So we’re going to design a sailing paradise. First, location. Let’s say the tropics because, you know, the weather. Year-round sunshine, balmy nights, no winter. Next we’ll require steady trade winds to billow our sails, preferably coupled with benign ocean currents. For challenge and interest, we’ll add a cluster of idyllic islands — let’s say around 50 — cloaked in greenery, indented with tranquil white-sand coves lined with palm trees.We’ll keep some of the islands uninhabited for a Robinson Crusoe vibe and populate the others with friendly, laid-back folk who will happily provide the necessities of land: beach bars, marinas, supplies, boat repair shops. Everyone will speak English, but with a lilting accent. For a regal touch, we’ll make the Queen of England the head of state. Well, wouldn’t you know it? Our paradise already exists. Welcome to the British Virgin Islands. The Arawak people initially discovered them and, finding no reason to move, stayed for 1,500 years until they were forcibly displaced by the Caribs. Within decades of the Caribs putting down roots, Christopher Columbus appeared on the horizon. On first sight of this seemingly pristine archipelago, Columbus dubbed the islands Saint Ursula and her Eleven Thousand Virgins, soon shortened — thankfully — to The Virgins. There followed centuries of the usual inter-European squabbling over territory. The Spanish, the British, the Dutch and the Danish all tussled for control. When the cannons fell silent and the sea spray settled, the British owned most of the islands, with the remainder controlled by Denmark, who then sold them to the United States for $25 million in 1917. The U.S. Virgin Islands developed apace, embracing the emergence of mass tourism and Caribbean cruises. The permanent population is now more than 100,000. The B.V.I., however, opted for a drowsier advance into the 21st century, with the population rising to just 23,000, most of whom live in and around the capital, Road Town, on the largest island, Tortola. Size is relative in the B.V.I. Tortola measures 12 miles long and three miles wide, with a volcanic, hilly interior and a plethora of near-deserted beaches. Yet in comparison to some of the other islands, it seems vast; and once you’ve adjusted to the pace of the other islands, sleepy Road Town seems like a veritable metropolis. Second in size yet with a population of just 285 (most of whom live in a settlement called The Settlement) is Anegada, the northernmost B.V.I. This low-lying island — the only inhabited coral island (as opposed to volcanic) in the B.V.I. — boasts some of the most picture-perfect beaches. The flat interior plays host to a unique and highly endangered lizard, the Anegada ground iguana, and a burgeoning population of flamingoes. Anegada’s turquoise waters offer the optimum habitat for the celebrated Anegada lobster. They appear on the menu throughout the British Virgin Islands, but here the restaurants pluck them directly from the sea. Virgin Gorda, the third-largest island, featuring a luxuriantly forested interior and powdery beaches, has long proved popular with A-listers. High-end resorts scatter the island, but sadly one of the most popular, Biras Creek, closed abruptly in 2015. Visitors flock to Virgin Gorda’s prime natural attraction, The Baths, a complex of smoothly eroded granite boulders on the island’s southern tip, concealing grottoes and tidal pools. It makes the perfect place for bathing and snorkeling, though if there’s a cruise ship visiting the island, go after 4 p.m., when the day-tripping passengers have departed. Several islets bejewel the waters off Virgin Gorda, the most famous being Necker Island, owned since 1978 by Sir Richard Branson. The Necker Island resort, with its Balinese-inspired architecture, remains one of the world’s most exclusive retreats, with a price tag to match. Rates start at $30,000 per couple for seven nights, or you can rent the entire island for $78,000 per night. Another option, however, enables you to explore Necker without breaking the bank. Sea-It-Clear Tours, with Sir Richard’s blessing, offers six-hour nature excursions on Necker from $80 per adult. Highlights include lemurs, flamingoes and giant tortoises. Sir Richard is just one of the many larger-than-life characters who stamped their mark on the B.V.I. Another is Foxy Callwood MBE, whose infectious charisma made the island of Jost Van Dyke a popular port of call for yachters and celebrities. Keith Richards and Jimmy Buffet are among the regulars at Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, where the proprietor often entertains patrons with improvised calypsos. Foxy’s New Year’s Eve parties are legendary. For all the attractions of the islands, this is, above all — and as we anticipated at the outset — a sailing paradise. Whether you’re an old sea dog or a complete novice, whether you favor sloops, cutters, catamarans, trimarans or kayaks, you’ll find the vessel to match your needs. Companies on all the main islands offer charters, boat-only or fully crewed. Whatever else we do in the B.V.I., we haven’t truly experienced these islands until we leave sheltered waters — the bow slicing the sparkling waves, the boat leaning with the wind — and sail.
British Virgin Islands Info to Go
International flights arrive at Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport (EIS) on Beef Island, linked to the main island, Tortola, by the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. The airport connects to regional hubs, including San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU); Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (STT); Antigua (ANU); and Sint Maarten (SXM). Charter flights and ferry services provide connections to resorts on outlying islands, while taxis provide transfers to Tortola. A valid passport is required for entry to the B.V.I.
Where to Stay in the British Virgin Islands
Anegada Beach Club Opt for a luxury tent, replete with beachside deck and hammock and funkily designed interior. Anegada Island $$$$ Peter Island Resort and Spa The budget (relatively speaking) private island alternative to Richard Branson’s Necker Island offers just 53 guestrooms and one of the Caribbean’s best spas. Peter Island $$$$ The Sugar Mill Hotel This fine boutique hotel at the western end of Tortola Island features 24 guestrooms scattered in outbuildings amid verdant gardens fringing a small beach. Apple Bay, Tortola $$$$
Restaurants in the British Virgin Islands
Big Bamboo Restaurant The unpretentious beachside eatery offers a great place to try the legendary Anegada lobster, fished from traps just off shore. You can choose your own lobster. Loblolly Bay, Anegada $$ De Loose Mongoose The archetypal beach bar, located close to the airport, serves a menu that makes the most of local ingredients, with several dishes given an Asian twist. Beef Island Guest House, East End Tortola (Beef Island) $$ Dove Restaurant & Wine Bar Chef Alex Molitz oversees a sophisticated French-inspired menu that maintains this as one of the B.V.I.’s special-occasion venues. 67 Main St., Road Town, Tortola $$$
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