Island bliss often taunts in the form of a crystal clear desktop screensaver—a palm tree over a lounge chair, a stone’s skip from where the water’s edge is lapping at the sand. It’s a far cry from your cold office and seems even further. Yet, there’s a place where bliss awaits not at one secluded resort or private beach, but on the more than 60 small, tropical islands and cays that comprise the British Virgin Islands (BVI, a British overseas territory).
It’s a premiere destination for those in search of aquamarine waters, white sand beaches, and rich flora and fauna. Relaxed, yet refined, the BVI is nothing short of a posh paradise. Compared with the busiest of the 700 islands in the Caribbean—Aruba, Jamaica, the Bahamas—the BVI is an idyllic, exotic respite from crowded poolsides during the region’s high season of December to May.
While the BVI may be clandestine compared to its Caribbean counterparts, there is no shortage of activities to dive into. The islands are crowded around the Sir Francis Drake Channel, making for a sheltered body of water that is begging to be sailed. For divers, hundreds of wrecked ships give truth to the swashbuckling pirate tales.
Choose to stay on one or two of the four main islands of Tortola, Jost Van Dyke, Anegada, and Virgin Gorda and then take day trips via boat to the miniature islands, beaches, and premiere dive spots that are part of the volcanic archipelago. Given their close proximity, your next anchoring stop is always in sight.
Main Island Vibes
If you’re having a hard time deciding on an island, know that island hopping via ferry boat is the best way to gain the full BVI experience. Each main island offers a unique adventure:
The capital island of the bunch is also the largest and serves as the main jumping off point for most visitors. Here you’ll find prime luxury resorts and a multitude of top-rated bays including Cane Garden, Josiah’s, and Brewers. Not far from the airport lives the restaurant-filled, crafty village of Trellis Bay. (Trellis Bay’s full moon party, which pumps with island music, Moko Jumbie dancers, local food, and fiery sculptures, is not to be missed.)
Dive into Rhone National Marine Park for a look at a hurricane-wrecked Royal Mail Steamer from 1867. Take a break from Road Town (the main town) to meander paths through the colorful flora and menagerie of turtles, birds of paradise, and lizards at the J. R. O'Neal Botanic Gardens. Then, sip on the purest of rum from pure cane juice at the historic Callwood Distilery.
Jost Van Dyke
When the main street is a beach, you know you’ve hit the land of leisurely pleasure. On the northeast side of the island, take the path past the Cape Wright Salt Pond to the Bubbly Pool, which is basically a natural Jacuzzi when the waves are right. Drink an infamous “Painkiller” (first concocted in the 1970s), for a mix of fruity, dark rum goodness.
Compared with the other islands, formed by a volcano, the northernmost island is flat due to its formation from coral and limestone rock. Anegada features only one village and is the most sparsely populated island of the four (population count 285 as of 2010). Beware that if you charter a boat, many companies restrict sailing to this island to avoid any damages to the reefs. On the island, head to the central area to catch a flock of pink flamingos and other tropical birds around the protected salt ponds.
Nicknamed the “Fat Virgin” by Christopher Columbus due to the island’s shape, this island is home to The Baths, where you can climb under and around gargantuan granite boulders while wading through a maze of crevices and grottos. Make your way to Devil’s Bay for fish-filled snorkeling from The Baths by climbing ladders over the boulders. (Be sure to get there early, before cruise ships arrive.) Then, leave your flip-flops at the beach and lace up your hiking boots to make it to the tallest point on the island, Virgin Gorda Peak, and feel rewarded with a dramatic vista at 1,370-feet.
All of the islands have an easy-going, laid back approach that makes hammock swinging, beachside drinking, and long dinners a way of life you’ll never want to leave.
Getting to the Island
Dropping your bags and anchor at the BVI requires more than a direct flight, but it’s by no means difficult. You have a few options if heading directly to the BVI: Fly into St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and then hop on the ferry to Tortola, or make a connection on a regional carrier from St. Thomas or Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) in Puerto Rico to the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport (EIS) on Beef Island, which is connected by Queen Elizabeth Bridge to Tortola, so you could get a taxi or rent a car.
