A Few Days In

It's Smooth Sailing in the British Virgin Islands

by California Chaney
Photo courtesy of Guana Island.

BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS — The cerulean-blue waters sparkled and glistened from my window seat. I could practically hear the vibrant ecosystem of the jungle-covered mountains chirping away. The sails flapped on hundreds of boats marking their course around the jagged islands. As a virgin to these islands — the British Virgin Islands — it was hard to imagine them being any more beautiful than in this instance. Yet, just four years ago, Hurricane Irma — the largest on record in the Atlantic Ocean — ripped through the chain of 60 tropical isles and stripped them bare. In under 24 hours, nearly 80 percent of the buildings on the main island of Tortola were flattened, boats thrashed to the shore, and beloved hotels and sailor refuges reduced to driftwood floating to sea. Just as the community came up for air, Hurricane Maria swept in. But in her destructive wake, Mother Earth also demonstrated her resiliency. Miraculously, the green returned to the hillsides in just a few months and the sand returned to its beaches, as soft and white as ever. The recovery wasn't as effortless for the rest: A massive clean-up operation took months, and it took years for many hotels and businesses to rebuild the billion-dollars' worth of damages, with container ships full of timber and raw materials arriving daily. New and refurbished hotels — built with modern regulations to hopefully survive inevitable future storms — were finally ready to re-open in 2020. And then, well, we all know what happened next.

Today, as the world emerges from the pandemic and much-needed tourists repack their bags, the welcome is even warmer on the islands. I was fortunate to spend a few days in November at sea and on land exploring what's new, rebuilt, and alive once again. For seasoned sailors and frequent jetsetters, there are big changes and a new-car smell to the many charming landmarks — even those with decades of sunbaked and salt-crushed memories. The cuisine — simple Caribbean flavors and Atlantic-caught seafood — is enhanced by local produce from expanded farms established after the hurricanes to support the local community through agriculture. Hotels offer brand-new luxury spas, wellness programs, and every water sport toy a kid could dream of. Boaters rejoice in the re-opening of iconic BVI watering holes such as Soggy Dollar Bar, Saba Rock, and Bitter End Yacht Club, with their own revamped accommodations to rest sea legs and shelter during stormy weather. BVIers are taking to their backyards to rejoice in the island's recovery as well. Several new businesses have emerged, including eco-discovery tours of edible flora and fauna, and programs to restore the fragile coral reefs and underwater life.

The islands are bouncing back stronger than ever, and the energy is palpable. Another reminder that clear skies always follow the storm.

Lay of the Land

Arrive to the British Virgin Islands via Beef Island Airport on Tortola and Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Island. Several ferry operators are available at the airport, but for the most seamless arrival, a private transport with Island Time Water Taxi is the way to go. The local company offers a fleet of a power boats with plush accommodations that seat up to eight guests with a cooler of ice-cold Carib beers to appropriately acclimate travelers to island time. If you're landing on St. Thomas, you'll need to clear British customs at West End Ferry Terminal. This is also where you'll present a negative Covid-19 test taken within 48 hours, along with proof of travel insurance that covers the costs if you do get infected during your trip and need to quarantine. Compared to major airport hubs, the procedure is quick and easy: They pull up directly to the passport window, assisting with the customs processing while you present your results and wait back on the boat. It's smooth sailing from there, as you jet off directly to the port if you're boarding a boat or dock right at your hotel. Private transfers start at $300. If your hotel has a helipad (several do), arrangements can be made for a private transfer to the property.

Photo courtesy of BVI Tourism Board.

