The British Virgin Islands – Doing them my way; with stealth, speed and in the opposite direction to everyone else.
When it comes to finding somewhere untouched I’ve always lived by the mantra ‘If it’s easy to get there then you might be disappointed’. In the Caribbean this can be found by going just one flight further than the jets can go, and can lead you to some down-right suicidal runways. St Barts, Saba and Dominica spring to mind and place a knot in my stomach. However the entry point for the British Virgin Islands is Beef Island an unusually flat and long entry to an archipelago of over 70 islands. I say over 70 because the actual amount is a little vague, as if no-one has really got around to finishing counting them. I think that this should tell the prospective visitor a lot about the pace of life here. A BVIslander does not do any ‘relaxing’ or ‘chilling out’, those phrases already sound too busy, too structured. No, he’s just limin’
For a traveler looking to visit the BVI it is easy to become hostage to the hotels of either Tortola or Virgin Gorda If the serenity and personalisation of a boutique hotel are what you need then I think it’s seriously worth you looking at a week aboard fully crewed sailing yacht. The crews live on board full time, so welcome you as though it was their own home. The Captain is Jack Sparrow, Bear Grylls and Stephen Fry rolled into one; he will hoist sails, weigh anchor, teach diving, un-hook your fish, entertain children, blend cocktails, regale you with tall tales and pour your Grand Cru. In a blur of efficiency, your Chef and First Mate, will turn down your bed, collect fresh fruit and flowers, fluff pillows, create magic in the galley, nurse sunburn, clean compulsively in addition to doing everything that the Captain does. Probably better, too.
Sailing Catamarans are the only choice. One could get sentimental about yachts with keels that lean over, but it doesn’t take long rolling around feeling sick or clambering over fellow guests in narrow spaces to realise the Cat is Queen here. Grace Space and Pace. An excellent example is the oddly named ‘Marmot’, a 67 foot Lagoon Catamaran and one of the flagships of the BVI charter fleet. She was built to be just that little faster and comfortable than anyone else.
Points of entry to the BVI are to either St Thomas (US virgin Islands) followed by a 50 minute ferry ride to West End, Tortola, or directly to Beef Island (airport code EIS). Either way a yacht will meet you there and have you on board with a cold beer in your hand within a few minutes of exiting the arrivals hall.
A journey around the BVI is circular, just bounce from island to island and after a week you end up where you started. Ten minutes cruise from the airport lies Little Elizabeth Bay on the North side of Tortola. We used this jewel of a hideaway for a lunch stop and to satisfy my kids craving for a swim. This is off the beaten track for many boats, and we were all alone floating two small children around in 7 foot deep clear blue sea with a treasury of sand dollars littering the bottom.
Following a reality melting sail into the afternoon sun, we spent the night at the a little Island of Sandy Spit. It’s a cartoon-like it’s a hundred foot disc of sand with two palm trees sticking up. As we pulled in the days visitors leave and head to Foxy’s on Jost Van Dyke to lose their inhibitions to reggae and rum. All alone swinging lackadaisically at anchor the peace was broken two hyper kids clutching an ‘ancient’ treasure map (inventive crew + crayons + damp tea bag). A few minutes, and a number of ‘Arhhh, me Hearties!’ later we had our own treasure chest filled with lots of warm and floppy chocolate coins.
Returned to my sun mat we watched the sun ooze into the water. It’s calm, near silent and the stars were winning their take-over bid of the gloaming sky. Sitting out on deck, being bought and endless supply of cocktails and nibbles while our personal chef dispatched a series of tantalizing aromas trough the galley hatch I did start wondering why so few people do this. Hedonism has a sail boat and sand between his toes
Eggs Benedict swiftly dispatched we all enjoyed a little snorkel and then the sails were up and thundering us towards Sopers Hole. This is where Robert Thatch, better known as Blackbeard, used to hide in wait for unsuspecting trade ships to pass by. Now 21st century Pirates hang out in the same place listening to Jimmy Buffet and drinking Painkillers at Pussers Landing while their crew get their fix of retail therapy at nice little boutiques like Arawak. It’s a very pretty place that seems to have no particular place in time. Also worth noting that this is your point of arrival if you ferry in from the US Virgin Islands. Could be a lot worse.
A visit to the BVI really needs to involve a drink at the Willy T and as Marmot put her head down into a lively Sir Francis Drakes Channel, we joined a steady convoy aiming for Norman Island. The girls loved the speed and gentle motion of the cat and every boat we passed elevated Captain Al in their eyes. Ahead was sea of masts surrounding a pirate ship, the William Thornton Imagine a bay full on thirsty yotties of all generations where there are no neighbors, police or rules. Now place a floating bar in the middle and stuff will happen that’ll make a Rugby team blush (and hat’s why my daughters were not going anywhere near the place!) We anchored next bay around away from it all (just as the rest leave for the day -see a theme here?) though Al and I did decide this would be a good time to ‘check the engine worked’ on the tender.
The morning eased upon us. The water was full of Sergeant Major fish as we slipped over the side. Some say that a recollection of the caves here in a grandfathers’ diary is what Robert Louis Stevenson used to base his Treasure Island on. All the same we swim into a few caves to look for treasure just in case but the only silver were the clouds of bait fish moulding themselves around us.
Lunch is at White Bay, Peter Island after we climb to the peak of the island for the view of a lifetime. The island is actually a resort for the rich and famous but yet again we’ve managed to avoid them. A nice long sail in the afternoon takes us further up Drakes Channel past Salt, Cooper and Ginger Islands and into the Baths for sunset. The Baths are a collection of huge rounded granite boulders, twenty, thirty feet in diameter all just thrown in a pile for some geological purpose. Like ants in a children’s’ ball pit, we spend ages clambering around. Just next door Spanish Town is the main port on Virgin Gorda and was knee deep in the slave trade way back when. Legend tells that slaves would be lead to bathe at what we now know as The Baths. After being chained in the dark hold of a ship for months it must have offered a few, albeit too brief moments of peace.
