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.
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.
• 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.
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.
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.
For mere mortals, there's the 15-room Guana Island (914/967-6050, fax 914/967-8048; doubles from $640, including meals), which has the look of a Mediterranean villa, the feel of a long-lost era (no phones or televisions), and the simplest—yet best—food around.
For 25 years, Peter Island Resort (800/346-4451 or 284/495-2000, fax 284/495-2500; doubles from $575, including meals) has seduced honeymooners with its five pristine white-sand beaches.
FOR SAILORS: At the 85-room Bitter End Yacht Club & Resort (North Sound, Virgin Gorda; 800/872-2392 or 284/494-2745, fax 312/944-2860; doubles from $450, all meals included), guests have access to free whalers, Sunfish, and sailboards. The nightlife here is the real lure—especially since the swingin' bar at nearby Saba Rock opened.
FOR SYBARITES: The utterly genteel choice for the privileged set, 97-room Little Dix Bay (The Valley, Virgin Gorda; 888/767-3966 or 284/495-5555, fax 284/495-5661; doubles from $550) has more activities (a "castaway picnic," iguana hunts for the kids, nightly steel-drum or calypso bands) and dining options than most small towns.
FOR LUXURY-LOVING ADVENTURERS: No more than 60 guests at a time stay at Biras Creek Resort (North Sound, Virgin Gorda; 800/223-1108 or 284/494-3555, fax 310/440-4220; doubles from $750). Ride around its 140 acres on fat-tired bikes, take a snorkeling adventure to a hidden reef, or meander on one of the five hiking trails surrounding the resort.
FOR SERENITY-SEEKERS: Those bent on a total unplug stay at the 24-room Sugar Mill Hotel (Apple Bay, Tortola; 800/462-8834 or 284/495-4355, fax 284/495-4696; doubles from $295). Set among the ruins of a 17th-century sugar plantation, it offers guests quiet intimacy at its nearly empty beach.
Pure indolence can be found at the six-cottage Sandcastle (White Bay, Jost Van Dyke; 284/495-9888, fax 284/495-9999; doubles from $110). With sand this white, you'll feel as if you should be wearing skis, not a swimsuit.
High on a leafy Tortolan peak, Turtle Dove Lodge (Long Bay, West End; 284/495-4430, fax 284/495-4070; cottages from $100) has three breezy cottages with quirky paint jobs—bright green outside and three shades of purple within.
Only 10 minutes from the airport but much more remote in feel, Lambert Beach Resort (East End, Tortola; 284/495-2877, fax 284/495-2876; doubles from $100) has an enormous pool with that all-important Caribbean feature: the swim-up bar.
The new Nail Bay (Virgin Gorda; 800/871-3551 or 284/494-8000, fax 284/495-5875; doubles from $125) stands in the shadow of Gorda Peak. Its 18 rooms are spacious, but its 14 villas are the real deal. A two-bedroom villa can be had for as little as $270 a night.
The 20-room Anegada Reef Hotel (Setting Point, Anegada; 284/495-8002, fax 284/495-9362; doubles from $250, including all meals) is hardly the lap of luxury, with its preponderance of white wicker and ticky-tacky floral bedspreads. But it does allow easy access to all of the island's secluded beaches.
Even if you're not staying at Peter Island, Little Dix Bay, or Biras Creek, you don't have to miss their superb dining. The just-updated menu at Peter Island's Tradewinds (284/495-2000; dinner for two $130) has been given an Asian spin. Little Dix has a number of restaurants; try the Sugar Mill (284/495-5555; dinner for two $130) for wahoo, swordfish, and snapper drawn from the water minutes before being served.
If you develop a craving for carpaccio, Brandywine Bay Restaurant (Brandywine Estate, Tortola; 284/495-2301; dinner for two $90) serves bella Italian.
Brightly colored murals, a New Orleans—inspired menu, laconic service (be warned), and a jazzy sound track conspire to make Chez Bamboo (Spanish Town; 284/495-5752; dinner for two $75) Virgin Gorda's biggest sleeper.
It's not much to look at, but C&F Restaurant (Purcell Estate, Road Town, Tortola; 284/494-4941; dinner for two $56) dishes out the hottest curry in the B.V.I.
Once you make a dinner reservation at Mrs. Scatliffe's (Carrot Bay, Tortola; 284/495-4556; dinner for two $56), the lady herself goes to market to buy food for your meal. She might even sing some gospel tunes and advise on curative herbs.
The homespun Northshore Shell Museum (Carrot Bay, Tortola; 284/495-4714; dinner for two $40) is literally encrusted in seashells. Everyone swoons over the curried goat—but it's barbecue nights (Tuesday and Saturday) that really make mouths water. Conch, beef, ribs, and chicken are cooked over an open flame and doused with a tangy house-made sauce.
The West Indian equivalent of a burrito, rotis are a local staple, and Roti Palace (Russel Hill, Road Town, Tortola; 284/494-4196; lunch for two $20) serves 'em up king-sized.
Despite the plastic tables and chairs, a meal at the Big Bamboo (Loblolly Bay, Anegada; 284/495-2019; lunch for two $50) is an extravagant experience. An endless supply of hulking Anegada lobsters are cooked to order on an open grill, with the ocean rippling a few feet away.
If you're more into extreme eating than extreme sports, challenge yourself with this edible scavenger hunt.
