Nature’s Secret: Travel in the British Virgin Islands

White Bay, Jost Van Dyke. Photo by BVI Tourism
White Bay, Jost Van Dyke. Photo by BVI Tourism

I can hardly breathe, and my knees are wobbly as I climb the ladder from the sea onto the catamaran’s main deck.

“You’re never going to believe this!” I say, trying to catch my breath after my exciting snorkeling expedition. “Just as soon as I jumped in, there he was – a giant Barracuda — lurking in the dark shade of the boat just an arm’s length away. And I swear – he was smiling at me!”

But my fellow snorkelers just laugh, unconcerned about the grinning Barracuda. After all, this was exactly what the travel brochures promised: “In the British Virgin Islands (BVI), even the fish are glad to see you.”

Visitors to this 60 square mile (153 square kilometers) small island empire in the Caribbean should really brace themselves for a “blue miracle.” All those promises of glossy catalogues emerge as a colorful reality: Turquoise waters, snow white sandy beaches, cordial people, colonial-style buildings in pastel colors, fragrant Frangipani flowers and romantic anchorages.

Anegada’s shores are just one example. It is the only atoll, a coral island consisting of a reef surrounding a lagoon, of the British Virgin Islands and appears like a glistening mirage in the crystal-clear seas. The remaining 60 islands and islets of the archipelago (about 50 miles or 80 kilometers east of Puerto Rico) are of volcanic origin.

Christopher Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands in 1493. Since 1672 its eastern half has belonged to the British Overseas Territory, while the western part has been administered by the United States since 1917.

Columbus baptized them both in honor of Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins – perhaps because he was hoping to impress the Spanish crown of the multiplicity of its newest discoveries. Perhaps it was due to the very suggestive and roundish silhouettes of the islands. Although we’ll never fully understand his association, travelers should follow this great sailor’s example: The picture book idyll is best explored aboard a ship.

Here, you can rely on the trade winds to blow moderately (12 to 17 knots) and the temperatures to vary only slightly (on the average 78 F or 26 C). This is why these isles, which are within sight of each other, are considered to be some of the most beautiful cruising grounds on earth.

To sit aboard a yacht, a smooth “Painkiller”-Cocktail (rum, coconut milk, nutmeg, pineapple and orange juice) in hand, and watch the famous granite boulders of Virgin Gorda Island (“Fat Virgin”) glow in the sinking sun is perhaps the best experience this palm paradise has to offer.

Although several cruise ships frequent the port of Road Town – BVI`s capitol on the biggest island Tortola – most visitors sail their charter yachts through the “Sir Francis Drake Channel,” a sparkling winding waterway that crisscrosses the islands.


Sailing in the British Virgin Islands. Photo by BVI Tourism
Sailing in the British Virgin Islands. Photo by BVI Tourism

According to the “Charter Yacht Society of the British Virgin Islands,” there are more than 1,200 motorboats and sailing ships available for private charter, with or without crew, in all conceivable sizes and with variable equipments – starting with a small dinghy to large catamarans like the “Bonavista,” nearly 65 feet (20 meters) long and owned by English Charter Yacht Company Sunsail. She has ample room for 10 guests, a multitude of water toys (sea kayaks, scuba gear, water skis) and three crew members (skipper, cook and hostess).

With over 1,600 square feet (150 square meters) of deck area, this dream ship seems almost taller than the smallest BV-isles. Take Sandy Spit, for example. This uninhabited miniature island with its three rustling palm trees looks like a postcard that has come to life. Flying fish hold a jumping competition before its sandy banks, while Frigate birds circle in the clear blue sky high above. And a handful of anchored charter ships rock back and forth in the gentle swell. Sandy Spit is a popular picnic spot on the island hopping route.

Main Island Tortola, home for almost 70 percent of the 20,000 BV-Islanders, is the starting point for most sailing trips. White Bay on Jost Van Dyke, named after a Dutch pirate, is perhaps one of the most beautiful beaches of the island empire.

Neighboring Great Bay, which is the start and finish point for “Foxy’s Wooden Boat Regatta” each May, is “the” meeting place for wooden boat enthusiasts from all over the world.

Necker Islands can only be admired from a distance by mere mortals. It is the private property of Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Cola. “A very nice guy,” says Jason Meeuwig, marketing manager of the exclusive “Bitter End Yacht Club” at the utmost eastern tip of Virgin Gorda and directly opposite Necker Island. In case of an emergency, the nice billionaire from next door lends his private helicopter out, and sometimes, he even comes over to have dinner at the Yacht Club.

Guana Island, too, with is peculiar rock formations that remind us of its native iguanas, is private. But with Little Thatch, Mosquito Island, Marina Cay, Cooper, Peter, Salt and countless other islands, there are still more than enough unknown shores, lonely dream beaches and many more of “Nature’s little secrets” to discover. This is the official BVI-Slogan, which even made it onto license plates. And it’s true! The British Virgin Islands, where there are no American fast food or hotel chains allowed, with their inaccessible geography and higher-end costs, have been spared from mass tourism.

Snorkeling in the British Virgin Islands. Photo by BVI Tourism
Snorkeling in the British Virgin Islands. Photo by BVI Tourism

Geographically the BVI`s belong to the Lesser Antilles. With their steep slopes and protected bays they once were a perfect hiding place for infamous pirates such as Edward “Blackbeard” Teach.

Those of you who always wondered how 15 men could possibly fit on a dead man’s chest – including “Yo ho ho” and a bottle of rum” – will find the answer on Dead Chest. The sinister captain marooned his mutinying crew on this coffin shaped Mini Island, hence the macabre name.

“And here on Norman Island, just half an hour further west, he then hid all those crates full of Inca gold that he had robbed from Spanish galleons,” Randy George whispers. The scruffy looking bartender of the legendary “Pirates Bight Bar” could actually be right, because Norman Island also claims to be the alleged historical setting for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Treasure Island.”

I looked hard while snorkeling through eerie underwater caves, but I did not discover one single shiny doubloon. The only treasure I found were schools of smirking coral fish. I swear!


Charter Information

British Virgin Islands Tourist Board:



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Janna Graber

Senior editor Janna Graber has been covering travel for more than a decade. She has traveled to 38 countries -- and counting.
Janna Graber
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