Virgin Gorda (Photo: Getty Images)
I discovered the British Virgin Islands (BVI) on a whim in 2013. I booked a one-day excursion to four of the islands to celebrate my birthday, and I knew little of the BVI’s beaches, culture, and beauty before boarding the Bad Kitty charter. Eight hours later I was publicly declaring my love for the 50-island archipelago.
I was so eager to relive the experience that I traveled to the BVI again this summer to immerse myself in everything the BVI has to offer. I chose to divide my time between two of the smaller BVI isles, Cooper Island and Peter Island, as well as taking jaunts to the larger islands, Tortola and Virgin Gorda. No BVI getaway is complete without a few hours of sun and Painkillers on Jost Van Dyke, home of the famous Soggy Dollar and Foxy bars. Jost (pronounced “yost”) may be the ultimate day-tripper’s paradise with its welcoming azure waters and lively party scene.
When friends, colleagues, and strangers ask me where they should spend their yearly vacation, I give 11 reasons why I want to return to the BVI year after year. Of course there are many more than 11, and I hope that you’ll be reserving your airplane tickets by point No. 3. In no particular order…
View from Tortola. (Photo: Getty Images)
I am a fairly modest person, yet when it comes to the Caribbean, I have no hesitation calling myself an expert. The BVI beaches are exactly what you see in the travel magazines. Crystal-clear, calm waters summon swimmers, and towering palm trees dot white-sand beaches, providing much-needed shade from the scorching sun. The beaches in the BVI are devoid of immense resorts that compete for space. In fact, some of the BVI’s best beaches are frequented by only those in the know. Rent a car or hire a taxi driver (driving in the BVI is not for the timid) to explore every beach.
Cooper Island. (Photo: Cooper Island Beach Club)
The Cooper Island Beach Club, an eco-friendly resort located 30 minutes by boat from Tortola, has become a hot spot for all types of seafarers.
The rooms are a blend of luxury and green living: The guest pillows and mattress covers are hypoallergenic and made from recycled plastic bottles, cleaning products are organic and paraben free, solar water heaters supply hot water to all showers, and salvaged teak wood from reclaimed fishing boats has been transformed into chic dressers, bed frames, and nightstands. The only drawback I can see in being so environmentally friendly is that there was no air conditioning.
One of the eco-friendly rooms at at Cooper Island Beach Club. (Photo: Cooper Island Beach Club)
The resort comes alive at 4 p.m., when drinking-age adults flock to the bar for two-for-one rum punches and Painkillers. After dinner, the resort’s rum bar draws an older crowd that spends hours imbibing fancy rum cocktails. CIBC attracts the fashionable, fun loving, and free spirited. I sometimes close my eyes and picture myself back on the private balcony, sipping a rum drink and watching the boats come and go.
Peter Island (Photo: Getty Images)
Peter Island lives up to its posh reputation: Guests at the five-star resort can arrive by private helicopter and be chauffeured to one of the three villas overlooking the BVI’s tranquil waters. Each villa comes with a dedicated chef, driver, maid, and, of course, plunge pool. If a villa breaks your budget, reserve a junior ocean suite or one of the ocean-view rooms, conveniently located next to the resort’s pool. I felt pampered and spoiled during my brief stay, and the high-end amenities and superior service allowed me to forget my credit card bill (albeit temporary). Guests have five beaches to experience during their stay (the beach next to the spa is too rocky for swimming, though), and whenever I am feeling glum, I mentally escape to Peter Island’s White Bay Beach, an exclusive beach with six thatched-roof huts that are perfectly spaced apart so that you’ll never hear or see your neighbor.
Soggy Dollar Bar. (Photo: Willy Volk/Flickr)
Never heard of a Painkiller before? Well, you’ll be craving one as soon as you return home. The Virgin Islands specialty, purportedly concocted and perfected at the Soggy Dollar Bar in the 1970s, can be ordered in every bar throughout the BVI. It’s a delicious mix of dark rum, cream of coconut, and pineapple and orange juices, topped with freshly grated nutmeg. It truly does take the (sunburn) pain away, and you’ll be best friends with the bartender by round two.
