Tortola, the capital of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), is all about enjoying theCaribbean Sea. The island is hugely popular as a base for chartering sailboats, is renowned for pristine scuba-diving reefs and draws surfers from all over the world to visit its north shore’s perfect waves. When visitors dry off from ocean fun, they can explore a lush, volcanic island characterized by steep, hilly roads with enough twists and turns to make one dizzy, but with nearly every turn unveiling yet another exquisite white, crescent-shaped beach to enjoy on your Caribbean vacation.
Tortola, which means “land of turtle doves” in Spanish, is situated just northeast of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), collectively forming the Virgin Islands archipelago “discovered” by Christopher Columbus. Amerindians/Pre-Columbians actually first settled the BVI in 600 B.C.; the islands were more recently occupied by the Dutch, followed by the British, with BVI officially becoming a British self-governing territory in 1967.
Visitors to Tortola typically arrive either via ferries from the USVI (Native Son or Road Town Fast Ferry) or via air, primarily through San Juan. Hotels and charter boats are about 15 to 45 minutes by taxi from the arrival points.
Tortola serves as the northern backbone to Sir Francis Drake Channel, a swath of water that cuts through the middle of the long BVI chain, the islands on each side buffering the channel for easy passage, hence its status as a sailing haven. Most BVI charters are picked up from Tortola bases such as at Nanny Cay Marina, a naturally sheltered marina with restaurants, boutiques, provisioning and more.
Nanny Cay Village within the marina offers luxury villas, starting at $2,000 for a minimum five-night stay, a perfect respite before embarking on one’s sea legs, while Nanny Cay Hotel offers more modest accommodations; rates for doubles start at $120 per night in the summer season (May 1 to Oct. 31), $180 per night in the winter (Nov. 1 to April 30).
Favorite sailing destinations around Tortola include the natural wonders of The Baths on Virgin Gorda, where huge granite boulders form caverns and grottos along the beach’s edge. Jost Van Dyke, the most popular day trip destination, is renowned for its beach bars like Foxy’s and a casual feel that’s the antithesis of contrivedCaribbean settings. The Bight, a bay at Norman Island, is a very popular anchorage, once a hideout for swashbuckling pirates and now home to Willy T, a floating bar/restaurant, and caves nearby through which visitors can snorkel or dive. The list of gorgeous sailing spots goes on.
Caribbean’s Most Prized Shipwreck
Long known for some of the prettiest reefs and the most famous shipwreck in the Caribbean, Tortola also boasts many prized mooring spots that are also great for Caribbean diving. The wreck of the Royal Mail Ship (R.M.S.) Rhonesank in a fierce hurricane off of Salt Island in 1867. At the time, it was a custom to strap in passengers to keep them from falling from their bunks, resulting in all perishing in the hurricane but one lucky Italian and some crew.
The ship’s remains are amazing to view, scattered over a football-size field with the colorfully encrusted bow, crow’s nest and even the Italian’s “lucky” porthole all teaming with fish. Blue Water Divers gives a thorough guided tour of the wreck site. A single-tank dive starts at $70.
Another favorite dive site is Santa Monica rock near Norman Island with tons of ledges and pinnacles playing home to eels, octopus, enormous crabs and graceful eagle rays. Near to that is Angelfish Reef where you may spot an elusive seahorse and just about every other Caribbean underwater creature imaginable. Fort Recovery Beachfront Villas (standard suites start at $210 per night) and Nanny Cay Village are both convenient to diving.
Full Moon Parties
When the sun’s gone down, the north shore of Tortola also offers some of the island’s liveliest restaurants and nightlife. Bomba Shack by Sebastian’s is infamous for full moon parties that draw hundreds to the quirky seaside bar where donated patron panties hang from the ceiling. Close by is Cane Garden Bay, home of a gorgeous beach and popular beachside restaurant/bars like Myett’s and Quito’s. Or, many visitors make the short trek to Jolly Roger on the west end of Tortola, which is always lively.
From the eastern end of Tortola, Beef Island, to the west end, there are many spectacular white-sand beaches along the north shore. Most deepen very gradually and have light surf, allowing for very leisurely swimming. However, some beaches do have heavier surf and undertow, so it is always wise to ask someone, or observe any signs, before swimming. The list below does not encompass all the beaches, but rather points out some of the most popular and easily accessible ones. Take into consideration that BVI has no sewerage system, therefore it is advisable to select beaches in less populated areas.
Long Bay, Beef Island is just minutes from the airport, a long, curved stretch of beach that is one of the more secluded and little-used beaches. There are no amenities available.
Lambert Bay is a very long beach, with moderate surf, and less clear water than several other beaches. There are two well-sign posted roads, one for the hotel and one for the beach. The hotel is very welcoming of lunch and dinner guests.
