Amanda Jones
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Best of the BVI

Special to ISLANDS magazine

It is five-thirty in the afternoon. I am not certain, as I haven't looked at a watch in days, but the sun is hovering near the sparkling blue horizon, and, like one of Pavlov's dogs, I know this means it's nearly cocktail hour. I swim back to the yacht, remove my snorkeling mask and look up. Captain Neil is smiling. His arm reaches out to help me up, and with the other hand he gives me a rum cocktail. The light turns gilded and on deck I see that my friends are freshly showered, dressed in sarongs, and laughing with white teeth on bronzed skin.

It sounds like a television advertisement for toothpaste, or even a script for a predictably cheerful movie. But it wasn't. It was the practice of real life, unabashed hedonism--which is exactly what were in British Virgin Islands to do.

We had chartered and all-inclusive yacht equipped with food, drink, and, praise be, a captain and a chef. We were a group of five: my husband Greg and myself from California, Susan Burks, an art consultant from New York, Darrell Jones, a photographer from Miami, and Darrell's friend Renée Robertson, a dancer from Philadelphia. We were to spend eight days aboard the Windward Spirit, a 55-foot Beneteau yacht, one of The Moorings luxury "signature" boats.

The thirty-odd habitable islands in the BVI's lie in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, a relic of the once-omnipotent British Empire. Still a colony of the Crown, there is a large ex-pat community and the islands are therefore terribly civilized, orderly and beer-sodden, (unlike their forbearers, however, they have the sense to chill the beer). The life these ex-pats lead is a good one, and their Anglophile bent has rubbed off on the Afro-Caribbean peoples. Citizens attend horse races and they play cricket. They water-ski and they race sailing boats. And when you mix a little West Indian scenery with Mother England you get waterside villages painted in lyrical pastel colors with shutters and lacy fretwork.

Geographically the islands are diverse. Some are volcanic with luxuriant foliage, others arid and rocky, and a few are sandy atolls, barely above water.

Unlike so much of the Caribbean--including the US Virgin Islands--the beauty of the BVI's is that they are not overbuilt. Before going, I spoke with Andrés Nevares, an affluent Puerto Rican who grew up sailing the BVI's. "You won't find giant concrete hotels or fast food chains. They've shunned American commercialism. It's a rare privilege to have access to such untouched beauty so close to overdeveloped countries."

There's no greater privilege than flying from the gloom of an American winter, staggering out of your cabin the following morning and plunging into the amniotic water of the tropics. The hues of the BVI seas are not too flamboyant or garish. Like the British ex-pats themselves, they are refined and understated. The blue of the depths is dream-like, a kind of luminous cobalt. Over reefs the water glows a leaf-green, and rimming the islands it shimmers a seemly teal. The temperature is neither too tepid nor too cold. It's perfect. And so it was for that first swim in pristine Key Cay, on the southern side of Peter Island, a short sail from the Moorings base in Road Town, Tortola.

Key Cay is a lovely bay between two dry hummocks of land. It's difficult anchorage, according to Neil Wood, our fine young British captain, keeping most people out. Hence we were all alone in the bay until mid-morning when another yacht arrived, bungling several attempts at dropping anchor.

"I pride myself in showing clients some of the more deserted bays," Neil told us. "It's common for bareboaters to end up in anchorages with 50 other boats. Quite horrible," he sniffed.

Previously, when I'd been on crewed yachts, the captains have been crusty characters, overly hirsute, often with misanthropic tendencies. But not Neil or his gracious, no-nonsense wife Debbie. Upper-crust Brits, they have sailed the world's oceans catering to clients with an unflappable, no-request-is-too-contemptible mien. And Debbie is a superb cook, whipping out three-course gourmet meals from the galley's improbable 16-by-4-inch oven.

