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The Best of the British Virgin Islands

Encompassing more than 50 islands, spread across nearly 1000 square miles, and home to scores of hotels, villas, resorts, and anchorages, the British Virgin Islands can be mastered only with a certain amount of moxie. The ultimate way to traverse the territory is by boat: drifting from one island to the next, sleeping under a million stars. Itineraries that entail substantial traveling will put you at the mercy of notoriously unpredictable transportation (the ferry from Tortola to Jost Van Dyke is actually called the When). Better to stick to one or two islands and follow our guide to a blissfully tropical vacation.

THE LAY OF THE LAND

TORTOLA ISLAND: Road Town, the capital of the B.V.I., is the center of business for most Belongers—as islanders call themselves—but tourists generally find its hot, diesel-scented streets less than charming. They take the road north or west to find a quieter, gentler Tortola, one with roomy beaches, thirteen marinas, and, towering over it all, the 1,710-foot, hike-worthy Mount Sage.

VIRGIN GORDA ISLAND: The "Fat Virgin" offers just the enticement her name implies—several of the chain's toniest resorts, the much-photographed Baths (a maze of grottoes and caves beloved by snorkelers), and the dizzying yet irresistible drive (or hike) up Virgin Gorda Peak.

JOST VAN DYKE ISLAND: Perhaps the most laid-back of the islands with paved roads (which add up to a mere 6,000 feet). There's nothing to do here but pull up a chair at one of the two welcoming bars and watch the tide shift.

ANEGADA ISLAND: A flat, unassuming coral atoll with more than 300 wrecks you can dive to; flocks of flamingos; and deserted beaches covered in pink conch-shell mountains. The most notable inhabitant is the succulent Anegada lobster.

BEST BEACHES

• Any piece of shoreline on Anegada—that pure desert-isle feel.
White Bay, Jost Van Dyke—a multitude of hammocks, proximity to a great bar (the Soggy Dollar), and prime snorkeling.
Sandy Spit, Green Cay—a little bump of sand that's ideal for a picnic stop during a day sail.
Devil's Bay, Virgin Gorda—tiny, but the snorkeling is breathtaking. Reachable only by boat or by scrambling through the Baths.
Manchioneel Bay, Cooper Island—a perfect spot for non-divers while their comrades check out the shipwrecks to the south.

NIGHTLIFE

The British Virgin Islands lack the decadent glamour of St. Bart's or St. Lucia. Here, steamy open-air parties are brought to life by exuberant calypso, "fungi," and reggae bands.

One man. One bar. Let's get together and feel all right at Foxy's (Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke; 284/495-9258).

A heap of a party boat permanently anchored just off Norman Island, the William Thornton (284/494-0183)—lovingly nicknamed the Willie T.—is accessible only by water.

If you missed the psychedelic sixties, take a trip to the full-moon party at Bomba's Shack (Apple Bay, Tortola; 284/495-4148), a crazy bar built from cast-off tin, license plates, driftwood, and women's underpants. Order the tea.

All of Cane Garden Bay cooks with restaurants, bars, and live music. Start at Quito's Gazebo (Tortola; 284/495-4837), where the adorable Quito himself serenades every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.

Swim up to the Soggy Dollar Bar (White Bay, Jost Van Dyke; 284/495-9888) and swallow a few "painkillers," a deceptively tasty rum-based drink. But take it easy; the only way there—and back—is by wading.

HOTELS

PRIVATE-ISLE RETREATS
Owned by billionaire daredevil Richard Branson and popularized by Princess Di in the 1980's, Necker Island (800/557-4255 or 732/473-9982, fax 203/602-2265; from $14,000 a day for up to seven guests) is still the height of exclusivity. Twice a year the island holds "celebration weeks"—and at $13,000 a week per couple, it's a relative bargain.

The new Little Thatch Island (877/284-2824 or 284/495-9227, fax 284/495-9212) is giving Necker a run for its money, attracting the super-rich and the super-discreet. A cool $10K a day includes everything for up to four people: boating trips, nightlife excursions to other islands, and as much Veuve Clicquot as you can drink.

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