ST. CROIX: : In the West Indies, far from events of international concern, it’s easy to realign priorities and forget problems at home.
“Do you know the best thing about Amerigo? " Norman said to Henny. “Down there they don’t know there’s a Chinese crisis. They have no television. You can’t buy a paper that isn’t five days old . In the three days I was there I heard one news broadcast . . . the strange part was, I didn’t care . " --"Don’t Stop the Carnival,” by Herman Wouk
It has been 23 years since Wouk used this long lozenge of land as his pattern for Amerigo (“He never admits it in the book,” confided the tanned and beaded lady at a recent rum-punch party in St. Croix, “but we just know he was writing about us”), and obviously a few things have changed.
Instead of not knowing about the Chinese crisis, the people of St. Croix now don’t know about the Gaza Strip crisis. There is a TV in the Ritz Cafe in gingerbread Christiansted, and it must be assumed that a few more sets have been admitted. The New York Times now arrives on its day of publication. Most days.
But the strange point that Norman noted to Henny remains ingrained. Here in the West Indies it’s easy, even mentally healthy, to realign priorities and not to care about BankAmerica’s varying fortunes or Los Angeles’ shaking suburbs.
Maybe it’s the island’s distance, geographically and emotionally, from events or centers of international despair and jubilation. Or it’s the Caribbean sun and a light that’s fit for Impressionists. Or seas of dapple-topaz. Or an unvarying climate in which no body is too cool, too warm, too moist, too dry. Maybe these are God’s tranquilizers.
Whatever, Cruzans instinctively do not care.
Obviously out of touch with the pressures necessary to buy a Mercedes and enjoy a heart attack and live the full life, they simply haven’t learned how to worry.
With that comes their soothing sense of timelessness.
“Your office trouble back home was Monday, OK?” says a cab driver. He is genuinely confused (not worried, mind you) by the length and depth of his passenger’s concern for the costly meanderings of Wall Street. “But now it’s Thursday. So back to relaxation, mon .”
Mike Klein, an escapee from Amherst College, Mass., a skipper with Caribbean Sea Adventures and a young man on an endless voyage of sun, beaches and satisfaction, has learned the knack of living hourless days. He has only one reason for owning a watch: “I wear this big old rubber thing because you can touch a button and it shows the month. Sometimes you need to know that.”
Luis Torres from Puerto Rico--a hotel waiter and patient turner of a 10-foot spit skewering two pigs for a beach barbecue--has no reason for owning a watch. “Why?” he asks. “My brother has one.”
And tennis-teaching professional Don deWilde knows that this unhurried, unworried, unflappable way of St. Croix is absolutely contagious.
“On the first day of their vacations, highly successful professionals, captains of industry, come marching into the tennis shop and it’s: ‘Look, I want a court at 4 p.m. today and a one-hour lesson at 8 a.m. tomorrow and for the evening I’d like to schedule some doubles.’
“At the end of one week they come strolling into the tennis shop and it’s: ‘Don, have you got a court free anytime tomorrow? If not, whenever you can fit me in.’ ”
There’s a name for this enviable state of island mind.
“ Lymin’ ,” explains Charlie Martin, manager of the Buccaneer Hotel--a low, pink, 17th-Century inn-cum-palace that is an island tradition almost as old as 151-proof rum. “You say, in dialect, ‘I’m going lymin’ a while.’ Being laid-back in California is lymin’ time in the Virgin Islands.
“It’s part of the Cruzan way of living in the time, metaphysically, of this moment. And that’s the basis of island philosophy.”
And there’s the opposite of lyming . Hoross . To hoross . The state of being horossed . As in harass.
Continentals (the island’s sly hypocorism for anyone unfortunate enough to have been born on that frantic lump of America to the northwest) in search of a little lymin’ can do no better than the Virgin Islands.
But which island? There are three in this skein. In the niftiest real estate deal since Peter Minuit closed escrow on Manhattan for $24, the United States bought the trio from Denmark in 1917 for $25 million.
An acre lot with prime beach front on any island now costs $100,000. Denmark should have held out for cash plus Oregon and Solvang.
But we digress. St. Thomas has grown to become Rodeo Drive on Catalina Island. St. John hasn’t grown at all and remains as Kauai is to Hawaii. St. Croix, to continue the Pacific parallel, is what Maui was 10 years ago.
I was leery of all three because I travel well but relax uneasily on islands. There is no denominator. After 24 hours of Guam, Okinawa and Macao I’m a babbling claustrophobic. Bermuda is super, and the Azores would be adorable even without Mateus. Fiji and Tahiti are my solitary, unbearable confinement. Hawaii isn’t. Nassau wasn’t. But then I can’t stand cruise ships, even those larger than some islands. You work it out.
I bet blind on St. Croix.
I wanted tennis, sailing and a local beer on the beach before dining in a polo shirt, Dockers and Top-Siders. Good fish. No leaf blowers. Empty beaches and early nights.
There had to be everything to do but nothing to do if I didn’t want to. Nothing sophisticated by Hilton or Sheraton or Marriott. Everything natural and by local custom. And the land must have a good smell at dawn.
Go to St. Croix, said Rod the tennis player and John the sailor and Peter the diver and Alan who likes to drink local beer.
I came. I found a self I have not known since work years began.
Much of it had to do with the Buccaneer Hotel. It may very well be--as a place where hours, activities and pace are delicately, scrupulously balanced between daily suggestion and self-selection--the perfect resort.
There are no employees who intimidate, no rates that terrify, no elegance to threaten your passage through the lobby in a sea-stained hula shirt and corduroy Stubbies.
It is a magnificent tropical home of bonnet arches and mahogany and has been since Charles Martel, a knight of Malta, built it as a farm in 1653. A century later it was grand enough to be a governor’s residence.
