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“Mom, I want to buy a house here.” This pronouncement comes from my 4-year-old son, Marlie, as we’re sitting poolside at The Westin  Resort St. John, overlooking the sparkling blues of Great Cruz Bay. We’ve been on the island all of 24 hours, but Marlie already has big plans.

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“How much do you think a house here would cost?” I ask. With most of St. John designated as national parkland, the remaining acres are precious.

“Two dollars,” he says, then thinks a moment. “And 75 cents.”

If only. I take in the stunning villas dotting the emerald slopes above the bay. The views from those perches must be breathtaking, as are the property values. Until Marlie and his brother become famous surgeons and can buy us a nice Mediterranean-style hillside retreat, we’ll have to settle for just vacationing here. “Honey, wouldn’t you miss all your friends if we moved to St. John?” 

Slideshow: Caribbean way of life Marlie surveys the scene once more. “Mom, we could make new friends.”

We chose to visit St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands to give our kids — and ourselves — the opportunity to experience the untouched beauty of the Caribbean. The Virgin Islands National Park has kept the beaches here pristine, the reefs protected, the forests full of wildlife and exotic plants, and many vistas nearly as pure as when the first Amerindians lived here more than 3,000 years ago. The island is clean, safe and friendly — perfect for a family vacation.

Our first challenge, however, is to persuade the kids to leave the resort. The Westin, with its kids’ club, water trampoline, beach toys and huge pool complete with palm tree islands, is Fun Central. We carefully plan our off-property adventures around Marlie and his older brother Alex’s must-do list: “Mom! Iguana feeding at 4 o’clock!”

Strapped into a rental Jeep, we set out to explore the beaches on the north side of the island. Our Florida-born boys have never seen a mountain and get very quiet as we wind our way up into the hills on cliff-clinging roads. From an overlook atop one peak, we’re all struck speechless at the sight of the glittering blue-green sea gently breaking on a strip of spotless white sand. “Mom, can we go swim down there?”

At every turn we’re rewarded with another unbelievable view. We stop at Hawksnest Beach, part of the national park, where 8-year-old Alex snorkels like a jack-in-the-box, his head popping up every few moments to announce a new discovery. Trunk Bay, with its rest rooms, showers and snack bar, is particularly family friendly. We spend the afternoon here, swimming and snorkeling out to a tiny island surrounded by coral and sea life.

We’re so enamored by St. John’s beaches that it’s days before we make it to the Cinnamon Bay loop for a hike. Compared with the excitement of hermit crab races and pool volleyball at the resort, I’m afraid the boys won’t have much interest in a historic site. I’m dead wrong. They love exploring the old sugar mill ruins, and the shaded jungle trail is easy on little legs but still an adventure. Alex reads each information placard along the way, learning about the old plantation and the native plants and animals. Marlie makes up his own Wild West version as we go. “Dad, this is where the Indians slept and ... did you hear that? It’s an Indian getting ready to shoot an arrow!” Before we reach the end of the trail, the boys are already asking about our next hike.

Back at the resort, my husband and I flop on the Westin’s trademark “heavenly bed” for a little quiet time before our sunset cruise. While we float on a cloud, the boys try to decide between climbing in the giant whirlpool tub in the master suite or playing video games.

Drinks and hors d’oeuvres are served as the Adventurer leaves the Westin dock. About 20 of us are aboard the big catamaran, and though we were total strangers just a few minutes ago, we’re all soon chatting like old friends in the soft glow of the evening light.

After his big day of swimming and hiking, Marlie lies across my lap and falls asleep to the gentle roll of the boat. He’s unusually still, even angelic. Surely he’s dreaming of his house overlooking Great Cruz Bay.

Where to Stay: St. John
Within the Virgin Islands National Park, Rosewood’s Caneel Bay Resort (340-776-6111; http://www.caneelbay.com/) borders seven secluded beaches and offers everything from Thai massages to painting lessons to water sports.

Facing Great Cruz Bay Beach, the Westin St. John Resort (800-621-1270; http://www.westinresortstjohn.com/) offers guest rooms, suites and villas. Amenities include a swimming pool and tennis courts. The resort also has an extensive kids’ club that entertains and educates through activities like sailing lessons and iguana hunts. The onsite water -sports center provides equipment for snorkeling, scuba diving and kayaking.

Caribbean Travel & Life is the magazine for anyone in search of the perfect tropical getaway. Each issue presents expert insider’s advice on where to find the Caribbean’s best beaches and attractions, its finest resorts and spas, liveliest beach bars and activities, and its friendliest people.

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