U.S. Virgin Islands

Contributing editor Jim Gullo was surprised to find that the three main U.S. Virgin Islands varied so much in topography, history, and character.

"St. John is Eden to me," he says. "It"s beautiful and friendly, and the influence of the national park gives a pervasive sense of ease there."

He found St. Thomas to be the most modern and American of the three, while St. Croix was the most rural, and its culture the most bound to superstitions and the legacy of the sugar mills. "They"re fiercely proud of their emancipation history," Gullo says.

A resident of Seattle, Gullo has been a freelance writer for 15 years. His stories have appeared in such publications as Diversion and Sunset, and his second guidebook, Seattle and Portland for Dummies, has just been published.

Contributing photographer Flip Chalfant"s most memorable and frustrating experience in the USVI came early one morning after climbing a rope ladder to board a cruise ship to watch the harbor pilot on the bridge shoehorn the massive ship into a slip.

"That"s when being a photographer is so great - I get access to places that most people will never get to see," says Chalfant. But just as he got aboard, a beautiful rainbow appeared over the ship"s bow. "I couldn"t do justice to the sunrise and the rainbow from where I was," he says. "If I had been on shore shooting the rainbow over the boat, it would have been a knockout shot."

Atlanta-based Chalfant was born in Casablanca, Morocco, and has been living in Georgia since he was 3. He started taking pictures at the age of 12, and has been shooting professionally since 1975.

Beach Time Trunk Bay on St. John and Magens Bay on St. Thomas are often named among the world"s best beaches, but these islands are full of fabulous less- famous strands, too. Cinnamon Bay, Maho Bay, and Hawksnest Bay are a few classics on St. John"s northern coast; Gullo recommends walking 15 minutes from Estate Lindholm to deserted Honeymoon Beach. On St. Thomas, Coki Bay (next to Coral World; see "Dive In," below) and Sapphire Beach are also good bets. The water along St. Croix"s northern coast can be rough, but the beaches there - Cane Bay is one good choice - are often deserted and the snorkeling is excellent. For calmer water, head to Sandy Point on the southwestern coast, the biggest beach in the USVI.

Dive In The USVI is home to fine diving on wrecks, in caves and arches, and along big walls. Reputable dive operators are easy to find. You can also see the underwater world without needing traditional scuba tanks or certification. "Snuba" lets swimmers cruise the bottom while breathing through a tube connected to a compressor on a boat; "sea trekking" is similar, with swimmers breathing through a diving helmet. Of course, you can usually jump into the water right in front of your hotel or off just about any beach and find a reef to snorkel. Buck Island Reef National Monument - St. Croix"s most popular dive destination - is a small sandy cay surrounded by lush coral gardens. Don"t want to get wet? Then take a ride on the Atlantis submarine or descend a tube into the aquarium at Coral World Marine Park & Observatory. (Both are on St. Thomas.)

Shopping Duty The USVI is a major shopping destination, not only because of the low duty-free prices but also because you can bring $1,200 (not the usual $400) worth of goods from the USVI into the U.S., tariff-free. St. Thomas has the biggest selection of merchandise, but it can be jammed when passengers disembark from cruise ships.

Room Key Accommodations range from villas and five-star resorts to bed-and-breakfasts, small hotels, and even national-park campgrounds. For reservations at the Estate Lindholm (see page 84), call 800-322-6335. (Rates vary by season.) Gullo and Chalfant recommend The Buccaneer on St. Croix. Built on a 340-acre oceanside sugar plantation, it has a golf course and rooms with verandas (about $250 to $500 per night; 800-225-3881, www.thebuccaeer.com). On St. Thomas, both writer and photographer enjoyed the oceanside Renaissance Grand Beach Resort ($135 to $325 per night; 800-228-9290, www.marriott.com).

What"s to Eat From beach shacks to fine dining, the USVI has it all. Duffy"s Love Shack (see page 78) on St. Thomas is located at 6500 Red Hook Plaza in Red Hook; 340-779-2080. Duffy"s on St. John is just a block from the Cruz Bay ferry dock; 340-776-6065. Also on St. John, Chalfant suggests getting an outdoor table at La Tap, a hip Cruz Bay hangout. On St. Croix, Harvey"s (see page 83) is located in Christian-sted at 11 Company Street; 340-773-3433.

On the Road You can take a floatplane or a high-speed ferry (www.virginislandsfastferry.com) between St. Thomas and St. Croix, but ferries - departing from Charlotte Amalie or Red Hook, on St. Thomas - are the only transportation to St. John. The Westin Resort, St. John has a private ferry for guests. Renting a car (about $50 per day) will give you beach flexibility, but driving on the left can be tricky. St. Thomas and St. John have a lot of cabs.

Read It and Leap The most up-to-date guidebook is Fodor"s 2002 The U.S. & British Virgin Islands. Try St. John on Foot and by Car, by Randall and Rebecca Koladis, for exploring that island"s history, culture, and natural beauty. To identify what you"re seeing, pick up A Natural History Atlas to the Cays of the U.S. Virgin Islands, written by Arthur Dammann and David Nellis and produced by the Virgin Islands Fish and Wildlife Department.

Web Headings For good overall information, see www.usvi.net. Check out the St. Croix Landmarks Society site, www.stcroixlandmarks.com, for lists of cultural events, museums, and guided "Ruins Rambles" hikes. Go to www.stcroixheritagetrail.com for information about a recently developed 72-mile driving tour that stops at plantations, a botanical garden, an ecological preserve, and the Cruzan Rum Distillery. For detailed information on the National Park and hiking trails on St. John, see www.virgin.islands.nationalpark.co m.

Cash Flow ATMs and banks are easy to find.