British Virgin Islands, Caribbean
“Nature’s Little Secrets” is the name given to the British Virgin Islands by the host of loyal visitors who stake claim to these 50 or so islands, islets and cays. But just how long this secret can be safeguarded against mainstream tourism is uncertain. Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett certainly has done his part to raise awareness of these sleepy islands. His late-seventies tune:
“Manana” is virtually an ode to one of the BVI’s most popular anchorages. At packed concert venues across the U.S., Buffett’s “Parrothead” fans have for years been belting out the words, “I hear it gets better, that’s what they say, as soon as we sail on to Cane Garden Bay…”
Boaters have long been sailing the turquoise waters surrounding the British Virgin Islands, drawn to the sheltered anchorages, white-sand beaches and easygoing lifestyle of these islands. (In fact, history’s ultimate sailor gave this island group its name-when Christopher Columbus landed on Tortola in 1493, he named the lush, mountainous islands surrounding him after the legendary St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins.)
Tourist development in the BVIs has been limited by enlightened environmental policy, giving them a totally different flavor than their American neighbors. While the US Virgin Islands have pursued the tourist dollars, the British Virgin Islands have been happy to stay barefoot and limey (BVI-speak for chillin’ out).
Once a hideaway for pirates and brigands, the BVIs have only 17,000 residents-in contrast to the 100,000 people living on the American islands. You won’t find high-rises or fast-food on any of these islands, and you’ll find only a few posh resorts mingling with the more casual villas, family-owned inns, and the funky beachfront bars and restaurants that are sometimes little more than three-sided shacks housing a cast of characters that seem pleasantly out of step with the 21st century.
Most of the islands line up on either side of the 18-mile-long Sir Frances Drake Channel, a watery thoroughfare named for the Caribbean’s most famous privateer. Tortola, Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke are the most developed and most visited islands. Cooper Island, Peter Island, Norman Island, Marina Cay and Sandy Cay are less developed but are popular with day-trippers. Except for Anegada, which is 15 miles to the north, the islands are all close to each other and close to the US Virgin Islands, making island-hopping the mode for the BVIs. (Anegada has a loyal following, but this flat island’s hazardous coral reefs and its remoteness from the other islands take it out of the island-hopping loop.)
Tortola (Spanish for turtle dove) is the capital of the BVIs. This 21-square-mile island is the largest, most populated and liveliest of the islands. Road Town, on the southern coast, is Tortola’s capital. The entire island centers around Road Town and its beautiful harbor-businesses, restaurants, shops, pubs and hotels wrap around the harbor and stretch up into the hills surrounding the town.
Visitors coming from a BVI yacht charter are drawn to the activities near the ferry dock, where they can eat, drink and shop among the historic red-tin-roof buildings of Main Street and Waterfront Drive. Some fairly celebrated establishments grace these streets-Pusser’s Road Town Pub, a favorite watering hole for thirsty boaters, pours English Ale on draft and mixes up some tasty concoctions with its famous Pusser’s Rum. And the restaurant at nearby Village Cay Marina is the undisputed home to Jimmy Buffett’s “cheeseburger in paradise.” Mr. Buffett himself cleared up the long-running dispute over claims to this honor when he wrote of “limping up the Sir Frances Drake Channel into Road Town after some serious boat trouble…and finding a brand-new marina and bar that served American cheeseburgers…that tasted like manna from heaven.”
Just a few miles from Road Town on Tortola’s north shore is the busy but laid-back Cane Garden Bay. This popular anchorage with its crescent-shaped beach has seen increasing crowds but has managed to hold on to its tradition of family-run inns, bars and restaurants. Music is an integral part of Cane Garden Bay, and the friendly, open-air bars that line the water’s edge host local musicians whose island tunes can be heard floating across the bay. The most well-known of these musicians is Tortola native Quito Rymer, who plays his mix of reggae and calypso at Quito’s Gazebo, on the east end of the beach across the road from his family’s inn.
