British Virgin Islands, the archipelago of sweet idleness

The British Virgin Islands are one of the smallest countries in the Americas, located between the eastern Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, at the north-eastern end of the Greater Antilles

by Ornella D’Alessio – photo by Andrea Muscatello

The British Virgin Islands offer year-round sailing, constant trade winds, warm (25°/29°) and calm waters, hundreds of coves and safe anchorages, and plenty of beach bars to enjoy the sunset with a drink or cool places to chill out. Although the best time to visit is between mid-October and April, the islands can also be enjoyed during the rainy season, from May to July, when it can be cloudy with occasional downpours lasting a few minutes, but the sun returns and the sky opens up in huge patches of blue.

It is the perfect destination for sailors, who are sure to find some wind, and for those who prefer motorboats, the water is almost always flat, thanks to the protection of a volcanic archipelago of unique nature, made up of around sixty islands and islets, all close together. The landscapes are very varied, from the long sandy beaches of Anegada, the only flat and extremely beautiful coral atoll, known for its abundance of lobsters, to the mythical rounded and smooth granite blocks of The Baths in Virgin Gorda, reminiscent of the Seychelles and Gallura in Sardinia. A geological wonder created by volcanic activity and erosion.

The best time to visit the British Virgin Islands is between mid-October and April, but they are equally enjoyable during the rainy season from May to July.

With the tides and the action of the waves, the sea water penetrates the rocks, creating caves, archways, tunnels and natural, intimate pools that are delightful to explore. People walk along these boulders, crouching and leaning down to pass between the massive rocks. In some places, there are supports: a rope to hold on to and wooden steps to indicate the direction to follow. You step in and out of pools of water, and walk along sandy stretches between palm trees, an amazing route that you will want to repeat again and again to experience the same intense sensations. Finally, you arrive at an idyllic sandy beach with a not-to-be-missed beach bar where you can relax in the shade with a cool drink before swimming back to the tender to get back on board. This is one of the obligatory stops on your island-hopping itinerary and is highly recommended if you want to take in the best of the BVI (an acronym for the British Virgin Islands), a microstate with a total area of 153 square kilometres, a land mass one and a half times the size of Paris.

Drawing by Jacopo Gasparotto.

Once in Tortola, it is worth spending a few hours in the capital, Road Town. A few colourful wooden and stone houses with local craft workshops remain along Main Street. The symbol of the imperialist presence in the town, Government House, stands tall as a reminder of British colonial architecture. A similar atmosphere can be found at Her Majesty’s Prison Museum, which has served as a prison, fire station and later immigration and customs office over the centuries. Today, the building is part of the tourist trail that winds along the U-shaped waterfront between Fish Bay and Road Reef Marina. Next to the Baptist church is the old Callwood Distillery (callwood-cane-rum.myshopify.com), which has been making rum from sugar cane for two hundred years. Then there is the series of murals created by local artists for the Fahie Hill project, including Reuben Vanterpool, who has created various scenes such as traditional dances and donkey rides. In the highland area of the Great Mountain Vanterpool opened the Jenesis Studio Museum/Gallery “to shed light on who we are and the history of our lives”, as the creator of the museum gallery explains. «It is important for us as locals to know who we are and where we come from».The building houses tools and equipment from the past, and in the garden, there is a wood-fired oven where the locals bake manioc bread for visitors, as well as a rich selection of plants used in local medicine, which he explains one by one with great passion. An authentic experience not to be missed.

WITH LUSH GREEN VEGETATION AND TURQUOISE WATERS IDEAL FOR SNORKELLING, THESE ARE THE PERFECT ISLANDS
FOR A RELAXING HOLIDAY.

