Cruising in the British Virgin Islands – by 'TCM'

Being somewhat dull and boring, I have now been to the British Virgin islands over the same Xmas and new year fortnight for four years running (well, sailing), so here's some info. Boating instead of slumping in front of telly repeats is miles more fun, IMHO. I recommend John Grisham's nice little story "Skipping Christmas" if your family is unsure about abandoning the relatives over the festive season. In any event, here's some valid info if anyone plans a BVI trip, or wonders what it's all about.

What's it like?

The BVI is a group of islands in the Caribbean offering fabulous sailing. Some say it is the best sailing in the world, while others qualify by saying it is the best in the world for novices. I wouldn't like to judge, but it is pretty special.

The area of the BVI is something like 35 miles by 10 miles, or nearer 60 x 15 miles if you also include the US Virgin Islands. The main island of the BVI is Tortola, and the capital is Road Town. All the BVI islands are essentially verdant green trees and mostly undeveloped. Some are completely uninhabited.

The USVI to the west are administratively but not physically separate - the Virgin Islands are one group of islands, so I suppose they must have divvied them up between allegiance to Britain and the yanks a while back. The USVI are much more populated, developed and touristy than the BVI - there are few if any restrictions on US citizens living in the USVI, whereas there are lots of longwinded restrictions on "non-belonging" (born elsewhere) Brits or others buying property in the BVI such that it can take 1-2 years for administrative clearance- or so say the property magazines.

I have only passed thru the USVI on transit by ferryboat, not visited, but just by listening to FM Radio one can hear far more about crime etc in the USVI, and see far heavier tourist development, whereas everywhere in the BVI is very laid back and essentially crime free. I've met many long-time BVI regulars who say they would never go to the US controlled Carib islands, much preferring those with a British connection. If you do want to visit the USVI area, you need to clear in and out of customs/immigration in designated ports, which takes some time, and there's plenty to do in the BVI for 2 weeks anyway.

The BVI is a bunch of islands in total something like the same area as the IOW if it was lifted up, smashed into slightly to smaller bits and then sprinkled around an area from Bognor to Poole and out into the channel about ten miles. There's no big land mass nearby, so erm you'd have to remove the UK mainland, turn the sun up to 26-30 degrees C, heat the sea by around 20 degrees C, and (because the wind is so reliable, F4-6 tradewind from the east and the sea not often very flat) remove almost all the powerboats, make lots of very picturesque anchorages and adopt the US dollar to complete the Solent-BVI conversion. The other difference is that the predictable NE - E F4 to F6 means there is sailing every day.

There are lots of coconut trees, white sandy beaches, clear blue-turquoise water inshore, the whole paradise bit. This is the area of (real) pirates with areas named after Drake etc and also of (fictional) Treasure Island. Plenty of skull and crossbones T-shirts abound.

It is warm at sea all year round. Even in December when we go you can sleep on deck, and if you go into a protected windless marina you may find it more comfortable to do so. You need ONLY shorts and shirts. I take a single pair of deck shoes and wear them on the plane and everywhere else. One pair of long trousers and a jumper are strictly for the trip to and from the UK airport. There is fabulous scuba diving (I hear) but it's not necessary as there are lots of fab idiot-easy snorkelling spots where we've seen turtles and thousands of multicoloured fish. No idea what the fish are, but it's like jumping in a tropical fish tank. Actually, I suppose a tropical fish tank is what this is trying to be. There is some rain, but usually it only lasts an hour.

Food

The food is all imported from the US. It is not a gastronomic paradise. Expect US-style comfort food, probably a bit spicier sometimes but not much. Burgers and fries, burger and salad, fish cooked with varying degrees of skill but never with a white sauce French style, BBQ-ribs (with fries), and grilled Lobster at $20 a pound (but Florida lobster so no claws, which I think is the best bit) and no thermidor sauce. It's all jolly but not cheap, expect to pay 6-10 dollars for the burger and fries. The places are more about atmosphere than taste. A beach bar/restaurant will grill lobster on an open bbq, starting the fires at around 6 PM and very romantic it is as night falls by 6.30 . . . but if they've had a rain shower the wood will need a bit of help to catch alight, hence the lobster can taste a bit petrolly.

Cook your own

There are limited supermarkets on the main islands, tins mainly, some fruit, eggs, bread, reduced fat milk- basic staples. Bread goes off quite quickly. We took bran flakes and weetabix for the kids, though the stuff there would have been okay. I managed to get the kids to make dinner one night, which is much more enjoyable than waiting for sleepy service which is only really smart when it gets to adding 15% service charge, then leaving a big space for GRATUITY on top. The dinner was spag bol. The kids made dinner twice more and each time it was spag bol. Yanks nearby thought it was amazing that we could cook food.

