WITH ABOUT 60 PERCENT of its lush green hills and white crescent beaches set aside as national park, the island of St. John isn't all that different from what Columbus saw when he claimed these islands for Spain. All things considered, it's still the virgin Virgin. But with increasing numbers of day-tripping cruise-ship passengers catching the ferry over from St. Thomas, you need to pick your spots a little more carefully these days. In short, you need to charter a boat and go SAILING. Cruise among secret coves, secluded anchorages, 40 beaches, and the reefs that ring St. John (many of them within park boundaries) for ten days or more without exhausting the idyllic possibilities. Hawksnest Bay is a locals' favorite, with three gorgeous beaches, where incurable Type A's can usually find that day's New York Times at nearby Caneel Bay Resort by midafternoon. Leinster Bay's Waterlemon Cay is a blissful spot for ogling corals, starfish, parrot fish, sergeant majors, spiny lobsters, octopuses, and intriguingly ugly scorpion fish. Along the south shore, Salt Pond Bay offers more great snorkeling and a sheltered mooring, and from there you can catch the switchbacking trail for a mile through agaves and cacti up to Ram's Head, a prime vantage for winter whale-watching. Since no water-skiers or jet skis are allowed in park waters, the only "noise" you'll hear at sunset is the gentle slap of wave on hull and, presumably, the clinking of glasses. For crewed charters, contact Yates Yachts (866- 994-7245, www.yatesyachts.com ), the Virgin Island Charter Yacht League (800-524-2061, www.vicl.org ), or Island Yachts (340-775-6666, www.iyc.vi), which can also arrange bareboat charters. Prices vary widely, but figure about $1,300-$1,400 per person per week for a crewed boat (based on a group of six or so); bareboat charters start around $1,700-$2,500, depending on the season.
WHEN TO GO: For fewer visitors and lower off-season rates, find the gaps on the calendar between winter's peak crowds and August-to-October's hurricane seasonnamely, May through July and November to mid-December.
ANNUAL VISITORS: 703,992. (High: March and April, both about 82,600. Low: September, 26,134.)
MORE CHOICE ADVENTURE: None of the park's 22 HIKING trails is longer than a couple of miles, but all lead to extremely pleasant diversions: ruins of Danish colonial sugar mills and plantations, petroglyphs, aromatic tropical forests, and views of Tortola and the rest of the British Virgin Islands.
HEADLAMP READING: A Natural History Atlas to the Cays of the U.S. Virgin Islands, by Arthur Dammann and David Nellis; Lonely Planet's Diving & Snorkeling the British Virgin Islands
LOCAL SPECIALTY: At Skinny Legs, a beach-shack hangout in Coral Bay on the island's east side, you can enjoy a proverbial cheeseburger in paradise and a Blackbeard Ale while mingling with the yachties who stop in after picking up their mail next door.
PARK HEADQUARTERS: 340-776-6201, www.nps.gov/viis