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Tourists discover why St. John is not just another island

THE impact of St. John is both immediate and indelible. It might occur the moment you see Trunk Bay's heart-shaped rim of flour-fine sand for the first time, or during a cool climb among Bordeaux Mountain's wild orchids. It happens when you snorkel straight into a school of purple and yellow parrot fish and during a velvet canopied night shot through with more stars than you ever imagined. If the smallest and least populated of the US Virgin Islands has become synonymous with the perfect getaway, it will never be just another island. While it is palm-fringed and sun-kissed, it is also aloof and naive - privileged and childlike, all at the same time. More fiercely protected than almost any other place in the Caribbean, it unabashedly extends a selective welcome to those who come into search of the natural and almost hushed St. Johnian way of life.

Native storytellers claim that the mountainous 22-square-mile island is actually an enchanted place that nature decided to keep for itself. They say it was purposely bypassed by those who ruined St. Thomas with runaway building and brought to the attention of those who would hold it dear.

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In the 1950s, Laurence Rockefeller fulfilled the simple tale. When he first spotted the graceful uninhabited beaches from his yacht, he dubbed the island ``paradise.'' His purchase of 5,000 acres and subsequent donation to the national park system ensured that at least half of St. John would remain paradise preserved. Once the posh Caneel Bay Plantation materialized, the quietly rich were magnetized. Rockefeller's support of Cinnamon Bay campground brought a delightful mix of less well-heeled, but enthusiastic naturalists to the island.

At that time, the main port of Cruz Bay consisted of very little. There were a few simple shops, antiquated firehouse, pink post office, chicken-strutted dirt streets, and a long concrete dock. Except for Gallows Point's stilted cottages, overnighting wasn't much of an option.

Thirty years later, St. John's integrity is still intact. But Cruz Bay's charming jumble has grown into about eight blocks. Narrow, one-way streets simulate a traffic jam each time the ferry chugs in. Gallows Point cottages evolved into mansard-roofed condominiums, while cruise ships, surreys, and open-air buses crowd the harbor. Multilevel Mongoose Junction, orchestrated by architect Glenn Speer, is a tasteful cluster of restaurants and artisans' galleries, where everyone goes for the best sandwiches or freshly baked croissants and bread, hand-painted dresses, and pottery chimes.

Rockefeller's original reserve has mushroomed into 9,500-acre Virgin Island National Park, which includes north shore beaches, reefs, mountains, and trails. At the Visitor's Center across from Mongoose Junction, knowledgeable park rangers give lectures and host island-wide tours. They are even happy to answer children's questions like: ``Do fish sleep?''

If Cruz Bay bustles with day-trippers, who ferry across Pillsbury Sound from St. Thomas, St. John's lack of night life ensures that they are gone by dusk. After dark roaming is largely confined to a few restaurants, a steel band, or a cricket match on the school playground.

Quiet nights contrast with option-filled sunny days, when choosing a different beach for sunbathing, snorkeling, and picnicking becomes a regular game. Among some of the most outstanding are Hawk's Nest Beach, Cinnamon Bay, Francis Bay, and Caneel Bay. Trunk Bay, considered one of the world's spectacular beaches, is distinguished by a marked underwater trail that labels varieties of coral and species of fish. But because it is the destination of every island tour, Trunk Bay should be visited before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m., when it is deserted.

Devote another day to exploring the sparsely populated, arid East End. From heights of Centerline Road, which causes visitors to appreciate four-wheel-drive vehicles, you'll see mangrove swamps, bucolic farms, and wild donkeys left over from plantation days. The 1,270-foot peaks of Bordeaux Mountain reveal expansive views of Coral Bay's sleepy harbor. Surreal desert vegetation and cactus forests distinguish beach and picnic spots at Ram's Head, Salt Pond, and Lamishur Bay.

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St. John is ideal for island-hopping. Inexpensive inter-island ferries ply the waters between the British Virgin Islands and Cruz Bay. Caneel Bay Plantation also offers day trips to Tortola, Peter Island, and Virgin Gourda as well as snorkeling adventures to Norman Island and Treasure Island.

Where to stay is a matter of philosophy and economics. For 30 years, Caneel Bay Plantation's unrivaled site of 175 lush acres and seven beaches symbolized the retreat for society and quiet celebrities. While many still return with children and grandchildren in tow, the once insular resort is experiencing what management calls ``changing demographics.'' A new pool and brightly decorated tennis court units contrast with the traditional monochromatic beige and white rooms. All are cooled by trade winds and still omit radios and television sets. But even with its subtle concessions to progress, the famous old resort, now owned by Chesapeake and Ohio, exudes an unmistakable dignity it means to retain.

Five minutes on the other side of Cruz Bay, the stunning 10-month-old Virgin Grand St. John is not only giving Caneel Bay its first real competition; it is emerging as a star. The 236-room hotel reposing on great Cruz Bay's one-half mile sandy ellipse is an artfully executed architectural feat of natural wood, arched windows, and over $1 million of landscaping. Rolling beds of brilliant purple bougainvillea and groves of feathery palms frame a zigzag marble pool, studded with palm-treed islands and waterfall. Spacious air-conditioned accommodations include terraces or verandas, a refrigerator, and carefully disguised television set. A beach restaurant offers casual fare, while the main restaurant features gourmet food that is easily the best on the island.

If you've always wanted to live in a tree house or you simply love camping, St. John offers the best value in the Caribbean. Cinnamon Bay campground is a complex of exotic beach sites, that include tent sites as well as cabins; a commissary, outdoor movie theater, cafeteria, and park service programs. Also within national park boundaries, 10-year-old Maho Bay is a unique community of 100 tent-cottages set on wooden platforms and interconnected by planked walkways. Founder Stanley Selingut's passionate dedication to nature is reflected in each detail from the concealment of electrical wires to water recycling. When you're not cooking, the camp dining room lists simple West Indian fare, and evening programs include slide shows and natural history lectures.

Whether you rent a house, camp out, or vacation grandly, St. John's legacy will make sure you take away delicious, recurring memories of doing absolutely nothing at all, while you repack your bags for more of the same.

If you go

Lodging at Caneel Bay Plantation (Rockresorts, [212] 685-4459) costs $235-$525 per day (double occupancy). Rates at Virgin Grand St. John (800-223-1588) are $355-$555 (d.o.). Tent cottages and sites are priced at $49-$60 per day; contact Maho Bay Camps, Inc. (800-392-9004), or Cinnamon Bay Campground (800-223-7637).

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