Once upon a time, the British Virgin Islands lazed virtually lost east of Puerto Rico and northwest of the Leeward archipelago. Ranging from flat atolls with a desert-like dryness to landfalls with jade-hued mountains, most of the islands remained undeveloped, tranquil on the verge of tranquilizing—at one point the British Home Office even called them "the least important part of the Empire."
The islanders like it that way. So do "yachties," who have long appreciated the Sir Francis Drake Channel as one of the world's finest sailing destinations, blessed with brisk cooling tradewinds, protected waters, splendid snorkeling, and abundant natural anchorages. Jimmy Buffett helped popularize them even before he "discovered" Margaritaville, sailing in the aptly-named Euphoria from one beach (and bar) to the next.
But sailors aren't the only aficionados. The sugary beaches, Technicolor reefs, secluded enclaves, and mellow vibe attract all manner of travelers seeking a restful retreat.
Each island in the BVI has unique attractions, offering sailors a range of experiences.
On Jost van Dyke, Great Harbour's main drag is a palm-shaded strip of sand, holding one of the Caribbean's quintessential beach bars: Foxy's Tamarind. This legendary bar has enticed yachties of all stripes, including Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Kelsey Grammer, and Kenny Chesney (who immortalized larger-than-life owner Philicianno Callwood in a lyric). The party scene is in full roar Thursday through Saturday as live bands storm its Outback stage. And one of the truly legendary regattas is held here in May. While it may lack the panache of Foxy's, Deadman's Beach Bar & Grill is a fantastic feet-in-the-sand bar on Peter Island, with killer drinks and dancing well into the night. Virgin Gorda features some of the chain's most beautiful anchorages and resorts. The Bitter End Yacht Club is one of the world's best places to learn sailing (families will love their sensational camps). It also offers a stellar land-based vacation, with a fantastic restaurant.
Back on Tortola, Smuggler's Cove is a hidden palm-fringed beach where a vendor makes potent potables, including piña coladas, using a car-battery-operated blender. For dinner, cruise over to Quito's Gazebo on Cane Garden Bay, a beach bar and restaurant where the eponymous Quito Rymer performs reggae several nights weekly, often with his band The Edge. The Marina at Scrub Island Resort includes a terrific gourmet market. And if you "park" in one of the berths overnight, don't miss the dinners at Caravela or the Wednesday night Old San Juan beach dinner replete with pig roast, bottomless mojitos, mini-empanadas, and dulce de leche fondue. Divers and snorkelers should also check out The Indians, jagged rocks off Norman Island encircled by reefs exploding with colorful marine life. The Bight, Norman's main anchorage, has boisterous restaurants like Willy T's, a floating barge.
For Foodies & Imbibers
Granted, the BVI aren't a Caribbean culinary hotspot like St. Barths or Anguilla, but nor are they a backwater. Fresh seafood simply prepared so the flavors sing, traditional Creole-style sauces, cocktails with cojones at beach bars, and enchanting water views from practically every eatery make the chain an unsung foodie destination.
Tortola's sophisticated (and Fodor's Choice) Sugar Mill centers around the namesake 375-year-old ruin. This intimate hotel is a Fodorâ€™s Choice and its restaurant, adorned with top-notch Caribbean artworks, is arguably the finest in the BVI. The owners, Jeff and Jinx Morgan, are longtime food & travel writers who had a regular column for Bon Appetit for years. Hop the ferry from Beef Island to Scrub Island Resort, where Executive Chef Davide Pugliese turns out brilliant juxtapositions of taste and texture, like vanilla-kissed grouper poached in coconut milk. The resort's more casual Tierra! Tierra! offers innovative Caribbean takes on continental classics, such as island lasagna with pumpkin and braised Angus short ribs in tamarind BBQ sauce. The Rock Cafe on Virgin Gorda is a gem, beautifully situated in the treetops and boulders of The Baths. It's the perfect spot to have a drink before or after dinner, enjoy the Italian cuisine (surprisingly tasty pizzas) amid candlelit tables, the crashing waves and waterfalls providing percussive accompaniment.