After a late breakfast of brie frittata and a leisurely snorkel over a plunging shelf-reef, we decided to hoist sail and make a dash for Virgin Gorda, the idyllic island that features on most BVI tourist brochure covers. The wind had begun to bite at the sea and we were keen to feel the rush of the ocean beneath the belly of the boat. Once the sails were raised, Windward Spirit heeled over and we set course for open ocean, the tepid breeze urging us on. The wind, however, did not cooperate and within an hour died to a whisper. Even motoring, the 5:30 sunset forced us to stop for the night in Marina Cay, a tiny island north of Beef Island. Marina Cay one of those crowded 50-boat anchorages that Neil deplores, but it has good snorkeling, an excellent beach bar, a tragic love story history (a newlywed American couple bought the tiny island in 1937, forging a home out of its wilderness and living a romantic Robinson Crusoe life until he was summoned to war and she promptly fell in love with someone else). Today, Pusser's, the BVI rum label and bar chain, own the island and the Whites have been replaced with other colorful characters.

One of those characters was Michael Beans, a Michigan-born Caribbean-runaway musician who came to the islands decades ago with a band by the unfortunate name "The Seafaring Turd Whirlers." It's likely that Michael has seen too much sun in his time, but he makes a good living performing as a one-pirate-band during 'Happy Arrrr" in bars. With shoulder-length hair, a captain's cap, one earring and a goatee, he fits the pirate MO with conviction. His performance includes a fetish-festooned guitar, a harmonica, a crate of beer, an accordion, and lyrics about sailing and flighty lovers. His one goal is to get his sloop shipshape so he can "sail into harbor, canons blazing, stick a sword in the ground, play music, and then sail away with someone's wife. Yeah, and their beer too."

Beer is popular in the BVI's, but for a Caribbean hedonist, it's all about the rum. It's a tradition. Until 1970, even the British Navy doled out a daily pint (that's two 8oz cups) of rum to its seamen, and a double ration before battle. If you are not a rum drinker--become one or face ridicule. The Painkiller, Bushwhacker, Golden Oldie, Dark and Stormy, Rum Rocks Sunset... it's never too early to start drinking. An example being the moment we'd lurched off the plane after flying all night and finding that some unseen entity had benevolently set out a table of free juice refreshments at the airport. After swilling mine, I realized it was mainly rum and less refreshment--a pervasive theme.

On board the Windward Spirit, Captain Neil would disappear into the galley promptly at sunset and begin to stir, shake or blend. We'd all rush up on deck, tuck into Debbie's spicy prawns or tomato bruschetta and await Neil's reappearance with some new rum concoction.

Over drinks, while Debbie prepared dinner, we'd ask Neil about life as a charter captain.

"Go on then, tell us about all the awful things people have done on your boat."

Neil looked embarrassed. "Well...there was this time," he blushed, "the guests went skinny-dipping."

Note to self: no skinny-dipping before Captain Neil's bedtime.

Neil and Debbie live aboard the yacht, which, for a monohull, was cannily spacious. It had four en-suite cabins and a large living quarter, although in our case the dining area was used for excess baggage, (Renée had a new bikini for each passing hour). The weather was so good we spent our waking hours on deck feeling sorry for the folks confined to the resorts on the islands we passed.

I've sailed in the South Pacific, the Mediterranean and other parts of the Caribbean, but what makes the BVI's exceptional is its ease. It is so close to the United States, it is so gorgeously undeveloped and yet it has reliable infrastructure. The breezes tend to be steady, the waters gentle, and the temperatures never get unbearably hot. There are no long slogs to get between islands and there are dozens of sheltered bays in which to overnight, rocked to sleep by the water cradling the hull. Consequently, I tend to pity those doomed to a landlubber's vacation.

Pity, however, was not appropriate for those destined to spend their vacation on Sir Richard Branson's uber-luxe Necker Island. Located off Virgin Gorda's northwest coast, Necker is an elite resort accommodating a party of 26 at a cost of $40,000 a night. Its guest list glitters with the red carpet clan--Robert de Niro, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Liz Hurley, Mariah goes on and on. Incredibly, our motley crowd had been invited to spend the day on the island.

