Best Damn Weekend Ever: Paddle Around St. John, Virgin Islands NP

Kayak amid the reefs and sand of Virgin Islands National Park
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Kayak amid the reefs and sand of Virgin Islands National Park

SURE, MOST BACKPACKERS are rugged enough to handle the likes of a multiday snowshoe into the frozen Bob Marshall Wilderness. But there's no shame in occasionally exploring places where the light's a little softer and the water's warm, and where lying on the sand under a seagrape tree after a day of paddling doesn't feel too bad at all, thanks very much.

To that end, the island of St. John has an unusually cool fringe benefit: More than 60 percent of its acreage and much of the reef-dappled waters around it is preserved as Virgin Islands National Park. In 4 days you can circumnavigate an entire park and then some--and still have time to snorkel reefs abundant with psychedelic fish and hike to highlights like Arawak Indian petroglyphs and the ruins of Dutch sugar plantations.

This isn't virgin terrain--Dutch slave labor turned the 19-square-mile island into a massive sugar producer in the 1700s--but there's also little resemblance to other Caribbean paradises that have vanished under the pastel-colored concrete of mega-resorts. "If it weren't for the national park," says Arthur Jones, owner of Arawak Expeditions, "this would all look like St. Thomas."

Jones's 4-day, 30-mile guided paddle is the way to go, and not just because he owns one of the few kayak concessions around. He knows, for example, that the place to stop for lunch on day 1 is Henley Cay; snorkeling there, you'll often find vivid yellow-and-black-striped fish called sergeant majors dawdling around intricately latticed sea fans. Dolphins occasionally swim near the boats, but winged wildlife is far more common: pelicans diving and scooping meals; frigate birds snatching fish with their talons; and American oystercatchers plucking mollusks from the shallows with their cartoonish carrot-stick beaks. You'll bunk down the first night about 8 miles from the launch at Maho Bay Camps, where the tent cabins run on wind and sun.

The second day is the longest and toughest paddle, 10 miles in all, all of it upwind along the island's north shore until you turn the corner around the East End. But even there, "tough" is relative: You'll start early to take advantage of the morning calm, then stop in Brown Bay for lunch and more snorkeling (the turtlegrass there often attracts hawksbills and green sea turtles), before rounding the island and stopping for the night at Vie's Campground in Hansen Bay.

Day 3 includes a 1.5-mile hike out from Salt Pond up through scrubby, cactus-filled terrain to Ram Head, located on a gradually narrowing, 150-foot-high peninsula where the sea crashes in on both sides. The final night is in the boonies of Lameshur Bay, the remotest part of the island and home to the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station, a research facility appointed with cabins.

From there, the last 7 miles are downwind back to the starting point in Cruz Bay. When you retire to the Lime Inn, where the conch fritters come hot from the pans, think about how the wind up in Bob Marshall is probably blowing something fierce.

Getting there There's no airport on St. John, so most travelers fly to St. Thomas and then hop the 20-minute ferry ($3 one way) to Cruz Bay. The ferry runs hourly; for info, call (340) 776-6282 or visit www.stjohnusvi.com.

Guide Arawak Expeditions runs 4-day trips for $995 from December 15 to April 30 and for $895 the rest of the year. The rate includes boats, lodging, and food. (800) 238-8687; www.arawakexp.com

Park betawww.nps.gov/viis; (340) 776-6201