You could say the British Virgin Islands have a little bit of everything, but you’d be wrong. They have a lot of everything. From winding, scenic trails waiting to be conquered by adventurous types to relaxing beaches where all you need to do is hold on to your rum cocktail, this group of 60 sunny islands has something to satisfy every vacationer’s needs.
The British Virgin Islands (BVI’s) is a collection of 60 remote islands nestled perfectly into the Caribbean Sea. Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, but never settled by the Spanish, the islands have been under British control since the 17th century (and given separate colony status in 1960). The BVI’s economy is now powered by two main pillars: financial services and tourism. Its tropical climate means you’ll be packing bathing suits and sandals, while its currency is American and its primary language is English. You’re sure to spot at least a few million-dollar yachts off the coasts and sip more than a couple rum-based treats in the sand during your time there. There is no shortage of luxurious accommodations to choose from on BVI’s main islands, but your biggest challenge will be deciding where to go first. Thankfully, we’ve made it easy of you. Just remember, BVI is nature’s little secret – so keep this to yourself!
Up the Tempo: Tortola
To get a proper look at the entire Virgin Islands, you’ll need a view from the top. The highest point on any of the British or U.S. islands is found at Mount Sage National Park on Tortola. The Mahogany Forest Trail takes you all the way up, while Henry Adams Loop Trail offers the best views of preserved forest area, said to be untouched since Columbus first discovered the islands.
Beach options are almost limitless on BVI’s capital island, but you mustn’t miss Cane Garden Bay, the island’s hub. You could explore its long, beautiful beaches forever. Thrill-seekers can have a blast snorkeling, renting a kayak, or with any watersport activity you could think of. Any trip to Tortola should include at least a few hours here.
Party animals unite at Bomba’s Shack, home of the original full moon party. This monthly tradition, now copied by many around the world, originated in Tortola’s West End in 1989, where the bar’s namesake built a beach cabin using materials that washed up on the shore. The shack is covered in graffiti and women’s underwear. Seriously. The party spot hosts a colossal, rowdy gathering to celebrate every full moon where exuberant guests will enjoy dancing to local island music while drinking into to the wee hours. If you’re not the party type, an hour of people watching may be enough, and you’ll want to leave before midnight. That’s when Bomba himself serves up his special hallucinogenic Midnight Tea. And then it gets weird.
Where to stay in Tortola
Slow it Down: Virgin Gorda
For a slower-paced, more relaxing vacation, you’d be better off staying to the immediate east of Tortola, on Virgin Gorda. The smaller island of the two, Virgin Gorda is less populated though its beaches are equally pristine. Rumor has it the island is named as such (Spanish translation: “The Fat Virgin”) because Columbus found its profile resembled a woman lying on her side. Keep your eyes peeled as you approach the island so you can decide for yourself!
A typical day on Gorda is spent being pampered at Sense Spa on Little Dix Bay, where you’ll take in stunning mountain views amidst the peace and tranquility of the personalized service. Their specialty treatment is the Virgin Gorda Goat Milk and Honey Wrap – and you must indulge, although depending on when you plan to visit you might have to wait a little while… the spa is closed for renovations until later this year.
No trip to BVI would be complete without seeing The Baths, a boulder-covered beach at the island’s southern tip, where stones are dispersed across the sand and shore creating a maze-like effect. You can debate your geologically-savvy friends over how the rocks got there. Were they launched onto the beach by a violent storm? Were they ejected from a volcano? Were they carried by a glacier during the Ice Age? Regardless, you’ll all agree on their beauty, and you might also agree that one day isn’t enough.
Pro Tip: Arrive early (before 9am) or late (after 4pm) to avoid the crowds. The beauty of The Baths is no secret.
If you’re feeling up for a little adventure, head into the water for one of the Caribbean’s best dives: The Chikuzen. Due to its remote location, divers here should be accompanied by an experienced instructor. At 40 to 75 feet, you’ll get up close and personal with a 1981 Korean shipwreck during which the 246-foot refrigerator vessel was taken down in a hurricane approaching St Martin. Now, it rests mainly intact off Virgin Gorda for diver’s delight.
Where to stay in Virgin Gorda
Catch Me If You Can: Island Hopping
Believe it or not, there are still 58 more islands and cays to discover. While you may not be able to hit them all, we can give you a cheat sheet for a day trip to capture the highlights.
The British Virgin Islands are home to world-class yachting. With its clear sightlines and numerous anchorage sites, spending some quality time on the water is a no-brainer between destinations. There are dozens of ports at which to rent a charter on both Tortola and Virgin Gorda. From there, the islands are yours to discover on your own little vacation-within-a-vacation. (If you prefer more cost-effective travel with extra camaraderie, try these tips.)
Your itinerary must include these four: Anegada, Necker Island, Guana Island, and Jost Van Dyke. Where you start will depend on whether you depart from Tortola or Virgin Gorda. Either way, you will be heading north, and you can cruise past these four islands in a row.
Once you get on the boat, you’ll be eager to spend some time on the water. Cruising out to Anegada, the most remote of BVI’s islands, will give you time to enjoy the cool breeze and stunning views of the Caribbean Sea. Plan a relaxing morning, as this is the quietest and least crowded of the islands. Station yourself on the western end of the island for prime flamingo and iguana spotting. For lunch we suggest Cow Wreck Beach Bar & Grill – Anegada’s famous lobster is on the menu as are some of the BVI’s best conch fritters.
Time to set sail – next stop: Necker Island. While you may not be able to dock and tour the island, you’ll want to get as good a look as you can. The 74-acre private island is owned by – and home to – Sir Richard Branson under Virgin Limited Edition. Branson bought the land in 1978 and turned it into a sought-after vacation destination. Want to rent the entire island for your your next vacation? Here’s how.
After Necker, make your way over to Guana Island to get a taste of old Caribbean. Here, you can admire miles of tropical landscape, hike the island’s deserted hills and valleys, or stop for a romantic, daydream-worthy picnic on the beach.
Your final stop is one to look forward to: Jost Van Dyke. This should be your final stop – and for good reason. It’s the party island. By the time you’ve reached the westernmost and smallest of the BVI’s main islands, you’ll be ready for some guilty pleasures. The first thing you should do is kick off your shoes (if you were wearing any to begin with) and take a stroll through the sugar-white sand of the unspoiled beaches. You can choose from many beachside bars, including Ivan’s Local Flavor Restaurant and Stress Free Bar, the Sandcastle Restaurant, Jewel Snack Shack, and more. Your final stop should be at the famous Soggy Dollar Bar, home of the original Painkiller cocktail. The drink is served throughout the islands, and contains rum, coconut, pineapple, and orange juice – though they won’t tell you its exact proportions. And who needs to know? In a place this beautiful all you need to do is sit back and enjoy the magic!