Convenient, Informal & Just Plain Beautiful: St. John, USVI

ST. JOHN, U.S. Virgin Islands -- Grab the sand toys, masks and fins. It's time to hit the beach. With more than 40 to choose from, each with plenty of white sand, secluded coves and some of the best snorkeling anywhere, the only question-of-the-morning is which beach?

Do we opt for Trunk Bay with its friendly National Park ranger lifeguards and just-offshore underwater snorkeling trail marked by white buoys and underwater signs identifying the different kinds of coral and fish? Do we head to Cinnamon Bay Beach, home to the popular campground and the longest, widest beach on the island? Maybe this is the day to mingle with the locals at Salt Pond Cay or tiny Hawksnest Beach?

No need to worry about too much development encroaching on nature here: Most of St. John is a designated national park. Even so, you've got your pick of vacation styles -- secluded villa, rustic campground or fancy resort. This time of year and through mid-December, you can get a bonafide bargain at any of them: Hotel rates drop by as much as half while the weather stays balmy, typically 82 degrees.

(Call 800-372-USVI for tourist information or visit the website www.stjohnusvi.com. Remember that while hurricane season technically runs June through November, the season doesn't keep many families away. To be safe, avoid September, frequent Virgin Island travelers say.)

Here are just a few of the bargains out there now:

-- Destination St. John can set you up in your own villa for a week of bliss overlooking the sea for under $1,300. Most houses have pools: Smaller families might opt for a less expensive, one-bedroom condo at Lavender Hills Estates overlooking Cruz Bay Harbor for $140 a night. Call 800-562-1901 or visit the Web site at www.destinationstjohn.com.

-- You can sleep in the treetops in a tent-cottage at Maho Bay for $60 a night through Nov.15. Everything is provided except flashlights (you'll need them at night) and beach towels. On the northwest coast of St. John, 100-plus tent cottages are linked by wooden boardwalks to a water sports center, football-field long beach, showers and baths, store and restaurant where you can eat under the stars. Watch ``Swiss Family Robinson'' before you go! Call 800-392-9004 or visit the Web site at www.maho.org

-- Camp at the Virgin Islands National Park in tents or cinder-block cottages a two-minute walk from the largest beach on the island at the Cinnamon Bay Campground. There's windsurfing, kayaking, sailing, snorkeling and National Park programs. Tents cost $82 for a family of four. One-room cottages with grills, propane gas stoves, ice chests, cots, electric lights, but no bathrooms cost $100. Call 800-539-9998 or visit the Web site www.Cinnamonbay.com

-- The Westin Resort, the island's newest, is the place for families who want all the bells and whistles -- 47 acres of lavishly landscaped gardens, huge swimming pool, hot tubs, water toy-filled beach, giant trampoline, 285 oversized rooms with cable TV, lavish evening and breakfast buffets and a Kids Club for those 3 and older. (Every child gets goodies at check-in.) Summer rates start at $245 for rooms that would top $400 in season. Kid's Club costs $40 a day, including lunch. Call 1-800-WESTIN-1 or visit the Web site at www.westin.com

-- Ultra-luxe Caneel Bay Resort, was first conceived by Laurance Rockefeller and is part of the national park, surrounded by seven of the Caribbean's most pristine beaches on a 170-acre peninsula. Starting in late May, rooms are reduced to $195 per room. In June, a second room for the kids is available for $150. During high season, the same rooms start at $350. Prepare the kids for a resort with no television or telephones in the rooms. Snorkeling gear, tennis, kayaks and Sunfish are complimentary. The Caneel Bay Kid's Club, for kids 4 and older, costs $35 for a half day. (Call 800-928-8889 or visit the Web site at www.Rosewood-hotels.com)

No wonder this island seems like family paradise: Spend the morning swimming through schools of bright red and blue fish, build a gigantic sand fort or do nothing at all (an especially popular option for parents). At age 8 the kids can try SNUBA 20 feet below the water's surface, their breathing tethered to a scuba tank sitting on a seven-foot raft above them. ($49 per person 809-693-8063; www.visnuba.com.

I like St. John because it's small (at 19 square miles, smaller than Manhattan), part of the United States (especially important if you need medical care), convenient (a 20-minute, $3 ferry ride from St. Thomas and all the action there), informal (dressing means putting shorts on over your bathing suit) and just plain beautiful (with clear, blue water everywhere you look.

The island is decidedly kid friendly, too. Restaurants such as the island's famous Morgan's Mango have more than two dozen different tropical drinks (How about a Green Iguana or Bikini?) and a kids' menu that features ``flying fish'' and mango smoothies.

There's even a special family guidebook: Richard Myers' ``Visiting the Virgin Islands with The Kids'' (Two Thousand Three Associates, $13.95). If you can get the kids off the beach, there are miles of hiking trails, kayaking and sailing (plenty of day trips are offered to the neighboring British Virgin Islands), horseback and donkey rides, scuba diving and quaint, low-pressure shops made for browsing at the outdoor mall at Mongoose Junction in sleepy Cruz Bay and even smaller Coral Bay on the other side of the island. (Serious shoppers will want to hop the ferry for St. Thomas, however.)

The kids will love Pusser's Company Store, overlooking Cruz Bay harbor and a Virgin Islands institution, even if they hate shopping. They can get a pizza or tropical drink and pick up some British nautical souvenirs to bring home. While they're picking out souvenirs, have a rum punch for me.

(Look for Eileen Ogintz's books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')

(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to eogintz@aol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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