Maho Bay on
St. John is
Paradise Without a Passport
Enjoy some of the world’s loveliest, loneliest, most serene
beaches—without straying too far from home By Jad Davenport
IT’S A TRAVEL-DOLLAR dilemma:
the bad economic news makes
you crave a Caribbean escape, yet it
also makes you afraid to spend the
cash—causing your beach fantasies
to vanish like a sandcastle at high tide.
There is, however, a closer-to-home
option. The “American Caribbean”—
the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, and the
U.S. Virgin Islands—has white-sand
beaches better than many of those in
the British and French West Indies.
So grab your sunscreen and cruise, fly,
or drive—yes, drive—to these exotic
corners of the American Caribbean.
Florida Keys Trailing off the
state like a jade necklace, the palm-thatched, sand-frosted Florida Keys
run 113 miles into the Gulf of Florida.
Head down U.S. Highway 1 to mile
marker 50 on Marathon Key, where
you’ll find Sombrero Beach: a free,
spacious stretch of white sand. Before
the road ends at Key West, be sure to
stop for a dip at beautiful Bahia Honda
State Park (305-872-3210; florida
adventurous? Go another 70 miles by
boat to Garden Key in Dry Tortugas
National Park (305-242-7700; nps
.gov/drto). The island is dominated
by the ruins of Fort Jefferson, a Civil
War fort that once held the Lincoln-assassination conspirators. The west
side is pillowed with white beaches
sloping into chest-deep lagoons.
Sunny Days Catamarans (800-236-
7937; sunnydayskeywest.com; $135)
offers a two-hour passage each way.
Puerto Rico We can thank the
U.S. Navy for Puerto Rico: the island
was ceded to the United States in 1898
after the Navy’s blockade of San Juan
ended the Spanish-American War. Up
until 2003 the Navy used the cactus-studded hills and pristine beaches of
21-mile-long Vieques Island for target
practice. Today the former range—
nearly 70 percent of the island—has
been reborn as the Vieques National
Wildlife Refuge (787-741-2138; fws
a 75-minute ferry ride from the mainland. To stage your own amphibious
assault, drive east on Highway 997
to where a string of scalloped bays
begins. Playa Caracas has palm-shaded
palapas, but the gem is secluded
Orchid Beach, as far east as you can
go. Spend an evening on nearby Bio
Bay, an inlet with the world’s highest concentration of phosphorescent
creatures. Blue Caribe Kayaks (787-
741-2522; bluecaribekayaks.com) runs
nightly kayak tours for $33. It’s like
paddling through the Milky Way.
U.S. Virgin Islands Just east
of Puerto Rico the holy trinity of St.
Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix make
up the U.S. Virgin Islands. Skip the
cruise-ship bustle of St. Thomas and
take a 20-minute ferry ride to Cruz
Bay on St. John. Your destination:
Virgin Islands National Park (340-776-
6201; nps.gov/viis). If you don’t want
to deal with curvy roads—and driving
on the left—catch a taxi for $12.
Hawksnest, the closest beach, is often
surprisingly empty despite its silky
sand, but don’t miss Trunk Bay—a
postcard vision of sky-blue shallows lapping a honey-colored shore.
There’s a snorkel trail offshore, but get
up early: it’s the best way to avoid the
cruise-ship crowds from St. Thomas. ;
MACDUFF EVERTON/GETTY IMAGES
Jad Davenport is a contributing editor
with Islands magazine.