Nature's Secret, the British Virgin Islands

By

Nick Anis, Jr.

BVI History
Island Hopping
Peter Island & Peter Island Resort
BVI Economic Conditions
Salt Island
Anegada
Virgin Gorda
Tortola
Camping in the BVI
Jost Van Dyke
Historic Places Above and Below
Try a Roti with a Smoothie or Painkiller
Callwood Distillery
Where to Go On New Years Eve
Home
 
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If you are looking for a memorable un-crowded Caribbean vacation experience and an escape from mass tourism, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) is the perfect destination. They are located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Puerto Rico at the eastern end of the Greater Antilles, right smack in the Caribbean Sea. The BVI’s slogan, "Nature’s Best Kept Secret," couldn’t be more true. Many US residents are unaware how close (only a few hours by plane) the BV Islands is to the USA mainland, or how pristine the BV Islands are, or that the BV Islands offers fabulous accommodations ranging from comfortable and affordable rooms right on the beach to luxury six-bedroom villas on the beach or in the hills with 360 degree panoramic views.

finangel.gif (9212 bytes) The BV Islands are north of, and once part of, the Leeward The BV Islands, are now a prosperous independent British colony adjacent to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Sunset, Cane Garden Bay, Tortola, BVI

  The territory of the US Virgin Islands has a population of over 100,000. In striking contrast, the entire British Virgin Islands only has 17,000 inhabitants and only 16 of the 40 plus islands, islets, cays, and rocks in the BVI are even inhabited.

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The British Virgin Islands doesn’t have the crowds, traffic, fast food restaurants, or widespread native poverty that are sometimes found at other Caribbean Island destinations. The total number of on-shore lodging units for the entire British Colony of the Virgin Islands (nicknamed The British Virgin Islands) is only about 1,500. (There are also about 2,500 units available on boats.)

What the BVI does have is sheltered lagoons with coral reefs and caves teaming with a plethora of colorful reef fish. Carribean Lobster - Click to Enlarge

Green Sea Turtle - Click to Enlarge

The reefs are also home to small lobsters, crabs, starfish, turtles, schools of squid, moray eels, nurse sharks, rays, barracuda, and sponges of every color of the rainbow.

Sapphire-blue, temperate, and crystal clear seas, coral, and pristine sandy beaches surround the emerald-like BV Islands which are largely undeveloped and unspoiled. All of the BV Islands offer an infinitely varied vacation experience.

Cane Garden Bay Beach, Tortola, BVIturtbutx.gif (319 bytes) The BVI shares the same language and currency with the USA. Its climate, scenery, and ecology are a different story. The average year-round temperature is 80-90 F.

In the summer it can be 10 cooler at night. Much of the land has been left in its natural state – a pristine Caribbean paradise, as it was back in the days when global explorers and the infamous pirates sailed these waters.

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BVI History:

Originally the Arawak and Carib peoples inhabited the area. In 1493 Christopher Columbus landed in the BVI during his second trip to the New World. Columbus anchored off an island with a protruding mountain, Virgin Gorda (the fat virgin), and named the group of islands and cays after the legendary St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins.

Spain sent an invasion force to claim the islands in 1555. Dutch buccaneers then settled in the 17th century, followed by English planters who took control in 1666. In the 18th century the British finally took a firm hold on the islands which were used primarily for sugar cane and rum production. In the 1960’s tourism surged. Today, the BVI’s principle industries are tourism and off shore financial services.

Island Hopping

Popular BVI islands to visit and overnight include Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, and Jost Van Dyke. Several of the BVI islands are sparsely inhabited and ironically have fewer people on the entire island then are typically found on a wide-body jetliner bound for Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or St. Thomas.

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Peter Island and the Peter Island Resort

Peter Island and the Peter Island Resort, which are owned by the Amway Corporation are only accessible by boat The Peter Island Resort has just reopened after closing for six months for major renovations.

The BVI Doesn’t Have Much Poverty or Unemployment

There was a bit of a flap when the resort staff about two hundred were furloughed, but local businesses in Tortola and the other islands pitched in and managed to find them all work. Actually, there is "over employment" for BVI islanders, on average each BVI Islander has three jobs, one of them some sort of government position.

The average BVI islander or "belonger" is apt to be a millionaire because of their ownership of family land passed down since the mid-nineteenth century and because of government policies favoring BVI natives. Even non-belongers that are residents make out well because of the absence of capital gains and sales taxes and very low income tax on personal earned income. The crime rate is very low. Regardless of their financial status, the BVI Islanders are honest, decent, hard working people that are pleasant and hospitable. Many vacationers become repeat visitors and develop lifelong friendships with families on the islands. Many BVI islanders have married outsiders who apparently having discovered paradise also found a soul mate. There are also those who sail to the BVI with their yacht and stay on operating a charter company.

