Exploring the British Virgin Islands by Boat
Part of a Caribbean volcanic archipelago, the British Virgin Islands consist of 50 islands scattered across miles of an incomparable turquoise Caribbean sea. Traveling by water offers one of the best ways to see the island’s numerous reef-lined beaches and hidden picturesque coves, where scavenging pirates once buried their treasure.
We had originally hoped for a day sail from St. Thomas US Virgin Islands, but to actually see several islands in the course of a day and add in some incredible Caribbean snorkeling, a powerboat was our only option. We boarded the New Horizons Breakaway at Sapphire Beach Resort and Marina, stored our gear and settled in for a 9 1/2 hour day of adventure on the high seas. This venture required passports, as we were leaving the U.S. and crossing into British waters.
The sun on our faces and warm breezes encircling us provided balm for our souls as we headed to our first island destination. We passed by sleek sailboats and stretches of palm-fringed beaches with sugar-white sand as our small boat traversed the aquamarine waters entering Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour and colorful Spanish Town.
Virgin Gorda Island
Covering only eight square miles and sparsely inhabited, this third largest of the British Virgin Islands remains a sleepy, idyllic Caribbean hideaway where goats and cattle own right-away over island traffic. The name, given to the island by the explorer, Christopher Columbus is Spanish for “Fat Virgin”, because to these sea-weary mariners, the island’s profile on the horizon resembled a voluptuous woman lying on her side.
A 10 to 15 minute open air taxi ride from the port transported us on a scenic slightly uphill drive to the southwest entrance of Baths National Park, a seven-acre protected nature preserve. The Baths have nothing to do with thermal springs or outdoor spas; their name is short for Batholiths. These huge granite boulders form an amazing labyrinth of cavernous passages and scenic grottos meandering through sheltered sea pools.
In addition to the spectacle of the Bath’s cavernous beauty, the sinuous spelunking trail exited to a picturesque clearing with stunning views of horseshoe-shaped Devil’s Bay. Here, snow white talcum powdered sand invited us for the perfect rest from the hike under a shaded umbrella.
Shallow clear waters and delightful coves were ideal for a relaxing swim. Turquoise crystalline waters of the bay teemed with elusive rays, blue tang and other tropical fish, inviting snorkelers and divers to explore more underground caves and magnificent coral reefs just offshore. A hike to the top of boulders strewn along the beach provided even more astonishing views of the Baths.
Great Camanoe Island
After departing Virgin Gorda, we sailed to Diamond Reef just off the uninhabited Great Camanoe Island.
Diamond Reef is known as one of the most spectacular snorkeling spots in the Virgin Islands. It was fittingly named such after a diver lost a diamond ring there never to be found again. We could hardly keep up with the plentiful colorful fish or the other hidden treasures found along this tropical reef’s coral formations, including sea turtles and the stingrays lurking about on the sandy ocean floor.
Famished and more than ready for our next stop, midday found us at Pusser’s Restaurant on Marina Cay. This flower covered, eight-acre island is ringed by a soft white sand beach. Its shallow, always calm and lukewarm waters, nestle in a sheltered crystal clear lagoon. This idyllic isle served as filming location for past Corona beer commercials. We could certainly understand why.
The thatch-roofed laid back eatery right on the beach gets its name from their five-blended West Indian rum and the key ingredient in the Virgin Islands most popular drink– the knock-your-socks-off if you’re not careful world-famous Painkiller. Pusser’s menu includes an excellent selection of fresh seafood along with other dishes with a distinctive Caribbean twist.
Island of Jost Van Dyke
Finally we headed to our fourth and final stop, the island of Jost Van Dyke (pronounced yost). Jost Van Dyke took its name from an early Dutch settler and former pirate. With one of the most stunning beaches in all the Caribbean, this picture postcard island, only three by four square miles, endures, dotted with palm trees, overgrown vegetation-covered sugar mill ruins and rugged trails crisscrossing the island.
What makes Jost so unique is that they’ve managed to retain the local culture that much of the Caribbean has lost. Its inhabitants fish, grow their own food, go barefoot most of the time and of course, build boats.
Getting to Jost Van Dyke is the fun part. There’s no dock or anchoring of large boats ashore. So we had to get as close to the beach as possible. With our waterproof cameras and other items secured as best we could, we took a leap of faith. Plunging into the calm crystalline waters below, we swam to shore. Jumpers beware; the clear inviting water can be deceptively deep in spots with the sandy bottom visible for up to 30 feet. Life jackets are available to those who are not strong swimmers.
Jost Van Dyke’s Bars
Every day’s a party at Soggy Dollar Bar, the reputed birthplace of the infamous Painkiller. The bar was aptly named as patrons have been paying their bar tabs with wet money ever since they opened. Hammocks strung from palms begged for occupants. Wispy clouds floated overhead. Caribbean tunes serenaded us as we swayed in our hammocks with the warm Caribbean breeze. No wonder country singer Kenny Chesney has featured this island in his songs. It’s a paradise we almost wanted to keep a secret. But we’re quite sure the word’s already out. After all, who wouldn’t want to come to this water wonderland?
A sandy-covered lane serves as Jost Van Dyke’s main street. Since the late 1960s, Foxy’s Bar in Great Harbour has been a popular stop for Caribbean boaters. The shanty bar named after the 75-year old singer, songwriter and poet has a catchy theme, “Live de life, drink de beer”. Their own local microbrewery, which happens to be the only brew house in the entire British Virgin Islands, makes their four distinct brews.
Infinite Storm of Beauty
After catching some rays and beach time, we swam back to the Breakaway for our return trip to St. Thomas. Tired and relaxed, we were treated to more of the stunning charms of the Caribbean venturing past numerous inlets, cays and islands, mostly uninhabited. Lush green layers of mountains and miles of secluded pristine beaches beckoned in the distance with their own sirens’ calls.
A quote by famous naturalist and preservationist John Muir came to mind. “When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.” And what a day filled with beauty and adventure it was!