General: Virgin Islands (UK)
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Review of "General: Virgin Islands (UK)"
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I was lucky enough to live out in the British Virgin Islands for four years in the 1980s. Since then we try to return every five years or so and as you can imagine we’ve seen some changes in that time. Known as ‘Nature’s Little Secret’, the BVI is a truly wonderful place. Our last visit was in November 2015.
~~~ So where is the BVI? ~~~The BVI lies towards the top of the Leeward Islands, the group of Caribbean islands that stretch from Puerto Rico to Dominca. The islands were named by Christopher Columbus when he came across them on his second voyage to the Americans in 1493. He named them after Saint Ursula and her 11000 virgins; Ursula now appears on the national flag as part of the island’s coat of arms. In fact there are a mere 60 islands, only 15 of them are inhabited, and the main island of Tortola is separated from the other islands by the Sir Francis Drake Channel.
Originally claimed by the Spanish and then the Dutch, the islands became British in the 1670s. It remains a British Overseas Territory with a resident Governor. Across the channel lie the US Virgin Islands which were sold to the USA in 1917 – they are busier, brasher and perhaps unsurprisingly much more American than their British cousins. Although British in many respects (cars driver on the left), the local currency is the might US dollar.
~~~ The climate ~~~The British Virgin Islands enjoy a tropical climate, moderated by the trade winds which make it a fantastic destination for sailors. The daytime temperature is typically around the 32 °C mark in summer and 29 °C in the winter. The summer however is quite humid and hurricane season runs from June to November. We used to remember the season with the following rhyme:
June - Too Soon
July - Standby
August - You must
September - Remember
October - It's all over
~~~ Getting there ~~~There are no direct flights to the BVI. When I first went there, the airport was little more than a small hut. Now it boasts the Terrance B Lettsome International Airport although in truth it is still pretty small. The best route to the BVI changes depending on the connecting flights. Some years you can fly direct to Puerto Rico and then fly on to Beef Island (connected to Tortola by a bridge grandly called the Queen Elizabeth bridge). At the moment the easiest way is to fly to Antigua and then fly by LIAT to Beef Island via St Kitts and St Maarten. It seemed a long journey – LIAT lived up to its Live Island Any Time nickname and was delayed at Antigua; however it’s other nickname did not ring true – Leave In Another Town – eventually we and our luggage touched down in the BVI. Our flight left Gatwick at 11 am; we arrived at our hotel at just after 10 pm (local time is 4 hours behind GMT).
~~~ And once there, getting around the islands ~~~We split our time in the BVI between staying on Tortola, the largest of the islands, and then chartering a yacht to visit the other islands. Sailing around the islands is definitely the best way to get about but there are ferry services to several of the islands and you can fly to Virgin Gorda and Anegada.We rented a car for our stay on Tortola but there are plenty of taxis about although they can be pricey. Fares are by destination and prices are published so you won’t get ripped off. There are also open-air safari buses which old about 20 people and give you a good view as you drive the sometimes hairy roads. For those who take the rental option, the roads can be scary at times – not only lots of potholes to look out for but the roads are twisty and steep. When we first lived there, there only twos roundabouts and no traffic lights. Now the main stream has several traffic lights and Road Town rush hour can be quite a traffic jam!
~~~ There is much to see and do: ~~~The BVI has a lot going for it. Like other Caribbean destinations it offers luxury resorts, palm-fringed beaches, great diving and wonderful sailing. What makes it different is the number of islands you can visit. I could write reams and reams about this wonderful place but I will limit myself to giving you the top ten locations from my most recent visit.
Starting on Tortola:
1) Smugglers Cove – I love this beach which is one of the quietest in the islands as it’s not easy to get to. It is on the north west coast and access is by a dirt road that I’ve seen one reviewer liken ‘to embarking upon an African Safari’. It’s quite an adventure getting there – luckily we were in our hired SUV which managed the bumps in the road but at one point I did wonder whether my memory had failed and I’d taken us up the wrong track. Luckily I was right and eventually we reached the end of the track that opens up to the beautiful palm-fringed beach with a gradual sandy slope into warm blue sea. Bliss! We almost had the long stretch of beach to ourselves apart from a few chickens roaming around and keen to investigate whether we had brought food with us! The1990 movie version of The Old Man and the Sea was partly filmed here.
3) Government House Museum – now I have to confess into a personal connection in including this one. It seems strange that where I used to work all those years ago, is now a museum! Actually the Governor’s Office is still there but in the 1990s it was felf that the Governor’s residence was no longer safe. After a protracted debate, the house was saved from demolition and renovated as a museum. A focal point of the museum are some fantastic murals in the dining room which were painted during be tenure out there by the Governor’s wife, Margaret Barwick, best known as a hands-on gardener and landscape designer, We had our wedding reception at Government House so we just had to go back and visit! Old Government House Museum is a short walk from the centre of Road Town (the capital) and is open Monday to Friday 9am - 2pm. Admission is $5.4) Trellis Bay – a little community on the beach just beside the airport on Beef Island and a popular place for yachts to anchor. When we lived there it was mainly known for its windsurfing school (which is still there) and a quirky restaurant known as the Last Resort on Bellamy Cay which used to be run by Tony Snell, an eccentric Englishman whose many feats included escaping from German prisoner of war camps on two occasion during WWII. It’s a fascinating bay now best known for its art and it’s well worth taking the time to look around Aragorn's Studio. The only downside was that Trellis Bay was the only place where we were bitten by mosquitos. You do have to be careful. When we lived there, the danger was dengue fever. In fact a fellow ex-pat who return to the UK went to the doctor thinking she had dengue fever but turned out to be pregnant which was much better news! Nowadays the danger it is something called Chikungunya virus which has similar symptoms to dengue - fever, joint pain, headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain and rash. In other words, it’s thoroughly unpleasant. I went to donate blood a couple of weeks after my return from the BVI but in fact was turned away because of the virus which can take 4 weeks to develop. Luckily our bites were just itchy!
