An Extra Virgin Experience

On a once in a lifetime trip, it’s plain sailing for Colm O Grada in the British Virgin Islands

Photographs courtesy of Colm O'Grada

Picture for a moment that clichéd marketing image of the perfect beach, beautifully isolated, with the sun blazing in a clear blue sky above crystal clear cerulean water. There may be a yacht involved, perhaps some scantily-clad bronze figures holding cocktails, lounging in the sand. We’ve all seen the posters and television slots, advertising some far-off holiday destination. The reality is often not so perfect; perhaps just out of shot of the idyllic image you have in your head are the high-rise hotels, hoards of tourists in various shades of sunburn, and loud, obnoxious night-time activities focused around the tourism hell generally referred to as ‘the strip’. Not so in the British Virgin Islands.

A mecca for sailing fans, the majority of visitors here sleep onboard the myriad yachts that occupy the pristine Caribbean waters. There are, of course, hotels, but generally of the boutique, five-star variety with corresponding room rates. Besides, to stay in the same place would be to miss the point; the freedom of having your own boat means that a change of scenery is only a short sail away. Tortola, the largest island, hosts the main airport and several towns (including Road Town, the capital) that are ideal for stocking up said boat. Most boat charter companies are also based here, making it a natural starting point. The real beauty of the BVI, however, is to be found on the smaller islands that lie not far off the coast on all sides of the capital. Just an hour or two to the south is Cooper Island, potentially the most charming of the BVI. This tiny island has a great bar, accessible by simply jumping off your boat and swimming to shore. The ‘official’ drink of the BVI, the Painkiller, is a potent cocktail of rum, coconut, and fruit juice, with the trademark sprinkle of nutmeg on top. The strength of these vary wildly from bar to bar, but thanks to a lack of specific alcohol taxes, they tend to be heavy on the rum.

Virgin Gorda, a larger island to the east, is the location of the Baths – a must-see natural formation of rocks that is an ideal snorkelling spot. The clear water makes it easy to observe the tropical fish that are abundant in the area, some of which (think four-foot-long Barracuda) have an eerie habit of remaining motionless and staring at you from the depths beneath. Locals will tell you that they are not aggressive, but it’s probably best to leave them alone.

Towards the north of Virgin Gorda, the Bitter End Yacht Club is an ideal place to rent a sailing dinghy and explore the bay before enjoying dinner on Saba Rock. Unlike the nearby USVI, the BVI doesn’t get a lot of visiting cruise ships, which is a good thing as having a couple of thousand tourists suddenly dumped on a small island doesn’t do much for one’s sense of tranquillity. As far as dining is concerned, restaurants are pricy and tend to cater for American tastes (burgers, ribs, wings etc.) so eating on board can often be a better call. Arriving at a mooring early is also wise as they are usually first come, first served and you don’t want to find yourself struggling to find an overnight spot come sundown.

Everyone will have their own unique BVI experience. Good sea legs and sun-sense are certainly important, but the picture-perfect beaches, chilled-out atmosphere and sense of freedom that sailing brings will soon make any worries you bring with you, and indeed the rest of the world, seem like a distant memory.