Casa Bella - St. Thomas, USVI

If there is one thing we've learned over the years representing the villa industry in the Caribbean, it is that the real estate agent's mantra--"location, location, location"--really translates to "beachfront, beachfront, beachfront."

Real estate premiums are nothing new in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the English-speaking territory that was once known as the Danish West Indies. In fact, when the United States purchased the three main islands and 60 cays during World War I for $25 million in gold, it was the most expensive U.S. land purchase in history.

The challenge is to find a villa that is both affordable and has easy access to the water. For young families like ours--our son Wesley is five--there is an additional hurdle. Many villas only allow older children.

Which is what led me to decide on the newly built property on St. Thomas that has just recently entered the rental market, Casa Bella Villa. The villa, while not beachfront, sits right above a cove, within easy walking distance of the beach. Furthermore, the owners planned it as a family retreat and the property has been extensively child-proofed.

Contemporary architecture aside, when we pulled into the driveway at Casa Bella Villa, and passed through the imposing moon gate, my first impression was of a Maltese fortress guarding a rocky cove. The tri-level villa is built into the side of one of the spiny ridges that separate the coastline into more than 40 coves.

The extra altitude afforded by the location not only offers spectacular views across Hull Bay, but also has another side benefit--privacy. One of the tradeoffs at beachfront properties is that you always have beach goers ambling past your porch. Not here. The only living things you'll spot outside the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors are frigate birds.

In contrast to its exterior's secluded appearance, the villa's 3,000-square-foot interior has a spaciousness that's perfect for families. The main living area--aptly called the 'Great Room'--is a continuous space accented with high Moorish arches and Roman columns. You can simultaneously boil spiny lobsters in the kitchen, discuss beach plans with your spouse in the dining room and keep an eye on your child watching a DVD in the living room. The owners thoughtfully child-proofed the property, installing gates not only around the terraces, but also around the pool.

Although not a true luxury villa, the interior has nice touches. The d?cor is island-style with lots of teak and mahogany furniture not just from the Caribbean, but also from Indonesia. There is air conditioning throughout, though sea breezes and ceiling fans make for a pleasant alternative.

The three bedrooms on the main level have a clean, efficient feel. The master bedroom has a bubbling fountain, walk-in closet and attached bathroom. It is connected to a twin bedroom, making it perfect for couples with young children. The bedroom on the lower level has a king bed and a private balcony.

We had settled into an afternoon of enjoying the pool, a large oval set among massive black boulders, but the beach was calling. Hull Beach is a quiet stretch of sand, just a four-minute walk away. Unlike the more popular strands that are inundated with day trippers and cruise ship passengers, Hull Beach is a local's spot and we never had trouble finding a piece of sand to stake out. The nearby Hull Bay Hideaway, a beach bar, has the freshest daily catches.

Back at Casa Bella Villa that evening, we put Wesley down and made some mojitos. Outside, a moonless tent of stars wheeled overhead. The wind had risen and the surf was growling. I remembered something the owner had told me.

"If you get a good northeastern wind going, go out on the back deck and listen to the waves. You're close enough that you'll even get hit by the spray." I took another drink and smiled. I could taste the salt on my glass.

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