Born-again Virgins: a tour of the British Virgin Islands
Less than two years after the devastation of Hurricane Irma, Caribbean paradise is back on its feet
When Hurricane Irma made landfall in the early hours of 6 September 2017, seven trillion watts of energy - twice that of all bombs used in World War II - smashed into the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda. Over the next 37 hours, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in history cannoned through the Caribbean, running an almost straight course through the British Virgin Islands (BVI) in the process. Roofs were ripped off homes, roads washed out and coastlines entirely reshaped as Irma reduced the picture-perfect paradise to scrub and rock.
Almost two years on, herculean rebuilding efforts by the local community, international volunteers and the BVI government have paid off, and the island’s most glorious spots have been restored to their former glory. The Week Portfolio headed to the sun-soaked shores of the northeastern Caribbean for a closer look.
The BVI, with its palm-fringed bays, white sand beaches and well-protected overnight anchorages, have long been touted as the finest sailing grounds in the Caribbean. The 60-plus islands of the archipelago are close together, meaning that gleaming yachts can drop anchor near one island during the day and spend the night bobbing gently off another.
The most popular gateway to the BVI archipelago lies in Tortola, the largest island in the territory, where you’ll find everything from self-skippered monohuls to a crewed yacht with a captain and chef, at the renowned Moorings base in Road Town. Whether you prefer standing at the helm or lying horizontal on a sunbed, island-hopping from your own boat will quickly become your favourite way to live. The Moorings global fleet has 400 active yachts, most with at-sea wi-fi, ensuite bathrooms and a stock of provisions for on-board meals.
Tortola to Jost Van Dyke
After a night bobbing in a harbour bristling with masts and shiny white hulls, skipper Glenroy Johnson and I step aboard Star Eyes and set sail for Jost Van Dyke.
Named after a 17th century pirate, and previously home to Arawak Indians, Caribs, Dutch, Africans and the British, Jost Van Dyke has a colourful history. The main street on this four by three mile idyll? It’s a beach, of course. Wander down it and you’ll find Soggy Dollar, named in honour of a patron who emerged from the sea and headed straight for the bar in front of him. We sit barefoot at a table in the sand with no idea of the day or time and devour Mahi-Mahi wraps and conch fritters.
A abandoned house stands roof-less neary, the piano inside missing its keys - a ghostly reminder of Irma.
Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, located a short stroll away, has been a British Virgin Islands beacon for nearly 50 years. If you’re lucky you’ll find the legendary Calypso philosopher Foxy Callwood crooning in his hammock among the banana trees. Callwood, who counts Richard Branson among his close friends, is unofficially the BVI’s “Emperor of Tourism,” and officially a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Jost Van Dyke to Cooper Island
From Jost Van Dyke, we set sail for Cooper Island. Known for its slender palms and large sea grape plants before the devastating storm, today the greenery is slowly returning to the shoreline. Home to the rebuilt Cooper Island Beach Club, this eco-luxury resort has an on-site microbrewery and a rum bar with over 280 varieties on offer - the largest selection in the Virgin Island.
Cooper Island to Virgin Gorda
I head out quietly to the catamaran trampoline at sunrise and sit there drinking coffee as the sun comes up. Surrounded by a scattering of silently bobbing boats and a tangerine sky, it’s a gentle way to wake up. Thanks to a powerful trade wind, Glenroy unfurls billowing white sails and we cut through gin-clear aquamarine waters on course for the BVI’s third largest island. Christopher Columbus named the isle Virgin Gorda (Fat Virgin) because the shape reminded him of a plump young woman reclining on her side.
At the Baths, just south of Spanish Town near Devil's Bay, you’ll find 70 million year-old granite megaliths. Revealing the island's volcanic past, they form a network of sheltered tide pools, grottoes, tunnels, and arches right on the water's edge. I slip inside the ancient caverns of one of the Caribbean's most mysterious anomalies, wrapped in a subterranean green light as I wade through knee-deep waters and emerge, blinking in the sunlight onto a white-sand beach.
