If you have read much about the Caribbean, you will know that tourism has exploded in the region in the last two decades. This means that it has become much harder to get away from it all – hordes of visitors have invaded many of the islands bringing with them hotels, restaurants, real estate construction, noise and everything else that comes with mass tourism. With this in mind, let us introduce a place that has so far manage to resist large invasion of visitors and remains true to its name. British Virgin Islands are wild, mostly uninhabited and stunningly beautiful. If you truly want to feel like you have reached the edge of the world or like a book hero Robinson Crusoe, you are thinking about the right place.
|Size||59 square miles (153 square kilometers)|
|Population||32,000 (83% African, 7% European, 10% other)|
|Status||British overseas territory|
|GDP per capita (2017)||$34,200|
|Electricity||US standard two-prong|
|Driving||on the left (steering wheel on the left as well)|
Fought over by pretty much every colonial empire, the territory was eventually won by Great Britain in the late 17th century. Due to its favorable climate and geography, the British quickly introduced sugar cane to the islands and brought slaves from Africa to scale up its production. The sugar production eventually decreased with abolition of slavery and major hurricanes and the region struggled economically for much of the 19th and 20th century. However, in the last couple decades BVI has gained a reputation as a tax heaven and there are now many financial companies based on the islands. With an additional income from tourism, British Virgin Islands are now one of the richest regions in all of Caribbean.
However, it is unlikely you will be visiting BVI to step up you professional life. With a very small local population of only 30,000 and over 50 separate islands many of which remain uninhabited, the biggest appeal of this region is its remoteness and stunning nature. This comes with trade-offs, of course. Don’t expect to find lots of large resorts, shopping options or amenities here. Transport between and on islands is not easy, but as one of the best places in the world to sail, with a boat you can pick your own island and drop anchor wherever you please. And if you rather just stay put in one place, you will not be disappointed with beauty of places to choose from. On top of that, the islanders you meet during your stay will be friendly and helpful and the positive culture of the region is permeating.
With its small size and remoteness, getting to British Virgin Islands means a longer journey with stop-overs. If you are travelling from the US, Canada or Europe, you will be able to change over in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Martin, Antigua or Barbados and fly to Tortola (EIS), Virgin Gorda (VIJ) or Anegada (NGD) Connections from St. Thomas (STT) are especially popular as it operates several flights to Tortola every day. Besides flights, you can consider visiting by a cruise as many stop in Tortola or Virgin Gorda. This would give you a chance to explore the islands for a day and see some of the key sights and beaches. However, this means you will likely be surrounded by your fellow cruisers and won’t get a chance to truly experience what BVI has to offer – tranquility and privacy.
British Virgin Islands are mountainous while roads are narrow, steep, completely dark at night and hard to navigate. This makes driving a car very challenging. However, if you do feel very confident as a driver, than a 4×4 is recommended as you will find many of the roads to be unpaved in addition to being very hilly. Car rentals are available at the airports as well as in the capital of Road Town. There are also a few rental places scattered across the smaller islands, but due to limited supply many times they are sold out, especially in the high season. But don’t be discouraged! Instead of a rental car, you can always take a shared van (called “safari”), of which there are many traversing Tortola, Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke. You can find them at the airports, around Road Town and near the harbours. Finally, you will definitely want to check out ferry schedules between the various islands. Tortola operates as the main hub with terminals at Beef Island, Road Town and West End. From here you can connect to as many as 10 of the smaller islands as well as to St. John and St. Thomas in US Virgin Islands. Keep in mind that if you travel to USVI you will need to go through immigration and customs; this happens during a stop in Cruz Bay.[embedyt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghVqYVRu1Go[/embedyt]
Things to explore
Although BVI is relatively small as far as landmass, exploring many corners of this territory is best done via a boat. Many of the over 50 islands are not connected to the main islands via mass/public transportation and hence, you will be best served by chartering your own or sharing a rental of a boat. Since large majority of BVI lives in Tortola, this where you will find many of the key things to explore. However, you may be surprised to learn the island of Jost Van Dyke is actually the party place of the Virgin Islands with a vivid nightlife all year round. Here is the list of five top islands and their main attractions:
- Tortola – named by Christopher Columbus as “turtle dove”, this capital island of British Virgin Islands is the key hub for transport and tourism. It is here in Road Town that you will find the BVI museum located in the old government house, Ford Burt, a military fortification built by the Dutch in the 17th century as well as J.R O’Neal Botanical Gardens showcasing beautiful examples of trees and plants native to the islands. Outside of Road Town, you can do a fantastic hike in Sage Mountain National Park (the highest peak in BVI) and then head to Mount Healthy National Park, which feature remains of several sugar plantations. Also, consider visiting Cane Garden Bay and its beach – this little town has some lovely restaurants and the beach has calm and shallow waters. Finally, if you are a beach fanatic – our own personal favourites are called Trunk Bay and Rogues Bay, which both offer paradise like quality, yet with very few visitors all year round.
