Tortola, British Virgin Islands - A Beach a Day

I can see a scattering of gorgeous islands floating on blue, blue sea out of my window. Pelicans with huge scoop bills are diving above the palm trees, the broad avian equivalent of the A380. Villages are crammed with pastel coloured houses and criss-cross boarded drinking shacks.

The currency is the American dollar, the tourists are mainly American and the cars are right hand drive. But they drive on the left hand side of the road and the rest of the tourists are British - off yachts or cruise ships in the main. This is a playground for the rich and famous, with prices to match. So where am I? Tortola in The British Virgin Islands (BVI), naturally.

The BVI - in a Nutshell

  • These islands were named "Santa Úrsula y las Once Mil Vírgenes" by Christopher Columbus in 1493, after the legend of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 virgins (martyred for refusing to accommodate the invading Huns). The name was later, helpfully shortened to The Virgin Islands, generally known as BVI, to distinguish from the US Virgin Islands.
  • There are four main islands: Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke, along with more than 50 other smaller islands and cays. Norman Island was the setting for the novels Treasure Island and Dead Chest Island. And I mustn't forget Necker - the island which belongs to Richard Branson.
  • The first known humans in the Virgin Islands probably migrated here from South America around 2500 years ago. These tribes eventually vanished, giving rise to the Taino approximately 1500 years later.
  • The Spanish Empire claimed the islands by discovery, but never settled them, and subsequent years saw the English, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Danish all jostling for control of the region, giving pirates the opportunity to sneak in and lay low. pirates.
  • The Dutch established the first permanent settlement - on Tortola, but in 1672, the English captured the island and went on to annexe Anegada and Virgin Gorda.
  • There is no record of any native Amerindian population in the British Virgin Islands during this period. It is thought that they either fled to safer islands or were annihilated. They were replaced by slaves from Africa, who the British brought in to work the sugar plantations.
  • The BVI are primarily important strategically. Reduced demands for sugar, abolition of slavery and frequent hurricanes led to economic decline over time. Until the advent of tourism.

The rich and famous come for the fabulous sands and scenery. As for me, it looks like a beach a day, for the next three weeks:

Sunday - Apple Bay

Tortola is mountainous, so the roads are steep; the driving is crazy. The politest way to describe the service is diffident. Attitude abounds.

Apple Bay is a minuscule stretch of white sand just across the road from my hotel. The surf breaks just off shore, mini pitons jut out of the bay and Bomba's Beach Shack churns out a heady rhythm. The hotel dining room is pretty - set in a renovated sixteenth century sugar mill.

Monday - White Bay Beach, Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands

Jost Van Dyke - the party island - no shoes necessary. Great Harbour is lined with the most colourful, kitchest beach bars ever. And, a taxi ride over the hill, White Bay Beach. This one features on most of those lists of ten best beaches in the world. Pristine white sand and the requisite bendy palm trees. It's also home to the Soggy Dollar beach bar, so called because the sailors swim in from their boats with their money. This is where the Painkiller Cocktail was invented. I will leave the recipe (and the scenes on the beach) to your imagination. I wander along to the little yellow church, but it's hard to leave the gorgeous beach for long.

Besides, today, I am entertained by Jesse and Elias, two twenty something brothers from Canada. Their mission, it seems, is to consume as many Coronas as they can. When I abandon them, their deck chairs are barricaded in, by a sea of glass bottles. Painkillers not necessary.

Tuesday - The Baths on Virgin Gorda Island.

Virgin Gorda is also world famous, because of the huge granite boulders picturesquely strewn along the sand. There's a perilous trail through the rocks to Devils Bay, a lagoon even more picturesquely encircled, by still more boulders. The track is a bit like a twenty minute assault course, involving much clambering through caves with low roofs, wading through pools, traversing rocks, with rope handrails and assailing vertiginous wooden ladders. A line of wounded emerge at the bay end, streaming blood from scraped limbs. I am fortunate to escape with a banged head.

It’s clearly a day for the intrepid. There are signs up forbidding swimming, because of the swell round the rocks, but this does not deter the dinghies from the many yachts moored offshore. I could fill a whole episode of You've Been Framed with videos of their ingenious and undignified attempts to land. Today's companions are Jeff and Kathy, a semi-retired couple from Cincinnati. She used to work for American Airlines, so they get free flights everywhere. Grrrr...