Josiah’s Bay is a surfer’s beach popular with natives as well. It’s another good-sized beach with heavy surf when in season, and a strong undertow at the corners of the beach. However, many swimmers enjoy this beach, and the waves, simply by swimming away from the corners of the beach and at a safe depth. The beach extends very gradually, allowing swimmers to range far from the shore. There are two bar/restaurants at Josiah’s Bay. The Grape Tree offers excellent food at moderate prices, and the larger bar, with a large stock of alcoholic beverages, offers food as well. Neither are fine dining establishments but rather casual beach bars.
Brewer’s Bay is the only non-white sand beach on the island. The sand is a dark gold. The bay offers snorkeling opportunities in calm weather, but because of the runoff routes from the mountains, the water is often murky after even moderate rain. Development around the island has circumvented nature’s natural filtration systems, such as salt ponds, and as a result most beaches are not attractive after heavy rains because of runoff from roads that zig and zag up the mountainsides, and home development sites cut harshly into the sides of the mountains as well. That said, Brewer’s Bay is an excellent place to go if you want good snorkeling right off the beach, decent food, friendly locals, reasonably warm water (late April), and some peace and quiet. Watching the pelicans diving into the watch for fish is fascinating, but can be a little unnerving when they plunge in near where you are snorkelling. These pelicans and other predators (nothing scary) are after the large schools of small “feeder fish,” which will let you swim along in their midst. If you take some bread or bagels with you in a plastic bag, the smaller fish will almost eat right out of your hand. A taxi from Road Town was only US$28 each way (US$7 each if you share a ride with 3 others). The drivers are happy to narrate what you are passing and will stop high above the harbor for a nice scenic photo opportunity.
Cane Garden Bay is the most popular, populous, and touristy of the beaches available. Boats moor here, and on the nearly 3/4 mi length there are five restaurants, one bar and two vendors. It is also the only beach where there is a supermarket nearby. Live music is common. You will find it a Myett’s (happy hour), Elms and Quito’s, where local guitar legend Quito Rhymer often plays. There are two parts to this beach and one half, before Quito’s dock, has no bars or restaurants and so mostly deserted. Cane Garden Bay is “ground zero” for all cruise ships. That means when cruise ships are in it will be crowded. If you want to go the the beach, go early so you can get a decent spot. Also, you want to arrive before many of the “vendors” that place chairs and lounges in the best locations and then rent you the chair. Cane Garden Bay, like all beaches in the BVI’s are public and you have just as much right as the chair rental vendors. Also, if you are anchored with your sailboat, be aware that Cane Garden Bay has had a number of dinghy thefts. In March, 2010, one sailor was confronted at knifepoint when he tried to stop the theft of his dinghy.
Apple Bay is a surf and party area, and does not offer much in the way of swimming. It is here that you will find the “Bomba Shack,” a main party site for the island’s full moon parties. During these parties the street is often flooded with native and tourist party-goers, and hallucinogenic mushrooms, which are legal to possess and use in the BVI, are readily available. Users should state a preference for fresh, live mushrooms if available. Apple Bay and Josiah’s Bay are the two surfing areas of the island. There are several good restaurants here, Sugar Mill (fine dining), Coco Plum, Sebastian’s and Bomba’s. On Fridays there are fish frys under the two huge banyan trees.
Long Bay – West End Not to be confused with Long Bay – Beef Island, this beach at the western end of the island is easily accessible, very large, and has good swimming and moderate surf. There are several restaurants and bars, however, they sit back from the beach rather than spill onto it, as in Cane Garden Bay.
Smuggler’s Cove Difficult to access but worth the effort, Smuggler’s Cove lies at the extreme western tip of Tortola. Accessible by narrow and bumpy dirt roads, this is a small oasis used mostly by expatriate workers who reside in Tortola. There is a restaurant and bar and several small stands selling alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Try to get to the beach early to get a choice spot. There are three vendors who set up beach chairs in some of the best spots. All three vendors offer good and drinks. Generally, they offer these chairs free as long as people are willing to spend some money on food or drinks.
Brandywine Bay is a recently man-made beach, one of the only on the island’s south shore. It is generally not used by locals or tourists, as natural beaches abound.
More Tortola Activities
So what else is there to do on the island? The main town, Road Town, is not particularly well suited for tourists, and instead is aimed more at business such as offshore banking, which is a staple of the BVI economy. However, the French bistro in town, Le Cabanon, is good for fine dining and the Sky Bar, a quarter mile above town, offers wonderful sunset views.
Other touring highlights on Tortola include a hike atop Sage Mountain, a national park featuring the highest peak on the island (1,716 feet) with great vistas and bird watching; a visit to the Callwood Rum Distillery in Cane Garden Bay where rum is produced much the same as 200 years earlier; or a swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery near Road Town.