U.S. Virgin Islands: an American paradise

By Dale Leatherman, Contributor

U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS - There are about 50 islands in the U.S. Virgin Islands, some no bigger than rocks breaking the surface where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean. In 1917, the United States paid $25 million to Denmark for the three principal islands - St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix to use as bases to protect the Panama Canal. The purchase has proven to be a bargain, but not for military reasons. The islands are the most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean, drawing more than 2 million visitors per year. The USVIs are prized for their unsullied natural beauty, convenient location (2 ½ hours from Miami), and a cultural diversity that includes residents from Africa, England, Holland, Denmark, Spain, France, India and the U.S.

The climate in the islands seldom varies more than a few degrees year-round from 76 to 82 degrees and the only spoiler is the occasional hurricane during late summer/early fall.

There are only three golf courses in the islands, but they can be the icing on the cake of a memorable Caribbean vacation.

St. Croix

St. Croix is the largest of the USVIs - 82 square miles of hilly terrain covered with lush tropical vegetation and ringed by white sand beaches. There are two main towns, Christiansted and Fredericksted, both of them pretty architectural gems with a Danish influence dating to the 1700s.

You'll pass through Christiansted on your way to the Buccaneer Hotel and Golf Course, a comfortable, upscale resort which has been in the Armstrong family for nine generations, since 1922. Conde Nast Traveler readers have voted it one of the world's top 50 tropical resorts - and with good reason. The 17th-century estate combines history, service, luxury and a gorgeous natural setting overlooking the sea.

Some of the best views are from 13 holes on the Buccaneer Golf Course, a 5,685-yard par-70 layout designed by Long Island (NY) PGA pro Bob Joyce in 1973. The course (rating/slope=67.3/116) has been renovated many times since then, and has just undergone a new round of improvements which included a new green at the edge of the sea.

The first three holes climb to one of the most beautiful views on the island. From the third green a par 3 that can require anything from a 4-iron to a wedge, depending on the wind you can see Christiansted Harbor to the west, the islands of St. Thomas and St. John to the north, and to the east Buck Island Reef National Park.

Though the Buccaneer Course it is short, the route is spiced with inland water, impenetrable rough and many uphill and downhill fairways.

Carambola Villa Golf and Beach Resort

This former "Rock Resort" built by Laurance Rockefeller in the early 1960s is tucked into a remote cove on a pretty beach just 20 minutes from the island's international airport. Rustic villas are tucked into the palm trees along the beach. In 1966 Robert Trent Jones Sr. routed the golf course through an upland valley with majestic mahogany trees and groves of bamboo and palms. The 6,843-yard course plays to a par of 72, with water a factor on eight holes. Carambola is known for its par 3s, among the best in the Caribbean. For instance, the seventeenth hole's elevated green lies on the far side of a huge, sometimes water-filled gully, a 185-yard effort.

The hotel and 900 acres of Rockefeller's original property has been sold and is being developed as a residential/resort community with beach and golf villas.

The troubling news is that 2,800 acres zoned for development including the golf course and club house is for sale. Maintenance on the golf course has varied widely in the past. Sometimes it is well-watered by rainfall and groomed to the proverbial "T." Other times it is bone-dry and overgrown with weeds. While its fate is uncertain, I recommend calling the course and trying to get an honest answer regarding the condition.

Without doubt the design is a gem, a classic Trent Jones tactical test with inland lakes and more than 100 bunkers adding to the natural challenges. At one time Golf magazine gave Carambola a gold medal as one of the top golf resorts in the world. Golf Digest gave it four stars. One can only hope that the developers add another 18-hole track to the property and restore this golf destination to the status it deserves.

Where to Stay on St. Croix

The Buccaneer Hotel - Because of its wide range of activities and children's programs, the 148-room hotel is a prime family destination. All rooms, suites and villas have patios or balconies, most with ocean views. Facilities include two swimming pools, eight tennis courts, three beaches, a spa and fitness center and a water sports center.

The Buccaneer
P.O. Box 25200
Gallows Bay
St. Croix, USVI 00824
(800) 255-3881
(340) 712-2100

Carambola Villas Golf and Beach Resort Built in the 1960s, Carambola is a secluded luxury resort with a nice beach, 157 rustic villas, two restaurants, a swimming pool and a full complement of activities, including great scuba diving on a wall a few yards offshore.

Carambola Villas
72 Estate River,
St. Croix, USVI 00851
(800) 323-7241

Other lodging
There are many small hotels, inns and B&Bs in Christiansted and Fredericksted. Visit http://usvi.lodgingguide.net.