- Virgin Gorda – second biggest island of the territory has an odd, elongated shape and its only proper settlement is called Spanish Town. This where you will land if you take a ferry from Tortola or St. Thomas, but it won’t take you long to explore as the town is only about a mile across. What you will find close to the town though are the famous Baths – several beaches surrounded by huge rocks. These builders create a network of water tunnels, pools and arches that make for amazing pictures and fun swimming. Early mornings are best here to avoid (relative) crowds. Now, if you are into hiking you can take a trek out to the Gorda Peak National Park, which has a couple trails totalling an hour of walking. From there you can keep walking towards Nail Bay and Long Bay – two secluded beaches with great views out to Dog Islands.
- Jost Van Dyke – with only about 200 residents, Jost Van Dyke does only have a couple shops and restaurants where you will need to pay by cash. These are located in Belle Vue, which is where ferries arrive as well as in White Bay and Garner Bay. This is also where you will find the most popular beaches. For the more adventures, you can take a hike across the island to several remote beaches as well as a tiny rocky beach called Bubbly Pool in the north-east, where you can bathe in a in small natural pool fed by bubbly ocean waters generated by crashing waves.
- Anegada – much different to the other islands that are of volcanic origin, Anegada is flat and made up of coral and limestone. In fact, its shores are surrounded by an atoll of coral making it difficult for ships to navigate its waters. Long stretches or pristine white sand beaches are the island’s biggest draw. And, importantly 90% of the time you will be the only one there. Many of these beaches are so remote they don’t even have their own name. Our favourite ones are on the north-west side near Cow Wreck restaurant and resort.
- Guana Island – the whole island is a protected wildlife habitat with only one, uber-luxury resort called appropriately, Guana Island Resort. There are no restaurants or shops on the island besides the hotel and the only way to get to it is via private boat charter. The island has two stunning beaches and amazing nature to explore, both on land and in the water. If you truly want to get away from it all, this would be a very good pick of a place.
- Great Camanoe – actually bigger than Guana Island, Great Camanoe is completely unknown as a tourist destination, but this is exactly what makes it great place to visit for adventure seeking travellers. The island has no amenities, cars and hardly any walking trails. However, it does have as many as five gorgeous beaches and several houses, 1 or 2 of which, do get rented out.
- Cooper Island – like Great Camanoe, this island has no facilities besides several houses, though it also has one resort: Cooper Island Beach Club located in the beautiful Manchioneel Bay. The Bay is a very popular anchoring point for yachts and sailing boats and really the only point on the island where you can find food and drinking water.
As mentioned in the beginning, British Virgin Islands have managed to stay out the radar of the mass tourism industry and hence, hotel options and their amenities are limited. Only six of the above mentioned 50+ islands have private accommodations and besides Tortola, your choices on all other islands will be very limited. Tortola has about 15 proper hotels with majority of them located in Road Town and on the west coast of the island. All of these hotels are small compared to large resorts in other parts of the Caribbean with 50 rooms maximum and many with less than 20 of them. Don’t expect to find all-inclusive options here or amenities such as spas and entertainment. What you will find instead is a cosy and serene atmosphere, great views as well as friendly and attentive hosts. If you want to stay in Road Town consider Village Cay, a pleasant, Holiday Inn type hotel with relaxed atmosphere and situated right in the Inner Harbour marina. Close by you will find another, good quality hotel called Maria’s By the Sea with a pool and onsite restaurant. If you rather venture out of the main town, you will find at least five hotels and several villas on the north coast. For a very inexpensive option, try Sebastian’s Seaside Villas located right on a beach. Alternatively, if you are willing to spend a bit more, check out the 4-star Sugar Mill Hotel, which has some stunning views and many fantastic reviews. Finally, if you can splash out and care for complete privacy and luxury – you will not be disappointed by Surfsong Villa Resort located on the east coast close to Tortola’s airport, where you can expect to pay upwards of $1,000 per night.