Virgin Gorda (the fat virgin) is less developed than Tortola but has more than its fair share of luxury hotels and marinas.
6) Saba Rock – this was new to us this year. Saba Rock has always been there of course – it is a tiny island/rock at the entrance to North South. When we lived there however, it was owned by a marine archaeologist, Bert Kilbride, who didn’t welcome visitors. However since we left its been bought by a new family who have built a small hotel and restaurant on the rock and it’s apparently become one of the most popular watering holes in the Caribbean. At low tide, the rock cover justs under one acre but it manages to host a full-service marine as well as the hotel and restaurant. There is also a collection of shipwreck artifacts – Kilbride was famous for diving the wreck of the Rhone, a Royal Mail steam that sank in a hurricane off Salt Island in 1867.Some of the other Islands
7) The Caves, Norman Island – Norman Island is generally thought to be the inspiration behind Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Now privately owned, it is uninhabited apart from one small hotel and beach restaurant. At its western tip is Treasure Point in Priavateers Bay. Here you will find the Caves, an extremely popular snorkelling spot and it’s easy to see why. The fish and reefs are magnificent. The water is very clear and deep. When we first took my son there some 15 years ago, he took fright when he started to swim towards the caves from our boat – the water is so deep that he felt he was going to fall and not stop. The same thing happened this time with his girlfriend when she first jumped off the boat. Pausing to catch her breathe and take time to get accustomed to the water, she was soon off and exploring the caves.
8) Cooper Island Beach Club – the small beach club on Manchioneel Bay is a firm favourite. It’s recently had a lot of money spent on it but has managed to retain its relaxed and friendly atmosphere. There isn’t a regular ferry service from Tortola but there are several boat trips to and from the main marinas in Tortola (schedule on the Cooper Island website). We took a mooring in the bay and were astonished to find a huge barracuda hanging off the same mooring line. I’d jokingly referred to Barry as we called him (obviously) when I read about the large resident barracuda in the cruising guide but I didn’t expect to actually see him! Ashore we enjoyed happy hour and the magnificent sunset. The Beach Club also has a decent restaurant, accommodation, a boutique and a dive shop.9) Scrub Island – another first for us this year. When we lived out in the BVI, Scrub Island was uninhabited. Now it has a very fancy hotel and marina that opened in 2010. It is very swanky with beautiful infinity swimming pools, pool bars and a number of restaurants to choose from. We moored at the marina which was very quiet although it can accommodate 55 yachts including five slips designed to take mega-yachts of up to 160 feet. Scrub Island is really a stopping off place – for us it was great to have luxury showers to use and to stock up on a few basics at the little store. For guests, the activities are snorkel tours, dive trips, fishing and of course there’s a wonderful spa. You can easily walk around the island which we did in about 45 minutes.
10) Marina Cay – My last top destination is another tiny island. Robb White's novel, 'Two on the Isle', tells the story of he and his wife’s stay here when they bought the island back in1937. The book was turned into a film ‘Our Virgin Island’ starring Sidney Poitier. The Cay s now a Pusser’s resort; the BVI is the homebase for this famous navy rum and there are several Pusser’s establishments in the BVI. The pretty island covers 8 acres and is a great spot which hasn’t lost its original charm. I wanted to pop into the Pusser’s Shop to buy some souvenirs but we walked up to the Robb White’s old house and looked at the photos the photos telling his story on the wall of the beach restaurant. If nothing else it’s worth popping into have a Pusser’s Painkiller (a delicious concoction) and have your photo taken by the British red telephone box by the island webcam.
~~~ £££ ~~~There is no denying that the BVI is an expensive place to visit. Our flights with BA and LIAT cost us around £550. Then having got there the accommodation is not cheap although it ranges from pretty basic to full blown 5 star luxury. For example the nightly room rate at Cooper Island is about $265; at Scrub Island the cheapest room comes in at a hefty $650 per night. When we lived there we used to joke that you could fill your supermarket trolley with rum for next to nothing but a trolley full of food would cost an arm and leg. Today, things aren’t much different! We stocked up at the local supermarket that really has everything you need including a range from Waitrose. Some things are pretty reasonable whilst other things are hideously expensive – everything has to be imported but if you’re careful you don’t have to spend a fortune.
~~~~~~~~~I hope this review isn’t too long. I could go on and on but I hope I have given a flavour of this magical place. Our retirement dream is to spend winters out in the BVI – whether it will happen remains to be seen; in the meantime I’d best write some more reviews and start saving!A fabulous 5 out of 5.
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Listed on Ciao since: 22/10/2004