The Peter Island Resort is renown for its excellent facilities, tennis, sailing, and diving. It is an outstanding, but expensive place to stay with its excellent sporting facilities. Tennis, sailing, and diving are all available. The island has five miles of secluded beaches ideal for digging your feet into the sand and relaxing or enjoying the temperate crystal waters and plentiful sunlight.

Salt Island

Salt Island is another privately owned island accessible only by boat, but it doesn’t have any resorts. Salt Island is sparsely inhabited (even in BVI terms) – it has only two residents. It has three salt ponds and was once a source for seasoning for BVI and US Virgin islanders and passing ships. Residents still harvest salt for sale and send one pound each year to Her Majesty, the Queen of England as a symbolic tribute.

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Anegada

Most of the BVI islands were created millions of years ago by volcanic activity. A notable exception is Anegada, which is a large coral sand cay covering about 15 square miles. Most of Anegada is part of the BVI National Parks Trust. It is sparsely populated, having only 180 inhabitants. For centuries Anegada has been home to the endangered rock iguana. Only a few of these fierce-looking reptiles remain on the island. Rock iguanas can grow up to five feet in length and weigh up to 20 pounds but are quite harmless and unfortunately rarely seen. The BVI National Parks Trust has plans to establish a preserve for rock iguana on the Anegada within the next two years.

 

In 1992, 20 flamingoes were released in Anegada’s ponds and salt marshes. Two years later, in 1994 two wild ones joined them.  In the spring 1995 the birth of five flamingo chicks set a new record for birth of flamingoes reintroduced into the wild.These magnificent birds are occasionally visible in the distance from the little bridge over the creek on the road from the Anegada Reef Hotel to the airport turn off. flamingos - Click to Enlarge - Photo by Nick Anis
Anegada is also home to other exotic birds including several varieties of heron as well as ospreys, terns, and pelicans. Protected Hawksbill and Green Turtles nest all along the north shore. There are an estimated 2,000 wild goats on the island. Anegada Reef Hotel - Lunch on Beach

Anegada, like most of the BVI, has donkeys wandering about, as well as domesticated cattle and chickens roaming freely until slaughter time. The Anegada Parks Ranger, who was our guide David Winter, told us jokingly, "If you want to know the owner of one of these animals all you have to do is harm or kill it."

The waters off Anegada are teaming with many fish and lobsters and are said to offer some of the best fishing in the world. Don’t try sailing to Anegada yourself, though. Navigation in Anegada’s waters can be treacherous and is restricted to certified captains. Over the centuries more than 300 ships have wrecked on a coral shelf that extends around most of the island. Tragic as they might have been at the time, those shipwrecks now make for the best diving in the BVI. At its highest point, Anegada is only 27 feet above sea level making it the flattest of the BVI islands. There is not much shade on the island. Some parts of Anegada are actually below sea level. During hurricanes, parts of the island including these low-lying areas may get flooded.

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Virgin Gorda

Virgin Gorda is a volcanic island that’s ten miles long and two miles wide with a population of about 5,000. It is most distinguishable for the large boulders scattered about, unusual rock formations, and caves, inland and on the beaches. The north half of Virgin Gorda is mountainous, with a peak that rises to 1,370 feet. The south half of the island is relatively flat.

Virgin Gorda has 20 secluded beaches. The most popular are Devil's Bay, Spring Bay, and Trunk Bay, which are on the West Coast of the island. At the northern tip of the island is North Sound National Parks. Prickly Pear Island is to the north, and Mosquito Island is to the West.

Copper Mine Ruins and National Park, Virgin Gorda, BVI All land on Virgin Gorda over 1,000 feet in elevation has been designated part of the BVI National Parks Trust. One such area on the southeast tip is Copper Mine Point. Here you will find the vestiges of the site where the Spaniards mined copper, gold and silver some 400 years ago.

The area’s rocky façade is similar to what is found on the Cornish coast of England. As you explore the area you will notice many interesting stones, minerals, and crystals embedded in quartz; but don’t plan on taking any home – everything is protected because this site is part of a national park.

Virgin Gorda, Baths, BVI Virgin Gorda Beach Near Baths, BVI

Each of the BVI islands offers a unique experience and positively magnificent scenery above and below the water, whether volcanic or coral sand cay, with or without boulders and caves.