When it comes to Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke, Anegada and Guana Island your best bet are private villas, many of which are located throughout the islands. In addition, we recommend a couple boutique hotels, which, although expensive, offer luxury accommodations and beautiful views. These are Rosewood Little Dix Bay and Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda, Sandcastle boutique hotel on Jost Van Dyke, Cow Wreck Beach Resort on Anegada and Guana Island Resort on Guana Island.
Food & restaurants
Due to their small size as well as difficult logistics, grocery stores on British Virgin Islands have limited supply and you may often struggle to buy produce and ingredients you are used to. Two things you will not lack of though, are fish and goat products. The islands are famous for their delicious fish creole (grilled fish with tomatoes sauce) as well as goat water (curried goat stew). And, if you have a sweet tooth, tamarind balls made of brown sugar will work as a great dessert on any occasion.
Majority of the islands’ restaurants are located in towns and near ports/marinas. On Tortola, Road Town is where you will find the most culinary options. These include a relaxed and inexpensive The Cabernet Bar and Grill, fancy and romantic Brandywine Estate as well as harbour central Pusser’s Road Town Pub with American style menu and plenty of beer options. Outside of Road Town you cannot miss visiting Banakeet Café in Great Carrot Bay, which has some of the best views of any restaurant in the Caribbean! If heading to Virgin Gorda, you will find at least 10 varied restaurants in the Valley and many also offer some fantastic views – our favorite being Top of the Baths, which has a large open terrace and serves breakfasts from early mornings as well as lunches and dinners. Finally, if you are planning to go to Jost Van Dyke or Anegada keep in mind that there are only up to 10 restaurants across each island. In addition, many of these are separated from each other by a good hike so you may want to plan your dining for in advance. And when it comes to the menus of these restaurants, expect them to be full of dishes made of whatever can be sourced from the sea. Finally, it is worth noting that as many as 80% of restaurants on British Virgin Islands are closed on Sundays. Hence, you may definitely want to consider renting a kitchen ready villa and purchase groceries every Saturday.
You are unlikely to be travelling to British Virgin Islands specifically for their nightlife. Although you will find several bars in Road Town on Tortola as well as in the bays of Jost Van Dyke, there are no large nightclubs on the islands and if you are lucky to find a dance floor, it will be limited to a couple square meters with only a very small crowd accompanying you in dancing. Nonetheless, you can still have plenty of fun in the pubs and bars throughout the islands with the mentioned Road Town and the north coast of Jost Van Dyke as their key locations. And crucially, while visiting BVI you cannot miss a local specialty drink called Painkiller – a famed cocktail made of rum, pineapple, coconut and orange juice and created in the 1970s in Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke.
Sports & adventure
British Virgin Islands are a sailor’s paradise! The many isolated and uninhabited islands are surrounded by calm waters and the many beautiful bays are ideal spots to set anchor and relax in the waters and on deserted beaches. In the likely scenario you are not sailing to BVI on your own yacht, there are lots of rental/charter options available to you from Road Town harbour. You can rent powerboats, catamarans or sailboats of many sizes with or without a captain. You can also join a group on a half or full day snorkeling or fishing trip organized by many of the charter companies. In fact, snorkeling and diving are other activities, for which BVI could be considered heavenly. If you are an experienced diver, you will appreciate Alice in Wonderland dive near Ginger Island as well as two large shipwrecks near Brewers Bay on Tortola. And when it comes to snorkeling, our personal favorite spots are the Baths beach as well as the Fallen Jerusalem island, where water life is stunning while water clarity is near perfect.[embedyt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0BD8k0VD3k[/embedyt]
It is in fact, the Baths on Virgin Gorda, for which many travellers come from all corners of the world to visit. The huge builders sitting in shallow, pristine waters are one of a kind and make for some spectacular photo opportunities. Swimming and snorkeling among the rocks is a great experience in itself. But besides the Baths, Virgin Gorda is great hiking island as you can climb to the top of Peak National Park, which offers 360 degree views of the island and its surroundings.
Safety and security
BVI’s islands are very safe. Crime rates are some of the lowest in the Caribbean while the small population is relatively well-off and very welcoming. As road traffic is almost non-existent, car accidents are rare and hiking along majority of the roads is a safe and quiet experience. The negative side of this serenity is the fact that in case of a medical emergency, it may take a long time to get appropriate medical help. In fact, the Peebles Hospital on Tortola is the only major medical facility on the British Virgin Islands and, unfortunately, its equipment and staff are limited as to what conditions and surgeries they can support. Major emergencies will likely require an airlift to a St.Thomas hospital or beyond.
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