On the opposite end of the bay is further testament to the rich tradition of Cane Garden Bay. At Calwood’s Rum Distillery, the Caldwood family has been producing rum for nearly two centuries and they’re still making it the old-fashioned way-from sugar cane grown on the island (thus the name Cane Garden). Today, visitors of both genders can visit the distillery and watch the rum-making process. In the old days, only men were allowed into the boiling room because it was believed that women, fish and limes would turn the rum sour.
Near Tortola’s West End is Soper’s Hole, a colorful marina that serves as a port of entry for ferries and private boats from the U.S. Virgin Islands. The wharf at Soper’s Hole is lined with pink and green shops and restaurants designed to look like a traditional West Indian village. Pusser’s Landing is the centerpiece of this pastel community, with its two-story restaurant and pub, and a company store that sells its rum (same folks as Pusser’s Road Town Pub). Across the water near the West End ferry dock is the Jolly Roger Inn with its outdoor restaurant and pavilion. A popular sailor hangout, this rowdy establishment hosts weekend barbecues and live music and dancing.
Five miles off the northwest tip of Tortola is an island named after a Dutch pirate, Jost Van Dyke. Known as the “party island” of the BVIs, Jost, as the locals call it, has only 150 residents, but it has six bars (you do the math!). Life on Jost Van Dyke has been described as “one long island-style happy hour,” with pig roasts, beach bars and dancing in the sand. Jost native and local celebrity Foxy Caldwood can take much of the credit for the island’s reputation. Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, an open-air ramshackle restaurant and bar on the shores of Great Harbor, has become a landmark and is undisputedly the most happenin’ gathering spot for boaters in the BVIs. Foxy plays guitar and sings calypso ballads that are sometimes made-up-on-the-spot melodies about his guests. Foxy is famous for his parties, none more so than his annual New Year’s Eve party, which made Time magazine’s list of “Top 5 Places to Spend New Year’s.”
In nearby White Bay, the Soggy Dollar Bar has its own claim to fame as the birthplace of the Painkiller. Pusser’s eventually licensed the name of this notorious BVI cocktail from Soggy Dollar, but Soggy’s original recipe is still served at this rusty beach bar. There’s no dock out front, so the usual way in is to swim-hence the “soggy dollars.”
Norman Island is the largest uninhabited island in the British Virgin Islands and is steeped in pirate legend. Locals call it Treasure Island because of age-old stories of buried pirates’ loot. Blackbeard, one of the most famous and feared pirates of all time supposedly hung out here between raids.
A large sheltered harbor at Norman has been called The Bight since pirate days. At the western tip of the harbor is The Caves, a popular spot with snorkelers and swimmers. The far northern cave is the most incredible, extending 70 feet into the mountainside. A pirate ship replica, the Willy T, is anchored in The Bight. This floating restaurant and pub is known for its late-night activities.
Virgin Gorda (Spanish for fat virgin) is home to one of the Caribbean’s most amazing sights-exotic pools and grottos formed by gigantic granite boulders strewn across white-sand beaches. Known as The Baths, this surreal natural wonder (and snorkeler’s dream) is one of the most visited spots in the BVIs.
Also on Virgin Gorda’s western coast is one of the island’s best known man-made attractions. In the sixties, wealthy American Laurance Rockefeller built the first luxury resort in the BVIs. Today, the charming resort at Little Dix Bay does a good job of balancing luxury with the easygoing personality of the BVIs.
The island’s other resort is located at the “bitter end” of the BVIs on the North Sound, and can be reached only by boat. The Bitter End Yacht Club began in the seventies as a small marina for sailboats and has slowly grown to a huge, self-contained complex that holds the largest fleet of recreational boats in the Caribbean. Visiting boaters can dock or pick up a mooring, go ashore and shop till you drop, or join in the festivities at the resort’s bars and restaurants.
Jimmy Buffett isn’t the only artist who sings the praises of these beautiful islands. The BVI “secrets” have been celebrated in song as far back as the Blackbeard days. Legend has it that the old mariner’s tune, “Fifteen men on a deadman’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum,” was inspired by Blackbeard’s marooning of 15 pirates with a bottle of rum on Dead Chest Island.