Raise the Sails

There's a reason the British Virgin Islands are the sailing capital of the world. The steady trade winds blessed by the warmth of the Caribbean sun offer smooth voyages with sheltered passages (the longest journey — from the far west to far east islands — is under four hours) with sparkling white-sand beaches and cobalt-blue swimming coves at every anchor drop. Whether you plan your entire trip at sea or opt for day outings, sailing is a must here. I set sail for several days with Voyage Charters, a boutique, family-operated charter company with top-of-the-line yachts manufactured in Cape Town, South Africa. I ecstatically boarded Out of Office, a 65-foot power catamaran with six en-suite king bedrooms, spacious open-air kitchen and salon, and an interior spiral staircase leading to a panoramic fly-bridge lounge and bar. A captain and chef were also onboard, safely steering from island to island and satisfying our ravenous appetites after hours of water sports. For the seasoned sailor, Voyage also offers bareboat charters for guests to have full control at the helm. The gems of the islands — The Baths National Park, wreck diving sites, vibrant coral reefs, and pristine bays for waterskiing or windsurfing — are easily accessible by short day sails where adventure is truly at your fingertips. A thrilling morning dive at Wreck Alley off Cooper Island, a scramble around The Baths' iconic volcanic boulders followed by a float in its majestic natural swimming pools, an afternoon sail to Jost Van Dyke to swim to shore for a lethally strong Painkiller cocktail at the Soggy Dollar Bar — can all be done before the sun goes down. Or you can spend the entire day lounging on the boat deck, snorkeling off the stern, with great views of the sun taking its final dip into the sea. There's no wrong course in this paradise.

Photo courtesy of Long Bay Beach Resort.
Photo courtesy of Long Bay Beach Resort.

Rest Your Sea Legs

Whether you opt for solid ground between days at sea or want to spend the entire time relaxing on shore, the islands have an impressive roster of new and refurbished hotels, each with their own unique vibe. Several seamlessly blend into their tropical landscape, while others build on a storied past of Caribbean sailors and pirates.

Long Bay Beach Resort
On the island of Tortola — the largest and most accessible from Beef Island airport — this new beachside property is barefoot luxury at its finest. Formerly an iconic 1960s resort, the hotel soft opened in October 2021 with 20 spacious suites extending onto a mile-long, white-sand beach with private pergolas and outdoor lounge spaces. The Malibu-meets-Tulum decor — soft jute rugs, cane furniture, lived-in linens, driftwood bookshelves — was selected by owners Brian and Shamra Strange of Strange Family Vineyards (fittingly from Malibu). Crisp whites offer a sophisticated simplicity, but it's the property's foundation that is most striking. Resort restaurant 1748 is tucked inside a rum distillery as old as the name suggests with original stone, coral, and limestone walls that have withstood the wake of many storms, including Irma. Along with the rum, the cuisine highlights local flavors with fresh seafood and vegetables from an on-site garden. Next door is another storied local landmark, Tropical Fusion, a no-frills beachside lunch spot serving the BVI's signature dish of fish and fungi — red snapper with okra and cornmeal, a recipe dating back to the 17th century. Upcoming expansion plans for Long Bay include adding several hillside villas (for a final key count of 84), a pool, and a private members' club. It's easy to lean into the simple beach-eat-swim-sleep routine the property promotes, though there's plenty to explore nearby. Smuggler's Cove is a serene horseshoe-shaped bay best for snorkeling and paddle boarding with the clearest blue water for miles and a tiny beach bar run by a famed local, Nigel. Leave the shore and head into the mountains for a hike with Mervin Hastings of Eco Adventures BVI, a pandemic-born company offering educational nature walks through Brewers Bay that showcases herbal remedies and indigenous plants found all over the island. His enthusiasm is infectious, as he actively encourages guests to activate their senses and learn survivalist skills (noting the best-tasting termites around). In this instance, I was happy to pull my vegetarian card. Rates start at $489 per night.

Photo courtesy of Guana Island.

Guana Island
Ever fantasized about being stuck on a deserted island? One of the last remaining private islands in the Caribbean, Guana Island is home to 850 acres, seven beaches, an organic orchard and garden, and 12 miles of panoramic hiking trails that crisscross Sugarloaf Mountain. The entire island is exclusive to guests — aside from the roaming flock of flamingos and hundreds of once-endangered iguanas, birds, and plants now thriving thanks to conservation efforts — with 18 rooms and villas constructed from native coral and stone with panoramic views of the Caribbean and Atlantic. The hotel lives up to its tag line — "The Virgin Island that still is" — with 99 percent of the island's landscape uninterrupted and undisturbed. An on-site marine science program monitoring the coral reef conditions ensures the home of its 125 species of marine life remains vibrant. The community spirit runs throughout the hotel, originally founded in 1934 by Quakers. Rather than conceal guests from each other, co-mingling is encouraged through optional communal dinners at the on-site Caribbean-inspired restaurant and a guest cocktail hour inside the clubhouse with backgammon boards and stacks of photo albums from returning family vacations. At sunset, guests gather on the Queen's Terrace (named in honor of Elizabeth's royal visit to the island in 1964) to wait for the elusive natural phenomena known as the "green flash." Rates start at $890 per night, inclusive of meals, wine, and most activities.

