The sleepy British Virgin Islands are waking up, thanks to a clutch of fresh places to shop and eat. Here's the scoop, island by island.
Back in the 1960's, Laurance Rockefeller's Little Dix Bay put long and skinny Virgin Gorda on the map. Today, the isle remains the destination of choice for luxury resorts in the British Virgin Islands. You won't find much in the way of diversions—and that's the point.
SLEEP Rosewood won't say exactly how much it spent to overhaul Little Dix Bay (The Valley; 888/767-3966 or 284/495-5555; www.littledixbay.com; doubles from $525), but the resort's new Asia-meets-the-tropics style was worth every million. Add to that the spiffed- up public spaces and a spa with an infinity-pool relaxation area, and it's no wonder this lavish spot attracts so many boldfaced names. • A few miles away, the sporty Bitter End Yacht Club (North Sound; 800/872-2392 or 284/494-2745; www.beyc.com; doubles from $640, including meals) is attempting its own (painstakingly slow) room redo. Barbara Hulanicki, of Biba and Island Outpost fame, has created a fresh look: batik bedspreads, teak floors, nautically inspired sconces. At press time, only eight of 87 rooms had been completed. • Just around the bay is Biras Creek Resort (North Sound; 800/223-1108 or 284/494-3555; www.biras.com; doubles from $615), perfect for solitude seekers. The hotel has added a small spa and promises a much-needed update. Rumor has it that another big-name BVI hotel company might buy the property. • Villa rentals are giving local resorts heavy competition these days. The most extravagant development is the German-owned, 7,760-square-foot Katitche Point Greathouse (Plum Bay Rd.; 49-761/556-2004; www.katitchepoint.com; seven nights from $15,330), where up to 10 guests share panoramic views and a jaw-dropping infinity pool.
SHOP Virgin Gorda's main strip, Spanish Town, may be a who-cares-if-you-miss-it blip on the radar, but Margo's Jewellery Boutique (Spanish Town; 284/495-5237) is an enchanting discovery filled with baubles from India and Turkey. • Saturdays at daybreak, a renegade outdoor market called Grandma's Kitchen (The Valley; 284/495-5253) appears in Spanish Town. Jewelry and sarong designers join forces with DJ's for a lively morning that stretches into the evening (care of more than a few rum punches).
Related: British Virgin Islands Travel Guide
Home to the islands' main airport, Tortola used to be nothing more than a way station for travelers en route to other islands. Now it's worthy of a day trip (or more), thanks to the emerging shopping and food scenes.
SLEEP The Cottage, with its four-poster bed and outdoor shower, is a welcome addition to the Sugar Mill Hotel (Apple Bay; 800/462-8834 or 284/495-4355; www.sugarmillhotel.com; doubles from $260; cottage from $300), an isolated boutique property on the west side of Tortola; it's also one of the BVI's best values.
EAT Scott Hart and Paloma Helm are doing their part to spiff up the scruffy little capital of Road Town with Dove Restaurant & Wine Bar (67 Main St.; 284/494-0313; dinner for two $75). Housed in a 1912 gingerbread-trimmed cottage, the restaurant and jazz bar is filled with antiques. The menu—Thai green curry with prawns, spanakopita with a red-pepper concassé—provides a refreshing departure from other island restaurants'. • The Dove's newest competition is the whimsically named Fat Cat Thai Restaurant (Hotel Castle Maria; 284/494-2615; dinner for two $50), which serves up Thai cuisine with a Chinese twist on a steep hill over-looking Road Town and the Sir Francis Drake Channel. • Fort Burt Restaurant (Fort Burt Marina; 284/495-2587; dinner for two $96) has been converted into a training ground for New England Culinary Institute students, who strut their stuff at dinner (think: lobster with avocado salsa and passion-fruit coulis). Lunchtime brings West Indies-inspired dishes: salt-fish cakes, jerk chicken. • For a quick snack, visit the students downtown at their Road Town Bakery (123 Main St.; 284/494-0222; lunch for two $17). • It's a bit out of the way on the East End, but the open-air waterfront Eclipse (Fat Hog's Bay; 284/495-1646; dinner for two $80) is worth the detour for a tapas-style grazing menu of sesame-tuna carpaccio and coconut shrimp.