The snorkeling, diving, and sailing throughout the BVI is arguably the best in the world.

masksnor.gif (563 bytes)Captian Roy Snorkeling Tours, Roy Diving Brain Coral, at the Caves, BVI
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Tortola

The largest island is Tortola, 21 square miles, which is home to the capitol and business center of the BVI, Road Town. Tortola, the "land of turtle doves" overlooks the St. Frances Drake Channel and is 60 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico. Largely rolling hills and beaches, Tortola’s most protuberant peak is Mount Sage, which at 1,780 feet is actually the highest point in the BVI. Traces of a primeval rain forest can still be found in the boundaries of Mount Sage National Park which has marked hiking trails for visitors. The north side of Tortola has groves of mangoes, bananas, and palm trees, and long sandy beaches. The south portion of Tortola mountainous and rocky, covered with scrub, frangipani and Ginger Thomas. Tortola has less than 10,000 inhabitants (65% of the BVI’s population), which isn’t very many people compared to the more crowded US Virgin Island’s main island, St. Thomas which has over 65,000 residents.

Although not over developed, Tortola has a variety of restaurants, shops, and lodging, four banks, twelve gas stations, a small international airport (with some free ranging chicken and rooster mascots), harbors, and marinas. Tortola, has many undeveloped areas and dozens of beaches that are practically deserted.

A perfect place to get acquainted with the local flora and flauna is The Joseph Reynold O'Neal Botanic Gardens located near the Police Station in Road. Here you will find a good representation of tropical and subtropical plants, such as bread fruit, passion fruit, mangos, soursoap (???), ferns, succulents, orchids and palm trees. The gardens are open daily. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.

Other places of interest include the communities of the West End and East End. The West End has more facilities for visitors. Sopers Hole is a port of entry for ferries to the US Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John, as well as a ferry to the BVI island, Jost Van Dyke. This area is famous for being the former home of Edward Teach (Blackbeard the pirate) and as a hangout for yachties.

Tortola has some excellent sandy beaches along the north and northwest coasts such as Smugglers Cove and Apple Bay. By foot, Smugglers Cove is about an hour walk on a dirt road over a steep hill from West End. The beach is usually deserted. There’s an old hotel with a mostly self-serve bar. One of the best beaches and anchorages, with two reefs with a marked gap in-between, is Cane Garden Bay. It’s interesting to see the differences in the surf between the center and corners of the bay and it doesn’t take long to figure out which of the boats anchored are visiting for the first time by their masts bobbing up and down. Cane Bay has five beach bars and restaurants with entertainment, the best and best known being Quito Rymer’s. Quito’s sister, Malcia, owns and operates a brand new three story hotel overlooking the beach. Malcia Rymer’s Lighthouse Villas is an outstanding place to stay, offering huge intimate accommodations, full kitchens, and a dramatic ocean view.

Cane Garden Bay, Tortola, BVI, Public Boat Dock  Cane Garden Bay Beach, Tortola, BVI

The east end of Cane Garden Bay and Josiah's Bay are popular with surfers from November to January. Some of the north shore beaches may have rip currents and stronger surf that make swimming and landing a dingy more difficult.

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Camping in the BVI

Sailing is sometimes referred to as camping on the sea. Besides sailing, camping (on land) is also popular in the BVI. On Tortola, Brewers Bay, a long curving bay, has an excellent, but small beachside campsite with plenty of shade. Another nice beachside campsite is Josiah's Bay. Long Bay and East End have nice beaches, but Carrot Bay doesn’t have any sand. Carrot Bay has some good bars and restaurants and a lot of banana plants, rubber plants, and pelicans. Camping is also available on Anegada and Jost Van Dyke…most locations provide all the gear you will need including the tents.

Mrs. Seaclif’s is probably the most famous eatery in Carrot Bay.

A small international airport that lands light commercial planes is located on Beef Island which is only a few hundred yards from Tortola. Once a hunting ground for beef cattle during the buccaneering days, Beef Island is linked to Tortola by the tiny one-lane Queen Elizabeth bridge with a 25 cent toll. A popular and somewhat notorious bar and restaurant nearby is The Last Resort, run by Englishman Tony Snell, based a short distance off shore, on Bellamy Cay. The Last Resort has a lavish buffet menu plus a one-man cabaret show. Tony is kind of corny, but the tourist still love him. Happy hour is 5:30pm to 8:30pm. Dinner is at 8:30pm, cabaret at 9:30; ferry service is available, reservations are required. Tel: 495-2520 or channel 16.

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Jost Van Dyke

Five miles west of Tortola, is an island named after a Dutch pirate, Jost Van Dyke. Jost, as the locals call it, is mountainous, with beaches at White Bay and Great Harbor Bay on the south coast.

