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Where they went

St. John, US Virgin Islands

WHO: Jean, 57, and Art Zbinden, 59, of North Andover; Gail Zbinden, 58, of Danvers; and Wendy and Robert ''Bub" Bourassa, both 30, of Middleton

WHERE: St. John, US Virgin Islands

WHEN: One week in December

WHY: ''For fun in the sun," Jean Zbinden said. ''We'd been to many Caribbean islands but never St. John. We knew the snorkeling was supposed to be some of the best in the islands. We wanted to escape winter before the rates went up, and also as a Christmas gift for ourselves."

BLENDED FAMILY: ''Gail and I are best of friends and knew each other from college days," said Zbinden of her husband's first wife. Wendy Bourassa is the daughter of Gail and Art, and Bub is Wendy's husband.

TRULY SAINTLY: ''Having now been to St. John, we all feel that it sets the standard for the Caribbean," Zbinden said. ''Two-thirds of the island is US national park. It's very largely undeveloped, very mountainous, very green. It was totally uncrowded, with pristine beaches, crystal clear water, and fabulous weather."

HOME BASE: ''This also was the first time any of us had stayed in a house," she said. From an ad in a Caribbean magazine, the Zbindens discovered www.cateredto.com, and from there they rented Villa Maria for $3,000 for the week. ''It was an awesome house on a hill overlooking [Great] Cruz Bay. There were many different decks on many levels, three bedrooms with three bathrooms. It was equipped with everything you could possibly need: gas grills, deck chairs, even binoculars." Several times they grilled food for dinner, while ''watching dreamy sunsets with Bob Marley blaring from the speakers." The only downside was someone came into the house one night while they were sleeping and stole cash from their wallets.

BEACH BOUND: ''We rented a jeep for the week and went to a different beach every day," Zbinden said. ''One day, we hiked in the national park. You start way up in the mountains and go down to a beach. We all have our own snorkeling equipment, and we used it every day." Their favorite beaches were the white sandy ones at Honeymoon, Hawksnest, and Maho Bay. ''Honeymoon is accessible only by boat. That was the day we rented our own boat and captain to take us around. At Hawksnest and Maho, we were the only people on the beach."

SHRIVELED UP: ''Our favorite snorkeling was at Waterlemon Cay, Maho, Gibney Beach, and at Lameshur Bay," she said. ''At Waterlemon, we went all the way around this island, this little cay. There were parrotfish, butterfly, yellowtail snappers, stingray, barracuda, turtles. We didn't spend much time sitting on the beach. We'd be in the water at least five hours a day. We were like raisins."

THE BRITISH SIDE: ''Our favorite day of the week was when we went to BVI [British Virgin Islands] on this boat called the Stormy Petrol, which I found online," Zbinden said. ''We were with six other people we didn't know, and they were lots of fun. The first stop was the Baths over in Virgin Gorda. The captain took us through the caves there. He would say, 'Jump up here,' 'Turn over on your back,' 'Do a belly crawl.' It was so much fun. After the Baths we stopped for lunch on Cooper Island, a quintessential Caribbean island of only 10 people. We also went to Norman Island, where there's a wall reef as opposed to a flat reef. It's known as the best place to snorkel in the Caribbean. The reef was on these rocks all the way around and we snorkeled all the way around. It was absolutely incredible."

ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING: ''We've already made reservations for this December," Zbinden said. ''Same house, same island, same cast of characters. We cannot wait to go back."

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