For a different antidote to civilization, Bomba's Surfside Shack is a very colorful Tortola beach bar, filled with character and characters. In 1976, a shipwright nicknamed Bomba opened a small bar, with very little money or materials. Friends dropped off odds and ends they couldn't use, like half-finished bottles of booze. The "end" result is an ever-changing, continually expanding collage of trash. It's a gloriously makeshift and raunchy jumble of junk, and tradition dictates that you must leave something behind, which is why you'll discover everything from bras and boxers to business cards.
Over on Jost, White Bay is perennially rated among the Caribbean's loveliest strands of beach. But its real attraction is the Soggy Dollar Bar, another Caribbean classic, home of the original painkiller cocktail. The bar earned its moniker because the only access is via water; sodden sailors would hand over drenched dollar bills.
Families seeking an eco-friendly vacation will find plenty of aquatic adventures in the BVI. Kids love the nautical tales of pirates and buried treasure (every island has its own story), while snorkeling and beach-ing provide endless diversions.
Virgin Gorda's signature attraction, The Baths, is a maze of granite boulders. It affords terrific exploring. Kids adore climbing up and through the larger openings. And it's a virtual aquarium, ideal for beginner snorkelers. Just off Virgin Gorda, Saba Rock Resort calls its location "the North Sound Playground." Kids love the fish 'n' chips, and the little motor boat ride over. Snorkel its Eustatia Reef to see rays and turtles, rent a kayak, or try kite-boarding with the teens. Don't miss a day sail to Norman Island. The landfall is most celebrated for tales of buried treasure, supposedly inspiring Robert L. Stevenson's Treasure Island, but the caves off Treasure Point offer a special kind of booty for snorkelers. Back on Tortola, Prospect Reef's Dolphin Discovery allows kids of all ages to get up close and personal with dolphins.
Virgin Gorda's Little Dix Bay, the legendary hideaway founded in 1964 by Laurance S. Rockefeller, offers posh pampering without (too much) pretension. The retreat tiptoes up a hillside overlooking a crescent-shaped bay dubbed "wilderness beach" by Rockefeller. Every building, even the yoga pavilion, maximizes the views. The accommodations emerge from the landscape, shaded by sea grape and palm trees that also provide privacy. High-tech amenities complement the Old World luxury, including WiFi and Bose® stereos, with personal DVD players on request. Dine amid the surf, sand, and sky in the three open-air venues. Likewise, the sense of place is paramount at the spa, which features jaw-dropping panoramic views and incorporates local plants in the treatments. Guests can be dropped off (via Boston Whaler) to seven unspoiled strands around Virgin Gorda complete with beach towels, snorkel gear, and umbrella on the house (picnic lunch with wine comes at a fee).
Another romantic resort on Virgin Gorda, Biras Creek is more intimate than Little Dix. Accessible only by boat or helicopter, its 31 suites nestle amid 140 lush acres, their classic yet contemporary decor incorporating local crafts. The resort oversees three bodies of water, the serene North Sound lagoon, the open Atlantic, and the cobalt Caribbean. Add a full-service spa, a stable of Paso Fino horses, and superlative dining and you've just finished planning your honeymoon.
Or spring for Fodor's 100 Hotel Award winner Peter Island, one of several private island resorts. Five beaches provide seclusion. Arrange private beachfront dining, and then retire to striking accommodations overlooking the sea. For a day sail, consider Anegada, a flat coral atoll where you can always find an empty beach, great snorkeling, and the famed local lobster at the island's humble little inns.
American, Delta, United, and US Airways fly nonstop daily to San Juan, Puerto Rico from many eastern hubs. From there, it's a quick puddle-jump to Tortola's Beef Island Airport or Virgin Gorda via Air Sunshine, Cape Air, and Seabourne. You can also take Air Sunshine to St. Thomas and then take a ferry to Tortola, Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda, and Anegada.
Photo credits: Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda's Baths via Dreamstime.com; Biras Creek courtesy of Biras Creek; Soggy Dollar Bar courtesy of Soggy Dollar Bar