Donning our nicest Tevas, we anchored off the dramatic cliffs of the 74-acre-island and made to go ashore. Unsure what to expect, I'd wagered that a posse of large men with semi-automatic weaponry would materialize from the flowerbeds the moment we touched the immaculate sand. Rather anticlimactically, our group wandered unescorted through orchids and palm trees, past a lake populated by snowy egrets and pelicans, and up to the main house. Once at the top of the hill we met Martijn Brouwer, Necker's relaxed, hip, general manager. He offered us a rum drink, which we were naturally under obligation to accept.

Much as I accept the idiom money doesn't buy taste, this is not true on Necker. Elegantly comfortable and simply gorgeous, the buildings are Balinese in style. Walls are open-air, with white-covered divans, Indonesian furniture, hammocks, a billiard table, and serene Buddhist statuary. The quintessential accessory was the electric guitar, personally inscribed by Jeff Beck, casually tossed on a sofa. Necker has that amorphous X factor that takes a place from being just expensively lavish to being a transcendent haven.

After seeing the various guesthouses, we were told to make ourselves at home. Susan walked down the shoreline to beachcomb, discovering the whitest shells in the BVI's. Renée headed to the pool shaped like a meandering river, and Darrel availed himself of the sunken rock bar. Greg went to rummage through the "Sports Pavilion," which housed top-of-the-line windsurfers, catamarans, water-skis, surf boards, fishing tackle, kite boards, and sea kayaks. He returned to get us out of the pool, saying, "You gotta see this." Hanging near the tennis court was a pair of padded sumo wrestling suits. We stood staring at them, imaging Pamela Anderson and Liz Hurley going at it on the beach dressed as sumo wrestlers. Perhaps this is how disputes are settled on the island. Branson clearly has a highly developed sense of humor.

Sunset meant reality, and our vessel headed for the slightly more plebeian Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda. Neil had tried to convince us to spend the night in a secluded bay on the back of Eustatia Island, but when weighing the options we decided that T-shirt shops and bars in congested Bitter End were more compelling that evening.

A picturesque little harbor, Bitter End is a place families return for generations so their children can wander barefoot, capsize sailing dinghies, torment large iguanas, and lose themselves on trails that cut through steamy tropical foliage.

For yachties, Bitter End is not only a place to stock up on ice and water, it's the jumping off spot for the three-hour sail to Anegada, a flat (28-feet at its summit) and desolate atoll. Why do people bother to go? "Because you'll get the Caribbean's best lobster dinner and because it's dangerous, so sailors go for the bragging rights," explained Sam, a leathery fixture at the yacht club bar. The danger lies in the encircling reef, which has claimed over 300 boats. But Anegada also has good snorkeling, long white arcs of empty beach and an adventurous sense of isolation.

Many people make the sail just for the lobster dinner. Debbie's food--pumpkin tart, pork tenderloin, baked stuffed brie, tuna with mango salsa, spinach and egg tartlets, and homemade pecan pie--made onshore menus look appalling by comparison. Lobster, however, was different. We made the sail.

Once in Anegada, we engaged the services of an ebullient local named Patronella Jones to take us on a tour of the island. Like many of the wives on Anegada, Patronella was not native. Anegada, a thirteen-by-three-mile island, has a population of 200. According to Patronella, bright lights are the culprit. There are more Anegadans in New York than at home. "My husband hadda come all da way to Barbados to find a wife," she told us, giggling. "Dere were no girls on Anegada for him." Nor on the other local islands either. Apparently wives are scarce in the BVI's. Men--West Indian and white alike--speak of "finding a wife" in reverent, Holy Grail terms.

At the Anegada Reef Hotel we sat beneath a spangled sky and ate tender lobsters grilled over an open flame. Anegada has a less glamorous, sailor-bum-chic variety of Caribbean flavor. At the bar, British, French, Italian and Australian accents came from barefoot, sarong-wearing, slightly unwashed twentysomething's cradling Red Stripes.

