Setting: St. Thomas, capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, lies 1,100 miles south of Miami and is the busier, more sophisticated island. St. John, a three-mile/20-minute ferry ride from St. Thomas, is very laid-back. Both are beautiful.
Attractions: Turquoise seas, white beaches, craggy cliffs, and lush mountains. Easy access to sailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, parasailing, and hiking. Temperatures range from high-80s in winter to mid-90s in summer, with pleasant tropical breezes.
Drawbacks: Isolation, and high cost of living. Airfares to and from St. Thomas (no airport on St. John) are fairly expensive year-round. Aside from the government and the tourism industry, big on-island employers are few. St. Thomas and St. John fall within the June-November hurricane belt, though the government is adept at dealing with storms.
Housing Options: There are very few beachfront homes, as most of the shore is occupied by commercial real estate, but sea views are easy to find because both islands are mountainous. Many folks live in traditional West Indies-style houses. Made of concrete, they're typically two levels, each considered a house (like a duplex). St. Thomas has more range and selection, with many condominium complexes that rent and sell. On St. John, much of the housing market is set aside for weekly villa rentals, and nearly two-thirds of the island is a national park.
Your Next-door Neighbors: A government official, a waitress, a resort management executive, an artist, an entrepreneur, trust-fund boomers. While the islands have drawn many retirees from the mainland, in recent years federal tax benefits designed to attract businesses are beginning to draw more corporate professionals (and young families).
What It Costs: On St. Thomas, a comfortable two- to three-bedroom house in a good neighborhood, with a water view, will start at about $225,000. On St. John, prices start at $300,000. St. Thomas' Water Point, a gated community with private beach on the east end, is selling three- and four-bedroom houses in the $1.15 million range.
Where You'd Spend Free Time: Rent a boat for the day and skim over to one of the nearby British Virgin Islands, such as Tortola, Jost Van Dyke, or Virgin Gorda. Local watersports companies operate group-oriented boat trips, from snorkeling voyages to sightseeing excursions. Go beach-bumming at St. Thomas' Magens Bay or any of St. John's numerous gorgeous beaches.