If you want to be seduced by the gentle rhythms of the Caribbean, spend two days at the Nanny Cay Resort & Marina (nannycay.com) or on Scrub Island, just a strait from the capital, the first to be revamped after the devastation of Hurricane Irma in 2017. It is a private island, home to the luxurious Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina (scrubisland.com), which offers a wellness centre, diving and canoeing, a beautiful marina and only one resident, Italian chef Davide Pugliese, who prepares delicious dinners on the long iron table (cryptocracy) on the veranda of his cone-shaped thatched house, of the type called a palapa in Mexico (bookings: [email protected]).

From Scrub Island you can set sail, perhaps on board one of the catamarans with a skipper and chef from the extensive fleet of Dream Caribbean Blue (dreamcaribbeanblue.com). This is the perfect formula for getting away from crowded places and discovering hidden ones, forgetting the frenetic rhythms of the city in favour of a slower pace as you sail towards the islands of the archipelago, being pampered from breakfast to dinner with delicious Caribbean recipes. Not to be missed are the recipes of the highly skilled chef Sarai Ben Ari, who, together with Captain Bastian Tromp’s expertise and respect for the sea, make the cruises truly special and unforgettable. Young and talented, this pair never ceases to amaze guests – the former’s delicacies will satisfy the most discerning palate, while the latter’s sailing skills will impress even the most experienced sailor.

It is the perfect destination for sailors, who are always sure to find wind, and for those who prefer motorboats, the water is almost always flat, thanks to the protection of a volcanic archipelago of unique nature, made up of around sixty islands and islets, all close together.

You will leave the moorings to cross the Sir Francis Drake Channel, a kind of inland sea with sheltered waters and constant winds that sailors consider a true sailing paradise, dedicated to the most famous corsair of all time – feared by the Spanish Armada and loved by the English, who considered him a true hero. From there, sail to Norman Island, whose natural caves inspired Scottish writer Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The outline of the rock formation ‘The Indians’ resembles the silhouette of an Indian chief. A little further on, at Treasure Point, we snorkel in the caves, which have been naturally carved by the sea and wind and are home to colourful fish. We then drop anchor at Peter Island, a small island with a beautiful sheltered bay, where you can go ashore and take a nice walk to the top of the hill, ideally at sunset, to watch the fireball fall rapidly until it disappears into the horizon, after securing the boat to the bow and stern. From here, the next day, it is only a few miles to Salt Island – one of the best dive sites in the Rhone National Marine Park. While snorkelling you can get a good view of the shipwreck of the Royal Mail steamship RMS Rhone, which sank in a hurricane between Salt Island and Dead Chest on 29 October 1867. Some scenes from the film The Deep, starring Jacqueline Bisset, were filmed in and around the wreck of the Rhone. The island is named after a huge salt lake. At certain times of the year, it turns into a pink sheet of water. During Queen Victoria’s reign, a pound of salt was sent to her every year on her birthday from this salt pan, a tradition that was restored in 2015.

There are many reasons to plan a stop on Cooper Island. As well as incredible coastlines covered in the whitest and finest sand, the island is home to one of the most famous rum bars in the Caribbean, with over 400 different labels, the Cooper Island Beach Club (cooperislandbeachclub.com), which is only open in the afternoon. The restaurant next to the souvenir bazaar is also worth a visit.

After a pleasant cruise through the Drake Channel, you will pass Virgin Gorda, the third largest island after Tortola and Anegada, where you must make at least one stop at The Bath and the group of five islets 2.5 miles off the northwest coast of Virgin Gorda, now a protected sanctuary for birds and marine life. These islets are called The Dogs, due to the strange noises the first sailors heard when they approached them (actually, they turned out to be seals and not dogs). From here, head to one of St Thomas Bay’s unmissable destinations, near the Virgin Gorda marina between Spanish Town and The Bath, at Coco Maya (cocomayavg.com), one of the BVI’s most renowned restaurants for its wide selection of exotic flavours. Situated in an enviable spot at the end of the beach, with two swings floating on the ocean, you can sip a romantic drink before heading to the table for fusion dishes that combine the best of Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, or contemporary dishes – all extremely photogenic and made with local ingredients wherever possible. This is another stop you cannot skip.

