Known as the BVI, the British Virgin Islands are truly some of the most lovely places on earth
The first question most people ask me when I talk about the British Virgin Islands is: “Where exactly are they?” Surrounded by limpid sea the colour of turquoise ink, they lie at the top of that alluring arc of islands that span the Caribbean from Puerto Rico to Venezuela. And, as their two tiny airports cannot take large planes, they remain beautiful, safe and unspoilt, nicely branded by their tourist board as ‘Nature’s Little Secrets’. However, as the islands are one of the best-loved sailing areas in the world, all modern amenities are on hand, including a superb selection of accommodation. Seriously good food too. Gourmet meals subtly adapted with local ingredients; fresh fish and seafood; spicy Caribbean dishes, British pub food and American deli favourites.
The most obvious British influences are driving on the left and the old red telephone boxes. When Christopher Columbus discovered these islands he named them after the11,000 virgins of St. Ursula, reckoning there were too many to count. Sir Francis Drake claimed those that are British. The two main islands in the BVI are Tortola, home to the buzzy little capital, Road Town; and Virgin Gorda (it translates as fat virgin) so called because the outline of the island seen from the sea resembles a sleeping woman.
Once a hideaway for pirates, the BVI are thought to be the setting for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale Treasure Island. And the pirate song: “Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest - Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum” evokes Deadman’s Bay on Peter Island. Some say there is buried treasure still to be found on nearby Norman Island, but an hour’s ferry ride to the duty-free cruise port of St. Thomas in the nearby (and much more developed) US Virgin Islands holds more promise of gold bounty. However, money still flows into the BVI as it is an international tax haven.
What to see and do
Naturally, sailing in the Sir Francis Drake Channel is by far the major sporting activity. Boat charter, with or without a skipper, can be surprisingly affordable if shared with friends. Tortola is home to the largest bareboat fleet in the Caribbean (some 700). Diving is extremely popular and sites include coral reefs, underwater caves and ship wrecks. Snorkelling amongst the extraordinary rock formations known as The Baths on Virgin Gorda is an unforgettable experience. Fishing (including the record for Atlantic Blue Marlin).
Most of the islands are connected by ferry or water taxi and these trips are excursions in themselves . Don’t miss Jost van Dyke, where the beach is the main road. Named after a Dutch pirate, it is now famous for Foxy's Bar (www.foxybar.com). Foxy, a local character who cleverly gears his calypsos to his audience often makes references to Prince Charles. How great to hear that he received an MBE from the HM the Queen in 2009. My favourite excursion, for pure escapism, is a day trip by tiny local plane or ferry to the remote island of Anegada: think bone fishing, powdery white sand, pink flamingos, ultramarine sea and lobsters barbecued on the beach.
Where to sleep and eat
Luxury hotels in the BVI offer a seductive blend of sophistication and laid-back style. Some are in the ‘money no object’ category and offer top class service and facilities. But it’s not all for the rich and famous - although you can rent Sir Richard Branson’s own Virgin Island (www.neckerisland.com), a snip at US$ 720 per person per night (23-28 sharing), but that does include all food, drink and the services of 60 staff. However there is of course plenty of accommodation to suit most budgets. Good range of bars, cafes and restaurants too, in all price ranges, and hotel dining rooms are open to non-residents. Returning time and time again, I have sampled several hotels and visited others for meals (to nosey round). One of my favourites is the Sugar Mill Hotel on Tortola (from US$275 per night double room, deals available for various lengths of stay). This haven is owned by charismatic American food writers, Jinx and Geoff Morgan. Their superb restaurant is in the old stone distillery that dates from 1650. Menus change daily and feature innovative Californian and international dishes made with Caribbean ingredients. Think shrimp and vegetable skewers with caramelised pineapple salsa; poached lobster salad a la Nicoise and delectable vegetarian options such as eggplant (aubergine) Creole with Caribbean coconut rice. Lunch in their bar on the adjacent small beach includes flying fish sandwiches and crab cakes. No surprise that they win awards and accolades for serving some of the best food in the Caribbean and that the Sugar Mill Caribbean Cookbook is a best-seller in their gift shop. And if you want to visit Deadman’s Beach Bar (at the exclusive Peter Island Resort from US$590 a night double room; www.peterisland.com) non-residents can book a meal and get a complimentary ferry from Road Town. How about Sunday lunch or a West Indian buffet accompanied by a live steel band? If you are looking for a glamorous and stylish upmarket house-party Relais & Chateaux’s Biras Creek (www.relaischateaux.com) on Virgin Gorda may suit (from US$700 double room a day includes all meals, watersports and more). In times of stress I dream of the utter peace of the Anegada Reef Hotel (from around US$300 double room per day with all meals) where you really can practice il dolce far niente (the sweet art of doing nothing) and look forward to those barbecued lobsters for dinner.
A full range of accommodation as well as jeep hire, boat charter and dive packages can be booked through BVI Holidays (in UK tel: 01279 871188; www.bviholidays.com). The only company to deal exclusively in the BVI, it was set up by Joyce Kinniburgh who fell in love with the islands on her first visit in 1989. Prices range from about £300 per person per week for simple beach-front rooms or in good self-catering apartments to a few thousand pounds for top hotels, depending on season and whether for room only, B&B or all-inclusive. Flights cost extra.
Where to drink
Pusser’s Pub and Company Store in Road Town, Tortola (www.pussers.com) is an iconic BVI venue. Pusser’s Rum, a bargain at US$9.95 a bottle, is traditionally made in wooden pot-stills and connoisseurs say it has a quality akin to single malt whisky or fine brandy. This rum is the vital ingredient for Pain Killers, the apt name of the ultimate local rum punch. And fascinating to learn the origin of Pusser's name. For over 300 years the men of the British Royal Navy were issued a daily ration of this rum by their ship’s purser (corrupted to pusser). Pusser’s also stock high quality beach and sailing clothes which can be addictive. Oh yes, and you can buy those tin mugs with nautical decoration that hold a pint of painkiller. Great for reminiscing with when you get back home. Pusser's is great for casual meals too. Fish and chips, burgers, jerk chicken or pork, Carib style deli sandwiches or home-made pizzas anyone? Pusser's have BVI outposts at West End, Marina Cay and Leverick Bay.
Foxy's on Jost van Dyke is one of the most popular all-day bars as well as being famous for beach parties. Or how about relaxing in a hammock in the nearby Soggy Dollar Bar (www.soggydollar.com)? So called because wading ashore can make for wet money in your pocket.
International flight to Antigua or Puerto Rico and then on by small local plane with Liat or American Eagle.