Drinks

You can drink most of the water, though they also sell bottled. We drank from taps with no problems. Cokes, diet coke, beer incl. Heineken plus local brew. Rum is the primary spirit on offer, from $10 a bottle in shops, and lots of bars make a tidy profit from selling rum punch – it is quite strong, although half the volume is taken up with ice. Except in one or two $$$ sit-down restaurants, expect plastic glasses and plastic plates and even plastic knives and forks. Buy mixers for fruit punch or "painkiller" cocktail in big tins. Kids like neat fruit punch mixer. "Fancy a punch, Dad? haha" – ouch!

Using the laid moorings

You rent a sailing boat and sail around. A largish renting company will help make sure you pay the visitor tax. Loads of anchorages have laid moorings, but these are heavily used and some are a bit knackered, so be careful.

Every now and again someone lashes themselves to a mooring buoy in heavy weather and loses the boat – a mooring buoy is no guarantee of safety. Using a mooring costs $25 per night. Someone collects the money with varying degrees of efficiency. If they don't turn up in a boat asking you to pay and then you leave in the morning you won't get nicked, but usually they will turn up.

The overnightable moorings are white with a blue band. The day moorings are orange-ish. You aren't allowed to stay overnight on a day mooring, and anyway it isn't safe. You can anchor near most moorings, but not where there's nice coral. The pilot guide tells you where there's no anchoring.

Midges, mosquitoes, disease

You don't need special jabs . . . but there are lots of midges and some mosquitoes. You get bitten more if you use anchorages and moorings that are really close to the shore – hang back as far as you can from the land. Limiting the use of cabin lights is a good idea. Sleeping in mosquito nets, spraying the place with flyspray, spraying yourself with flyspray or eating garlic capsules for a week before you go will also reduce bites. Some also say hayfever treatments reduce sensitivity to the bite. After the first few days they don't seem so noticeable. Don't scratch the bites! We have bug hunts in each cabin before sleeping.

Don't forget

  • Snorkels and flippers – though larger renters will loan them to you as part of the deal. Ask before leaving.
  • A decent torch is an idea because some you find on the boats are rubbish.
  • A small battery-powered GPS because all except larger hi-spec boats don't have them. Very useful for identifying what is where, because line of sight can be confusing sometimes.
  • Cigarette lighter because humidity is high, and so the matches don't work to turn the cooker on - and smoking isn't common and neither are ciggie lighters.
  • Smaller denomination dollars for the transit from airport, whatever route you take.
Time

They are 4 hours in front,so you will have to work hard to adjust for jet lag. We didn't bother, just got going at dawn around 6, crash out by 8pm. Forget staying up for New Years Eve if you have kids. If you want to be a bit arsey, point out that local time doesn't denote the new year, it's GMT that counts so actually it's new year at 8pm local.

Where to rent.

There are oodles of boats. Not quite as many or as crowded as the Solent on a weekend, but nonetheless quite a lot. It's distant from big centres of population, so most boats are on charter. The charter companies are almost all based on Tortola, where there are three main centres – Nanny Cay, Road Town, and Mayer Cove. Sopers Hole has some smaller outfits.

Mayer Cove is almost entirely given over to Sunsail with dozens of boats, over a hundred, perhaps at capacity over two hundred. They ship them over from Europe for the peak season , or anyway they used to do so pre-9/11. Big charter companies have more boats, so there'll be a spare boat if yours terminally breaks down. Smaller outfits are cheaper.

The "big two" charter companies are Moorings and Sunsail. Moorings began in Tortola 35 years ago and is by all accounts the "Rolls Royce". Sunsail are part of First Choice so you can buy a "package" including flight and transfer, and if the plane is late you don't miss the transfer. They also tend to attract more Brits, and are good for flotillas which in turn are great for occupying smaller children and a bit of social nattering in the evenings.

Cheaper boats come from companies such as Conch Charters, which use older boats. (Sunsail and Moorings tend to keep boats only for 5 years max and then turf them out). I've only rented from Sunsail, because there's a single flight direct to St Thomas from Gatwick with First Choice/Air2000.

Companies that use ex-Moorings and ex-Sunsail boats say Moorings do better maintenance, and I would agree. Sunsail seem to do reactive maintenance, and will often try to get you to spend an hour on debrief on your return to point them up to anything that needs fixing. I tell them to do proper maintenance, as our boat this year had floppy shrouds, a leaky water tank, a jammed main and no manuals at all. Moorings also seem to have swankier, newer boats – not many if any new boats in evidence at Sunsail this year, whereas Moorings have a spanking new Jeanneau 54, for example.

Road town marina evidently has more barnacles than Mayer cove, so if you had a boat in Road Town, you'd need to do a bit of underwater scraping to get the speed up.

