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Travel

British Virgin Islands Still Picture Perfect

Posted September 24, 2007

More than a century after Christopher Columbus first stepped onto what he named Las Virgenes, it’s said pirates, buccaneers and other scoundrels plied the clear blue waters surrounding the British Virgin Islands in their quest to elude capture.

It’s easy to see why: hundreds of protected harbors tucked invisibly into the archipelago’s 60 islands gave the seafaring bandits options galore for hiding out while palm-fringed beaches lapped by an azure ocean made being on the lam pretty appealing.

Who could blame them for wanting to escape to paradise? Today, the pirates are long gone, but paradise remains.

The best thing about the British Virgin Islands is what isn’t here.

Instead of high-rise hotels, clusters of massive sea grapes line the pristine beaches. There are no casinos and no large shopping centers. Villas and homes dot the mountains, while small resorts hug the coast or occupy their own islet.

For visitors, it’s a chance to see the Caribbean in a nearly untouched state: Close-in coral reefs make for outstanding snorkeling – lucky swimmers may even spot a seahorse or two – and scuba divers can explore underwater caves, grottoes and shipwrecks.

Hiking trails wind through verdant rainforests and ruins from the plantation era. High plains reach to the mountaintops, and rugged windswept ridges look out onto the necklace of islands rising dramatically out of the sea.

Tortolla

With a total population of just under 20,000, few of the British Virgin Islands are inhabited. Of these, Tortolla is the largest and most populous, and it’s here that visitors gain a sense of the region’s history and culture.

In Road Town, the island’s largest city and the capital of the BVI, craft markets showcase straw work and pottery, and the gracious Old Government House museum is filled with antiques. At the Pusser’s Rum Pub and Company Store, order a painkiller, the potent cocktail created by British sailors, then spend a few minutes examining the historic photographs that line the paneled walls.

For dinner, some of the best food in the British Virgin Islands is served nightly at the Sugar Mill, a restored 17th-century sugar mill that is now a resort and restaurant that serves wonderful local fish with West Indian and Caribbean accents in an elegant brick-lined dining room. The Bomba Shack nightly attracts college-age tourists seeking Bomba punch made from mushrooms and frenetic dancing next to waves lapping the shore below.

Virgin Gorda

The highlight of a visit to Virgin Gorda is the Baths, a seaside field of granite boulders as large as houses stacked and strewn across the beach.

To fully experience the Baths, bring sturdy sandals and walk the surreal trail that winds through a maze of stone, sand and water on its way to the beach. Filled with caverns and grottoes tucked into the twisty turns and lighted only by razor-thin shafts of sunlight that slant through tiny crevices between the boulders, it’s a world unto itself. There are two ways to emerge, either through a pool of water and into a large protected bay, or through a path cut into yet another massive boulder. Either way, the beach at the end is a Technicolor dream of sapphire blue and bleached white.

Anegada and Jost Van Dyke

Just barely visible above the horizon, Anegada – the drowned island – differs from the other British Virgin Islands in that it is perfectly flat. With no cliffs to create safe harbors, and an isolated location well north of the main group of islands, Anegada’s sugar-soft beaches have only recently been discovered by travelers. The best known is Loblolly Bay, where the calm, shallow waters, protected by huge reef, are alive with tropical fish darting in and out of coral formations.

Considered the party island of the British Virgin Islands, Jost Van Dyke is popular with day-trippers from nearby St. John and St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, all of whom come for the sand-floored beach bars that rock long into the night.

Situated near the northern tip of the Caribbean’s leeward chain, just east of Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands dapple the waters where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean.

What makes them unique is the Sir Francis Drake Channel, which cuts a deep swath through the center of the cluster. Protected by the very islands it makes accessible, the channel makes island-hopping by boat or even kayak, easy, safe and enjoyable.

No matter where the anchor lands, the water is the perfect shade of turquoise, sand is as white and as soft as a snowdrift, and gentle tradewinds keep the temperature around 80 degrees year-round.

Uninhabited islands, some no larger than a spit of sand, offer up private spots for snorkeling just off their shores and beaches that have never seen footprints. Since most yacht clubs, marinas and resorts are happy to provide dockage, intrepid explorers can come ashore for meals, showers and supplies.

Best of all, since the islands are so close together, all that’s required for daytime navigation to almost any one of them is a good pair of eyes. Only remote Anegada lies outside of the group.

Fishing the waters around the British Virgin Islands is a dream. With nothing but Atlantic Ocean between the north coast of the islands and Nova Scotia, including the 10,000 meter deep North Drop, deep-water fishing for blackfin tuna, wahoo, dolphin, marlin and dorado usually results in exciting days and filled holds. Closer in, bonefishing is popular along the shallows near Beef Island, Jost Van Dyke, Marina Cay and Anegada.

The British Virgin Islands may not offer the glam and glitz of other island destinations, but thanks to some of the prettiest scenery around, a laid back vibe and easy, breezy luxury, most visitors wouldn’t change a thing.

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