Jost Van Dyke is the only BVI island other than Tortola that is a point of entry and has a Customs House. Jost, which has fewer than 300 residents, didn’t have any paved roads or electricity until as late as January 1991.

Historic Places Above and Below the Water

These islands reek with history. For example, beautiful and unspoiled Norman Island, inhabited only by wild goats that incredibly have adapted to drink salt water, and endangered nesting sea turtles was the inspiration for Robert Lewis Stevinson’s classic story, Treasure Island. Incredibly, the owners, the xxx family purchased the Norman Island from the British Government or "crown" with some of the proceeds of treasure they found right on the island – talk about creative financing, wow!

Just off nearby Salt Island rests the wreck of the 310-foot steamer, RMS Rhone that went down in an 1867 squall. Made famous in the film, The Deep the steel wreckage lies broken in two on the sandy bottom encrusted in coral. The bow section, which is largely intact, is about seventy-five feet below the surface and divers who swim inside are welcomed by schools of colorful snappers and grunts, parrotfish, and soldierfish. The stern half lies in thirty feet of water with the ship’s rudder jutting up to within fifteen feet of the surface. Because of the remarkable clarity of water snorkelers can also enjoy the view from above.

Deadman’s Chest, a half-mile south of Peter Island is said to be where Blackbeard, while splitting the "booty" after a successful raid, got into an argument and marooned 15 men with only a bottle of rum and their sea chests for company and a sword to "hack away at their hostilities among themselves." Hence the old mariner’s song: Fifteen men on a Dead Man’s Chest, Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

There’s a hidden cove on Peter Island where Blackbeard hid from and bushwhacked English, Dutch, and Spanish ships.

Cow Wreck Beach is where a sailing ship loaded with cattle hit a reef and sunk and cow bones eventually floated up onto the beach.

Fort Burt Hotel, Road Town, Tortola, BVI Tortola has historic ruins dating back to the 1600s such as Fort Burt which is now occupied by the beautiful Fort Burt Hotel and Restaurant).

Anegada has conch shell piles made by fisherman over the past several centuries. And on Jost Van Dyke there are remnants of stone pens built centuries ago by the Indians to herd and catch sea turtles.

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Try a Roti with a Smoothie or Painkiller

You won’t find any McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and so on, but that okay. Instead of monotonous fast food restaurants there are delightful eateries that are BVI native operated offering a variety of dishes including barbecue ribs, chicken, steak, and fresh locally caught lobster and fish. One of the BVI specialty dishes (which is actually West Indian) is the Roti. The specialty drink of choice in the BVI seems to be the smoothie, a rum punch concoction with local rum and all sorts of fruit juices that is intoxicatingly delicious. The actual recipe for a BVI smoothie is a closely guarded secret but it is similar to a Singapore Sling.

Another notorious BVI cocktail, the Painkiller, originated in the Soggy Dollar Bar on the beach of the practically deserted White Bay on the island of Jost Van Dyke. White Bay has 11 year-round residents and the entire island of Jost Van Dyke has about 190 residents. The bar is called the Soggy Dollar because yacht sailors who swim to shore to quench their thirst have been known to hang their dollars up to dry over the bar. Pusser’s Rum licensed the Painkiller name from the Soggy Dollar Bar, which is actually part of the Sandcastle restaurant and hotel subsequently making the recipe public. Since then the Painkiller cocktail has became famous around the world.

You can get the Painkiller recipe at a Pusser’s Company Store or at the Soggy Dollar Bar and Sandcastle Restaurant. The Painkiller is a blend of Pusser’s Rum with 4 parts pineapple juice, one park cream of coconut and one part orange juice served over the rocks with a generous amount of fresh nutmeg ground on top.

The Historic Callwood Distillery

In the late 18th century rum production and sugar cane were the BVI’s primary industries. The abolishment of slavery and a severe hurricane in the early 19th century lead to the end of the plantation era.

Making rum in the BVI has become rare these days because of the low price of imported liquor and the decline of sugar production. A noted exception is the historic Callwood Distillery in Cane Garden Bay on Tortola, which is owned and operated by the Callwood Family.

The Callwood Distillery was originally part of the Arundel Estate. It was purchased by Richard Callwood, Sr. (the great grandfather of the current owner). Callwood Sr. was somewhat of a recalcitrant character. He was a planter who owned Thatch Island in the 1800’s and is reported to have been a buccaneer.

According to island folklore the Arundel Estate was purchased for his illegitimate son, Richard Callwood, Jr.; he was sired by Callwood Sr.’s mistress, who was a slave. Two centuries later, the ownership of the Callwood Distillery remains in the Callwood family. In the old days, only men were permitted into the boiling room because women, fish, and limes were believed to turn the rum sour.

