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A Villa By the Sea

Ericka McConnell The author and her daughter Claudia on St. John's Maho Bay Beach.

Photo: Ericka McConnell

Rent a villa with your family, high on a breezy hill overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and be prepared for some singing. That's what my husband, Michael, and I found, anyway, when we brought our two daughters, Kelley, 13, and Claudia, 10, to St. John last spring. They rarely stopped: they crooned Top 40 tunes in the pool and on the deck and in the outdoor shower. The countdown continued as pink-bellied clouds drifted by in the morning and when the moon silvered the bay at night. They sang with gusto and with volume and—this is the good part—we never felt compelled to tell them to keep it down. (Well, maybe that one time, but, hey, we were trying to read.) That's just one example of the things we loved about having our own house, rather than simply our own hotel room.

We rented Daffodil, a new bright-yellow two-bedroom hideout perched above Fish Bay, on the island's less-traveled south shore. It's a modest place, but there are astonishing views from every room, even from the pool. As we lay on our rubber floats, we could take in the rolling hills and scalloped coastline of 11,000-acre Virgin Islands National Park to the east, the distant rise of St. Croix 50 miles to the south, and, with a little paddle to the right, Rendezvous Bay and Dog Island to the west. We adored our location, just 15 minutes on roller-coaster roads from Cruz Bay, St. John's small but hopping main harbor town—close enough that we could head out on impulse to shop for a bikini or get a mango smoothie, yet far enough away for us to think it wasn't such a bad idea, after all, to scrap the restaurant plan and hang out at home. The least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands, nine-mile-long St. John has only two large resorts: honeymooners' favorite Caneel Bay on the north side, and the more frenetic, family-oriented Westin St. John on the west. But there are scores of rentals, from cottage colonies to mountaintop estates. We found ours (available for $3,100 a week in winter; $2,200 during off-season) through Seaview Vacation Homes, a local agency that answered my e-mail questions promptly and gave good advice about the right houses and locations for us. They also booked our rental Jeep, greeted us as we arrived on the ferry from St. Thomas, led us to our villa, pointed us in the direction of the best snorkeling spots, and supplied us with milk, juice, and cereal.

We spent our week sampling beaches and reefs—north shore beauties like Cinnamon, Maho, and Francis bays, and remote east coast outposts like Salt Pond Bay, where I'm pretty sure I heard muffled singing coming out of Kelley's snorkel. One day we went to Trunk Bay, St. John's iconic calendar-page strand, which is glorious despite being a prime destination for cruise ship day-trippers from St. Thomas. We were there to try the little-known sport Snuba,an excellent introduction to scuba diving—one in which air tanks are carried on a raft, rather than on divers' backs, and descents are never deeper than 20 feet, so there's no need to learn about decompression or depth charts. After a quick orientation and some practice clearing our masks, we dove into the far side of Trunk, near Jumbie Bay, and stayed underwater for about 30 minutes—long enough to feel like bona fide scuba divers and to see dozens of parrot fish, grunts, and snapper among the purple sea fans and brain coral. Kelley even spotted an endangered hawksbill sea turtle.

On our way home from the beach, we would swing by Starfish Market, the island's biggest grocery store, to pick up dinner supplies (Ben & Jerry's for $7 a pint...). Twice we went to Asolare, a hilltop restaurant overlooking Cruz Bay. Our kids didn't mind dressing up a little to get at Asolare's calamari and its gooey-centered pyramid chocolate cake. And Michael and I were thrilled to have discovered that Caribbean rarity: a well-situated restaurant with good, locally inspired cooking.

I wish I could say we also tried some of St. John's 20 miles of footpaths, such as the ranger-guided Reef Bay Trail hike. It begins at 900 feet above sea level and travels nearly three miles, all downhill, through a tropical forest, past Taino Indian petroglyphs and Danish plantation ruins, to the sea, where a Park Service boat ferries you back to Cruz Bay. Instead, we mostly lolled around. Between dips in the pool, we played Parcheesi and gin rummy. We watched the geckos that basked on the yellow walls in the noon sun. We got to know the rhythms of our "neighborhood": the sleek sportfishing boat that motored into Fish Bay every morning, stayed for an hour, and then zoomed back to open water; the enormous cruise ships that lined the horizon most afternoons, waiting to pull into St. Thomas. Some evenings storms blew in suddenly, then departed just as quickly, leaving a rainbow over the green hills—and yet another reason to sing.

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