If you fancy a couple of nights on land, you’ll find a private four-bedroom sanctuary tucked away on Virgin Gorda’s southwestern shores – On The Rocks.
Set in a secluded location surrounded by jasmine, orchids, palm trees and hibiscus, the villa sits on 1.4 acres adjoining Spring Bay National park, with access to three beaches and panoramic sunset views. Masterfully designed by British architect Jon Osman, its fluid lines of the architecture and dramatic setting take their inspiration from Gorda’s iconic Baths. From the pool terrace you can see the Sir Francis Drake Channel, Peter Island, St. Thomas and St. John in the US Virgin Islands and the Dog Islands.
Stepping up the luxury up yet another notch, we head for Oil Nut Bay - a highly exclusive resort with an admirable focus on sustainability. A private island at the extreme eastern tip of Virgin Gorda, Oil Nut Bay is a one-of-a-kind community surrounded by a ribbon of reef-lined waters. Thanks to its sun-soaked, ultra-private location, the island is a favourite of the world’s glitterati - homes start at $2,950,000 and rentals at $550 per night. Accessible only by water or helicopter, Oil Nut Bay is the dream-child of renowned American developer David Johnson who lives here for over half of the year with his wife Pam.
The resort’s helipad facilitates easy island hopping for guests while the 131ft marina village accommodates yachts up to 40 meters. The hideaway offers villa rentals and freehold property ownership to well-heeled travellers looking for a secluded escape from modern life.
Virgin Gorda - Guana Island
A warm salty breeze whips through my hair as we pass Richard Branson’s Necker Island on the way to Guana Island. Boasting seven breathtaking beaches, magnificent snorkelling and hiking trails, Guana is home to 15 cottages and four luxury villas with private terraces and ocean views. If you have 42 willing and able friends, you can even rent the entire island for a private idyll of massages, yoga, hiking, chartered boats and more.
Chef Kael Mendoza has been at Guana for the past three years and specialises in a mélange of international and Caribbean culinary experiences. A tropical farm-to-table concept ensures that the harvest from Guana’s organic orchard is on dining tables daily, and little compares to the taste of sun-ripened, plucked fruit and vegetables.
One of the best kept secrets of The British Virgin Islands, 90% of Guana remains wild - flamingos, giant tortoises and chickens all count this utopia as home. I kayak out one morning to Monkey Point, and don a mask as I dive in, marvelling at the glittering shoals of fish slipping between the coral as the sun hits the cobalt waters.
To sum it all up, restoring paradise is no small task, but the BVI is finally leaving recovery mode. Flat-out beautiful, these islands reveal an alternative way of life - laid-back and low-key with a languid way of enveloping guests in nature’s theatre. Among the larger restaurant and bar-clad islands, you’ll find unpopulated atolls virtually untouched by humans. More dependent on tourism than any other island chain in the Caribbean, the spirited archipelago is today enjoying a renaissance - a symbol of the unity, strength and bravery of its inhabitants. As Glenroy tells me sagely one evening: “For the first time I saw people live as one. Literally live as one”.
What to pack
The BVI enjoys a tropical climate throughout much of the year. If you’re heading there between May and December, some rain is likely. Pack a breathable, lightweight racing jacket (the Helly Hansen Racing Midlayer is a good choice). Sailing shoes with non-marking soles are also a good addition and will give you the stability and gripping you’ll need on deck. Throw in some snorkelling gear, swimsuits and water-resistant sunscreen and you’re good to go.
How to get there
There are no direct flights to the British Virgin Islands from Europe or the USA. All flights connect through another Caribbean airport such as Antigua, St Thomas, Puerto Rico, St Kitts or St Maarten. The most straightforward way to get there from London is to fly to Beef Island Airport on Tortola, with a change of carrier in Antigua.
For more information on travel to the BVI, visit the BVI Tourist Board website.