Photo courtesy of Oil Nut Bay.
Oil Nut's new waterside restaurant and lounge. Photo courtesy of Oil Nut Bay.

Oil Nut Bay
The adventure set will love the dramatic arrival to this 400-acre resort on the eastern tip of Virgin Gorda, accessible only by helicopter or private boat. Entirely surrounded by the open sea of the Caribbean on one side and the Atlantic on the other, guests have their choice of suites and private villas (ranging from one bedroom to six), each custom built into the island's topography using locally sourced raw materials that seamlessly blend into the tropical landscape. Sustainable initiatives don't stop there: Solar panels generate the electricity for the desalination water plants, air conditioning, refrigeration, and lighting, and half of the property is designated solely for green space. The amenities are endless and sprawl across the entire property — including three pools, a swim-up bar, wellness center, gym, two pickle ball and tennis courts, and a beachside water sport shack set up with kayaks, kite boards, and snorkel gear. While this is all exclusive to guests, a new 93-slip Marina Village is open to boaters with an overwater restaurant and bar, suspended pool with hammocks and day beds, and a fully stocked provisions market. If the island living leaves you wishing you could own a slice of its paradise, you're in luck: Oil Nut has several on-site homes fully furnished and available to purchase, along with empty land plots to dream up your own getaway. Villa rentals start at $600 a night and go up to $30,000.

Saba Rock island. Photos courtesy of Saba Rock.
Saba Rock restaurant.

Saba Rock
Among the cluster of scarcely inhabited islands on the North Sound of Virgin Gorda is a true sailor's delight. First inhabited by diving pioneer and real-life pirate of the Caribbean, Herbert “Bert” Kilbride in the 1960s, the one-acre island served as his private home for over 30 years as he welcomed passing sailors, offered scuba lessons, and sold snacks and beer from his surf-shack bar, The Pirates’ Pub. He sold the property in 1997, and the new owners built a hotel that thrived as a no-frills boaters' refuge — until Irma hit and completely flattened the entire island. After a four-year rebuild, the Rock is back, its 3.0 rendition a modern-yet-nautical hotel offering seven terraced guest rooms, two suites, and a double-decker restaurant and bar with panoramic views. The hotel's circular design makes a splash, with surfboards lining the walls, colorful hammocks strewn throughout, and an on-site nautical museum of the salvaged wreck Kilbride discovered on his deep-sea voyages. A new spa offers reiki healing, reflexology, sound baths, and oceanfront yoga. If you prefer to get your exercise on the water, the hotel has a kiteboarding launch pad, scuba gear, and guides that lead snorkeling tours to Eustatia Reef, famous for its vibrant coral gardens, rays, turtles, and octopus. Rooms start at $750 per night in the high season (November-April) and $550 per night in low season (May-October).

Photo courtesy of Bitter End Yacht Club.

Bitter End Yacht Club
The last shelter before the Caribbean meets the Atlantic's open waters, Bitter End has been the heartbeat of the BVI sailing community since 1973. Its "built by sailors for sailors" legacy was founded upon its reputation for world-famous regattas, sailing school, complimentary on-site boat fleet, and over a mile of deep-water shoreline for snorkeling and diving. And that's just its reputation by day. At night, the island outpost is a go-to for friends and families to meet for cocktails at its legendary bar, tie their boats up for beachside movie nights, and take late-night swims at the beach. The club also had a devastating run-in with Irma, but community support helped its owners build anew. The yacht club reopened in November 2021, just in time for the holiday season and an emotional return for their repeat multigenerational guests who've called this a home-away-from-home for nearly 50 years. The unveiling brought several new accommodations, including new over-the-sea lofts with daybeds, hammocks, and outdoor showers. The storied Clubhouse restaurant and club resembles the original with refreshed decor and a new bar. In coming months, the marina plaza will have a new eco-friendly provisions market and pizza cafe and wine bar. A former ferry boat that was beached during the storm will become a beach bar serving sundowner cocktails to guests and boaters docked at its slips. Rates start at $750.

Stay at Sea

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