CHARLOTTE AMALIE, St. Thomas -- For several days in mid-October, the U.S. Virgin Islands will be in the spotlight as never before.

As host destination for the 26th annual Caribbean Tourism Conference, the territory has a "golden" chance to showcase its product line, according to a tourism official.

"This is both a challenge and an amazing opportunity for the destination, and we're running with it," he said.

In fact, agents and conference delegates may run out of time before running out of places to see, shop, swim, sail, stay, wine and dine in the U.S. Virgin Islands -- all sandwiched in during, before or after the conference itself at Frenchman's Reef on St. Thomas.

Those with some time to spare might want to check out some of the newer attractions and developments on each of the islands.

St. Croix

• Carambola Beach Resort, on the island's north shore, is scheduled for a $40 million expansion plan, thanks to its U.S.-based owners and a local firm that will oversee the project.

Plans call for the 151-room property -- the island's largest -- to add 100 more guest units, a conference center, a spa and casino. Work begins next year.

• Delegates traveling between St. Croix and St. Thomas will have a choice of several transportation options.

Mermaid Fast Ferries returns in October with two boats slated to run between St. Croix and St. Thomas twice a day year round. The company suspended its service last January due to financial and equipment problems. This time, according to its owners, new financing, new partners and newer and faster boats are in place.

The 55-minute ferry crossings -- from downtown Christian-sted, St. Croix, to downtown Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas -- are priced at $50 for adults and $40 for children, roundtrip.

Another ferry line, Caribbean Maritime Excursion, also plans daily year-round service between St. Croix and St. Thomas, starting in November.

Seaborne Airlines, with a fleet of amphibious aircraft that land on the water in downtown Christiansted and Charlotte Amalie, expanded its schedule with service to Frederiksted, St. Croix, from St. Thomas and will add 10 daily roundtrips this fall. The Twin Otter aircraft cover the 40 miles between the islands in 18 minutes.

• The 19-room Sand Castle on the Beach -- on Dorsch Beach, to be precise -- in Frederiksted, St. Croix, completed phase one of a renovation program, thanks to new owners who renamed the property (formerly called On the Beach). The renovation added a waterfront restaurant, a beach cafe and a fitness center.

• Fall Into America's Caribbean off-season promotion, valid through mid-December, offers package deals on all three islands but targets St. Croix with room credits and discounted hotel rates for visitors who book this fall and return in 2004.

• Although St. Croix's cruise season is not particularly bright due to the pullout last winter of two major lines, several smaller vessels plan to call regularly in Christiansted from November through mid-March. The Virgin Islands Port Authority supports a plan to beautify the Frederiksted cruise ship pier and waterfront area.

• The St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association launched a new Web site earlier this year at www.stcroixhotelandtourism.com that features not only the usual travel information but also an island directory with links and contact information on topics from airlines to wedding planners.

• Highlights of historical and cultural sites included along the St. Croix Heritage Trail are featured in a new Web site at www.stcroixheritagetrail.com.

• New to the island is the St. Croix Archeological Museum on Company Street in Christiansted. Displays include artifacts found on the island that date to 2000 B.C.

Also new is the East End Marine Park with an interpretative center and a turtle wildlife preserve.

St. John

• New, small, commissionable properties include the Shoreline Inn in Coral Bay and Tradewinds Guesthouse near Cruz Bay.

• Visitor activities in the V.I. National Park now include eco-adventure tours with guided hikes and kayak and snorkeling excursions to out-of-the-way spots.

• New restaurants in Cruz Bay include Asian-inspired Hatsumana and a vegetarian deli and grocery store called KatiLady Deli.

St. Thomas

• Tourism officials warned that conference week also will be "a busy cruise ship week, so delegates will experience heavy crowds downtown when up to five large ships are in port at one time."

Hint: Mondays and Saturdays are the least-busy cruise ship days, when downtown shops are less crowded.

More than 750 ships will call at St. Thomas between October and April, up from the 620 ships last winter. The schedule includes Cunard's new 2,620-passenger Queen Mary II, making its first call on Jan. 24.

Several ships plan to remain in port in St. Thomas until midnight this year, a move that will put wind in merchants' sails by allowing cruise passengers and land visitors opportunities for late shopping and dining.

• St. Thomas is expanding its Crown Bay Marina to take some of the burden off the piers at Havensight Mall, maintained by the West Indian Co. However, that project is not targeted for completion until next June.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see CTO sets annual confab in U.S.V.I. for first time.

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