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With the approach of winter, many boaters have to put thoughts of boating in neutral and wait for the spring thaw. That’s not the case for smart boaters who head to the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) for a little mid-winter time on and off the water.

Heading to the USVI has many advantages: frequent flights to St. Thomas; easy entry requirements for U.S. citizens; use of the U.S. dollar; excellent boating conditions; and experienced charter companies. Quite simply, these islands make for an ideal boating destination.

The USVI consist of three islands: St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. St. Thomas is the busiest and most-developed of the three, with a bustling cruise ship port, world-famous duty-free shopping, and many elegant resorts. Nearby St. John is small and serene, offering a wide variety of activities to outdoors enthusiasts. Thirty-five miles to the south, the largest island, St. Croix, provides the ideal mix of her two sister islands, with two distinct towns to visit and a wide range of accommodations.

Most who charter a boat stick to the waters around St. Thomas and St. John (rather than heading to St. Croix), as well as the neighboring British Virgin Islands (BVI). Entry requirements are a bit more strict for the BVI (even for those on a boat), but any small hassles are well worth it (check www.bvitourism.com for more info)!

The Charter Experience

The beauty of chartering a boat in the USVI (besides warm mid-winter air and water) is that it’s ideal for boaters with all experience levels. “A chartered yacht vacation still remains the best way to experience the true Caribbean,” says Erik Ackerson, the new executive director of The Virgin Islands Charteryacht League.

Whether choosing a fully staffed charter where you leave everything to captain and crew or going completely bareboat (for those qualified), chartering a boat in the USVI gives complete flexibility (including the type and size of boat chartered). The captain and crew bring experience specific to Virgin Islands waters (including the best anchorages and restaurants), while charter company staff can help with complete plans those going out on their own.

The variety of boats available for charter will suit any budget and number of people. Of course, though sometimes expensive, provisioning on St. Thomas is quite easy (some charters even do this for clients in advance, with specific requests filled when possible). Marina Market (www.marinamarketusvi.com) at Red Hook is highly recommended!

St. Thomas Titillates

From beautiful beaches to one of the world's great shopping ports, St. Thomas has something for everyone. It all starts with Charlotte Amalie, where a centuries-old port is now dominated by the boating and tourist scene. You can shop 'til you drop, but you can also explore an incredible amount of USVI history right in town.

St. Thomas is a Caribbean shopping Mecca and Charlotte Amalie is its capital. The options include local art, jewelry, china, linens, liquor, and much more. The hundreds of shops along Waterfront, Main, and Back Streets are packed with merchandise. Other shopping possibilities include the cute alleys in between the major streets in Charlotte Amalie, Vendors Plaza, Mountain Top, Tillet's Gardens, Paradise Point, and Havensight Mall out at the cruise ship dock.

On the history front, the Visitor Information Center, located in Emancipation Square, is the place to start a walking tour of Charlotte Amalie or get information about sightseeing throughout the island. Fort Christian is one of many Charlotte Amalie highlights. This national landmark was built during the 17th century and is the island's oldest building.

Be sure to go inside the Synagogue of Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim (Congregation of Blessing, Peace, and Loving Deeds). If you only visit one place in Charlotte Amalie, make it this synagogue. Located at 15 Crystal Gade, it opened in 1833 and is the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere (Curacao's is the oldest). Drake's Seat is a famous overlook that marks the spot from which Sir Francis Drake watched movements in the area. The view to the east is of the BVI and Drake's Passage, with a stunning view of Magens Bay and Mahogany Run to the west.

St. John is a Natural On and Off the Water

Thanks to two-thirds of the island being kept in its natural state as a national park, the natural wonders of St. John are ready for outdoors-oriented boaters who plan to pack their hiking boots and snorkeling fins along with their sunscreen.

The National Park Visitor Center provides a number of guided tours on and off the island. There are snorkel trips, coastal walks, birding trips, and the popular Reef Bay Hike. The rangers also offer many other programs.

Cruz Bay, St. John's capital, may be the quintessential small Caribbean town. Situated right on the pretty bay, visitors will find the National Park Service Visitor Center, shopping, dining, and watersports. The town also offers the wonderfully eclectic shops at Wharfside Village and Mongoose Junction, as well as many other shopping, dining, and adventure outfitters.

Heading out of town on land or water, visitors find some of the finest scenery in the Caribbean. Caneel Bay, Trunk Bay, and Cinnamon Bay are surely some of the prettiest beaches in the world, thanks to the lush hillsides, stunning sand, and sparkling water.

St. Croix Shines

Those chartering a boat may not get to St. Croix, but it’s worth a separate visit. Whether relaxing on a sun-soaked beach or spending a day sightseeing or trying a new sport, couples will love the variety of St. Croix. You can start your day with sunrise at Pt. Udall (the easternmost point of the U.S.) and then pursue a wide variety of activities throughout your day and stay. Or you can just relax at one of many resorts, hotels, or small inns.

On the watersports front, the crystal-clear Caribbean beckons visitors with a wide variety of things to do above and below the surface. Hotels and outfitters can help with snorkeling, scuba diving, boating, fishing, windsurfing, parasailing, sea kayaking, and much more.

For information, contact the United States Virgin Islands Division of Tourism at 800-372-USVI or visit www.usvitourism.vi. For more information about chartering, visit www.vicl.org (The Virgin Islands Charteryacht League) or www.caribbeancharter.com (Flagship).