And in more recent history, native son Quito Rymer’s ballads about his homeland are becoming increasing popular outside of the islands. You no longer have to visit Cane Garden Bay to hear Quito sing about his precious Tortola. Mainlanders around the world are hearing more and more from these beautiful, laid-back islands, and it looks like just maybe the secret is out!
BVI YACHT CHARTER ITINERARY
Join your yacht at midday at Sopers Hole on the West End of Tortola: the original home of the pirates. Today, trading can be a little easier with a visit to the shops at Pussers Landing. After a light lunch and chat about the itinerary, a 2 hour sail takes you to Norman Island (Treasure Island). Snorkel at the caves and be amazed at how many fish there are in the crystal clear waters. The evening is spent in the Bight, with a visit to The William Thornton for an after dinner party – a wild floating bar where everybody lets their hair down and tells their sea-faring tales of the day.
After breakfast you can hike to the top of Spy Glass hill, a known lookout point for the pirates, be sure to take your camera. Dive or snorkel the Indians or Rainbow Canyon and swim with the sea turtles. After lunch it’s a short tack up to Peter Island, famous for its
romantic beaches. Take an early evening stroll along the beach before a casually elegant dinner aboard. After dinner go forward to the trampolines and count the shooting stars, making a wish on each one you see.
After breakfast a short sail to Salt Island to dive or snorkel the Rhone; this is one of the top five wreck dives in the world. Then motor round to Cooper Island for lunch and some spectacular snorkeling off Cistern point, a sheltered reef alive with juvenile fish
of endless varieties. Alternatively, take a stroll on the beach, sit under a palm tree and just take in the beauty of the turquoise waters. A late afternoon sail takes us to Marina Cay for the evening, one of the smallest of the Virgin Islands.
A morning sail can take you to the Dog Islands for some colorful coral dives or you can visit the Baths on Virgin Gorda . These spectacular rock formations below and above water can be explored by land or sea and snorkeling here is a must. Lunch is just outside Spanish Town, so you can shop or take a taxi for an Island tour. Then a fast sail up the west side of Virgin Gorda one of the most beautiful of the Virgin Islands. In the evening, dance at the Bitter End Yacht Club to the local reggae band in the elegant settings
that this resort offers.
Spend the morning enjoying the North Sound – truly one of the most outstanding natural harbors in the Caribbean. Enjoy good windsurfing, snorkeling, hiking and shopping here. Visit the four exclusive resorts and take on some shore duty. Or, sail to Anegada, the sunken land nestling within a horseshoe reef, the third largest barrier reef in the world. For the first half of this 2/3 hour sail there is no land visible, then the palm tree’s appear on the horizon warning of your imminent arrival. After lunch absorb the atmosphere of the anchorage at Setting Point. Informality and relaxation are the key elements of Anegada. Deserted beaches, fringing reefs and the unique flora and forna of the salt ponds, home to the pink flamingo, await your exploration. Lobster dinner at the Anegada Reef Hotel is a must. As darkness falls, with cocktail in hand, you will see from the cockpit of the boat the driftwood fires on the beach grilling your lobster. The open air restaurant in and around the beach promises a dining experience only Anegada can offer.
An early start from Anegada ensures plenty of time to sail back to enjoy the snorkeling off Guana Island or dive Camanoe Island. Off the Eastern end of Tortola are several small secluded anchorage’s. If evening entertainment is your choice Trellis bay is the home
of the Last Resort, which offers a nightly comedy show based on yachts who come and visit the BVI’s.
A leisurely downwind sail to Jost Van Dyke offers ample opportunity for stopping on the way. Cane Garden Bay, Sandy Spit and Green Cay are all places of exceptional beauty. Just take your pick. For the over night stop, White Bay is secluded and quiet with only the Soggy Dollar Bar ashore or Great Harbor is ideal for those who would like to visit the famous Foxy’s Tamarind Bar. Sample his Sly fox or Dread fox both made from Foxy’s firewater rum and listen to his calypso songs. Beware you’ll probably be in one!
The last morning! Choose your breakfast from a light selection of assorted breads and fresh tropical fruits, to champagne and eggs Benedict. A swim or snorkel before sailing back to West End for that last minute shopping before joining your homeward flight.