This being a nice breezy place, they are of course almost entirely sailing boats. If you want a power boat it'll be a 50 foot flybridge and it usually has aircon, whereas a sailing boat usually doesn't. Aircon would be fabulous. Virgin Traders and Vipyachts.com both rent the same sort of thing. The sea is sometimes a bit much for this type of boat, but mostly it's fine. I think the area a bit too small for a powerboat – it's doable in a day at 30 knots, but I guess it would be fine for a week, or a very lazy lazy two weeks.

Sailingwise, if you were on a budget I wouldd have no problem using Conch Charter, who boast that they offer the "Best Deals on Keels" in the BVI. There's a also place in Nanny Cay with a small fleet of Bavarias all of which seemed in decent nick – perhaps they have fewer charters, less wear and tear, more time for maintenance. Finally, if you were a bit brave you could use the internet to rent direct from an owner, and organise getting there yourself.

Getting there

A transatlantic jet can't land at the nice new airport at Beef Island, the main airport on Tortola. The next nearest is St Thomas, about 25 miles away on the USVI, then you can take a smaller plane - 20 mins to the BVI - or one of the speedy ferryboats which bumble between the islands all the time. (The latter option will take about an hour).

By far the easiest company to go with is Sunsail, a they hook up with Air 2000 as part of the First Choice group, so you can get a package from Gatwick all inclusive. Otherwise you need to organise the flights as a matter of priority, especially if you are going high season in school hols, because there are more boats than flight seats. Virgin would be my top option; they fly to Antigua 200 miles away. A smaller Caribbean hopper/carrier called LIAT (Luggage In Another Terminal haha) then brings you up to the BVI. There's also BA to Antigua. More scenic routes include flying to New York for a day in the Big Apple, then another 3-4 hours flight down to San Juan in Puerto Rico, then a smaller 45 minute flight to the BVI, but I think that this only makes sense for longer stays like a month.

Where to go

Good spots we would definitely visit lots more, every visit if possible, include (in no particular order):

