by Annette Bignami

Charter a sailboat out of the United States Virgin Islands' Red Hook Harbor and you avoid the dubious joys of the 1,000 cruise ships that infest St. Thomas each year. No crowds, no lines, no schedules; just fun in the sun your way.

Plan a trip during the summer and, at the mild price of a five degree warmer temperature, you enjoy a choice of moorings, uncrowded anchorages and room to belly up to some of the best beach bars in the world. Summer's time to share trips with kids too. 

Photo Credit: Annette Bignami

Charters don't seem cheap unless you realize that they include everything. So you might want to know bare boating offers some savings at the price of considerable demands on skippers new to the water. "Charter first, go bare later" seems the best approach to new waters even for experienced skippers. Bare boating, for those new to the water, puts you in charge of your own fate. This isn't a problem unless weather brews, anchors drag, you can't read charts someone drops the only can opener overboard, the couple you're with suddenly fall our of love or you suffer from what experienced boaters sometimes call "Pilgrim problems." Charter cruises custom-tuned to your needs avoid these dubious joys swept under the keel by most nautical writers.

A 45 foot sailboat with your own captain and cook, the kind of food you request and the kind of drinks you prefer offer an upscale look at the USVI and the British Virgin Islands just down Sir Francis Drake Channel. We sampled a few days of this on the THAT?S IT out of Red Hook Harbor on St. Thomas. Want to fish early? That's it. Want to troll as you sail. That's it. Want to anchor out and swim in a school of several dozen bright blue tangs. That?s it. Add a separate cabin, plenty of shrimp, lobster and the like and total coddling and you've a dandy package. Unfortunately, it's about $4,000 for seven days. This looks moderately affordable if split four, five or six ways and it you factor in the savings for food and drink which are included. Best of all a sail or power charter lets you anchor out right at the fishing action. It also removes shoppers from St. Thomas temptations. You might sample a day trip too.

St. Croix's our favorite island even thought it got hammered in 1989 by Hugo, a major hurricane. It's quite a bit further south than the other two and flatter. So roads seem easy to drive, there are lots more flats and even a beer drinking pig. Add snorkel action over on Buck Island, Christanstad shopping and some nifty local restaurants and you've a nice vacation. Basketry, linens and duty-free booze seem the bargain items. The best golf course in the islands is at Carambola and there's a superior tennis set up at Buccaneer Resort, this vacation will be one that will be remembered for a long time.