The British Virgin Islands ~ Nature’s Little Secrets!
We first visited these islands 20 years ago when we took a bareboat (non-skippered) charter holiday with friends, it was so good to be sailing under blue skies and warm sunshine! There followed three more charter sailing holidays, including one which incorporated our wedding in 2001, we resolved to return in our own boat one day and this has been a major part of the planning of our Blue Water Odyssey!
We fell in love with the beauty of the islands then and the wonderful sailing in between them all, it was so good to be back!
A little about the Virgin Islands!
The four main islands of the British Virgin Islands are Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke and Anegada and the largest of these is Tortola where the capital, Road Town is to be found !
The British Virgin Islands are often referred to as “Nature’s Little Secrets”, they include approximately 60 tropical islands of varying sizes but all stunningly beautiful and lie either side of the Sir Francis Drake Channel which runs from the northern tip of Virgin Gorda to the eastern tip of St Thomas!
The Channel was so named after our most famous and intrepid explorer as he set off from Virgin Gorda in his quest to reach Puerto Rico and the port of San Juan to try wrest back control of the island from the Spanish.
It was essentially a short cut and never used channel, so it was a highly dangerous risk to take and although Drake survived the trip to Puerto Rico his mission was doomed to failure as he arrived too late!
It also turned out to be his final voyage as he became ill with dysentery and died as a result! On his death bed he requested to be dressed in full armour and buried at sea! The photo is not truly representative of Drake’s burial as he was put in a sealed, lead lined coffin and consigned to the deep off Portobelo, Panama! There have been many searches for his coffin but it has never been found!
The islands are noted for their beautiful white sand beaches, fringed with palm trees providing much needed shade, delicious seas for swimming and year round sunshine!
The British Virgin islands are at the northern end of the volcanic Lesser Antilles Archipelago in the Caribbean sea and are indeed typically volcanic, being hilly and rugged, Tortola’s highest hill is classified as a mountain, Sage Mountain standing at 1710 feet high and is within the Sage Mountain National Park!
Anegada on the other hand is very different being low lying and flat and is composed of limestone and coral.
The first settlers on the Islands!
The first settlers on these islands were the Arawaks from South America! Evidence shows that the Arawaks could have been there from 1500BC!! They inhabited the islands until around the 15th century when they were replaced by the more aggressive Caribs tribes which originated from the Lesser Antilles.
The Arawaks and the Caribs!
The islands became notorious as a haunt for pirates! Several bays on the islands have typical pirate names such as Smugglers Cove, Deadman Bay! There is also Dead Chest Island, conjuring up visions of hidden treasure!
Question: I wonder if anybody knows the first letter of the pirate alphabet or the middle letter or the last letter?
Answers; see the end of this post!
*For the purposes of this blog the pirate reference is purely in a romantic sense, just a bit of fun you might say and nothing to do with the horrors of modern day piracy!*
Christopher Columbus ~ and the BVI’s!
The first European to sight the islands was, of course Christopher Columbus in 1493 as he made his second voyage to the Americas. He gave the islands the name , Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins which was later shortened to The Virgins!
In the following years the islands came under the rule of the British, they then became part of, and were administered by, the British Leeward Islands. In 1960 the islands gained a separate colony status and in 1967 they became autonomous but remain a British Overseas Territory with our Queen Elizabeth II as head of state!
Since the 1960s the islands have diverted away from their traditional agricultural based economy when they grew among other things sugar cane in plantations for the rum industry, towards tourism and financial services and have become one of the wealthiest areas in the Caribbean!
1st – 13th May ~ The British Virgin Islands Revisited!
We had a fast overnight passage to Virgin Gorda from Anse Marcel, St Martin and by just after 6.30 in the morning we had tucked ourselves into the anchorage off Prickly Pear Island in Gorda Sound and slept solidly for a few hours!
The first thing we wanted to do was to check out The Bitter End Yacht Club where Alan and I were married 18 years ago! We had heard that it had suffered greatly as a result of Hurricane Irma back in September 2017! The stories were all true, it was truly shocking to see that this once beautiful resort was reduced to the twisted and rusted remains of the buildings.
The numerous villas which nestled into the hillside were all gone as was the deck which jutted out into the bay where our marriage took place? It was utterly heartbreaking….?
We turned away and sailed back up the Sound to Leverick Bay which is at the opposite end of the Sound where we had booked a mooring buoy for that night. With Musetta safely attached to the buoy we lowered the dinghy into the water and went ashore! This resort had sustained significant hurricane damage but in the 17 months since much rebuilding had taken place and it was all ’up and running’ thankfully!
Leverick Bay Resort, fully restored!
We got chatting to a Scottish lady who ran the dive school and shop and had lived on the island for more than 20 years. She witnessed the hurricane first hand and her story was as vivid as it was shocking. She described the deafening noise of the wind like a baby screaming and the enormous pressure on her ears and how the hurricane sucked out the contents of peoples houses and how those contents simply disappeared, never to be seen again?
How there was not a leaf left on any of the trees, how the trees were broken and how there was not a blade of grass to be seen? Just a desolate landscape?
As if one hurricane wasn’t enough, Hurricane Maria came through two weeks later bringing incredible amounts of rain just to add to the horror of it all? The islands are recovering slowly but it will take a long time!
The next morning after we had filled up our water tank we sailed round to Spanish town, out of the Sound and down the western side of Virgin Gorda again to a mooring buoy so that we could clear in with the port authority, customs and immigration.
We had a lovely sail to this island where we hadn’t been on previous visits to the BVI’s! The resort here apparently was virtually unaffected by the hurricane? It was pristine having had a lick of paint recently and was very upmarket!
