I closed my eyes as memories of bad reggae and rowdy anchorages replayed like scenes from a deeply regretted episode of Coeds Gone Wild: BVI, except the footage, from a peak-season experience on the world's most popular charter route, was mine. Our captain had innocently prompted my flashback as he scrolled the chart plotter from St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John in American waters to the British islands of Jost Van Dyke, Tortola and Virgin Gorda.
"Have you been to the Virgin Islands?" he'd asked.
Well, not the Virgins in spring, I wanted to say. Not on a girls' getaway. And especially not on a 122-foot Italian superyacht that carried at most 10 guests in five staterooms, attended by six doting crew.
"No, it's our first time," I replied. It was a pardonable lie, for clearly this was a different movie. To start with, our Costruzioni e Riparazioni Navali classic Lady Madelyn was one of three superyachts in all of St. Thomas on the afternoon we slipped our lines. Imagine: Yours, the lone hull crossing Pillsbury Sound where multitudes have left their wake. More than 100 Virgins await your pleasure, looking as fresh as Laurence Rockefeller found them when he dedicated the Virgin Islands National Park in 1956. The hillsides gleam like an emerald's garden. The locals have returned to their welcoming, unhurried ways. Sublime presentiments filled us as the first golden cays slid by-and our chef hadn't even entered the scene yet.
Lady Madelyn's captain, Boris King, is a Croatian-born dynamo with joie de vivre in his electric blue eyes, while his wife, Shirley, still looks like a nice girl from Edmonton after sailing the world with her captain-husband and operating their own charter yachts in their former lives. With over nine years' experience in the Virgins, the Kings have fashioned itineraries for every taste. Some appreciate the anonymity of private islands, such as Little Thatch, Guana and Necker, which reportedly host 6,000 celebrities a year. Posh resort anchorages at Caneel, Peter Island and Little Dix in Virgin Gorda's North Sound have enduring appeal. Hardy partiers lime it on Norman's Island where "people lie on the bar and take shots from their belly button," the barkeep says. Personally, our pleasures ran to sand-long looping strands of the finest white beaches in nature-and water so turquoise it stuns the eyes.
More than 20 such anchorages ring the circumference of diminutive St. John, where National Park-protected trails run below the waterline as well as on shore. Besides his paranormal enthusiasms, Laurence Rockefeller was an ardent conservationist who bought up and donated half of St. John for posterity. A routine quickly developed on Lady Madelyn of snorkeling for a couple of hours before breakfast; snorkeling in a different venue until lunch; a siesta on the flying bridge while the yacht relocated; and snorkeling until the magic cocktail hour.
Boris King is a great teacher and doer who free-dives easily to 60 feet. His local knowledge took us to less trafficked but healthier scenes than I had experienced, like the cliff faces of Levongo Cay where nappy pelican juveniles dove alongside us into clouds of silversides so thick we couldn't see; or lonely rock piles where vigilant tarpon, mottled Hawksbills, spotted ray and dinner-size lobster materialized in seconds. Boris, who learned lobstering from Fanning Island villagers in the South Pacific, doesn't just peer under the coral heads, he reaches in with his whole arm.
On shore, St. John oozes with attitude, from its policemen-philosophers to pale gray donkeys that occasionally start from the bush with a whinny as if to say, "I'm walkin' here!" (Reportedly they're descendants of Danish stock used to turn the sugar mills.) A culture of its own is Coral Bay, which was civilized by artists, boatwrights and other free spirits of the '60s, people like Peter Muillenberg, who lives and writes wonderful yarns about sailing his Paul Johnson ketch Breath, the island's largest-ever home-built boat. We enjoyed an evening with Peter's wife, Dorothy, on Bordeaux Mountain, listening to gossip and the Coral Bay Hot Club, inspired by the 1930s swing sounds of Hot Club de France. (Peter's book Adrift in a Sea of Blue Light and the Hot Club music CD can be found at www.sailbreath.com and www.cdbaby.com/cd/lauriekeefe respectively.)
When you go, be sure to hike at least once on St. John for distant sea and mountain views that are their own reward. In fact, trails and views are exceptional on almost all the Virgins except Anegada, the highest point of which is 26 feet.
Still, you've probably heard of Anegada, a 40-square-mile atoll within windsurfing distance of Virgin Gorda, famed for powder-white beaches where the only thing to do is snorkel the north-facing reef. This I did on a previous adventure. From Cow Wreck to the Loblollies, where you'll wriggle through tunnels of giant brain corals and tube sponges within easy eight-foot dives, this is easily the best snorkeling in the Virgins. The rest of Anegada is stone quiet, however, and humble as a Bahamian settlement-a place for special occasions, like when you're feeling so curly you could grow a beard.