We continue our journey ‘up wind’ into North Sound, Virgin Gorda. Well almost. Al has another trick up his sleeve and we continue a little further into Eustacia Sound. North Sound is a massive bay of deep and fully enclosed water. It is home to the Bitter End Yacht Club, Biras Creek Resort and Saba Rock and remains very popular with visiting Yotties. Squeeze through a narrow gap between Saba and Bitter End and you are in an equally sized but empty sound where depths range from 15 feet to not a lot and Al has to negotiate Marmot down a almost invisible channel between coral heads and sand bars. We anchor off a wonderful deserted white sand beach, tucked behind a small reef. If we get bored we can always apply all 90 horsepower of the tender to get us to civilization in minutes, though right now as canapes and cocktails are laid before me I question the need for that world.
Today is due to be a busy day. The girls are itching to build sand castles, Nicki and Sarah are off to the Spa at the ‘oh so posh’ Little Dix Resort (but not before Al and I rattle off the obvious schoolboy jokes) and then I’m settling down to a little kitesurfing. The wind is up and there are a couple of guys out already along with a few windsurfers, I can’t imagine a better place for it. Exhausted/refreshed/sandy we all pop over to Bitter End to see the steel pan band and then to enjoy the sunset from some over-comfortable Adirondack chairs. I’m holding a medicinal Heineken to sooth my blistered palms and could almost fall asleep with the pans in the background interrupted by the occasional West Indian chuckle of Liana as she braids the girls hair.
I’m excited today, we’re going to Anegada! This means an exhilarating morning sail to the edge of the northern Caribbean with our destination being a 14 mile long, 22 feet high lump of white sand hiding from the full force of the Atlantic behind the third largest barrier reef in the world. It has an hotel, an airstrip, a small township, some Donkeys, a few giant Iguanas and lots of Flamingoes. Fishermen here battle offshore with Swordfish, Marlin and Tuna and on the way back home grab some Conch and Lobster. I’m not sure if you can get fresher fish. Fly Fishermen come from all over to wrestle Bone Fish on the endless flats.
As we set sail we tuck under a reef protecting Necker Island, home to Sir Richard Branson. He has also got the catamaran bug as his is parked outside. It is suitably massive and fast so I see no point in disturbing him for a race. Now back in my day (there it is again) I was lucky enough to be invited to a few parties on the island and know that if you pull out the ships binoculars and look directly beneath the roof terrace on the main house you will see the ‘office’. Now, an office can say a lot about a man and Sir Richard’s is a hammock. Only the super rich can have that much style.
As we pull into Anegada we see a returning fishing boat so head up in the tender to see the catch of the day. This is also a good excuse to pay a visit to the Soares family who run Neptunes Treasure, a quiet little restaurant with some simple rooms. Grab a sun-bleached garden chair and sit out front for a minute, when you get up you will walk, think, talk even breathe more slowly. A dog chasing a cat across the lawn doesn’t really run, what’s the point? There’s always tomorrow. Thirty five years ago Vernon Soare was fishing further and further south that he got to Anegada and didn’t see the point in going back. Today the whole family is involved, usually outnumbering the guests.
Normally we would eat here as the fish is unbeatable, but we have a plan. We leave the boat and embark on an hours walk around the western tip of the island and then up the north side. As we walk the sun get’s lower and white sand, which is beyond grains -this has the consistency of flour, turns pink in the sunset. Wading birds run ahead of us not smart enough to simply move aside, as waves crash out on the reef. Ahead we can smell barbeque and hear reggae. Tonight is feet in the sand dining on swordfish and lobster with our host Alex at Cow Wreck Beach Restaurant.
We spend the next couple of days snorkeling on the reef, surfing, and generally loving every mile of deserted sand. We take midday trips in the tender up into the mangroves. We have to be careful of the sun getting too low and we wont be able to get around the thousands of coral head that have taken root on the otherwise perfect sandy bottom. We see turtles, barracuda, ballyhoo even nurse shark as the water is 6 feet deep for miles. I drink it all in as tomorrow we are sailing back to reality.
Look for a good charter agent who can match your exact requirements to the right boat and crew.
A 50 foot yacht with a Captain and a cook taking 6 friends in the low season will charge about £600 per person all inclusive. Unless you decide that you need to go ashore for a beer or some retail therapy there really is no need for a wallet (though at the end of the week an american standard gratuity is expected, and you’ll probably be very pleased to give it). By the time you’ve gone to a hotel, rented a car, a windsurfer, taken a fishing trip, done a Scuba dive or two, had some sailing lessons, gone waterskiing, bought cocktails, shelled out for entertainment, dinner, lunch over and over again, done a boat trip, taken a few taxis…. You get my point.
Move up a grade and you are on the world of the catamaran, a twin hulled yacht providing more than twice the space and interior volume of its’ smaller cousin. Cats have easy steps up from the water and huge flat decks. They sit still at anchor, have a relaxed motion under sail yet are pretty nippy when it comes to getting places. Dining in the shaded cockpit is relaxed and a large salon provides spacious areas to get out of the sun for a while. A group of 8 friends would typically enjoy a queen sized bed each with private en suite facilities in a decent sized cabin that would allow you to swing whatever you need to swing. The whole yacht will be air conditioned, have lots of fresh water and loads of fridge space. There will be locker full of toys (kayaks, windsurfers, SUP boards, wakeboards and waterskis, snorkel and scuba gear and maybe dive compressor) as well a powerful tender hanging off the back.