The Single Best Way to Enjoy the Beauty of the British Virgin Islands After the Hurricanes
The strains of island-infused top 40 hits floated across the bay as my husband mixed a batch of piña coladas and the sun dipped below the horizon, spinning the clouds into cotton candy. Two of our three daughters skimmed by on a paddleboard, delighting in losing their balance and splashing into the clear, blue sea. Cocktails in hand, we watched as a few stragglers motored into the peaceful anchorage, laying claim to the last remaining mooring balls.
“Do you know what this is?” I asked our oldest daughter, who had joined my husband and me on our catamaran’s flybridge. It was a question I’d asked repeatedly over the past couple of days and the girls had come to understand that the requisite answer was simply, “the life.”
“The life, Mom,” she obliged, smiling.
Yup. This was the life.
My family and I were on the second night of a weeklong boating adventure in the British Virgin Islands with the Moorings, the region’s first, and most established, charter company. By luck, the trip coincided with the April full moon and I’d finagled our itinerary to include an overnight stop in Trellis Bay, a popular live-aboard artists’ community on Beef Island near the easternmost tip of Tortola. The bay has long played host to a well-loved full moon celebration and as night fell, the beach in front of us became illuminated by the glow of floating fireballs, hand-cut steel spheres crafted by local artist Aragorn Dick-Read.
On shore, the crescent of sand along the bay was full of revelers — locals and boaters, families and couples — the spicy scent of roti in the air. Brightly costumed Moko Jumbies whirled high above the crowd, bending and swaying rhythmically while balancing on impressively tall stilts. Friends gathered around beachfront bonfires, kids scampered by in the sand, and visitors flowed in and out of Aragorn’s shop, admiring sculpture, pottery, and silk-screened t-shirts — artwork that barely escaped annihilation by the large sailboat launched onto the beach last September during Hurricane Irma’s violent wrath.
The water is the first thing you notice when coming in for a landing at Tortola’s Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport — deep indigo seas that lighten to lapis, turquoise, and finally ultramarine as they near the shore. But after that, you notice the boats, one after the other, wrecked on the beach of neighboring Trellis Bay. Tipped on their sides in an unnatural fashion, there they lie, heavy on the sand, unable to move. Hulls smashed, masts broken, sails ripped.
With paint and a brush, Aragorn had transformed the boat that crashed just feet from his studio’s walls into a sort-of temporary installation piece, but he prefers the beach sans shipwreck. “There’s only so much art you can do with fiberglass and crappy aluminum,” he joked, when I asked him about the green swirls decorating the boat’s hull. “I painted on it for a while but then I tired of it. I’ve been living in hope that it will go. It’s a bit of a grim reminder, really, and I think we have enough grim reminders around here.”
Nearly six months to the day after a double-header of record setting, category five hurricanes tore through the Caribbean, vestiges of the storms — "Irmaria," as the two are now called locally — were visible everywhere. Cars sport makeshift windows fashioned from thick plastic and duct tape. Island hillsides, while beginning to robe themselves in fresh, verdant foliage, remain covered in a gnarled tangle of twisted limbs. Once-lush palm trees stick out like telephone poles, stripped of their shady fronds by the hurricanes’ savage winds.
It’s heartbreaking to imagine what people endured during the storms and the hardships they continue to deal with in the aftermath. Most lost everything they own. Still, travelers shouldn’t think twice about returning to the idyllic tropical archipelago. Power has been restored throughout the islands and clean up and recovery efforts are in full swing everywhere you look. And as BV-Islanders love to say, the water is just as blue, the sand is just as white, and the rum is just as strong — they don’t call them Painkillers for nothing.
Those infamous nutmeg-dusted cocktails aren’t the only things making a comeback. The British Virgin Islands have long been celebrated as being the sailing capital of the Caribbean and the territory’s loyal yachting community has begun returning in droves, indicated by the flotillas of gleaming white monohulls and catamarans dotting the turquoise waters when we were there this past spring.
In early April, colorful sails billowed in the islands’ famed tradewinds during the 47th-annual BVI Spring Regatta and Sailing Festival, the first international event to be held after the hurricanes. Throughout the week, guests lounged on the decks of catamarans, mooring balls at popular anchorages were full of boats, and the rum flowed liberally at everyone’s favorite beach bars. “The marine industry was without a doubt the first to make a comeback,” Judy Petz, the Regatta’s director, told Travel + Leisure. “Holding the event gave the whole community purpose. People kept signing up to race — even people who had never come down here before.”
Though a handful of hotels and guesthouses have reopened recently, the best way to visit the region sooner rather than later is on board a charter yacht. Earlier this year, the Moorings, which continues to be the islands’ biggest charter company, added 130 new boats to their fleet, an investment of $66.5 million. On top of that, the Moorings’ boat resuscitation efforts continue to move forward at full steam. A big team of fiberglass experts is hard at work getting vessels back on the water and soon the entire fleet will be at or very near pre-hurricane numbers.
