Caribbean / Mexico

British Virgin Islands – Lush, fat, volcanic and welcoming!

Photo credit: British Virgin Islands Tourism

Just the names sound unusual – even a bit mystical. Tortola. Virgin Gorda. Anegada. Jost Van Dyke …

Yet each of the British Virgin Islands has its own special beauty, character and legends.

The British Virgin Islands, or BVI as they are often referred, are a self-governing British overseas territory, situated in the Caribbean just to the east of the US Virgin Islands.

The British Virgin Islands comprise 60+ islands and keys, with more than fourty-three being uninhabited islands. The islands fall into two types: the majority are steep volcanic islands (including the main islands, Tortola and Virgin Gorda), and a small number of relatively flat coral islands (such as Anegada and Sandy Spit). In fact, Anegada is referred to as “the drowned island” because its elevation is so low. Many people miss it altogether until they sail close to it. The highest point is Sage Mountain on Tortola.

The BVIs are a popular travel destination, and in fact becoming more popular, for sailors, fisher-people, sun worshippers, and other independent travellers.

The first European sighting of the Virgin Islands was by Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage to the Americas. Columbus gave them the fanciful name Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes (Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins), shortened to Las Vírgenes (The Virgins), after the legend of Saint Ursula.

So just which island intrigues you?

The picturesque island of Tortola offers pristine white-sand beaches, lush green mountains, and sheltered yacht-filled harbours.

The dramatic shape of the island Virgin Gorda reminded Christopher Columbus of a reclining woman, so he named it Virgin Gorda, the “Fat Virgin”.

Named the “Drowned Land” by the Spanish, Anegada is the only coral island in the volcanic BVI chain.

Home to fewer than 300 inhabitants, Jost Van Dyke is rich in folklore and renowned to be one of the friendliest and welcoming islands.

The answer just may be “All of them”! The solution: Isalnd hop. Ferry services within the larger islands of the BVI are frequent, speedy and efficient – an ideal way to each island.

And you will have ideal weather to island explore or perform a variety of activities. The British Virgin Islands enjoy a tropical climate, moderated by trade winds. Temperatures vary little throughout the year. In the capital, Road Town, typical daily highs are around 32 °C (89.6 °F) in the summer and 29 °C (84.2 °F) in the winter. Typical daily lows are around 24 °C (75.2 °F) in the summer and 21 °C (69.8 °F) in the winter. Rainfall averages about 1,150 mm (45.3 in) per year, higher in the hills and lower on the coast. Rainfall can be quite variable, but the wettest months on average are September to November and the driest months on average are February and March. Hurricanes occasionally hit the islands, with the hurricane season running from June to November.

To Do

Photo credit: BRitish Virgin Islands Tourism

Sailing The British Virgin Islands is the most popular area in the Caribbean for a sailing vacation. This is a first-timers paradise, since the islands are close together and well protected from the Atlantic. You wake up to sunshine and a blue sky; choose the cruising destination of the day by simply pointing and set sail in a comfortable trade wind. There are many yacht charter companies and marinas in the British Virgin Islands. Apart from cruise ship passengers, a great number of visitors to the British Virgin Islands stay on liveaboard boats or charter sailing vessels.

The Beach The quality of beaches in the British Virgin Islands, even by Caribbean standards, is very high. Because of the large numbers of beaches, particularly on the north side of Tortola and the west side of Virgin Gorda, the beaches are generally not crowded (with the exception of Cane Garden Bay on Tortola, which is next to a densely populated area). It is not uncommon, even during tourist season, to be able to have a more remote beach largely or entirely to yourself. With the possible exception of Cane Garden Bay, beaches in the BVI do not tend to have the vendors pestering sunbathers which are characteristic of some other Caribbean islands. Conversely, many of them do not have any amenities, so remember to bring your own lunch and water.

Be sure to visit “The Baths”, located 2 km south of Spanish Town at the southern tip of Virgin Gorda between Spring Bay and Devil’s Bay. “The Baths” are an area of unique geologic formations and one of the BVI’s major visitor destinations.

Underwater The BVIs are home to the wreck of the RMS Rhone which served as the site for the underwater scenes in the 1977 Nick Nolte/Jackie Bisset/Robert Shaw flick The Deep. The Rhone is the best-known and most often visited dive site in the islands. Lying just west of Salt Island, the Rhone is a former Royal Mail Steamer that sank in a hurricane on October 29, 1867 with the loss of nearly all lives. A spectacularly large 310 foot (94 metres) steamer in her previous life, she’s now a three-site dive, with each piece resting at varying depths, from 20 to 80 feet (6 to 24 metres).

Apart from the Rhone, the BVI boasts several other shipwrecks, the most notable of which are the Chikuzen, a collection of four purposely sunk wrecks in ‘Wreck Alley’ off Cooper Island, the Inganess Bay, the Fearless, the rarely dived Parmatta and an aircraft off Great Dog Island. In addition to wreck diving, the BVI has the usual plethora of coral reefs that one would expect in a Caribbean diving destination.

On the Water The annual “HiHo” windsurfing race-cum-travel-tour is held on or around the 4th of July weekend. For a week, internationally renowned competitors participate in formal course racing. Recognized as “One of the 100 top BVI adventures” by the BVI Tourist Board, the HiHo fleet is easily recognized by the distinctive event and sponsor flags flown by the charter fleet. The event generally stops for a day or two at Virgin Gorda, a night on Anegada, one or two nights around Tortola and finishes with a day of racing around the area of Sandy Cay, west of Jost van Dyke. Participants join in a 15-mile ocean dash from the waters around Necker or Gorda directly to Anegada. This event is unusual in that Anegada, a low-lying island, only becomes visible to someone at ocean-level during the last five miles of the race.

Several beaches offer surf-oriented breaks, including Josiah’s and Apple Bay.

After the Sun Sets You will, no doubt, be content to have a loverly dinner under the starts and then hear the music indicative of the islands and historical culture. The traditional music of the British Virgin Islands is called fungi after the local cornmeal dish with the same name, often made with okra.

The special sound of fungi is due to a unique local fusion between African and European music. It functions as a medium of local history and folklore and is therefore a cherished cultural form of expression that is part of the curriculum in BVI schools. The fungi bands, also called “scratch bands”, use instruments ranging from calabash, washboard, bongos and ukulele, to more traditional western instruments like keyboard, banjo, guitar, bass, triangle and saxophone. Apart from being a form of festive dance music, fungi often contains humorous social commentaries, as well as BVI oral history. The popular singer Iyaz is from the British Virgin Islands. In the music video for his song Replay he had the flag of the British Virgin Islands in the background.

If you have done a number of the larger, “commercial” Caribbean islands, then perhaps you may consider a trip to the variety of islands known as the British Virgins. You won’t be disappointed.

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