SHOP It used to be, the only reason shoppers went to Road Town was to buy overpriced spices from Sunny Caribbee. Now, a few entrepreneurs are working to transform this style wasteland. In the Old Customs House, interior decorator Jillian Dunlop runs Hucksters (113 Main St.; 248/494-7165), a well-edited housewares boutique. • Christina Washburn's Cantik Interiors (Inner Harbour Marina; 284/494-7927) also caters to the home. Best find: diaphanous shell-embedded curtains. • Eldred Williams and David Archer sell hand-glazed lanterns and bowls at Bamboushay (Nanny Cay Marina; 284/494-0393), a colorful wooden cottage just outside town. Under the watch of Tortola-born coppersmith Aragorn Dick-Read, Aragorn's Studio (Trellis Bay, Beef Island; 284/495-1849) has grown from an art gallery into a burgeoning collective, where crafts-people teach basket weaving and coconut carving; a fruit depot sells native produce (soursops, sugar apples); and a shop carries handmade herbal soaps and bags of briny Salt Island crystals.
SEE Local artists like reggae singer Quito Rhymer have painted the Wall, a stretch of concrete on the Ridge Road, which winds from Tortola's highest peak, Sage Mountain, to the East End. The murals depict farmers working the cane fields, women baking bread, and fishermen hauling in the day's catch—an alfresco island-history lesson.
DO Now that the full-moon parties at Bomba's Shack have come to resemble something out of Animal House, insiders head to the Fireball Full Moon Party (284/495-2447; www.windsurfing.vi), hosted by the Trellis Bay Cyber Café and Aragorn's Studio. Expect the BVI's own fungi-style music, stilt-walking Moko Jumbies, and fire jugglers. The bash kicks off at 7 p.m. with a West Indian barbecue and peaks at around 9 p.m., when giant steel sculptures are set ablaze on the ocean.
Jost Van Dyke
Two little sailor-friendly bars (Foxy's, Soggy Dollar) have given this tiny spit of an island an international reputation. Here, two more reasons to drop anchor.
EAT Local crooner Foxy Callwood teamed up with his daughter Justine to open Foxy's Taboo (Diamond Cay; 284/495-0218; lunch for two $30) in a dockside shack on the northeastern reaches of the island. Sailors dock here to refuel and sample uncomplicated dishes like a pepper-jack cheeseburger served with mango chutney.
DO After lunch, head to Jost Van Dyke's Bubbly Pool. Swimmers reach this natural whirlpool, formed when the surf breaks against rocky outcroppings, via a sage-dotted trail from Foxy's Taboo.
A 30-minute ferry ride from Tortola, Peter Island Resort (800/346-4451 or 284/495-2000; www.peterisland.com; doubles from $900, including meals) is the ultimate hideaway: a private, 1,800-acre, white sand-ringed retreat. The hotel has lost a bit of its luster in recent years, but is working to reinvent itself. To wit: two new hilltop villas (one 3,626 square feet and the other 6,500), with two more on the way. The price tag is steep ($4,000 and $12,000 a night), but perks include a personal staff and help customizing the pad before you arrive—from the resort's director. And then there's the sprawling new spa—its couples' suites can be rented by the day. The villas and the spa suites are so spectacular, in fact, that we couldn't help wondering why the original guest rooms aren't more inspired. But with access to five secluded beaches and one of the region's top restaurants, the honeymooners flocking here don't seem to mind one bit.
GETTING THERE The main airport is on Tortola's Beef Island, though there are also flights to Virgin Gorda GETTING AROUND For the ferry schedule, go to www.bviwelcome.com; advance planning is essential WHEN TO GO High season runs from December 15 through April—we actually prefer spring, when the water is warmer and the prices lower
Under the watch of Tortola-born coppersmith Aragorn Dick-Read, Aragorn's Studio has grown from an art gallery into a burgeoning collective, where crafts-people teach basket weaving and coconut carving; a fruit depot sells native produce (soursops, sugar apples); and a shop carries handmade herbal soaps and bags of briny Salt Island crystals.
Eldred Williams and David Archer sell hand-glazed lanterns and bowls at Bamboushay, a colorful wooden cottage just outside town.
