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Adventure at Sea in the British Virgin Islands

TORTOLA, British Virgin Islands -- Blackbeard and his fellow pirates were lured to this tropical paradise for the same reasons we were: Hidden coves, calm waters and some 50 islands within sight of each other, most ringed with pristine white sand beaches.

Unlike the pirates, we weren't looking for a cave to stash pieces of eight, though I wish we could have found some of their treasure which, legend has, is hidden here. We came to sail the easily navigated, clear blue waters that draw yachters and divers from around the world, increasingly these days with their children aboard.

Wherever we dropped anchor, we snorkeled, hunted for snails and dug in the sand on tiny island beaches with fellow boating families.

``We're spending a lot more time together on the boat than we would at a big resort with kids' activities,'' observed Joan Williams, a Virginia working mom of two who was anchored nearby.

That certainly was the case for our gang of five -- Matt, 13, Reggie, 11, Melanie, 6, my husband Andy and me. Between two jobs, two schools, piano lessons, soccer, swim meets and religious school, among other things, we hadn't spent so much concentrated time in months. Frankly, we were all surprised exactly how much we enjoyed it -- even with a few tiffs along the way.

Here's a diary of our four-night adventure at sea on the gleaming 50-foot boat named Winnepesaukee (after a New Hampshire lake) we'd chartered from Moorings, the largest yacht broker in the Caribbean.

Friday: Captain John meets us at the small Tortola airport and immediately whisks us and our piles of luggage in a dinghy (it takes four trips) to our boat anchored just off shore. As soon as we board, I realize how badly I've overpacked. (As it turns out, we barely get out of bathing suits and T-shirts.)

The cabins on our boat are tiny, just 8 feet by 5 feet: The bathrooms (there are hose showers) are the size of a small closet, with barely room to turn around. You have to count to 15 every time you flush!

The kids like the novelty of built-in everything, and the always-available drink cooler, snacks and cookies, and the chance to hoist sails, take the wheel or tool around in the dinghy.

I like not having to worry about getting anyone anywhere or cooking a meal. Matt and Reggie are accomplished sailors, but we're not. That's why we opted for a crewed yacht. Fifty-three- year-old John Ringeis, an accountant and his 39-year-old wife Lynn, a caterer, had forsaken San Francisco a year ago for life aboard this charter boat.

They're ready to set sail as soon as we settle in. First stop: Great Harbour on Peter Island, one of the BVI's most picturesque islands and home to a posh resort. (Virgin tropical drinks cost $6.50 each, I discover too late.)

Matt and Reggie are thrilled they can simply jump off the boat to snorkel. We spy all varieties of red, blue and purple fish. Melanie prefers playing with her mask and fins at the beach 200 yards away.

We're served dinner and drinks under the stars.

No one is the least bit seasick. Melanie is lulled asleep by the gently rocking boat before we've finished dinner.

Saturday: Matt and Andy are picked up early by Underwater Safaris to scuba dive. Melanie, Reggie and I opt for a morning on the beach.

This is my idea of a Caribbean island -- crystal blue water, white sand beach, thatched umbrellas and a beach bar. We're on a mission to find someone who can braid the girls' hair. No luck but we spend a happy, lazy morning in the sun. (We have slathered ourselves in waterproof sunscreen first, of course.)

When the guys return, we lunch on English muffin pizzas, then sail 90 minutes to Cooper Island, where we'll anchor for the night.

There are about 20 boats of various sizes and shapes anchored nearby. We head over in the kayak to the Cooper Island Beach Club, the tiny hotel and beach with its dive shop.

Morgana Edmund, who works at the shop, will plait Reggie's entire head in braids for $40. Reggie is thrilled and sits patiently for nearly 2 hours to get the job done.

Melanie doesn't have that kind of patience. She opts for just a couple of braids and spends the rest of her time on the beach with some other children she's met from the other boats.

We return to the yacht for dinner -- pasta with sun dried tomatoes. It's good, but the kids don't eat much. I wish Lynn had some more kid-friendly fare on her menus. The brownies she baked for desert were a big hit. We're in bed by 9:30. So much for after-dinner Travel Scrabble.