Local restaurants, shops, markets, and well-loved watering holes have been revived as well and the entire industry desperately needs the support of tourist dollars to help continue rebuilding both infrastructure and their livelihood. Fortunately, island hopping through the archipelago offers an easy and gorgeous way to spread the love — and the wealth.
“It’s like coming back to the old days,” Petz said of sailing in the BVI right now. “The waters are as pristine as ever but there are far fewer boats out there. It’s almost like you have the islands to yourself. The beauty that surrounds you — that’s what it’s all about.”
Here’s our guide to what’s happening in the best-loved anchorages of the British Virgin Islands.
Several U.S. cities offer direct flights into Cyril E. King airport on neighboring St. Thomas. The Road Town Fast Ferry travels between Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas and Road Town, Tortola (where the Moorings is based) three times a day — twice a day on Sundays. Since it is one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. citizens don’t need a passport to fly into St. Thomas, but a valid passport is required for entry into the British Virgin Islands.
Alternately, several smaller airlines along with private charters operate flights into Tortola’s Terrance B. Lettsome (Beef Island) airport from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Where to Stay
Right now (and even after the territory’s full recovery), chartering a sailing or power yacht is the absolute best way to visit the British Virgin Islands. Your accommodations are covered, you’re positively guaranteed a 360-degree water view, and there’s no shortage of services available to boaters. Mooring balls remain plentiful in every anchorage — and fewer boats for the time being means less jockeying for space — dingy docks are solid in most bays, and provisions, which are abundant in Road Town, are becoming more readily available at smaller island outposts in Trellis Bay, Scrub Island, Leverick Bay, and Cane Garden Bay.
If terra-firma is more your style, options expand daily. Cooper Island Beach Club, an eco-resort with its own on-site nano-brewery, reopened with aplomb on April 1 and guests would be hard-pressed to find any evidence of the devastation that existed just a few months earlier. Settle into one of 10 beachy-chic cottages overlooking picturesque Manchioneel Bay, which is especially popular with sea turtles.
Although Virgin Gorda’s much-loved North Sound suffered some of the storms’ most devastating destruction, luxurious Oil Nut Bay, tucked into a pristine cove in Eustatia Sound, has both private villas and ocean view suites ready to receive guests. Meanwhile, just across the water from Trellis Bay, Scrub Island Resort and Marina has several rooms in their Marina Village available along with a newly refurbished, multi-tiered pool, and a diverse menu of watersports.
Where to Drink (and Eat)
Bars and restaurants throughout the BVI exude the ultimate in laid-back island vibes and many of the territory’s favorites are open for business. Standing at the helm of the post-hurricane recovery ship is the Soggy Dollar on Jost Van Dyke — the infamous White Bay watering hole was one of the first in the region to reopen after the September storms, inspiring plenty of others to do the same.
In Jost’s Great Harbor, island icon Foxy Callwood’s namesake Foxy's Tamarind Bar is serving up their famous barbecue once again and the Calypsonian crooner himself will likely be there singing his now-famous post-Irma ditty.
Meanwhile, on Norman Island, Pirates Bight is in full swing, delivering cold beers and delicious roti. And though the recently announced (and quite controversial) relocation of the legendary Willy T from the Bight to Peter Island may redirect diehard loyalists across the way to the barge’s new home in Great Harbor, Norman will likely remain a popular first night stop on the charter circuit.
It will be quite some time before the Bitter End Yacht Club — which is near and dear to pretty much everyone’s hearts — rises from Virgin Gorda’s North Sound wreckage, but Leverick Bay has been doing a great job of bringing boaters to the area. The resort’s open-air restaurant on the second floor overlooks the entire bay, which twinkles after the sun sets. Kick off the evening with a cocktail of rum and laughter at Michael Beans’ popular Happy Arrr show by the shoreline.
For a bit of glamour, island style, Restaurant (yes, that’s its name) at the Cooper Island Beach Club serves a gorgeous menu featuring a bounty of local produce, fresh fish, and innovative cocktails by the sea. After dinner, spend some time sipping spirits sourced from the Caribbean and beyond in the resort’s new Rum Bar, where over 100 varieties are on hand for tasting and mixing.
On Land and Sea
Snorkeling and diving the prolific reef systems spread around the 60 islands, islets, and cays that make up the British Virgin Island archipelago remain one of visitors’ favorite activities and in early April, the majority of the popular reefs we explored were in sound shape. Beyond the best-known spots — Monkey Point on Guana Island, Norman Islands Caves, The Indians, Cistern Point on Cooper Island, The Dogs — your charter captain will be able to take you to all sorts of hidden coral gardens teeming with colorful marine life.
Beaches throughout the territory continue to inspire expat dreams, despite the absence of the lush, jungle-like setting provided by abundant palms and sea grapes. Still new trees are being planted all the time; even Sandy Spit, which has been reduced to a true spit of sand, has a tiny grove of baby coconut trees in its center. Secluded swaths of shore await, some of the most sublime, even with a bit of storm detritus, being Deadman’s Bay (Peter Island), Devil’s Bay (Virgin Gorda), Prickly Pear Island (across from Leverick Bay), and White Bay (Jost Van Dyke).