Approaching the Cyril E. King airport on St. Thomas, one is welcomed by the sight of spectacular turquoise waters dotted with a smattering of islands. From large to tiny, each one quilted with verdant, tropical foliage in brilliant hues of green, perfect for island hopping during a day trip cruising the British Virgin Islands with kids.
We had planned to spend our time on St. John, the bulk of which is a national park. We would visit the different beaches and hit some of the park’s many hiking trails with our three young girls, ages 11, 9 and 7.
Years earlier, pre-kids, my husband and I had chartered a catamaran with another couple and sailed around the British Virgin Islands mooring off a different island cay each night and learning the ropes from our onboard instructional skipper. Our girls were still too young for such an adventure, but the great memories we had of being out on the water encouraged us to find a viable option for a kid-friendly boating experience.
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Day Charters from St. John
Day charter options are abundant on St. John. Initially we thought about sailing, but then we realized a powerboat would allow us to see far more in one day. And the speedier power boat would appeal more to the children than the slower pace of a sail.
After reading ratings and perusing charter company websites, we booked a day with Palm Tree Charters and Captain John Brandi. Palm Tree had outstanding reviews and the appealing motto, “You Choose the Cruise.” John’s wife Sue handles all of the bookings and replied promptly and enthusiastically to my initial email inquiry. We later communicated several times, going over possible itineraries as well as the details of our cruise.
An important element to remember is that if you plan on visiting any of the British Virgin Islands on your charter, everyone will need passports. You must clear customs in Tortola as you enter British waters and again in Cruz Bay upon returning to the US Virgin Islands.
We met Captain John and the Palma Bella, the Brandi’s 26-foot power catamaran, at the National Park Marina in Cruz Bay, the main town on St. John. Most day charters start their days there and the dock was bustling on the warm, sunny morning we arrived. Captain John welcomed us aboard, giving us some paperwork to complete for customs and relieving us of the bottles of water and Caribe we brought along to put in his ice-packed cooler.
Seeing St. John by Boat
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Business complete, John powered up and we were off. Our day began with a cruise up the north shore of St. John, taking in the view of many of the gorgeous beaches we’d been visiting during our previous days on the island.
John is a fount of knowledge, pointing out homes perched on the mountains above and telling us stories about their histories and owners, directing our attention to smaller cays while naming each and describing the reefs below, and sharing tales of slave revolts and other island lore as we headed toward Sir Francis Drake Channel, the body of water separating us from the BVI.
Cruising into the British Virgin Islands
Pulling up to the customs dock in Tortola a short while later, John collected our passports and popped inside while we lounged in the shade beneath the cat’s large bimini. In just a few moments, John was back aboard and we were on our way across Sir Francis Drake to Norman Island, also known as Treasure Island for its booty-laden caves and its role as the inspiration for the famed tale by Robert Louis Stevenson.
After some great snorkeling at Norman, it was time to find a spot for lunch and the unanimous choice was to eat aboard the William Thorton, better known as the Willy T, a 100-foot schooner that hosts a bar and a restaurant. My husband and I were there at night on our last visit and the ambience was far tamer at lunchtime than it had been then. The food was delicious as was the rum punch and the kids loved eating on a pirate ship.
The rest of the day was spent cruising to Sandy Spit, the tiny piece of paradise that is the quintessential deserted island and then on to White Bay on Jost Van Dyke for a visit to the Soggy Dollar bar. The only way to get to the Soggy Dollar is by swimming or wading up to the beach from your boat and the girls each wanted a dollar so they had their own soggy bills to spend when they arrived.
We whiled away the time enjoying our painkillers, lounging on hammocks and playing the ring toss game on the beach. It was definitely hard to leave there when Captain John rounded us up to head home.
The sun was growing lower in the sky as we cruised back across Sir Francis Drake Channel to St. John. The girls sat on the bow of the boat with the spray from the Caribbean in their faces, comfortable now on their sea legs. I nursed the rest of my painkiller, enjoying the spicy taste of nutmeg as it mixed with the salty sea air and tilted my face to the warm sun. I don’t think I’ve ever had such an incredible day.