We even discovered unsung treasures in, would you believe, St. Thomas. Since there were no winter swells, Lady Madelyn had the run of the big island's lush north side. There lay the beautiful Hans Lollick islands fringed in coral gardens, and Magens Bay, whose lookout Sir Francis Drake enjoyed, greeting us like a wide, white smile. Yet another rock named Saba rose out of the sea with a sweet stretch of sand perfect for a picnic.
Our biggest surprise, however, was south-facing Charlotte Amalie. Against a backdrop of construction crews framing the much-anticipated Yacht Haven Grande, this historic free port is a phoenix rising, alive again like the world emporium of old. Guided by Shirley King, we casually counted over 100 jewelers on sidewalks so thronged that people walk in the streets. Vendors beckon from doorways and cool alleys evoking the Dutch merchant warehouses on whose foundations the urban fabric has been restored. Amazing deals have been reported on single stones from $142 to $42,000.
If an island has people on it, the Kings know its best restaurants and bars, but we were altogether taken with our onboard bistro, Chez Monique. French as the name implies, Lady Madelyn's Chef Monique Roluxel is an alchemist of ingredients and once apprenticed herself to a Thai master in order to prepare for a charter with the Malaysan prime minister. Another time, she closeted herself in the galley for five hours with an Arabic-speaking bodyguard to concoct a royal family's native spiced rice. She takes no shortcuts, smoking her own meat for a chicken-mango salad and serving lobster with a court bouillon sauce made by cooking down the shells to an essence that tastes like the ocean itself. When asked to lighten up the evening's beurre blanc for the weight-conscious captain, she replied simply, "No."
Lady Madelyn presents a lovely line to onlookers and a rich, pleasing interior to guests. One of the yacht's great assets is its crew's attentiveness to the finer points-things like the captain's approach to renowned Green Cay after others had departed, making it our own Robinson Crusoe isle, or the way each of four dining areas was continually rotated to complement different menus and moods.
Ever interested in their guests' preferences, Shirley King asked at the end of each day, "What was your favorite thing?" And each day we struggled to choose just one. Even functional stops like clearing customs held something memorable-in this case, the ideal place for a future face-lift, secreted within the grape-colored walls of Bougainvillea Clinic. Dr. Robin Tattersall founded this sanctuary 25 years ago within a ruined fort overlooking Road Harbour, Tortola. The locals fondly but irreverently call him "Tits by Tat" and remember him as an Olympian sailor.
Our tans are fading now, and from a more distant perspective I would tell Shirley that my favorite things were her and Boris, our chef-and springtime, which, no matter how many millions have come before, help the Virgins make you feel like you're the first. n
Lady Madelyn charters for $65,000 per week in high season. In 2007 the yacht will spend the winter in the Virgin Islands and Bahamas and the summer in the Mediterranean. Contact: Larry Ebbs at International Yacht Collection, (954) 522-2323; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.yachtcollection.com
Local Knowledge Anchoring Out: For guests who cherish their privacy, Lady Madelyn's captain takes a "fake right, go left" approach to anchoring in peak periods. At Fallen Jerusalem, guests can experience the same Batholithic granite boulders as the Baths without the crowd.
Shopping with Shirley: "St. John's galleries and boutiques are unique because of the many artists in residence there," Lady Madelyn's first mate says. Craftsmen like wood-turner Avelino Samuel working in sea grape and other local woods offer fresh alternatives to look-alike gifts.
Bars with Beaches, Beaches with Bars-St. John: Quiet Mon Pub is a good ol' local bar with a difference-Kenny Chesney might serve your beer if he's not on tour (www.quietmon.com). The restaurant downstairs, La Tapa, is one of Cruz Bay's best. Skinny Legs is Coral Bay-central; just stick to the burgers and you'll be fine. (www.skinnylegs.com).
St. Thomas: East of Magens Bay Beach, Udder Delight vends the ice creams of St. Thomas Dairies; its specialty, a milkshake laced with Cruzan rum. A dingy ride from Crown Bay lands you far from the crowds on Water Island's palm-fringed Honeymoon Beach where the bar is a long arm's length from your beach chair in the sand.
Hiking Out: For great photo ops and an aerobic workout, try Tortola's Sage Mountain National Park trail, the Biras Creek or Mosquito Island trails on Virgin Gorda, or one of 22 national park trails on St. John, www.vinow.com/stjohn/nationalpark/activities.php.