We, however, had moved beyond our former sailor-bum lives. We were now among the sybarites and we had responsibilities. The following morning we left the hung-over, bleach-haired youths on Loblolly beach and sailed for Jost van Dyke, home of the Painkiller, the archetypal BVI rum drink. Jost has several bars of notoriety, among them Foxy's--named after it's owner whose every word is like a one-man comedy routine, Ivan's Stress Free Bar--named after Ivan, and the Soggy Dollar Bar--so called because impulsive sailors swim ashore, paying for drinks with sodden bills.

White Bay on Jost van Dyke is nothing but a lovely sweep of white sand below a swath of undeveloped hillside. There are several beach-shack bars, a campground and souvenir shops. Ivan's was our favorite watering hole, artfully funky, with walls covered in seashell mosaics. Ivan himself had teasing eyes and a riotous laugh. "Whad'llya drink? How much poison you want--one knuckle, two knuckle, four knuckle? The rule at Ivan's is da poison don't go above da flavor line," he said, pointing to a line half-an-inch from the top of the cup. "That little bit dere, we keep dat for da juice."

Down the beach was the Soggy Dollar, although we were not required to swim ashore. We had Neil. He'd drop us ashore in the tender, leave us there for a few rums, and collect us whenever we mumbled into the walkie-talkie. It was like one of those ask-no-questions, anti-drunk-driving contracts parents make with their teenagers.

The Soggy Dollar Bar claims to have the original recipe of the Painkiller, a drink involving rum, nutmeg, juice and coconut cream. It also happens to have clients wearing the most spectacularly cheesy T-shirts. Belly up to the bar a line of backs sported bon mots like, "Zero to Naked in 6.2 beers," "One Tequila Two Tequila Three Tequila Floor" and "Menace to Sobriety." The sight inspired us to start a tacky T-shirt competition of our own, which Greg won with a glow-in-the-dark skull that read, "Surrender the Booty." Afterwards we felt the urge to dance, so we called Neil and went in search of live reggae music.

Cane Garden Bay on Tortola, a short sail from White Bay, is famous for its world-class surf break and its live music. Sadly, it was a quiet night and the only band we found was a steel drum duo plinking out Christmas carols. Sandman, a suave local proprietor with impressive bling-bling, came to our aid. Bomba's Surfside Shack had a reggae band playing and, for a moderate fee, he could drive us to Cappoons Bay in 15 minutes.

Bomba's is legendary in the BVI's, known for its host of bawdy traditions. They host notorious full-moon parties where they serve psychedelic mushroom tea. It's run of the mill for girls to remove their clothing in the bar, egged on by the promise of a free Bomba Shack T-shirt at the end of the night. Apparently these shirts are all the rage in certain New York fashion circles.

Ritual dictates that you must leave something behind at Bomba's, so the place is festooned with bras, knickers, thongs, bikinis, boxers, Speedos, shoes, bicycles, surfboards, sundry household appliances and unidentifiable junk. The tables, ceilings and chairs are covered in graffiti and messages, some, like, "Girls with big boobs, give Bomba a hug" are apparently from the Buddha-sized Bomba himself.

The shack does not undersell itself. It has a sand floor, walls of random two-by-fours and a corrugated roof. It is perhaps the worlds' only establishment that actually benefits from hurricanes. When bits of other buildings wash up--Bomba renovates.

Since clean underwear is a precious commodity on a boat, I resorted to leaving graffiti, which is what "tame" people leave behind according to Johnny, Bomba's son. In appearance, Johnny looks like someone who might be hired to keep people out of bars, but he was actually gracious and soft-spoken. And he danced the swing masterfully. When I complimented him on his moves he hung his beefy head and murmured, "I learned it from the music." How a 270-pound, Caribbean-born man learned swing dancing from "Lively Up Yourself" beats me, but it sure was impressive.

After a crawl of bars like Ivan's and Bomba's, it's prudent to turn to physical wellbeing for a day or so. Peter Island, a private island touting one of the BVI's most luxurious resorts, opened a new 10,000 square-foot spa in late 2004. Best of all, they let salt-caked boatees like us come ashore for a massage or to stretch in their serene yoga garden.