Christina Washburn's Cantik Interiors also caters to the home. Best find: diaphanous shell-embedded curtains.
In the Old Customs House, interior decorator Jillian Dunlop runs Hucksters, a well-edited housewares boutique.
Road Town Bakery
Fat Cat Thai Restaurant
Dove Restaurant & Wine Bar
Sugar Mill Hotel
Owned by longtime food and travel writers Jefferson and Jinx Morgan since 1982, the Sugar Mill Hotel is one of Tortola’s best hotels. Built in 1640 as an oxen-powered rum distillery, the historic cottage colony has all the thoughtful touches of a traditional Caribbean inn—island-inspired watercolors hand-painted by Jinx herself, lush tropical gardens, and 23 ocean-view rooms with balconies and kitchenettes—plus plenty more that most hotels don’t have. Namely, an über-romantic restaurant, housed in a candlelit stone building where rum was once boiled, and a small private beach known for some of the best snorkeling and surfing on Tortola.
Margo's Jewellery Boutique
Virgin Gorda's main strip, Spanish Town, may be a who-cares-if-you-miss-it blip on the radar, but Margo's Jewellery Boutique is an enchanting discovery filled with baubles from India and Turkey.
Katitche Point Greathouse
Peter Island Resort & Spa
This private-island retreat is all about serenity and catering to classic desert-isle fantasies. The resort is committed to delivering in quantity everything the genre is known for, especially peace and privacy. Add to that a staff-to-guest ratio of two-to-one, atypical service for the region (it's friendly and professional), and five untrafficked beaches for the thirteen sunny two-story bungalows that make up the property's 52 rooms on 1,800 acres. Elopers are common at this resort, and no wonder: the staff organizes everything before your arrival, leaving nothing for you to do but say, 'I do.' If marriage isn't in the cards, a couple can still take advantage of the countless coves, accessible only by sea. Boatmen will drop you off with just a picnic basket and your imagination. You don't have to be a guest to use the spa, which welcomes day-trippers for the ultimate indulgence: 5 hours of massages and body buffing in a private couples suite.
Biras Creek Resort
Biras Creek sits on 140 the hilly and secluded acres on the eastern tip of Virgin Gorda. Guests arrive by boat, helicopter, or ferry from Beef Island Airport, and are whisked off in a golf cart to one of the cottage suites—most of which has an outdoor shower and a pair of bicycles parked at the entryway. A short stroll past a salt-pond bird sanctuary is Deep Bay, where you’ll find a trove of catamarans, wind-surfers, and kayaks for guests to use. To truly escape, untie one and cruise along the scrubby coastline until you spy the perfect cove to call your own for the day.
Bitter End Yacht Club
Christopher Columbus once thought Virgin Gorda resembled a supine lady from afar, but the similarities end there: this spot in the British Virgin Islands isn’t the place for spending all day flat on a beach towel. At the family-owned Bitter End Yacht Club (one of the first hotels on the island), Boston Whaler motorboats are at the ready for island explorers—a 40-minute ride will bring you to several lush, sparsely inhabited islands, including Salt Island, which is home to a 19th-century shipwreck. Back at the hotel, which dates to the 1970s, trade winds cool the 85 West Indian–style rooms (most with unobstructed views of the water) and keep the accredited sailing school filled with adventure types practicing for keelboat certification. Three years ago, the resort underwent a multimillion dollar renovation, and this summer, it will unveil a brand-new marina large enough to accommodate 18 yachts for travelers arriving by sea.
Foxy's Beach Bar
The Scene: If you're looking for a party, Foxy's is always raging with nonstop entertainment, whether you're listening to Foxy, the charming owner, spin one of his fascinating tales or rocking out to live music. General manager Paul Mason says the infamous hangout attracts "superstars, boat bums, schooner trash, and everyone in between." The bar itself is made from old driftwood, and the walls and ceiling are plastered with personal paraphernalia, including license plates, T-shirts, caps, calling cards, and underwear. "You can't help but get in the party mode here," says Mason.
Signature Drink: The Dread Fox, with Foxy's Firewater Rum, sour mix, and cranberry juice; $6.
Don't Miss: Foxy's small brewery behind the bar, where you can feed a carrot (bring your own, if you're good at planning ahead) to Lagerhead, Foxy's donkey.