From Tortola, sailing or ferrying is a must between islands and a sight worth seeing in itself. Charter a catamaran for your daily private use and let the steadfast trade winds whisk you to wherever you want to dock. (Fun fact: the BVI is one of the sailing capitals of the Caribbean.) On the bigger islands of Tortola and Virgin Gorda, you can take a taxi to move across land, but it’s often more cost effective to rent a car at $60-80 a day.
Citizens from the U.S. and Canada, and parts of Europe and the Caribbean just need a valid passport to visit. (Canadians: a passport is preferred, but a birth certificate accompanied by a valid photo ID works as well.) Some countries in Europe and the Caribbean require a tourist visa before visiting. (Click here to check the visa-required country list and read updated travel policies.)
When to Visit
Leave the bleak, gray, wintery weather at home and soak up the year-round beautiful climate. When the North is buried in a winter chill, it means it’s the Caribbean high season, but it’s worth it for the averages in the high seventies to eighties and lows that rarely (if ever) fall below the mid-sixties. But there’s little variance between temperature year-round. Beware that hurricane season (summer months) means many places close their doors to avoid the risk. Measuring prices against weather, the best window to visit in is late August through early December.
If you’re planning to dive or snorkel, note that visibility decreases during the summer months (yet another reason to flee south from the snow).
While this is a British territory, the economy operates on the U.S. dollar rather than the British pound. The reputation as a pricey getaway precedes the BVI, and it’s certainly not a backpacker or budget destination. Like most places, you get what you pay for.
However, there are savvy traveler tips to cutting costs. You may need a taxi if staying on land and looking to get to the other side of an island, but know the taxi prices are regulated by the government and range from $10-30 per ride. To save cash while still being able to see the island, hitchhike like the locals or catch the shared taxi service (infrequent but more affordable) between larger towns. Drown down the tax-free rum cocktails only during happy hour for half-priced drinks. And, if you’re planning to snorkel, bring your own gear.
La Playa Playtime
Sailing is certainly the central activity across the islands, but there is plenty for resort-staying visitors and land lovers to do. Most resorts offer a wide variety of water sports equipment and instruction like windsurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, and kayaking.
In Tortola, cast a line into the deep ocean blue while game fishing the North and South Drops or hang 10 surf-style in Cane Garden Bay.
Since many chartered yachts have their own chefs and other visitors just come for day trips, there isn’t a plethora of dining establishments. But what is available provides an ample dining experience for all palates, particularly if you’re in the mood for fresh fish.
Yellowfin tuna, mahi-mahi, snapper, and scallops are all mainstays along with traditional meals unique to the island like callaloo (a soup with meats and leafy veggies). On Jost Van Dyke, dive into the American favorite with a fishy twist—lobster mac n’ cheese—at Corsairs Beach Bar and Restaurant. Then continue the party at Foxy’s Tamarind Bar and Restaurant for a festive atmosphere, classic bar food, and the fruity rum drinks that complete the island experience. (Foxy’s is also the place to be on “Old Year’s Night” AKA New Year’s Eve.)
Take a break from sailing to catch the sunset from Tortola’s Brandywine Estate Restaurant over a dish of paella and a bottle of wine. If you can find it, head to the Tortola backroad Roti Palace for a taste of the local cuisine—a Caribbean take on the Indian standard roti. Head to the chic setup at CocoMaya Restaurant on Virgin Gordo for beachfront sushi, ceviche, and main dishes meant for sharing like the whole roasted beer can chicken.
Or, with brightly painted picnic tables sitting almost on top of the bay, dock for an upgraded fish and chips at the Fat Virgin’s Cafe in the form of the catch-of-the-day and home fries…and take advantage of the full-service bar.
Wherever you pick up a fork, know that service may be a little slower than what you’re used to. Slow down, forget your watch, and sink into “island time,” a pace that runs at its own relaxed saunter and sway, for the rest of the trip.
Whether you spend two weeks sailing around or lounge about a resort for the majority of your time on the BVI, you’ll leave refreshed and rejuvenated. With copious amounts of seafood in your system, rum in your cup, and memories to last a lifetime, paradise awaits your presence.