The first place my kids ever put a mask and snorkel into the water was down here in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I'm afraid it spoiled them for more ordinary snorkeling experiences. I still have photos of them standing on the white-sand beach at Cinnamon Bay, along with the five kids of the other families we were traveling with, looking like an invasion party of aliens in their rented snorkeling gear -- eight breathing tubes sticking up like antennae, eight pairs of flippers shifting impatiently in the sand, and their masks making them look like eight frowning Cyclopes. We deliberately took forever getting that shot, just because it made them so antsy. Enough photos already, they wanted to get out in that turquoise water and start snorkeling.
Their snorkeling debuts took place where so many others have started out: at Trunk Bay, where the National Park Service has set up the National Park Underwater Trail. This 225-yard trail follows a reef where all the underwater features are labeled with signs 5 to 15 feet under the water's surface. Snorkeling snobs wouldn't be caught dead at popular Trunk Bay doing the trail -- they prefer more remote places like Watermelon Cay or Salt Pond Bay or Haulover Bay, where the snorkeling's a lot more challenging -- but with children, Trunk Bay is just the thing. The signs help to focus young snorkelers' attention and keep them going, and it was extremely helpful for them to learn the difference between various coral structures, between a sea fan and an anemone. As for the bright parrotfish flitting by, well, no sign can be attached to something that elusive, but since the signs had made the kids more attentive snorkelers, they spotted the parrotfish all right. They were hoping for sea turtles -- hawksbills and leatherbacks are common in these waters -- but the turtles sensibly kept their distance. With kids, we were also grateful for Trunk Bay's other amenities -- flush toilets, a snack bar, and lifeguards.
We also just plain fell in love with St. John -- with two-thirds of it protected as Virgin Islands National Park, it's remarkably unspoiled, with lots of dense foliage and hiking trails and unruffled quiet, surrounded by expanses of clear, sparkling turquoise waters. It's what we'd always expected the Caribbean to be -- and now that we had the kids hooked on snorkeling, our island-hopping days could begin.
Nearest Airport: Cyril E. King, St. Thomas, 45–60 min. by boat.
Where to Stay: $$ Cinnamon Bay Campground, Cruz Bay (tel. 800/539-9998 or 340/776-6330; www.cinnamonbay.com). $$$ Westin St. John Resort, Great Cruz Bay (tel. 866/716-8108 or 340/693-8000; www.westinresortstjohn.com).