With so many Caribbean islands to consider for vacations, streamline your choices and focus on the four U.S. Virgin Islands, starting with St. Croix. Staying and immersing in island culture differs vastly from taking quick jaunts off the cruise ship.

 Rhythm of the Islands

Long views abound every way you travel on St. Croix. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Blended Family Traveling Mom.

Long views abound every way you travel on St. Croix. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Blended Family Traveling Mom.

Easy as it is to slip into the rhythm of beach life with glorious Caribbean waters, hip swaying music and gracious, courteous people caring about your every whim, figuring out how also to slip into intriguing Virgin Islands cultural experiences might require some tips.

An island vacation takes some planning if the big, blended, multigenerational family like mine goes with you or if you arranged for their needs when they stay at home.

Why not prep just a little more for an abundant array of adventures?

I observed the difference in impulse culture seekers on a four-night stay on St. Croix and those who checked the options a bit first.DestinationReview

The spur-of-the-moment people who left my resort named The Buccaneer to check out the town found only T-shirt shops and trinkets and wondered why they bothered. I eavesdropped at dinner and heard their laments.

The planners swapped stories about people they met and modeled wearable art they discovered from jewelers and fashion designers.

Here are a few ways to add value to your island time.

The rum

Isn’t a bottle of island rum the gift of choice other travelers have brought you?

Tour historic sugar cane plantations before the distillery. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Blended Family TravelingMom.

Tour historic sugar cane plantations before the distillery. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Blended Family TravelingMom.

Cruzan is the St. Croix distillery — used to be the bottler too but now the rum goes to Kentucky for flavoring and bottling. Picture that truck load.

I’d visit some sugar plantations before taking the Cruzan tour to give perspective to the era when sugar cane was grown on 218 plantations.

Estate Mount Washington is one, restored to depict the middle 1800s, an era which Svend Tranberg calls a time of “outrageous speculation in the European economy regardless of the economic viability of West Indies plantations.”

He can show you his grandfather’s great house and share family stories from the years this land included people free and unfree.

Restorations of sugar cane plantations enrich Island visits. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Blended Family TravelingMom.

Restorations of sugar cane plantations enrich Island visits. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Blended Family TravelingMom.

I discovered Tranberg and Mount Washington through a tour team called CHANT – Crucian Heritage and Nature Tours.

Estate Whim Museum is another way to grasp this sugar plantation era so influential in shaping the Island today. While Mount Washington operates today with a resident caretaker and 14 acres of citrus and avocado trees, Whim is run by the St. Croix Landmarks Society.

Then take the distillery tour and the pale green great house there will mean something to you.

Hang out with the bartender at your hotel and the rum tastings after the tour might mean more too; that worked better for me than idly choosing a few of the 15 fruity flavored varieties.

Once I learned Jack Daniels has something to do with the bottling these days, made sense to order single barrel Cruzan, aged in a bourbon barrel and save the fruit for eating straight up fresh.

The snorkeling

To go beyond a mask and flippers, consider a snorkeling excursion in a National Park site. After all, these Virgin Islands are a territory of the United States and the Park Service is here in three locations.

Get in the water near Buck Island Reef National Monument and snorkel two ways: shallow water to practice if it’s been awhile or you’re a newbie and ten-foot water with a life vest to be sure to stay afloat.

In between those two experiences is the top of the reef, a small mountain actually that you can climb over…or partway up along a clearly marked path.

Buck Island Reef offers a pristine beach on one side. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Blended Family TravelingMom.

Buck Island Reef offers a pristine beach on one side. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Blended Family TravelingMom.

I got there with Big Beard’s Adventure Tours that also offers sunset cruises. My snorkeling was half a day for $75 but another time I’d take the full day for $105 because out to sea in a sailboat gazing at this National Monument and the St. Croix shoreline is a pleasure to sustain.

Plus, lunch served on a pristine shore includes mahi mahi, rum punch, hotdogs and burgers.

If the children with you are too little to snorkel, ask to let them look inside the chest that holds the life vests. The bottom is glass and they can look for Nemo and find Dory. Blue tangs are among the fish swimming here.

Expert at scanning the horizon as much as the underwater coral, Big Beard captain Mike Hocker shared his intrigue with a space age structure near St. Croix’s easternmost tip known as Point Udall.

I anticipated alien arrivals when my taxi took me that way on an Island overview tour the first afternoon.

Point Udall monument sets the tone for precision astronomy a mile away. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Blended Family TravelingMom

Point Udall monument sets the tone for precision astronomy a mile away. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Blended Family TravelingMom

Turns out this is one of ten radio towers in the world capable of peering deep into space. Very Long Baseline Array is the title and precision astronomy the purpose.

In the midst of an idyllic beach vacation to encounter a mysterious structure that moves every five minutes (you can watch it happening on Google Earth) and reaches the height of a ten-story building when straight up is fanciful indeed.

The rum? The sun? Nope it’s real, remotely controlled from Socorro, New Mexico, peering into structures of the Milky Way, studying luminous dark matter.

The Islands

USVI is the quick way to refer to these territories of the United States. Four of them and I flunked the quiz…couldn’t get past St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas.

Count on bold colors and architecture in St. Croix. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Blended Family TravelingMom

Count on bold colors and architecture in St. Croix. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Blended Family TravelingMom

Water Island is the fourth, multiple beaches and 150 residents snuggled in the harbor of Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas.

Passport not required but take your birth certificate with the raised seal to depart any island if you don’t have a passport.

Relax about the phone bill and social media data usage if you are an ATT user. No roaming charges. Check with your carrier if using any other.

You’ll need passports if you take the family to the British Virgin Islands as Unplugged TravelingMom Gina Vercesi knows.