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Down in the Virgin Islands they have a saying that there are two kinds of time, "clock time and Cruzan time." The former is the variety which we all know too well, the scurrying second hand adding up to minutes and the minutes to hours, each a reminder of appointments to be kept and each carrying a sense of destiny. But Cruzan time is something else again. Spoken in the softly slurred West Indian dialect, it sounds like "cruising"; and it stems from Santa Cruz, the name Columbus bestowed on his first landfall in the archipelago, now St. Croix. Cruzan time means take it easy, old boy, enjoy the sun and the view and the tall glass in your hand. It's later than you think only by clock time.
It seems the most natural thing in the world that time should slow down in the Virgin Islands. They lie against the dark blue velvet of the sea like a handful of emeralds scattered by a careless pirate. Some are low and framed by beaches of dazzling white sand, while others are rocky and steep enough to defy a browsing goat. Some await their Robinson Crusoe with an air of never having known the tread of man, others are dotted by houses riding the saddles of the hills or snuggled under palms in sheltered coves. There are nightclubs in the towns with calypso music and on the outer islands ruins of ancient plantations being recaptured by creeping growth; and there are shining modern homes close to weathered stone houses almost hidden by hibiscus and bougainvillaea. Around the next headland from the settlement is always the deserted anchorage. Everywhere is contrast in color and form and character; palms waving against a background of blue; slow-moving friendly people; and an overwhelming sense of ma�ana.
Here also, for those who want them, can be curved sails overhead and a wake creaming astern, for no area anywhere in the world offers better cruising conditions during most of the year. The entire archipelago of some 100 islands and cays is within the magic band of the tropics, yet not far enough south to experience searing equatorial heat. The blizzards which sweep across the United States in winter to occasionally chill Florida and the Bahamas touch them not; and in the summer the surrounding ocean acts as a vast air-conditioner. There is little difference in temperature between January and June. A dull gray day is a rarity.
Almost constantly there is a breeze from the east, the trade wind of the era of commercial sail. Rare is the day when it does not come up with the sun, ready to drive a cruising yacht to the next harbor. True, there are times when it falls to a whisper, and other occasions when it pipes a mite too pert for comfort, but generally the trade wind is close to just right for a husky little vessel, especially in sheltered water.
I had come down to the Virgin Islands remembering all this from previous visits. I was beaten by snow and the book I was writing and the telephone and found myself suffering mirages of sparkling water and waving palms. I left New York one dismal afternoon ankle-deep in slush, paused overnight in San Juan and decanted myself the following morning in St. Croix, blinking at the sunshine like a hibernating bear whose tree has been pulled apart. I had 10 days before me, and on Cruzan time that is a long holiday.
"St. Croix is a place which grows on you," said my old friend Lee Piatt as we later sat looking out over the harbor at Christiansted. "It is as different from St. Thomas as town and country. We don't have tourists in the usual sense, but we do have the gracious life." St. Croix, home of Cruzan time, is determined to remain that way. The guesthouses convey a feeling of leisureliness rather than bird-of-passage urgency. Although there are many delightful places to stay, there is not a single typical resort hotel on the island.
It is a long and narrow island, shaped somewhat like a weather vane, pointed toward the prevailing breeze. It is entirely separate from its sisters, rising as an isolated peak, one of the few islands in the West Indies wholly surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. The eastern end receives scant moisture; it tends to be arid, but its compensations are good beaches and virtually unfailing sunshine. The central section is a garden of fertile soil, tended through the centuries. Cane fields run in a green-and-brown checkerboard from the shore to the central ridge of mountains, whose heights are cool and shadowy in lush, liana-festooned rain forests. Conical stone towers of ancient windmills dot the slopes, reminders of a glamorous past when West Indian planters lived as rich and pleasant a life as any in history.
Few islands have had a more varied background. St. Croix has flown seven flags—Spanish, British, Dutch, French, Knights of Malta, Danish and United States. Traces of each culture are visible. It is the least Americanized American possession of my experience. Here are no four-lane highways, no garish signs, no inharmonious civic structures. Traffic moves on the left, British fashion; the streets of the towns are called gades, from the days of Danish occupancy; houses front the sidewalk with gardens behind, as customary in French colonies; and the policeman on the corner may address pedestrians in Spanish.
Christiansted is the principal town. A squat red fortress with white trim, built by the Danes in 1734, still commands the harbor, looking like an oversized Christmas package. Scores of schooners and interisland freight boats unload at the quay, and carts piled high go rumbling off to dim shops. Sidewalks are shaded by overhanging upper floors, supported by coral block and brick arches along the street line. Houses are painted in pastels, pink and yellow and green—colors which fade quickly in the sun to harmonize with weathered ancient walls. Open doors afford glimpses into patios brilliant with flowers. All is quiet and cool and unhurried, probably changed little in appearance or feeling from the days when Alexander Hamilton clerked in a local store.
Barnabus, the 48-foot steel ketch I had chartered by mail, arrived on schedule. Built in Holland, Barnabus looked capable, comfortable, sea-kindly—and slow. She was. "We never has to reef," boasted Captain Ronnie as I came aboard, a sure indication of a vessel undercanvassed for normal conditions. But Barnabus wasn't racing, and I had left the mental stop watch firmly behind, buried in the snow with Finisterre.