Travel solo, wrangle a group of friends or go with a lover — the turquoise seas, coral gardens and green gumdrop islands of the British Virgin Isles await.
An end of the summer vacation provides a perfect excuse to relax the rules, dress down by day, dress up by night and steal some much deserved time away from the daily grind. That’s why my pals and I decided to kick up our heels and travel to the British Virgin Islands.
The moment our plane touched down in Tortola, the largest and most populated island in the BVI, we could hardly wait to feel the warm, sugar-white sand crunching up between our toes. Our eyes drank in fluorescent indigo seas and the dreamy emerald-green horizon. The background hills displayed palatial homes painted in pastel hues. Our taxi tour guide turned to us with a welcoming Caribbean smile and said, “We like our houses big around here!” Indeed they do. Their hospitality, warmth and passion are just as immense and inviting.
Although the archipelago offers some 60 islands and cays to explore by land, air or sea, we decided to hit some of the larger isles: Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, Peter and Norman. I had heard that boat bunks still outnumber hotel beds in the British Virgin Islands; the only high-rises I saw were the towering palms. Resorts range from old-fashioned to opulent, with cozy B&Bs, sprawling villas, even entire islands to rent if you crave complete privacy and if you have the disposable income to afford it.
Tortola, our first stop, welcomed us like a long-lost relative. We checked into the Sugar Mill Hotel, a quaint cluster of bungalow-style guest rooms set among the restored ruins of a 17th-century sugar plantation. That night, we enjoyed supper in the inn’s grand dining space, rebuilt from the stone and coral remains of the mill and nestled in a lush tropical garden just steps from the sea.
Instead of having dessert, I left the gang behind and took a delicious moonlit dip in the inn’s fresh-water swimming pool. The next day, we explored the jagged edges of Tortola’s coastline. There was a drastic change of scenery around every bend. Together, we lolled in beach bars along Cane Garden Bay one minute and snorkeled at the secluded Smuggler’s Cove the next.
On our second night on Tortola, we dined at Fifteen Abbott Lane, where we were smitten by a Chinese-lacquer bar and a sparkling crystal chandelier over the picturesque lily pond. I chose a glass of imported Pinot Noir and a plate of fusion appetizers for a light bite. The food was fresh and tasty, and the wine list extensive. The chic dining room, with a covered balcony overlooking Road Town Harbor, enticed us to sit back, relax and indulge. Did we ever!
On the third day we were off to our next stop, Jost Van Dyke, the smallest of the four main islands, and known for its rugged landscape, stunning beaches, calm surf and soft sands. We spent hours snorkeling, amazed by the clear, bathwater-warm sea. After dinner that night, I decided to go it alone and visited some of the local watering holes, starting with Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, the most famous spot on the island.
The proprietor himself, Foxy Callwood, picked up his guitar and serenaded me playfully, bantering with the crowd and improvising songs. For a final nightcap, I hit the Soggy Dollar Bar on the beach. I learned the Soggy gets its name from yacht sailors who commonly swim ashore to get a quick drink, drenching the dollar bills in their pockets. The locals say these waterlogged customers hang their money up over the bar, hoping the wilted bills will dry before the tab is tallied.
The BVI are brimming with pirate legends, particularly around the waters of Norman Island, the next stop on our island-hopping tour. Tales of swashbucklers abound and make great fodder for ghost stories. The Caves, a snorkeling spot said to be Robert Louis Stevenson’s inspiration for Treasure Island, provided the exquisite experience of swimming within a shimmering school of tropical fish. Pirate-lore-rich Peter Island was next. Its Deadman’s Bay is named for the 15 unlucky souls aboard Blackbeard’s pirate ship who were marooned here. My boat mates and I couldn’t resist breaking into song: “Yo! Ho! Ho! And a Bottle of Rum,” we bellowed loudly enough to conjure up even the sleepiest pirate spirit.
We saved the best island for last: Virgin Gorda (which means “fat virgin”). Christopher Columbus named the island for its silhouette, which resembles a rotund woman lying on her back. This island’s narrow waistline is about 200 yards wide and allows glimpses of Savannah Bay to the west and the Caribbean to the east.
The Baths on Virgin Gorda are a spectacular expanse of giant boulders strewn along a white-sand beach and piled 50 feet high at some points. We climbed down a 300-foot-long trail to get there, relishing the challenge of a hike through caves and pools of water. When we returned to the top of the hill, we lunched on conch fritters and enormous mango smoothies. Our day concluded at The Rock Café & Sam’s Piano Bar, with its misting waterfalls that cascade down huge rocks. Sam’s Piano Bar added that extra touch for a friendly time with travelers from around the world.
For our last and most luxurious night’s stay, we rewarded ourselves with reservations at the Biras Creek Resort. Here we could divide and conquer, each of us having our very own list of personal indulgences and longing for some quiet time on our own. Biras was the perfect setting for this, in that it offers a small number of luxurious suites situated on 140 acres of unspoiled land. Only reachable by boat or helicopter, Biras Creek was the quintessential cherry on the sundae.
I had the delicious pleasure of waking up to the sound of waves rolling on the shell-strewn shoreline and enjoying a strong cup of coffee and freshly baked scones on my own private veranda. The resort provides an amazing array of nature trails lined with flowering shrubs and trees, from hibiscus and bougainvillea to jasmine and frangipani.
Enjoy your own spring break vacation on the British Virgin Islands. Expect to recapture the fun, guts and glory of your earlier years, but with the polish and finesse of today.