Alexander Hamilton stayed here as a child. Sugar cane was grown here, then sea-island cotton and, finally, cattle.
Douglas and Rachel Armstrong, island-born descendants of a deported Scottish horse thief, made it the Buccaneer Hotel in 1948. Their son, Robert D. Armstrong, owns it now. His son, Robert W. Armstrong, 23, a ninth-generation Armstrong, is current overseer of the ranch-plantation-hotel.
No Need for Titles
“I don’t have a title because we don’t need them,” says young Armstrong, who, like his father, graduated from Princeton, and who, like his dad, still picks up trifles of litter around the hotel. “Titles isolate you, and we like to be known, to be answerable to guests. That’s one reason I live on the premises.
“We have the same goals, the same quality of service, the same concern that you find in the big business hotels off the island . . . but our approach is to be very personal, to resist the bureaucratic corporate structure, to encourage a staff that gets things done on your timetable but in their style.”
Time, says young Armstrong. It is what the island and his hotel are all about. “The time the hotel has been here,” he explains, “the time that people have worked here, for 20 or 30 years . . . that translates to employee attentiveness toward the job. And being comfortable in that job.”
Even the finest accommodations at the Buccaneer--the blue-tiled, honey-pine-ceilinged bed-sitters just a barefoot shuffle from any of three private beaches--do not have TV sets. Television, goes the quiet reasoning, is too often a sorry messenger for stock market declines, nuclear politics and other guest depressants.
Some Optional Events
Hotel events are lightly organized but heavily Cruzan (“Croix” is French for cross and a cruzado was a Spanish gold coin with a cross on it and somewhere therein, goes island apocrypha, is the derivation of Cruzan), so if you’re looking for T-bone cookouts and pinto beans, vacation in Tucson.
Ergo , one night is an all-you-can-eat beach roast of lobsters that were meandering offshore that morning. Another rite is a traditional terrace buffet of goat meat stew and lightly fried plantains and deep-fried johnnycakes and blackened wahoo. With mainland fare for the less adventuresome.
There’s the weekly ocean-side rum punch and calypso roasting of whole pigs--a five-hour proposition from naked pork to golden crackling beneath the supervision of Luis, whose brother owns the watch.
The Buccaneer is an 18-hole golf course and eight tennis courts and banana quit birds who steal sugar from the packet on your breakfast table. Also rolling breakers of pink bougainvillea and vast, hilly acres for walking and fun rain showers worth the soaking and an open main terrace made for viewing perfect dawns and sunsets.
The hotel--its elan, its seductive ease--hasn’t changed much since the early days when St. Croix was 12 hours from New York by DC-3, and a travel writer for the New Yorker reported: “My personal choice would be the new Buccaneer, where the management specializes in picnic parties and hunts for the wild boar.”
Original Pace and Charm
And apart from boar hunts, the island seems to have sacrificed neither whit nor whiff of its original pace and charm while loafing toward 1988.
Of course, modern demands must be met, so there’s the obligatory duty-free shopping for gold (from 17th-Century doubloons to big Italian bangles, and everything a bargain) and sock-singeing Cruzan Rum ($1.99 a fifth, even at Woolworth’s) and French fragrances (be the first in Tustin to wear La Nuit); but that’s only half a day in popular, preserved Christiansted.
Then rent a Suzuki Samurai and rattle and ramble, mapless, along rain-forest tracks to hidden beaches where litter is brought by the sea, not by man. Way off the beaten brochure there’s a tiny lumber mill among stands of venerable mahogany trees where an old, deaf carver caresses a vase of amber hardwood and says this is absolute beauty. You buy the vase and feel its shape and know a new appreciation.
Morning . . . breakfast of guanabana juice, papaya and lemon before a warm-up snorkel where even in shallow water, a few feet from a hotel beach, an elderly lobster waves hello and an uncaring grouper belches at your mask.
Then a quick pickup at the pier and a powerboat sprint to Buck Island, where diving is a slow paddle through nature’s largest, clearest, most benign aquarium.
Lunch on the Beach
Afternoon . . . store-bought cold cuts and island-baked bread for lunch on the beach. Then a paperback by Brian Freemantle and two hours of hectic spying alongside scruffy Charlie Muffin, leaving him in KGB capture while you take a snooze in the sun.
Evening . . . to the beach bar at Duggan’s Reef for a planter’s punch that could fuel a motorcycle. To Noonan’s, a clapboard restaurant for locals where the curried conch (pronounce it conk ) shouts to be patented. Then, to any outdoor place that sells ice cream cones for your strolling dessert and a walk around a dark harbor where halyards slap and crabs come for a look-see.
Days and their distractions are endless. Seaplane rides to other islands, even the pocket territories of Great Britain and France. Tours through great Danish homes and plantations where molasses was made and to a factory still processing another island’s black treacle into rum.
Los Angeles slips away. Its pressures are those of another life, some other man. Incessant noise is missing. Here is allowable sloth and, finally, the sense of pure leisure.
Timelessness Heals All
In St. Croix. Where the lymin’ is easy.
And where the past mists over and even deep nags disappear . . . but let DeWilde, the tennis pro at the Buccaneer, tell how timelessness heals all. He had been approached by a guest, an elderly lady anxious to get back into shape for the seniors tennis circuit.
She was ready to play daily. If she was up to it.
“Unfortunately, it’s been a very bad year,” she told DeWilde. “First, I broke my ankle. And then . . . um . . . ah . . . lemme see. . . .”
She thought. She groped for a full minute. Polite DeWilde waited patiently.
“Now I remember the other thing,” she said. “My husband died. . . .”