“It’s easier to get to Europe than the British Virgin Islands!”
This statement was running through my head as I made the final leg of my journey to BVI, after flying out of D.C., staying overnight in Miami (long enough to grab some real Florida key lime pie), taking an early flight to Puerto Rico, landing on the island of Tortola, clearing international customs, and taking a boat from Tortola to Virgin Gorda. My family was getting together for a vacation, and Virgin Gorda, BVI, was chosen because of its reputation as being somewhat undiscovered and private. After an almost 18-hour trip to get out there, I understood why the island had earned that description.
As I cruised along in the boat to Virgin Gorda and relaxed, enjoying the sights of the lush, green islands and the sparkling turquoise water, I began to experience the trance that travelers to the British Virgin Islands experience upon arrival. My family was staying in a local villa, owned by a Canadian couple trying to capitalize on real estate in the islands, and the privacy factor was not underestimated at all. One side effect of being difficult to get to meant that Virgin Gorda was not as developed as other islands and you truly felt like you were escaping to another world.
My room in the villa overlooked a crystal blue bay and had a little balcony, outdoor shower, and a welcome committee consisting of several island lizards. I bid hello to the housekeeper (foreigners who own real estate on the island are required to employee at least five locals) and was told that because electricity is so expensive on the island, everything needed to be unplugged and turned off when I was away from my room. Fair enough, I thought–at least there was air conditioning, a luxury that one must often go without in the islands.
Day one on Virgin Gorda consisted of a hike down through the Baths (giant rocks forming impressive structures around the water) to Devil’s Bay, a great snorkeling spot known for colorful fish. That snorkeling excursion, my first out of three that week, included my first out of third close encounter with a great barracuda. Having a large, snarling, beady eyed barracuda swim much too close for comfort resulting in a heart that felt like it was going to pound out of my chest. By the third time a great barracuda swam by me, it was safe to say that the cause was my sparkling diamond engagement ring (so, ladies, I beseech you–leave the jewelry behind while snorkeling, as scary ocean creatures, much like our gender, tend to be attracted to shiny things).
The trip also included a full day of boating and snorkeling with Captain Dave of the local company “Double D’s” (the name, I hope in vain, was an innocent oversight). Captain Dave hailed from Toronto and had been a successful businessman and entrepreneur until the Canadian housing bubble burst in the 1990’s and he decided that he was done with the corporate life. He relocated to Virgin Gorda and had been living the island life ever since. Full of fascinating knowledge, Captain Dave was like having a professor for the day. He filled us on everything from the local economy (Tortola is doing pretty well as one of the most popular places for offshore banking in the world) to tourism in BVI (because of offshore banking, they don’t really need the tourism, but according to him 90% of the locals are employed in the tourism industry, and being on welfare would simply be “demoralizing”).
After a lecture about the economics and culture of BVI, Captain Dave steered us over to Cooper Island, a small and charming island with a beach club offering fresh seafood and the best French Fries I’ve ever had in my life. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch and then endured a rainstorm to sail over to Salt Island, my favorite excursion of the entire trip. My family spent the afternoon collecting colorful sea glass, which was ubiquitous on the sandy shore, and listened to Captain Dave’s stories of the island.
My favorite story about Salt Island was about the history of the shipwreck that had happened off of its coast in the 1800’s. One fateful day, a British mail ship had tried to dock at the nearby St. Thomas island, only to view a yellow flag raised high, indicating that the island had a yellow fever outbreak and to stay clear. The captain changed course over towards Salt Island, when a powerful storm hit and he lost sight of everything. The ship slammed into giant rocks peering out of the water, filling the underbelly of the ship with water and causing the vessel to snap in two. Back then, according to Captain Dave (who told his stories with the inflection of a Canadian but the dramatic flair of an islander), most people could not swim and wore heavy wool clothing. As a result, only a handful of passengers survived, and only thanks to the courageous efforts of the inhabitants of Salt Island. As a gesture of gratitude to the island’s residents, the Queen of England declared that the island was exempt from its monetary taxes and only asked that the island provide five pounds of salt to Her Majesty each year. The last inhabitant of Salt Island, who had died a few years ago at the age of 84, had a yearly ritual of setting aside a five pound bucket of salt each year for the Queen’s official to claim–even though officials had stopped collecting the salt tax ages ago (the island was granted its official independence from England in 1960).
During the trip, my family also discovered what Captain Dave confirmed to us was the best food on the island. We came across Chez Bamboo, a small patio restaurant with decorative Christmas looking lights cast about erratically and plastic chairs at the tables. It looked charming, in terms of the casual/fancy fusion that islanders do so well, and the food was outstanding. I enjoyed an Anegada lobster that was literally almost the size of my arm. In my mind, on tropical vacations you’re already relaxed, but add a giant lobster smothered with melted butter sauce into the mix, and you enter nirvana.
We also discovered Yum Yum’s, a Virgin Gorda sweets shop located next to Chez Bamboo. Hankering for some ice cream on another balmy tropical day, we stepped in and looked around at the various treats on display. I noticed that, perched proudly on a shelf next to lollipops and sour candies, were several boxes of edible underwear. My brother Taylor, never one to hold back, asked the pleasant looking woman running the shop if anyone ever bought them, and if they came in different sizes. She grinned slyly and drawled in her islander accent, “They’re one size fits all, man.”
After several days of boating and snorkeling adventures, coupled with good seafood and a Robinson Crusoe-esque environment, it was time to begin the long journey back to reality. As I began my day of boating to Tortola and flying to D.C. via Tortola/San Juan/Miami, I bid adieu to the raw nature that is Virgin Gorda. The quiet, undeveloped beauty truly enthralls and relaxes. I arrived in a pensive state, but I left in a peaceful, contemplative one.
Virgin Gorda might indeed be trickier to get to than Europe, but like any unique and exotic destination, it’s worth it.