  1. Bitter End Yacht Club in Gorda Sound, Virgin Gorda. Use the dinghy dock to get ashore. Lovely to have a cocktail and watch the sun go down from the bar on the beach. Food ok but not cheap – for best and cheapest go to the Fat Virgin Café in Birras creek, also in the Sound – ignore the pilot guide, it's open all evening, but fairly quiet because the pilot guide says it shuts at 6pm. You can rent dinghies cheap from BEYC (see www.beyc.com), and even a Hobie costs only $40 for an hour. Internet upstairs from reception building . Supermarket along the road towards the swimming pool.
  2. Sandbox Bar on Prickly Pear Island, also in Gorda Sound. SW facing white beach, good for camera pic of you sipping cocktails with chair stuck right on the shore with turquoise sea. Just sitting on the boat anywhere is okay in Gorda Sound.
  3. Cooper Island – the snorkelling up near the reef at the south end of Machioneel Bay is good - we saw turtles. The beach bar is so-so. We went ashore loads of places the first time, but it's much more picturesque and cheaper to stay on board and make your own drinks.
  4. Trellis Bay, Tortola. Good yet esoteric place. There is a cybercafe in the SW corner which is also a fantastic bar and breakfast/food place, and superb music plays all day - very moody and relaxed. The same place also will rent you a windsurfer or an internet connection, or you can just sit about on comfy sofas reading sailing magazines. Probably best on a mooring in Trellis Bay as there is not much room to anchor except at the entrance, which is more exposed. You can walk through to the airport just 200yds from the beach if picking up or dropping off people.
  5. White Bay , Jost Van Dyke,– snorkelling on the reef, sitting at the Soggy Dollar Bar, island tours by quad bike (but be careful – these are likely to be banned by all accounts, quite right too as they can flip up if gearchanging on the steep roads. We went twice though!). There are now overnight moorings here. I reckon they should be day-only moorings buoys. Much better to anchor in Gt Harbour.
  6. Jost Van Dyke Gt. Harbour. Anchor only. Watch the pelicans divebomb for fish, shop in the supermarket at Rudis at the W. end of beach. Ali Baba's Restaurant - food is better than at Foxy's imho. Foxy's is bit pricey but is a must-do bar.
  7. Little Harbour, Jost Van Dyke. Moorings or anchor. Sidney's has an "honesty bar" – serve yourself and mark up your tab because he can't be bothered to do any work or hire staff and just sits there.
  8. Diamond Cay, Jost Van Dyke. This a good jumping off point for the "bubbly pool" – dinghy ashore then a 15-minute hike to a rockpool on the NE tip of JVD where the waves crash in dramatically to a rockpool about the size of a swimming pool. Kids aged under 100 will want to stay all day. Take bottled water because the spray and salt dries your mouth out.
  9. The Caves, off the entrance to Norman Island has excellent snorkelling, plenty of tropical fish. Use the day moorings.
  10. Peter Island Resort Beach Club. Take a mooring in the harbour and dinghy to the dinghy dock. Have lunch ashore at the beach club, a 300-yard walk over the hill and down to the beach. Nice bar, nice lunch, lovely view. It's a hotel, quite expensive to stay I believe. You aren't allowed to use the swimming pool but crafty kids can sneak in the side route between the villas, great pic opportunity of Drake Channel beyond the pool. Spend a lazy afternoon building sandcastles on a clean white beach with a turquoise sea, lazing in the bar, watching the stars come up - not many midges because it's open to the breeze from the East. Lovely neatly trimmed grounds throughout the resort. $100-ish dinner at the main restaurant requires jacket and other saily types (I've not done it) report it as somewhat disappointing.
  11. Mayer Cove (aka Hodges Creek) is the Sunsail base. They have a free pool, and the place is empty except on changeover days. Restaurant a bit sleepy, as is the bar. On changeover days get here early, otherwise wait ages for three staff to attempt making 70 evening meals! Free for sunsailers, free water, and you'll have to be back here if any serious stuff happens to the boat. Bit midgey overnight imho.
  12. Sopers Hole. Great picturesque mooring at W end of Tortola with mooring buoys, or anchor further back. Good bar and shops and restaurants ashore. Be ready to race for a mooring buoy later in the day. Some people try to bag a mooring buoy by sending out a crew dinghy as well as wandering around in their main boat to double the chances of finding a spot, but you can confidently tell them that reserving in this way is not allowed. Some Yanks even leave a dinghy on the mooring, go for a sail around, then return to "their" mooring buoy. Actually, there are no rules about this as far as I know, but we bullied some teenage Americans off with their dinghy – whereas with roles reversed I would have told interlopers to get lost and that I had already paid that mooring fee for the night, perhaps waving a bit of paper at them.
Ok-ish places we wouldn't feel bad about missing but popular with flotillas, perhaps cos the lead boat gets free food, include:
  1. Marina Cay. Can be a very tossy mooring and anchorage unless right behind the reef. You can anchor further around to the North if you must.
  2. Restaurants in Trellis Bay: Loose Mongoose and Last Resort. Okay, but restaurants a bit disappointing for the price imho. The Cybercaff is far trendier, and with tastier less poncy food imho.
  3. Cane Garden Bay. The beach is not very clean, and as it is very protected, it's very midgey.
  4. Pirates Restaurant and Willy T's on Norman Island. Both these have changed hands, and Willie T's late in the evening is now a bit adult, lots of loud Americans and a bar determined to be a bit too sleazy. Shame really, because this is the "Treasure Island" of fictional fame, supposedly. Go to either fairly early in the evening and nip off early the next morning to the caves for breakfast and snorkel instead. Again, stay well out at Norman island for reduced midge bites.
  5. Saba Rock Restaurant in Gorda Sound is a bit rubbish despite a good location occupying an entire small island at east side of the sound. Serve yourself buffet and don't forget that 15 % service charge (why?). Better as a day bar imho, and there's a games room, popular with kids. Leverick Bay resort in Gorda sound is also a bit naff, and rundown, tho there's a pool, the place is not a patch on Bitter End nearby.
  6. Foxy's, on Jost van Dyke . Nice bar, but the food later in the evening is a formulaic buffet, so a bit overcooked and over rated. The place is massive so chances are you will have no view. Nice tee-shirts and bar.
  7. Anegada. This is a flat island, unlike all the others. Good sail to and from it, and hilarious 1-hour taxi tour at £10 a head: "This is the town dump, over there is the fire station, and that's Les's house etc…" The island used to have a few hundred inhabitants, but now is home to a third of that figure, so a feeling of emptiness prevails. $40 lobster is the gasoline-flavoured variety mentioned earlier , the gasoline being used to get the barbie going, and to make it flare and burn to charcoal asap.
Avoidable places we won't go again unless absolutely necessary:
  1. Spanish Town. Nice marina, but too windless and sweaty and the town is a total dump.
  2. Nanny Cay. Hot and sweaty as above, not quite such a dump, but other places nearby are far better.
  3. Salt Island. Deserted settlement. Far too much junk on the beach for this to be an enjoyable stop.
  4. The Baths. This is a bunch of big smooth rocks on the shore of Virgin Gorda, a bit interesting - but not really imho. Very tossy day mooring, can't haul dinghies ashore and if you do you may get swamped with the swell getting them out. After all that, it's a bit of sand, a few rocks that are too big to climb or anything, so what?

There are lots of other places to anchor, smaller anchorages you can find yourself. The emptier the better usually. I still haven't been to Road Town, others report it a "bit dead" but dunno?

TCM Jan 2004
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