Sunday: Matt and Andy are off diving again, this time at the the BVI's most famous dive site, the wreckage of the HMS Rhone, which sunk in 1867. While they dive, we return to Cooper Island where Reggie gets a hair-braiding lesson when Melanie decides she's ``got to have'' a few more.

I'm struck again by how little it takes to amuse the kids here -- sun, beach, friendly people and a snorkel and mask.

Next stop: The Baths, where huge boulders just offshore form caves, grottoes and small pools made for exploring. We sail six miles (90 minutes) to the BVI's top tourist attraction. Luckily, we've avoided cruise ship day and have the place pretty much to ourselves. We wind through the caves to a deserted beach so spectacular it belongs in a movie. Reggie and I swim the half- mile back.

Uh oh. Melanie is following big brother Matt up to the top of some boulders. Not safe for my barefoot 6-year-old, I decide, but Melanie won't listen. To a child of the Disney generation, it's hard to understand that natural attractions can be dangerous, unlike those at a theme park. Melanie is not happy to have a time-out on the beach, but I think she learned her lesson.

There's no wind so we motor sail five miles over to Marina Cay, our home for the night. The trip takes about an hour and we laze on board, stretched out on the front of the boat. Aah, what a life!

We go ashore for ``happy hour.'' We sip our drinks overlooking the sea, reminiscing about our Caribbean honeymoon 15 years before. We'd talked then, as honeymoon couples do, about the children we'd have. The kids loved our old stories. We love being face-to-face with how lucky we've been in those years.

Monday: Before the kids are awake, Andy and I decide to snorkel. We feel so free, just jumping off the boat on a whim. This morning we sail 12 miles to White Bay, about two hours. The point isn't just getting somewhere -- its how much fun you have getting there.

There's a bar on the beach called the Soggy Dollar, so named because people often swim up to the bar from their boats. Matt and Andy go of snorkeling, but Melanie has another agenda.

``Come on mom, let's play pirate and slave!'' I'm the slave. We're joined by other parents and kids -- French and British as well as American.

Matt and Andy insist Reggie join them at ``the best snorkeling spot ever'' about a half mile down the beach. They're right. There's a sea turtle!

We overnight about 1/2 mile around the cove at Great Harbour, famous for Foxy's bar and raucous New Years Eve parties. Too many mosquitoes, the kids decide. It's the low point of our trip. Everyone is tired and crabby. Matt pushes Reggie in the water and the tears flow.

By dinner, I'm glad everyone has rallied for our final night at sea. We feast on grilled chicken, mashed potatoes and baby carrots (a winner with the kids) and listen to Nat King Cole CDs.

The stars are bright: We're just a speck in the ocean. Everything -- especially work -- seems far away. We're dreading packing up tomorrow. We need more time -- say, a few years!

The best time for families to go is low season, mid-April until mid-December, when prices drop significantly. Many call early summer Family Season here. Hurricane season technically starts in June, but yachters say avoid late August and September.

The Moorings has crewed summer family charters, including visits to pirate haunts, starting at $950 per adult and $650 per child (under 6 are free), including meals. Call The Moorings at 800-437-7880 or visit the Web site at www.moorings.com.

Sunsail offers special rates in the summer which would enable a family of four or five to cruise for two weeks in the BVI for under $4,000, including a skipper. Call 800-327-2276 or visit the Web site at www.sunsail.com.

Experienced sailors can opt for a ``bareboat,'' which you sail and provision yourself. Moorings charters start at $540 per day in the BVI (Call 800-535-7289). If you and the kids want to learn to sail together, The Offshore Sailing School at South Seas Plantation Resort in Florida (800-221-4326, www.offshore-sailing.com) offers four-day family packages starting at $2650, including accommodations.

The luxe Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda in the BVI boasts a 100-plus fleet and offers inclusive family weeks, including the junior sailing program for about $4,500. Call 800-872-2392.

(Look for Eileen Ogintz's books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')

(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to eogintz@aol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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