Wednesday - A Whole Glut of Beaches. Cane Garden Bay, Brewers Bay, Long Bay, Carrot Bay, Smugglers Cove

Today, I am doubly intrepid as I venture up the coast in my rental car. It came as part of a package with the room, so it feels churlish to waste it on trips to ferries and back. I discover why there are two extra gears on the automatics here. The hairpin bends are almost vertical. The views over the mountain drops are good too - I think. (They're cloaked in rainforest- the Sage Mountain National Park). I'm trembling too much to take them in. The island is arid and much of the vegetation is cactus. The one time I find a spot to park and scramble out, I am impaled by a vicious aloe.

One road is so steep, that the locals call it The Escalator - and refuse to use it. I decide to avoid that one, though there aren't any sign posts, so I can't be sure that I won't happen on it accidentally. When I do get up speed, I find myself swerving round a group of goats, gambolling on the bits of concrete. Tarmac is too polite a description. It's a relief to end up in the crystal turquoise water of Smugglers Cove. Here, I share beach beds with Jan and Brad from California. They are still recovering from the cavernous potholes which are the unmade road down to the Cove - they have no inkling what bad roads are really like here.

I decide I'm finally going snorkelling - it's been too rough to try so far this week. However, a posse of locals originally from the UK, tell me that there's a bad rip tide over the coral when it's rough. And there's still a nasty swell. So, decision reversed, discretion is the better part of valour. The waves in the shallows though are perfect, balmy and soothing. The locals also tell me that the service here is a lot better than it used to be.

Back at the ranch, well, Sugar Mill, I decide to avail myself of the other complimentary part of my package - a bottle of local rum.

Thursday -  Honeymoon Beach - A Side Trip to St. John Island in the United States Virgin Islands (USVI)

A scenic, if early, hop on the ferry from Road Town. the diminutive capital of the BVI, on Tortola. It’s all very Pirates of the Caribbean, sailing to Cruz Bay on St John Island across the narrow diving channel and hugging the palm lined coast of the Virgin Islands National Park. And it's not just my imagination - Captain Kidd, Black Sam Bellamy, and Blackbeard have all been reported to pass through here.

By far the shortest queue I've ever stood in for USA immigration - it’s only me. Cruz Bay is dinky, neat and hilly. The streets are lined with niche restaurants, boutique shops and chi chi guest houses. The little Wharfside Village mall caters to the cruise trade. Fortunately, the town is quiet today, almost too quiet.

USVI - in a Nutshell

  • The United States Virgin Islands (four of them) were bought from Denmark in 1917. Transfer Day is a holiday celebrated every year, on March 31, to mark the handing over of the islands. Virtually the whole of St. John is a national park endowed by Rockefeller. The three main islands have local nicknames Twin City" (St. Croix), "Rock City" (St. Thomas), and "Love City" (St. John. Tiny Water Island, off St Thomas, was only officially transferred to the government of the USVI (from the USA) in 1996.
  • Point Udall on St. Croix is the easternmost point in the United States. Christopher Columbus made his only landfall in present-day US Territory on St. Croix, in 1493. It wasn't a happy experience - there was violence.
  • The Danes first colonised the present day USVI in 1733, calling it The Danish West Indies. They grew sugar cane and imported slaves from Africa to work the land. Many of their descendants are present day inhabitants.
  • This is an unincorporated territory, so the Virgin Islanders are regarded as American citizens, but don't get a federal vote.
  • They drive on the left here, like the British. The donkeys were too habituated and only used to passing on the left.
  • The capital city, on St Thomas, is Charlotte Amalie (after a Danish queen). It was originally known as Taphus (Danish for ‘Beer House’).

Exploring St John

It's nearly all rainforest and white beaches, so today I take a trail through the park to Honeymoon Beach. And I finally get to snorkel; it's exceptionally clear. There are small rays darting and two turtles nestling in the rippling mini dunes of the depths. One of the turtles lazily rises to the surface right in front of me posing, huge and gorgeous against the blue of the sea. Naturally, my camera battery gives out, as I press the shutter.

Friday - Trunk Bay

The brochures  say that missing Trunk Bay in the US Virgin Islands is like going to get Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower - it's another beach on the 'Best Of'' lists. I hop on one of the local taxis to get there. They are gaily painted converted trucks with half a dozen rows of seats out back. I'm the only passenger, so the trip feels very decadent, even if we do roll around a bit. The bay is certainly very pretty from the viewpoints above. It has a small palm tree bedecked island and a slightly beaten up snorkelling trail with plaques in the water.

Then a rush to get my ferry back to Tortola to catch the plane down to St Martin. It’s a longer route this time, via the northern Caribbean cruise capital, St Thomas. (St Croix is much further away - 45 miles south). Back on British soil, I spend my waiting time on the beach, at Trellis Bay. It's at the bottom of the runway.

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