Idyllic scenes at Cooper Island!
We spent a couple of very pleasant nights here, enjoying the swimming and snorkelling off the reef at the edge of the bay.
Peter Island ~ Great Harbour
We had been to this island before but had not been into Great harbour! It turned out to be an excellent choice, quiet, sheltered and with no swell! It also had the advantage of having a floating restaurant and bar called Willy T which was an experience to say the least!! The music – well if you could call it that – was deafening, but luckily it didn’t reach Musetta!!
The new Willy T and one of the many sport boats which come from Tortola to visit!
We had a delicious meal at the restaurant which was enormous and as I couldn’t eat all of mine they very obligingly put my leftovers in a ‘doggy bag’ for me! It was far too good to waste!! We did eat it too the following day for a lunch time snack!
The old Willy T didn’t escape the ravages of Irma but they are back, bigger and better than ever!! The original Willy T was moored at Norman Island so how lucky was that that we found ourselves in her new location? The legend lives on!! Willy T the party boat of the BVI’s!!
Another casualty of the hurricane is the coral, with much of it having been thrown into random heaps wherever it landed! We took the dinghy to the shore and this is what we found….
….masses of dead and broken coral piled up on the beach along with the broken trees? I have no idea how long it will take the coral to regenerate although I am reliably informed that it will recover in time?
So called as from a distance one can imagine that they appear to resemble a native American Indian head dress. They are an uninhabited small archipelago of islets to the south of Tortola whose waters contain much marine life. This was one of the destinations we wanted to see on our way to Tortola and so again we had a very pleasant, gentle sail to arrive at lunch time!
We picked up a mooring ball (buoy) and then motored close in with the dinghy to go snorkelling! I think this was the best place for marine life we had been to on this visit to the BVI’s! There were lots of colourful fish and there were also signs of the colour returning to the underwater vegetation.
I hadn’t envisaged how difficult it would be to get back into the dinghy from the water on our return!! I managed though, after a struggle, and returned to Musetta to eat the contents of last night’s doggy bag’! I have to say that they were more delicious second time round!!
Tortola, 8th ~ 13th May
It was with a sense of dread that we sailed to Soper’s Hole, Tortola?! We really wanted to return there as it is where our Caribbean sailing journey began back in 1999!!! Soper’s Hole was then the main port of entry from St Thomas where we had flown to from UK. It was a ‘chocolate box’ typically Caribbean port with colourful wooden shops and houses and a lovely harbour front! This is what we found….
Hurricane Irma damage in Soper’s Hole?
However, we know that the island and it’s flourishing financial businesses in Road Town have the means to direct the reconstruction of all these beautiful spots and they are doing so. Little by little it will be returned to it’s former glory!
Look what happened to the boats?
We noted that there weren’t any old charter boats about, only new ones and the majority of those were Catamarans!
Cane Garden Bay!
We had hired a car in Soper’s Hole and as part of our mini tour of the island we dropped into this lovely resort on the north coast of Tortola, somewhere we hadn’t visited before! It was very lovely and recovering from Irma like everywhere else, but possibly a little quicker?
Looking out over the bay from Pusser’s restaurant!
We had lunch in the restaurant after Alan had replenished his stock of Pussers shirts and just took in this gorgeous view! The sea was too much to resist and as we had our ‘swimmers’ with us we had a glorious dip in the turquoise waters, it was heaven!
The Rum Connection ~ The Callwood Distillery at Cane Garden Bay!
One last treat was our visit to the rum distillery in Cane Garden Bay!
There were once over twenty rum distilleries in the British Virgin Islands, but now there is just this one remaining. It is more than 400 years old and is the oldest continuously operated distillery in the Eastern Caribbean.
The rum is still being produced in the same traditional way today as 400 hundred years ago, using the copper vats and ageing casks! There is a bartering system between the Callwood distillery and any local farmers who still grow
sugar cane! The farmers supply the sugar cane and the distillery ‘pay’ them in rum!!
There is a small store which sells the rum and for US$1 we were able to see the distillery and sample the four different rums! We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and tasting the rums!
Now it was time to head back to Musetta, via the supermarket in Road Town. We needed to stock up on food for our passage to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia!! We were leaving the following morning via the last of the main islands, Jost Van Dyke!!
13th May, Jost Van Dyke ~ Lunch stop!
The last time we had visited Jost Van Dyke was in 1999 and so of course much development had taken place in the intervening years!
Apart from the glorious white sand beaches and the turquoise waters the other main attraction was the ‘Soggy Dollar Bar’. The bar was so named because of the soggy dollars sailors of old paid the barman after they had swum ashore to drink the rum cocktail called a ‘Painkiller’!!
It was such a fabulous place when we visited. It was just a simple shack on the beach overhung with palm trees where we had gone to buy a ‘Painkiller’ back in 1999! It has now been replaced with a modern building and lots of other shops and restaurants and picnic areas too?! I guess some of it is down to moving with the times and no doubt Irma prompted this too! For us it was a shame as we weren’t expecting to find it like that, our fond memories had led us to believe that time would have stood still and nothing would have changed?
However, we did have a ‘Painkiller’ and a very good swim from Musetta to the shore and back in glorious conditions! The sea hasn’t changed at all!
We were ready now for our departure out into the blue Caribbean Sea and head off in the direction of America!!
Chesapeake here we come….!!
Before I go, here are the answers to the Pirate alphabet questions, if you didn’t already know them!!!
Answer: First letter is Arrh! ~ middle letter is Arrh! ~ last letter is Arrh!
** In order to know exactly where Musetta and crew are currently, please check the Yellow Brick Tracker page on the website!**
As I write we are currently in Deltaville, Virginia!