-air floating tiki bar, right from the boardwalk.
Visitors also can take a kayak tour of the Salt River Bay estuary with Bush Tribe or other tour operators. And St. Croix has numerous other options for outdoor activities, including hiking to the tide pools at Annaly Bay and snorkel tours to Buck Island Reef National Monument.
At times, crowds did grow to what we considered unsafe proportions. A Sunday afternoon party at Rainbow Beach near Fredericksted was packed with maskless people playing beach volleyball and drinking, so we gave that a wide berth. Similarly, we steered clear of the weekly Sunday gathering on the Christiansted boardwalk based on its raucous reputation: something that would have been a magnet for us in normal times became a repellent during a pandemic, sadly.
St. Croix has had fewer than 850 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. That’s far less than where we came from in the U.S. We felt quite at ease during most of our visit, particularly compared to the tense situation we left back home. We wore our masks, chose our activities carefully, and rented a car to get around the island to further limit exposure to people outside our travel pod.
St. Croix’s relative paucity of COVID cases, a late spike in bookings at island hotels for the holiday season, and the emergence of COVID-19 vaccines has hoteliers like Conhoff feeling more optimistic about travel to the island in 2021.
“A hurricane is an event that happens and we keep going and move on,” said Conhoff. “With COVID, it’s ongoing and we don’t know when it will stop. A hurricane is much easier to deal with.”
However, he said, “I think next summer is going to be good,” pointing to pent-up demand among travelers who have been cooped up for a year by COVID. St. Croix visitors shouldn’t anticipate big cuts in rooms rates next year, said Conhoff. But resorts like the Buccaneer will definitely be launching new promotions in 2021 to help encourage travelers to return.