Where to Dine on St. Croix

Frommer's Guide to the Caribbean says that St. Croix's "independently owned restaurants are among the best in the Caribbean." Here are a few highlights:

The Buccaneer (340-712-2100) The resort's four dining options include the open-air Terrace Restaurant and air-conditioned Brass Parrot, both serving classic dishes with Caribbean overtones. The beachside Mermaid has a full lunch menu, and the poolside Grotto Grill serves burgers and hot dogs.

Carambola Golf Club's Terrace Restaurant (340-778-5638) is famous for its black bean soup and other local dishes

Johnny Mango's Caribbean Barbecue (340-778-5556) in Christiansted is a local favorite for ribs, chicken and brisket.

Indies Restaurant (340-692-9440) in Christiansted specializes in fresh produce and seafood served in an 18th-century garden.

Top Hat Restaurant (340-773-2346) continental cuisine in an historic townhouse.

Visit stcroixdining.com

Other Activities on St. Croix

Buck Island Reef National Monument A snorkeler's and beach lover's paradise, St. Croix's "Fantasy Island" covers 700 acres of ocean around a small island with a hiking trail, observation tower and great beach. A snorkeling trail has underwater markers describing flora and fauna.

Sightseeing Attractions include St. George Village Botanical Garden, an 18th-century Danish Plantation House, historic Fredericksted, the Rain Forest, Whim Greathouse, St. Croix Leap and the Cruzan Rum Distillery.

Nightlife Resorts and the towns of Christiansted and Fredericksted have nightspots featuring steel bands, calypso/reggae, jazz and other entertainment.

Land sports Most resorts have tennis courts, beach volleyball, and other land activities

Water sports Local vendors (and some of the larger resorts) provide scuba diving, parasailing, sport fishing, windsurfing, and sailing and snorkeling tours. Full and half-day excursions often include lunch on a remote beach .

St. Thomas

This 33-square-mile island contains the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands Charlotte Amalie, the most popular cruise port in the Caribbean. Pink and cream houses dot green hills overlooking the harbor. Old Danish warehouses line streets off the waterfront and lead to a sprawling duty-free shopping area popular with tourists.

Twenty minutes from Charlotte Amalie is the island's only golf course. The 6,525-yard par-70 cast into the spotlight during President Clinton's administration, when the First Family retreated to St. Thomas for R&R, and the President hacked around Mahogany Run.

Since then, in a million-dollar renovation, the soil quality of the course was revitalized and the greens were re-turfed with salt-resistant Seashore Paspalum grass. The greens were also reshaped, bunkers were cleaned and filled with Barbuda sand atop new drainage systems.

The 14th hole is touted as one of the most beautiful in the world. No argument here. From the tee, the 173-yard par-3 drops over a sheer cliff to the oceanside green below. Fourteen is the middle hole of the course's "Devil's Triangle," three holes so tough that certificates are awarded to those escaping without a penalty stroke. Thirteen is a 363-yard par-4. The 564-yard par-5 15th hole, the No. 1 handicap, requires an 80-yard forced carry to the green, which has been wisely doubled to 6,000 square feet.

If you're in the area, this tight, trappy mountainous course is a must play, if only for the scenery and perhaps that prize on the Devil's Triangle.

Mahogany Run Golf Club
PO Box 7517
St. Thomas, USVI 00801
(340) 777-6250

Where to Stay on St. Thomas

The island has a plethora of resorts, inns and hotels large and small, including well known properties such as the Ritz Carlton, the historic Frenchman's Reef Resort, Bluebeard's Beach Club, Bluebeard's Castle and Bolongo Bay Beach Resort. Visit usvi.net for details.

Where to Dine on St. Thomas

You name it, it's here Asian, Irish, French, Caribbean, Continental, European, Greek, Italian, Mexican and Vegetarian. There are nearly

200 restaurants on this tiny island. Visit usvi.net.

Other Activities on St. Thomas

Sightseeing - Estate St. Peter Greathouse & Botanical Gardens, Blackbeard's Castle, Bluebeard's Castle, Fort Christian and Market Square. Water sports A dozen companies offer all water sports and sea cruises among the islands.

St. John

The smallest of the Virgins, St. John is 28 square miles of natural beauty. There is no golf course here, just beautiful beaches and pristine national park land laced with trails. Accommodations vary from the world-class Caneel Bay and Hyatt Regency resorts to primitive campsites and the Maho Bay Camps, the ultimate in eco-lodging. If your stay in the USVIs allows, take the ferry to bustling Cruz Bay and explore St. John.

Dale LeathermanDale Leatherman, Contributor

Dale Leatherman is a full-time freelance travel writer specializing in golf and adventure travel. For nearly 20 years her "beat" has been the Caribbean, where she can combine golf, scuba diving and other sports. She has also written about golf in Wales, Scotland, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., particularly the Mid-Atlantic region.

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