Sun, sand, and the kids: family vacations in the US Virgin Islands

You want to take the family away from it all. The kids have been clamoring for something more exciting than the perennial, pile-into-the-station-wagon-and-hit-the-Interstate holiday. And visions of last year's cinematic satire, "Vacation," linger in your mind: flat tires, munched fenders, and hubcap thieves.

This Couldm just by your family's year for island breezes, palm trees, and pristine beaches.

Airlines have chiseled down United States-to-Caribbean fares, as tantalizing ads in everything from Newsweek to Boy's Life make plain. But what will you find? How much will it cost Are there enough alternatives to keep Mom, Dad, and juniors alternately relaxed, busy, and happy?

I've just taken whirlwind tours of each of the US Virgin Islands -- with time out, of course, to sample the golf, sailing, scuba diving, shopping, and sightseeing. I looked for specific family accommodations, specially priced packages, self-contained, efficiency condominiums, cabins, and the like. And I returned with plenty of good news, some caveats, and a few hints.

The good news is, at the very least, threefold: (1) the three US Virgin Islands have a dizzying array of accommodations in all sizes, styles, prices, and locations (prices range roughly from Rockefeller-owned Caneel Bay's plush triple rooms at $510 per day to Maho Bay Campground's three-room hillside tents at $50 per night, plus $10 per for each occupant over two); (2) there is an island to delight each person's taste: St. Thomas has the most highly developed resorts, discos, and duty-free shopping opportunities -- and the most tourists; St. John, two-thirds national park, is almost the opposite of St. Thomas in development, number of visitors, lack of stores; and St. Croix is a good mixture of both, with more wide open spaces and privacy than St. Thomas, but not nearly as undeveloped as St. John; (3) there is plenty to occupy a family of all ages for well over two weeks.

All three islands have world-renowned beaches and offer more water sports than you can count on both hands. St. Thomas and St. Croix have world-class golf courses, St. Croix one of the best snorkeling/scuba reefs in the world, and St. John rates high for first-class tropical seclusion. St. Thomas is probably the best Caribbean source for duty-free cameras, crystal, perfume, jewelry, cameras, and electronics -- not to mention restaurants. The list of attractions is endless.

On the negative side, not many hotels have special family packages -- either reduced prices or extended stays. Many, such as Caneel Bay, consider themselves "couple" resorts, with rates and activities geared toward honeymooners. Some don't allow children under 3 and discourage bringing children under 8 (exceptions are discussed below).

In general, your travel agent can help you find just the hotel you are looking for, with appropriate rates and locatin. I find Fielding's "Caribbean 1984," by Margaret Zellers, worth 10 times its $12.95 cover price. It leads you to the right restaurants, hotels, sports, "treasures and trifles," etc.

Tourism and water sports are the islands' stock in trade, so you'd almost have to wear blinders to avoid the many tantalizing sail excursions (trimaran, catamaran), island nature tours, even horse-back-riding packages available. Activity centers in all the hotels can help you rent the Sun Fish, snorkel gear, sail-surfboard, or scuba gear you want. If they don't have your particular rental item, they can help arrange its delivery, or your transportation to it.

The more I stuck to my "family vacation" motif, I was led to places with self-contained, efficiency units -- with kitchenettes that included small stoves , cupboards, and refrigerators: Here families can save enormously by preparing their own meals. Many bring canned food -- from peanut butter to tuna fish -- from home, as even supermarket-purchased food in the Caribbean islands, all shipped from the mainland, is costly.

The other appeal of these family units is that they provide a home base for all island activities. And they provide privacy for the family that wants to spend time game-playing, reading, and pursuing hobbies. And when togetherness gets out of hand, there's an activity for everyone: tours of abandoned sugar mills, nature walks that teach you the flora and fauna, biking, mopeds, and jeep rentals.

Although I obviously couldn't even come close to seeing everything the islands had to offer, here are suggestions from the places I visited: Campgrounds:

Cinnamon Bay and Maho Bay, on St. John, head my list, because I'd forgotten how appealing submergence in a tropical island environment can be: cricket and bird sounds, leaves rustling, banana quits that flit onto the veranda in the morning. Camping is also the cheapest.

Maho Bay is the more remote of the two and has more to offer -- with three-room canvas cottages overlooking the bay from sequestered hill sites. A wooden boardwalk connects restrooms, camp store, and beach. All units have wooden floors, verandas, and electricity. A kitchen area provides an ice chest, propane stove, and pots and pans.

Clinnamon Bay is on National Park land and has three offerings: efficiency units on cement blocks (which I found unappealing), sites with tents, and bare sites. Trails with sand as white and fluffy as flour lead around the sites. These are just steps from a beach National Geographic has labeled one of the world's 10 most beautiful. Hotels:

Of all the accommodations I saw on St. Croix, I'll mention three as indicative of family options:

The Buccaneer is first because it has a cFamily in Paradise" package in which two adults can bring up to three children free (price is $650 weekly, European plan). Manager Nancy Manyak told me the hotel doesn't really like to have children under 3, but has provided a game room with pool table, video games, and pinball and some help with baby sitting for parents who want to explore the night life without their children. Since the hotel caters to families, there's a better chance of having other children for your children to play with.

I met one family of seven touring the entire Caribbean. They opted for the Grape Tree Beach Hotel, on the windy side of the island. Their rationale: Grape Tree hotel rooms are right on the beach where parents can watch their children from the rooms.

Last is Queen's Quarters, on a hill in the geographic center of the island (exactly 7 miles from each shore). Although there is no beachfront, these attractive studio and one-, two-, and three-room units are closer to more island options: golf at the Robert Trent Jones-designed Fountain Valley Golf Course; snorkeling at Buck Island reef, considered to major location in the world; and other attractions. Condominiums:

Mahogany Run is perhaps best known as a world-famous golf course on St. Thomas, but it's also the name of a whole resort that includes cliffside villa condominiums on the north side of the island. These are reasonable in price (although they have only indirect beach access). I also toured three condominiums side by side on St. Croix, Mill Harbour, Colony Cove, Sugar Beach, each with comparable rooms and good records of returning guests. Sugar Beach has all rooms directly on the beach, and Colony Cove, the newest, has no restaurant of its own and its beach is man-made. (These are things you can't quite tell from the brochures, but even so I'd recommend sending for them before renting.) Ask plenty of questions before you rent a condo: How far from the beach? (Not just the "water," as at some it can be close but not accessible.) What kind of access to the beach? Which direction do the rooms face? (Don't get stuck in a seaside condo with a view out the back.) Does the pool have salt water or fresh? Is there an additional fee for more people? Some places officially state" no more than four," but some managers told me enforcement is lax. Efficiency units:

Of all the efficiency units I toured, Tomarind Reef Beach Club, on St. Croix, struck me as the most appealing. Special family units are more spacious and have better furniture, access to two kinds of beach (one protected, one with more waves), both screened-in and glassed-in areas, and private verandas. It has its own beautiful pool and is only a 10-minute drive from Christiansted. For contrast, just up the coast is Chenay Bay Colony, whose cottage units are somewhat removed from the beach in more of a community setting. They specialize in providing water-oriented activities and have an ideal sailsurfing bay. Manager Larry Bathon told me guests frequently become friends and plan future vacations together.

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