Massages can be had in bohios, bungalows teetering on a cliff over the ocean. They have open walls that allow the breeze in to caress your back like an additional pair of hands. With their own Jacuzzi and chaises, clients can spend all day in a bohio. My sublime masseuse was Liz McLean, a former American Olympic skater who had studied sports medicine. During medical school she'd come to the BVI's on vacation, fallen in love with her sailing instructor and done what people do in movies: she gave it all up, moved here and lived happily ever since.

Other than hiking and spending money at the spa, scuba diving was an excellent way to work off Debbie's generous portions. The RMS Rhone, one of the world's best wreck dives, lies off tiny Salt Island. With its dramatic story and spectacular wreckage, it's good for both divers and snorkelers. In 1867, the 310-foot boat was moored at Peter Island when the captain woke to the barometers plummeting and a late-season hurricane pounding the boat. Frantic, he ordered the anchor cut and made for open sea. After a cup of tea and a dash of rum, he went on deck to check conditions and was blown overboard. The replacement captain ordered the 300 hysterical passengers tied to their bunks, so when the boat struck the rocks and sank only a few hundred yards offshore, almost every one of them went with it.

These days, the hull lies in luminous blue repose, a teeming metropolis of fish life.

It's seriously tempting to anthropomorphize when you're underwater. I saw a turtle under the mast and I'd swear he was grinning. Maybe their stoner persona in Finding Nemo was quite insightful. I trailed a lone, boxy trunkfish wearing an erratic honeycomb pattern. Reeling about like the town drunk, he'd lurch towards a coral head and be run out of town by the resident fish. When I dropped down beside him he didn't flinch, just gave me a look that said, "You too, huh, buddy?"

After scuba diving, we motored to The Baths, a jumble of flooded grottos, caverns and boulders on the southwest of Virgin Gorda. Although it is the most popular tourist destination in the BVI's, The Baths should not be missed. Among the massive stone plinths we encountered a band of merry children exploring, scaling, leaping and wading. They reminded me of Peter Pan's Lost Boys, adventurers in a fantasy domain.

When you are in a place to spoil yourself rotten, you want to go home with something commemorative--something more than a cheesy T-shirt. But it wasn't until the last day that we discovered the mother lode.

Trellis Bay, right next to the Beef Island airport, is also home to Aragorn's Studio. Aragorn Dick-Read is a laid-back, blond, blue-eyed artist born on Tortola to British parents (presumably Tolkien fans). He studied art in Europe, traveled the world, married an Italian, and returned to his corner of Tortola to create a gallery promoting his own work and the crafts of the Caribs, the early indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. The workmanship is high and Aragorn's own copper lights and sculptures are magnificent. I left with an additional piece of luggage filled with commemorative items.

Once back home, I understood what was so extraordinary about the trip. Our boat had become our own private island, with the advantage of mobility. We had been waited on hand and foot, we had seen places people can only reach by boat, and we had been treated to the very best of the BVI's--all without any effort or concern.

For a moment I tossed around the idea that Sir Richard Branson could not have as much fun on his island as we had on our yacht. Then I remembered the sumo suits. Yes, I guess he does.

The Moorings
Full boat, crewed charters start at $1,288 per person for seven days
Currently there is a $750 discount on these bookins (for total boat booking).
( is the skinny from David Rohr.)
How long will the $750 discount program go on for? Can you give me a date?

Necker Island
The Anegada Reef Hotel
For dinner, you must radio ashore to make a booking. Pre-order the lobster.Peter Island Resort and Spa
800-346-4451 (to make resort bookings)
284-495-2000 (to make day-visitor spa bookings)
To make bookings from the boat, have your captain radio the resort
Treatments from $35-$285Dive BVI
For scuba diving all over the BVI, Dive BVI have several boats which will come and collect you from your yacht to take you to the dive sites.
Reservations: 800-848-7078, or radio from the boat a day in advance.
One-tank dive $65.
Aragorn's Studio
Trellis Bay, Tortola