The Lay of the Islands

Excitement and seclusion awaits in the BVIs

By: David Swanson

An archipelago spanning more than 50 outposts, the British Virgin Islands lie in the northeast corner of the Caribbean, 60 miles east of Puerto Rico. The islands range from Tortola the seat of government, as well as the most populated to treasured backwaters with a handful of accommodations to privately owned islands and uninhabited outcrops.

The hub of the BVIs is 10-square-mile Tortola, connected by a short bridge to Beef Island (where Tortola’s airport is located). Over the last decade Tortola’s population has swooned from 14,000 to its present 21,500 (many of them ex-pats). The island’s harbor capital, Road Town, which sits at the base of steep hillsides, has been expanded with landfill, and the cruise ship facilities were enlarged to take in several ships per day.

Tortola’s dramatic growth has greatly benefited two constituents: cruise ship passengers in search of new Caribbean ports arrivals spiraled from 203,000 in 2001 to 467,000 just three years later to taxi drivers, who wield enormous clout with the government. The visitor who chooses to stay overnight may be unsettled by traffic and wall-to-wall bodies on once-idyllic Cane Garden Bay. But Tortola is a good spot for those who want an engaging nightlife scene or an array of dining options; it’s also less expensive than the outlying islands.

The population density drops as one heads beyond Tortola. Virgin Gorda is the second major island for tourism. Although serviced by a small airport most visitors arrive by boat, either on the commercial ferries that run throughout the day from Tortola and St. Thomas or via shuttles operated by resorts. The island has a mountainous outline with ribbons of white sand tucked into numerous coves. The Baths is one of the Caribbean’s most photographed swimming lagoons, a jumble of boulders wrapped around a heavenly bay.

Virgin Gorda’s leading hotel is Little Dix Bay, originally built by Laurance Rockefeller in 1964. The 110-unit resort sits on a 500-acre property with a private beach and has benefited in recent years by the addition of an outstanding spa and a room renovation that went well beyond fresh paint and new linens. More intimate and isolated, 32-room Biras Creek Resort has a top restaurant and is a member of Relais & Chateaux, while nearby is Bitter End Yacht Club, which has an acclaimed sailing program and family ambience.

Three-square-mile Jost Van Dyke has just 272 residents, a six-room inn set on a superb beach and a few villas for rent. But this quirky landing also boasts (at last count) 20 bars and has become a must-stop on the sailing circuit for barefoot parties that run from noon till midnight; Jost Van Dyke is a perfect day trip from Tortola.

Anegada, until the last few years a bit of a lost frontier, is unique for several reasons: It lies 15 miles northeast, distinctly separate from the rest of the chain, and instead of being a remnant of ancient volcanoes, flat Anegada is an exposed coral reef, rising a mere 28 feet above sea level. Although it’s the largest of the BVIs, with just 300 residents and only one hotel the island is remarkably still undeveloped and quiet. It’s an insider’s favorite with dream beaches for snorkeling, bonefishing and a wealth of lobster. Anegada is not reachable by ferry but by scheduled air from Tortola.

Robinson Crusoe-ish Cooper Island has just a dozen or so residents and an affordable 12-room hotel. Cooper Island Beach Club, which offers a solid restaurant, a small dive shop and moorings for yachts, has few other amenities. The island is close to the famed wreck of the RMS Rhone (off uninhabited Salt Island), one of the Caribbean’s top dive sites.

Two other BVIs are high-priced, private-island resorts of special repute. Peter Island has a 54-room resort sitting on a dazzling beach, plus a sprawling new spa complex. The staff of 175 make this an 1,800-acre haven for honeymooners. Half that size, Guana Island is somewhat more rustic, more closely linked with nature and blessed with seven beaches and a network of trails. The island’s 15-room inn offers low-key luxury and escape.

Cutting through the island chain is the Sir Francis Drake Channel, one of the world’s great sailing passages. The channel, where pirates like Henry Morgan and Blackbeard once cruised, is today the Caribbean’s most popular yachting area. At any time of year the channel is sprinkled with white triangles punctuating the horizon. In fact, there are more staterooms available for charter than hotel rooms in the BVIs, a total of more than 700 crewed and bareboats in all.

The range of yachts for charter varies in terms of size, amenities and luxury. Fully provisioned, crewed boats accommodating four start at about $5,500 a week in winter; a mega-boat like the 138-foot Douce France runs $85,000 a week. Prices drop at least 40 percent in summer and also during slack shoulder periods (brokers are usually up-to-speed on the best deals).

Although Tortola may be headed the way of hard-charging St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgins, the outer islands successfully deliver on the promise of the BVI’s longstanding ad campaign: “Nature’s Little Secrets.”


Tourism Info: 800-835-8530, The bi-monthly Welcome magazine ( is a good resource for ferry schedules, smaller charter companies and restaurant listings.

Hotels on Tortola: Sugar Mill Hotel (800-462-8834,; low season summer and fall double rates from $225); Fort Recovery Beach Villas (800-367-8455,; from $160).

Virgin Gorda: Little Dix Bay (888-767-3966,; from $375); Biras Creek Resort (800-223-1108,; from $615); Bitter End Yacht Club (800-872-2392,; from $590).

Jost Van Dyke: Sandcastle (284-495-9888,; from $140).

Anegada: Anegada Reef Hotel (284-495-8002,; from $215).

Cooper Island: Cooper Island Beach Club (800-542-4624,; from $105).

Peter Island: Peter Island Resort (800-346-4451,; from $560).

Guana Island: Guana Island (800-223-1108,; from $650).

US-based charter sail companies: The Moorings (888-952-8420,; Ed Hamilton & Company (800-621-7855,; Nicholson Yacht Charters (800-662-6066,