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A Side Trip to Buck Island

The crystal-clear waters and white-coral sands of Buck Island, a satellite of St. Croix, are legendary. Some call it the single-most-important attraction of the Caribbean. Only about a half-mile wide and a mile long, Buck Island lies 1 1/2 miles off the northeastern coast of St. Croix. A barrier reef here shelters many reef fish, including queen angelfish and smooth trunkfish. In years past, the island was frequented by the swashbuckling likes of Morgan, Lafitte, Blackbeard, and even Captain Kidd.

Buck Island's greatest attraction is its underwater snorkeling trails, which ring part of the island and are maintained by the National Park Service. This 850-acre National Monument features a snorkeling trail through a forest of elkhorn coral. Equipped with a face mask, swim fins, and a snorkel, you'll be treated to some of the most beautiful underwater views in the Caribbean. Plan on spending at least two-thirds of a day at this extremely famous ecological site. Labyrinths and grottoes await scuba divers. The sandy beach has picnic tables and barbecue pits, as well as restrooms and a small changing room. There are no concessions on the island.

You can hike the trails that twist around and over the island. Circumnavigating the island will take only about 2 hours. Trails meander from several points along the coastline to the sun-flooded summit, affording views over nearby St. Croix. Warning: The island's western edge has groves of poisonous manchineel trees, whose leaves, bark, and fruit cause extreme irritation when they come into contact with human skin. Always bring protection from the sun's merciless rays -- including a hat and sun block.

Sometimes small-boat operators trying to make an extra buck will, for a negotiated fee, run people to Buck Island from Christiansted Harbor. These services are unscheduled and likely to be available in winter only. It's best to stick to the charter companies we recommend, as they are more reliable. Nearly all charters provide snorkeling equipment and allow for 1 1/2 hours of snorkeling and swimming.

Mile Mark Watersports, in the King Christian Hotel, 59 King's Wharf, Christiansted (tel. 340/773-2628), conducts two types of tours. The first option is a half-day tour aboard a glass-bottom boat departing daily from the King Christian Hotel, from 9:30am to 1pm and 1:30 to 5pm; it costs $65 per person. The second is a daily full-day tour, from 10am to 4pm, on a 40-foot trimaran for $95. Included in this excursion is a box lunch.

Captain Heinz (tel. 340/773-3161) is an Austrian-born skipper with more than 25 years of sailing experience. His trimaran, Teroro II, leaves the Green Cay Marina "H" Dock at 9am and 2pm, never filled with more than 23 passengers. This snorkeling trip costs $65 for adults, $45 for children 11 and under. The captain is also a considerate host: He will even take you around the outer reef, which the other guides do not, for an unforgettable underwater experience.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.