It seems a bit extravagant to consult God on vacation details, but for the Caribbean islands, don't hesitate to call on a saint or two.

It seems a bit extravagant to consult God on vacation details, but for the Caribbean islands, don't hesitate to call on a saint or two.

Nine islands share the Saint distinction, including three U.S. Virgin islands; one isle divided by two nations; some Windward and Netherlands Antilles landfalls; the St. Tropez of the Caribbean; and a country that changed its name from Christopher to Kitts.

The island name game was first played by Columbus, who wasn't so much creative as he was religious. "Christopher Columbus set the trend of naming the islands after saints," said Trevor Marshall, a historian who lectures at the University of the West Indies. "As time went on, everyone got into the act: the Dutch, the French, the English."

From the 15th through 17th centuries, the explorers would consult the Christian calendar to see which saint's day coincided with a sighting and, as simple as that, an island was tagged. On occasion, though, a spit of land would be named after an explorer's favorite saint or, in Columbus's case, his brother Bartolomeo.

"Catholicism was their idiom," said David Frye, a professor at the University of Michigan's Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. "It was their language."

But because many of the tropical destinations boast the same traits — white sand, turquoise waters, affable locals — it's easy to confuse Thomas with John, Martin with Bart, Vincent with Lucia.

To tease out the differences, we traveled to the holy land of palm trees and crescent beaches to meet four of the Saints. It was a pilgrimage blessed by the Caribbean sun.

Saint-Barthelemy (St. Barts)

Although it's possible this French island is the namesake of St. Bartholomew, one of the Twelve Apostles, most accounts indicate that Christopher Columbus named the island after his beloved brother Bartolomeo, a Lisbon-based cartographer who accompanied the explorer on his fourth and final voyage. Known for rich and famous vacationers, luxury shopping, gourmet dining and seashell- strewn beaches.

St. Croix

Columbus named this island Santa Cruz, or Holy Cross; later it took on the French name St. Croix. It was once a possession of Denmark, among other countries, and is now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Known for traditional Danish architecture, a rain forest, diving and snorkeling.

St. Eustatius

Columbus named this Dutch island after St. Eustachius, a second-century Roman martyr and one of Madrid's patron saints, who is said to have been roasted alive, along with his family, inside a brazen bull. Known for wreck diving, hiking to a rain-forested volcano crater and history.

St. John

The Dutch named the island after John the Baptist, who was beheaded by King Herod. It's now one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Known for rugged wilderness (two-thirds of the island is Virgin Islands National Park), white sand beaches and family activities.

St. Lucia

Some say Columbus's shipmate and fellow explorer Juan de Cosa named this independent island, most likely after Saint Lucy, patron saint of the blind. According to legend, the Sicilian virgin's eyes were gouged out by her pagan torturers, but her vision was miraculously restored. Known for mountains, rain-forest exploration, bird-watching and an annual jazz festival.

St. Martin/St.Maarten

Columbus sighted the island in 1493 on the holy day of Saint Martin of Tours, France's famed soldier-turned-bishop from the 4th century. Today it is divided between French and Dutch governance. Known for French and Dutch influences, beaches and night life, multiculturalism, yachting and casinos (Dutch side).

St. Vincent

Most likely, the largest island the independent St. Vincent and the Grenadines was named for Saint Vincent of Saragossa, a Spanish deacon and martyr in the early 300s, the patron saint of vintners and, in some circles, sailors. Known for few tourists, abundant sea life, verdant topography, hidden waterfalls and a live volcano.

LA TIMES-WASHINGTON POST 2008