Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me

." The melody drifts from the sweeping sea-grape tree overhanging a translucent Maho Bay. Taking his voice as a sign that our 4-year-old was still above water, and forbidden to enter his newly claimed pirate fort, I settle into my book and beach chair.

Another morning has begun in St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where decisions about how to spend the day unfurl as naturally as the tropical foliage. Our visits to this island have taught us that worrying about missing something is missing something, and the most memorable times are often unplanned.

Even arrival to the island is unpredictable, and treating it as the first of many adventures begins the transition to island time. A plane ride with a probable stopover, a ferry, and at least two taxis, is the only path from Philly to the lovely town of Cruz Bay, St. John's tiny center. On the ferry from St. Thomas, my son watches a seaplane land, a cruise ship disembark, and several schooners under sail. He finally turns and confirms, "Yep, Capt. Hook definitely lives here!"

In St. John, rules slip away. Bedtime happens when we are just too tired to eat, drink, swim or play anymore. Sometimes, our adventures lead only as far as a pool or beach, but most days we venture to snorkel spots, hiking trails, and sugar-mill ruins. Most of the island is national park land, well-maintained and fairly accessible.

My husband and I slow our pace, observing small wonders through our child's eyes. Iguanas eating bananas from our hands, hummingbirds in our patio garden, and tiny silver fish darting over our toes in the shallows are all given the consideration they deserve. The awe of slipping on a mask and dipping into warm, aqua water teeming with neon life is renewed.

Although the beauty of the island is breathtaking, the people of St. John are even more memorable. One morning at Cinnamon Bay Campground, a park ranger stops us on the trail to the beach. "Where are you going? You cannot go to the beach like that!" he thunders. "Come! Come!"

He leads us to a large bin, which he opens to reveal an assortment of buckets, shovels and toys. Hauling out a small ride-on tractor, he proclaims with a grin, "Now the boy is ready for the sea."

Each night, our crowded, open-air taxi (a euphemism for a pickup truck with bench seats in the back) takes us into town on a roller-coaster thrill ride. As we round the hill above Cruz Bay and begin our steep descent, Sam's jubilant "Wheeee," hands thrown in the air, infects everyone with laughter. One night, he reverently approaches our driver and whispers, "When I grow up, I'm going to drive a taxi on St. John."

"Yes, yes, it could be," the driver says, patting Sam's curly hair.

Town offers lots of dinner options, from fancy to funky. Many restaurants are family friendly, and little boys drawing pictures of the day's exploits while nibbling on conch fritters always bring smiles.

A favorite haunt is Rhumb Lines, tucked away in a courtyard, with excellent food and swings for stools at the bar. An after-dinner swing, with a mango smoothie for Sam and a rum-infused concoction for his parents, makes us all feel truly indulged.

Back home, on a dark and chilly day, Sam gazes out the window and sighs. "Is it wintertime in St. John?" he asks.

"Well, it's called winter, but the weather is still warm and sunny, and everyone is probably at the beach," I answer. He dwells on that, and, with a knowing smile, replies, "That's because St. John is magic, right?"

We both know the answer.