Virgin Islands

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996

Virgin Islands
By Matthew Joyce

Conditions in the Virgin Islands make even novice sailors seem like seasoned old salts: Plentiful sheltered moorings preclude long overnight sails, clusters of small islands make for calm seas, the trade winds blow with reassuring regularity. And, with minimal current and well-marked reefs and shoals, it's nearly impossible to get into trouble here.

Sailors like to begin their cruise from Road Town, since it's on the protected side of Tortola, and there are 12 to 15 anchorages within a two-hour sail. Book your charter with The Moorings ($3,780 weekly for a 40-foot, six-passenger bareboat; $8,995 weekly for a crewed 60-foot, six-passenger monohull, including meals and gear for snorkeling and windsurfing; 800-535-7289) and set off for secluded Lee Bay, on nearby Great Camanoe Island, or Cane Garden Bay, off Tortola's west end, to kick back at Rhymer's Beach Bar. Another Tortola-based company, Sun Yacht Charters (800-772-3500), can set you up with a 36to 50-foot bareboat ($2,849-$5,985 weekly) or a crewed charter.

Tortola's sheltered coves, coral pinnacles, underwater caves and canyons, and countless wrecks are magnets for scuba divers and snorkelers. Contact Baskin in the Sun ($80 for a two-tank dive; 800-233-7938); a dive boat will meet your yacht at one of 75 sites. Not to be missed are the wreck of the Chikuzen--a 265-foot Korean cargo ship, 75 feet down, teeming with jewfish, barracuda, and octopus--and Indians, four rock pinnacles off Norman Island.

But Tortola's more than just a place to tie up your yacht. In 92-acre Mount Sage National Park (809-494-3904), a preserve atop the island's 1,716-foot peak, hike the Rainforest Trail through mountain guava and giant bulletwood trees that grow 100 feet tall and four feet around. Watch for pearl-eyed thrashers, mountain doves, the large, dark cave moth, and the ant-eating man lizard.

Lodging prices on Tortola tend to be slightly less punishing than elsewhere in the Virgins. Surfers stay at Sebastian's on the Beach (doubles, $120- $190; 800-336-4870), a casual 26-room hotel on Little Apple Bay on the north shore. You can ride head-high waves from December to March and party at Bomba's Surfside Shack, Tortola's wildest reggae club. Life is much more sedate at the Villas at Fort Recovery Estate (one bedroom, $185; 800-367-8455), a seventeenth-century Dutch fortress-cum-resort that has ten one- to four-bedroom bungalows with garden patios and fully equipped kitchens on a small beach fronting the channel.

Virgin Gorda
Your ceiling fan is likely to be the fastest moving thing you encounter on mountainous, cactus- and scrub-covered Virgin Gorda, just six miles east of Tortola. Islanders take pride in their slow-paced lifestyle, and doing nothing is a virtue here.

Out on the water the pace picks up: On North Sound, at the top of the island, expert boardsailors plug into a speed run, where unobstructed winds often reach 20 knots. Beginners and intermediates stay in calmer, protected waters with steady winds. The Bitter End Yacht Club (800-872-2392) rents high-performance boards ($50 for a half day).

Divers should call Kilbrides Underwater Tours (two-tank dive, $80; 809-495-9638) for a trip 70 feet down at Alice's Wonderland, a reef near Ginger Island, about an hour south, or 50-foot canyon dives around the nearby Dog Islands.

Daily snorkel excursions, free sailing lessons, and unlimited use of more than 100 yachts, Lasers, sailboards, and kayaks keep guests busy at The Bitter End Yacht Club on North Sound (doubles, $375-$555, all-inclusive; 800-872-2392). Nearby Biras Creek Resort (doubles, $395-$595 all-inclusive; 809-494-3555) eschews televisions, offering instead two private beaches, a low-key water-sports program, and 33 suites. Guavaberry Spring Bay Vacation Homes (one-bedroom houses, $135-$185; 809-495-5227), on the south end of the island near the ever-crowded Baths, manages 19 one- to two-bedroom hexagonal houses overlooking the channel.

St. John
St. John is an anomaly in the U.S. Virgins: With two-thirds of the island protected as a national park, it's been spared the tacky development that proliferates on St. Thomas and, to a lesser extent, on St. Croix. The island is popular with day-trippers looking to spend an afternoon snorkeling on the well-trodden reefs of Trunk Bay. Steer clear of that one and the crowded strands between Cruz Bay and Cinnamon Bay on the north coast; you'll find equally good snorkeling and fewer people at Waterlemon Cay off Leinster Bay.

Hikers can take the 2.4-mile Reef Bay Trail above Cinnamon Bay, which passes plantation ruins and ancient petroglyphs carved by Arawak artists as it descends through tropical hardwoods en route to Reef Bay Beach. The National Park Service in Cruz Bay (809-776-6201) provides free maps and guided walks of several of the park's 22 trails.

In Cruz Bay, Arawak Expeditions (800-238-8687) leads kayak trips ($55 per day, lunch included) to remote parts of St. John and five- to seven-day voyages ($870-$1,195 per person, including meals and gear) to Peter Island and other secluded sites for snorkeling and camping.

If profligate consumption at luxury resorts makes you feel guilty, stay at Harmony Resort ($150 to $180 a night; 800-392-9004), where the 12 hilltop studios are constructed from recycled materials. More budget-minded ecologists bunk just down the hill at Maho Bay Camp (doubles, $95; 800-392-9004), which has 114 wood-framed tent cottages.

See also:

The Rum File

All-Inclusive Resorts

Islands You've Never Heard Of

Getting There and Around

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