Kick Back in Coral Bay
Cruz Bay means honeymooners, Gucci, and retirees. Coral Bay means beachside conch fritters, wandering goats, and thoroughly basted expats living on their sailboats. The choice is fairly clear. If you find yourself in Coral Bay (population 300, they guess), head straight to Skinny Legs (340-779-4982), an open-air restaurant where locals gather to drink and watch yacht races on TV. Drop your bags at Concordia Eco Tents ($85$125; www.maho.org), a lean, green collection of tent-cottages outside of town, complete with solar showers, private bathrooms, and kitchenettes. In the evening, take a walk around a place that local bumper stickers call "the worlds largest open-air asylum." Youre bound to meet some interesting folks...
Acres: 14,689 Contact: 340-776-6201
VIRGIN ISLANDS IS ONE of the tiniest parks in the system, located entirely on and around St. John, the smallest of the three major U.S. Virgin Islands. But if idyllic Caribbean beaches are what youre after, this parkwhich occupies approximately 30 square miles of land and seais plenty big. St. John is home to some 40 sheltered bays, each with its own fluffy carpet of sand and many with a coral reef not far offshore. You can hit them all by circumnavigating the island in a sea kayak, covering roughly 35 miles in five days.
From Cruz Bay, paddle two miles to Henley Cay (a good snorkeling spot), and then on for two more miles to Cinnamon Bay and the parks only official campground. Several hiking trails lead from the camp to 18th-century sugar-factory ruins and into a tropical forest. On day two, a leisurely one-and-a-half-mile voyage takes you to the Maho Bay Camps, a managed eco-resort with cabin-tents perched on a hillside, a dive shop, and snorkeling. Start early the next morning for the islands primitive East End, paddling upwind along the north shore, eventually reaching Hansen Bay and a private beachfront campground run by Violet "Vie" Mahabir. Collapse in the sand beneath 100-year-old palm trees, or you can amble over to Vies Snack Shack to refuel on fried chicken.
On day four youll paddle five and a half miles to Ram Head peninsula and the islands wild, roadless southeastern coast. Hike to the top of the Head for crows-nest views of the ocean. Youll spend your final night in Little Lameshur Bay at the nonprofit Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (888-647-2501, www.islands.org/virgin/viers), home to rustic cabins, hiking trails, and more great beaches. Complete the circle on day five, stroking four and a half miles back to Cruz Bayits downwind all the way.
GETTING THERE: For an outfitted loop around St. John, contact Arawak Expeditions (from $995 per person; 800-238-8687, www.arawakexp.com). Experienced open-water kayakers can rent from Crabbys Watersports, in Coral Bay (340-714-2415, www.crabbyswatersports.com).
WHEN TO GO: Year-round. But beware: Hurricane season runs from June through November.