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
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
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
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
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
Tourism Info: 800-835-8530, www.bvitourism.com.
The bi-monthly Welcome magazine (www.bviwelcome.com) is a good
resource for ferry schedules, smaller charter companies and
Hotels on Tortola: Sugar Mill Hotel
(800-462-8834, www.sugarmilhotel.com; low season summer and fall
double rates from $225); Fort Recovery Beach Villas (800-367-8455,
www.fortrecovery.com; from $160).
Virgin Gorda: Little Dix Bay (888-767-3966,
www.littledixbay.com; from $375); Biras Creek Resort (800-223-1108,
www.biras.com; from $615); Bitter End Yacht Club (800-872-2392,
www.beyc.com; from $590).
Jost Van Dyke: Sandcastle (284-495-9888,
www.sandcastle-bvi.com; from $140).
Anegada: Anegada Reef Hotel (284-495-8002,
www.anegadareef.com; from $215).
Cooper Island: Cooper Island Beach Club
(800-542-4624, www.cooper-island.com; from $105).
Peter Island: Peter Island Resort
(800-346-4451, www.peterisland.com; from $560).
Guana Island: Guana Island (800-223-1108,
www.guana.com; from $650).
US-based charter sail companies: The Moorings
(888-952-8420, www.moorings.com); Ed Hamilton & Company
(800-621-7855, www.edhamilton.com); Nicholson Yacht Charters