There is nothing like boarding a catamaran to get away from the crowds and discover hidden gems as you sail to the islands of the archipelago and enjoy delicious Caribbean recipes from breakfast to dinner.

Leaving behind Moskito Island, long a favourite of divers and now owned by Sir Richard Branson, who bought it in 2007 for £10 million, you enter Eustatia Sound, perfect for snorkelling in the turquoise waters, and then head for Gorda Sound, another ‘ocean lake’ created by the surrounding islands, including the one owned by Google’s Larry Page. On the microscopic and iconic resort island of Saba Rock (sabarock.com), you can stop for the excellent Anegada lobster, served with a solid wine list, many of which are Italian. There are also 8 suites decorated in sophisticated made-in-Italy designs. This small paradise became famous in the sixties, when pioneer Herbert (Bert) Kilbride opened a resort course for scuba diving here, launching the legendary Pirates Pub, one of the best in the Caribbean at the time.

With the tides and the action of the waves, seawater infiltrates the rocks, creating caves, archways, tunnels and natural, intimate pools that are delightful to explore.

You then leave Gorda Sound with the bow set towards the highly exclusive Necker Island (virginlimitededition.com), also owned by Sir Richard Branson. Just a few miles towards Scrub Island and you reach Lee Bay, where you can often meet local fishermen, and then on to the long, white-sanded bay of Guana Island, a private island with just one hotel (guana.com), the perfect destination for a holiday of pure relaxation among the lush green vegetation and turquoise ocean, to then proceed towards the south to snorkel in Monkey Point.

The landscapes are very varied, from the long sandy beaches of Anegada to the mythical rounded and smooth granite blocks of The Baths in Virgin Gorda.

From here, you set off for Jost Van Dyke Island, starting with two stops for a few strokes in the turquoise waters of Green Cay and Little Van Dyck Island, and then through the tiny Sandy Cay, maybe one of the world’s smallest natural parks (5 hectares), property of Laurence S. Rockefeller for 40 years, who maintained and protected it for the benefit of the local community. 200 palm trees were planted here and a path leads you from the enchanting beach covered in dazzling fine sand, through the dry coastal forests, the salt pond, the humid areas of the mangrove, and to the rocky cliffs. It looks just like Robinson Crusoe’s island. Several species of turtles nest there: the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate), the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), as well as bird species like the laughing gull (Larus atricilla), the bridled tern (Sterna anaethetus) and the red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus). During the summer season, it is very easy to swim to shore, although the size of the islet depends on the tides. To protect the seabed, this as well as many other locations, only allows for anchoring with mooring buoys and with the permission of the National Park Trust.

How to get there

From Europe, you can fly to Miami with Ita (ita-airways.com) and then continue with the new (seasonal) direct flight to Tortola (americanairlines.it), or you can stop in Saint Martin, on the Dutch side of the island, with Air France or KLM and fly to the Virgin Islands aboard a 19-seat turbojet Winair (winair.sx). Info: bvitourism.com

The cruise culminates with two iconic visits to Jost Van Dyke: firstly, the Soggy Dollar Bar in White Bay, chosen by USA Today as the best beach bar in the Caribbean in 2023. Back in the 1970s, this bar launched Painkiller, a soft rum-based drink whose exact proportions of coconut cream, pineapple, and orange juice with a sprinkle of fresh nutmeg remain a secret even today. Its name, Soggy Dollar, is because people used to reach the bar swimming, with a few dollar bills in the pocket of their swimsuit to buy a drink. The other destination is in Great Harbour, for Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, a gathering place for sailors and poets since 1968, famous for New Year’s Eve parties, but not only. It is another of the many good reasons for a leisure holiday in the British Virgin Islands.

(British Virgin Islands, the archipelago of sweet idleness – Barchemagazine.com – October 2023)