SEA GRAPE WINE: A holiday must-have. The grapes are harvested and soaked in alcohol for several years before the brew is bewitching enough to drink. Best source: Ashley Nibbs's stall in the open-air market next to Pusser's store in Road Town, Tortola.
MAUBEY: A fermented, non-alcoholic beverage made from the bitter bark of the maubey tree. Best source: Bobby's Supermarket (Wickham's Cay, Tortola; 284/494-2189).
COCONUT TARTS: Sweet and rich, with fresh coconut, coconut milk, and cream. Best source: La Baguette Bakery (Pasea Estate, Road Town, Tortola; 284/494-5068), the most delectable pastry shop in the B.V.I.
GUAVA JAM: No self-respecting Belonger would dream of eating toast without this sticky concoction. Best source: Sunny Caribbee Shop & Gallery (Main St., Road Town, Tortola; 284/494-2178).
IF YOU JUST CAN'T SIT STILL
Heli-golfing: There aren't any links in the B.V.I., so hop a copter to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where you'll clear customs and jump back on board to be flown to the first green at Carambola. At the end of the day you're picked up at the 18th hole and whisked back to your hotel. The excursion can be arranged through Little Dix Bay.
Bonefishing: The new It sport of CEO's, bonefishing is sort of like fly-fishing, but in ocean shallows. Pop over by plane or boat to Anegada for the best catch. Book Garfield Guides through the Anegada Reef Hotel (284/495-8002).
Biking: The hills on Tortola are so intense that even the paved roads will put your heart in your throat. The biggest thrill?Biking down Mount Sage. Get bikes at Last Stop Sports (Nanny Cay, 284/494-0564; from $20 per day).
Riding: You can go for trail or beach rides at Shadow's Stable (New Bush, Road Town, Tortola; 284/494-2262) or Alex Parillon Horseback Riding (The Valley, Virgin Gorda; beeper 284/496-4978). If you can't be bothered to ride a horse yourself, go to the races at Tortola's Sea Cows Bay Track, held during Christmas, Easter, and the Emancipation Celebration in late July through early August.
Surfing: From November through March, the best break is on Tortola near Bomba's Shack or at Josiah's Bay. Rent boards through HIHO (Road Town, Tortola; 284/494-7694; from $15 per day).
Windsurfing: The breeze is so strong in the B.V.I.'s that an annual 150-mile race takes competitors to seven different islands in one week. The less ambitious can settle for rentals or lessons. On Virgin Gorda, call the Bitter End Yacht Club (North Sound; 284/494-2745; rentals from $20 an hour, lessons $40 an hour); on Tortola, call Boardsailing BVI Watersports (Trellis Bay, Beef Island; 284/495-2447; rentals $25 an hour, two-hour lessons $50).
Sailing: If you can't manage a weeklong charter, settle on a full-day excursion with the Patouche II (284/494-6300; $93 per person).
Snorkeling and scuba diving: With the sheer number and variety of fish around easily accessible reefs, skipping out on snorkeling or scuba diving would be criminal. Book a snorkeling excursion through Caribbean Images (Tortola; 284/494-1147; half-day from $50 per person) or scuba dive with Blue Water Divers (Tortola; 284/494-2847; half-day from $80 per person).
A PERFECT YACHTING ITINERARY
Day One: Set sail from Trellis Bay, Tortola, and moor for the evening in silent, starlit White Bay, off Guana Island.
Day Two: Snorkel off Guana's Monkey Point, and then head out for a full day's sail to the Bitter End Yacht Club.
Day Three: Cruise north around Mosquito Island, with a brief snorkeling foray at the Baths. From there, make a break across Sir Francis Drake Channel to Peter Island's Great Harbour. Dock for a night of dressing up and dining out.
Day Four: A hop and a skip southwest brings you to Norman Island. Start by exploring the Caves; then head over to the Willie T. for body shots (don't ask).
Day Five: Make a beeline to Jost Van Dyke, with a pit stop at Sandy Cay. Tie up in White Bay and drink at the Soggy Dollar, or in Great Harbour if you'd rather hang at Foxy's.
Day Six: It's an easy float from Jost Van Dyke back to Soper's Hole, Tortola.
NEED THE BOAT TO MAKE IT HAPPEN?
Rent a yacht from the Moorings (800/521-1126 or 284/494-2331) or Sunsail (800/327-2276 or 284/495-4740). If you're looking for a crewed charter, call on Yacht Connections (284/494-5273). Regency Charter Services (284/495-1970) can refer you to a variety of moderate to luxury crewed yachts. Virgin Traders (284/495-2526) charters bareboat yachts. At Catamaran Charters (284/494-6661) you can guess what you'll find.
Giant granite boulders strewn higgledy-piggledy form watery grottoes and a virtual Holy Land of fish—and snorkelers and explorers. Here's how to make the most of a day at the Baths on Virgin Gorda:
1. Go as early as you can. The water will be cleaner and clearer, and you'll avoid the crowds.
2. Travel as light as possible. There's no place to stash your bag while you frolic with the fish.
3. Wear very strong sunblock.
4. Don't be intimidated by the tiny opening at the entrance to the Baths. It might appear to be claustrophobic from the outside, but once you get in, the rocks open up to form cathedral-like spaces.
5. Don't worry about food and drinks. There's a snack bar on the beach, or you can walk up the hill to the Top of the Baths, a full-service restaurant.