You can get the real Cuban-made cigars here. (Photo: Rodrigo Tejeda)
It was in the BVI that I smoked my first Cuban — though most of the appeal, for me, was touching and buying contraband. The best deals on Cuban cigars are at the local supermarkets (expect to pay about $12 per cigar); stock up on Cuban-made rum too, since you can. Just don’t try to smuggle your black-market goods past airport security — unless, that is, you want to stay in the BVI a few weeks longer (but probably not in deluxe accommodations).
Jost Van Dyke
White Bay on Jost Van Dyke. (Photo:bvi4092/Flickr)
Sun worshipers and party animals flock to this smaller BVI cay to get their groove on. If you want a prime spot at the bar, plan to arrive before lunch, or you’ll be waiting in lines five deep for a Painkiller. Jost Van Dyke is home to the famous Soggy Dollar Bar, Foxy’s, One Love Bar and Grill, and Gertrude’s, and it’s easy to bar-hop before the last public ferry departs. The island’s White Bay Beach always takes top honors in the “best beaches” category for its gleaming white sand and pristine water. Utopia could very well be Jost Van Dyke.
Chartering a yacht, with an experienced captain like Lee Rosbach, can be pricey. (Photo: Getty Images)
There is one drawback to paradise: Traveling throughout the BVI can be expensive and time consuming. If your home base is at a resort, be prepared to shell out hundreds of dollars for a private daylong charter or take your chances with the public ferries, a somewhat unreliable service with a limited schedule. For these reasons, the majority of travelers hire a chartered crew to sail the aquamarine sea. The cost of using a crew for a week is comparable to what you would spend at a high-end resort, and usually the captain doubles as the chef. Charter boats can accommodate small and large families and are surprisingly spacious and stylishly decorated. And I’ve learned that some of the coolest BVI spots are accessible only by boat.
Snorkeling The Caves on Norman Island. (Photo: Patrick Shyu/Flickr)
I’ve seen every fish (and underwater creature) imaginable during my snorkeling outings — even a shark (the scariest encounter ever). There are underground trails to follow, and some of most stunning reef fish can be seen near the coastline, just a few feet offshore. The BVI has repeatedly been ranked as one of the world’s top diving and snorkeling destinations because of the water’s clear visibility, abundant and diverse sea life, and healthy coral reefs. Be sure to check out the Indians and the Caves at Norman Island, two prime snorkeling sites in the BVI.
The breath-taking boulders that form The Baths on Virgin Gorda. (Photo: Getty Images)
A must-see for any BVI traveler, this national park on Virgin Gorda’s north shore took my breath away. Visitors come from all over the world to appreciate the natural beauty of the Baths. You follow a trail containing ropes, ladders, and wooden platforms to crawl and climb the boulders, crevices, and secret grottoes. The Baths can be reached by boat (be prepared to swim about 100 feet to shore) or by land (by hiking down a well-trodden path). Devil’s Bay, a horseshoe-shaped beach located at the end of the Baths, welcomes explorers at the end of the extraordinary tour.
A surfer takes a break at Little Bay on Tortola. (Photo: Getty Images)
The largest of the islands, Tortola offers tropical beaches, a bustling city vibe, and captivating views of the surrounding islands. If you want to sunbathe on a gorgeous beach without crowds, come to Tortola. If you want to sway to reggae music as you sip a frozen lime daiquiri on the sand, you can do it here. Or if you’re in the mood to shop, head over to Road Town, Tortola’s capital, for local rum, spices, jams, and handcrafted pottery and jewelry. My advice: Pick a resort that’s within walking distance of the beach, and hire a local taxi driver to get around. And be sure to spend at least one day at Cane Garden Bay, a small village that boasts a lovely beach, a variety of beachfront restaurants, and a happening music scene.
This cove, located on south side of Norman Island may be the real Money Bay from the book “Treasure Island.(Photo: treasureislandtheuntoldstory.com)
The BVI was once a playground for marauding pirates. Pirates hid their booty on Norman Island, the reported inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island. In the early 18th century, 55 chests of silver coins stolen from a Spanish galleon were buried in the sand at the once-deserted Norman Island. Residents of Tortola have largely recovered the loot (arrr!), but there are purloined treasures still waiting to be discovered, according to local legend. After a day of snorkeling and diving, relax with good company at the Pirates Bight, a bar and restaurant on the island.