Callwood Distillery, Cane Garden Bay, Tortola, BVI

 Callwood Distillery, Cane Garden Bay, Tortola, BVI

Some of the original buildings are still standing and in use, although the roof has been replaced from time to time due to damage from hurricanes. Rum is still being made and sold in the boiling room, where the distillery’s original boiler still operates, and the rum is stored in some of the original storage casks. The old guard house is also still intact although it has been turned into an art gallery and gift shop.

Currently the distillery makes light, dark, and spice rum that sells for about $7 a liter. The distilling process has not changed for two centuries: First, the cane is cut into manageable pieces and put through the pressing mill. The cane juice then passes through the receiver into the coppers (large iron cauldrons). The coppers are then put to boil on a fire made with dry cane husks or bagasse. The mixture, with some added water, is then put into wooden casks to ferment for eight to ten days. After it’s fermented the mixture is boiled again until it reaches the right temperature to produce alcohol. The alcohol then flows through a coiled cooling system. Once the rum cools it is ready for storage to be properly aged. Dark rum is aged four years in oak casks, and white rum, which requires much less aging, is stored in demijohns. The Callwood Distillery uses recycled liquor bottles. I got two liter bottles that were formerly Gordon’s Gin bottles. BVI customs allows families to take up to 4 liters out of the territory duty free, which is exactly what we did when we visited.

According to Richard Callwood, Jr., Callwood’s Arundel All Natural Rum has no chemicals or preservatives and is guaranteed to not give you a hangover or The Callwood Distillery will refund your money. In case you were wondering, aging mellows the taste of the rum. Because of the shortage of sugar cane, which is used to produce Callwood’s Arundel All Natural Rum, only small qualities can be made. (Modern rums are made with molasses.) Although it comes out at 100 to 150 proof, it is sold as 80 proof.

To get to the Callwood Distillery, follow the tangy aroma of boiling cane juice to the bottom of a gentle slope, carpeted with Caribbean flora, not far from the gently curving Cane Garden Bay Beach. As its name implies, Cane Garden Bay was once a prominent sugar cane producing community. The area has since become a Mecca for water sports, delicious local food, beach bars, and entertainment.

 
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Looking for a Place to go on New Year’s Eve?

Photo:  Foxy Rymer, Virgin Gorda, BVI At Great Harbor on Jost Van Dyke, Foxy’s Tamarind Bar and Restaurant has become quite a landmark. Within sight of Foxy’s is where the famous annual Wooden Boat Regatta is held.

Foxy’s is also one of the three highest rated places in the world to be on New Year’s Eve according to Time Magazine’s travel editor; Times Square in New York is second followed by Picadilly Circus in London.

The BVI government is concerned that at the rate its popularity is increasing, there might be 15,000 people at Foxy’s on New Year’s Eve in the year 2000 which would overly tax the island’s diminutive infrastructure.

Its namesake proprietor is just as notorious and even more colorful. Foxy operates a hotel, a restaurant, gift shop and boutique, and a beach bar that is always jumping. The colorful calypso singer and guitar player performs humorous folk songs tailored to his audience. Foxy has recorded cassettes and CDs of his songs, which he sells in his gift shop. Foxy, who is well known as Jost Van Dykes’s celebrity entertainer, historian, preservationist, and philosopher, plans to make a new album in time for the millenium. (Foxy’s, by the way, serves a local blend of gold rum, Foxy’s Fire Water, using Callwood’s rum as its base.)

There are actually several other good BVI restaurants on Jost Van Dyke including Ala’s, Abe’s Little Harbour, Happy Laurry, Harris’ Place, Rudy’s Mariner’s, Sandcastle (home of the Soggy Dollar Bar), and Sidney’s Peace and Love.

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BVI Sailing Charters

The BVI offers excellent wind surfing and sailing. You don’t have to be experienced or rich to sail in the BVI. A full week on the water can cost under $450 per person in the summer and fall where the captains of chartered vessels expect the passengers to leave the sailing to them.

BVI History
Island Hopping
Peter Island & Peter Island Resort
BVI Economic Conditions
Salt Island
Anegada
Virgin Gorda
Tortola
Camping in the BVI
Jost Van Dyke
Historic Places Above and Below
Try a Roti with a Smoothie or Painkiller
Callwood Distillery
Where to Go On New Years Eve
Home

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Click Here to visit CHEERS Sailboat Charters, Cane Garden Bay, Tortola, VBI - owned and operated by the same family as Lighthouse Villas.

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Last revised: December 08, 2011

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