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The Best of the BVI

Tortola and Virgin Gorda

By Hal Peat

By just about any account you'll hear from those who have been there, the British Virgin Islands define living at a relaxed pace, even by Caribbean standards. This may also be the key ingredient that draws the savvier traveler who knows this region - it's that easier pace that makes everything here even more enjoyable. Savor the yachting, go diving or even surfing, take a walk along waterfronts and side streets to explore the shopping, dining or entertainment. But you never have to check your watch, except for the basics of getting there and getting around.

Although there's some 60 islands that flank the main sailing passage of the Sir Francis Drake Channel, the main destinations narrow down to the two principal islands of Tortola and Virgin Gorda that travelers gravitate towards for seclusion, socializing or just relaxing at a beachfront villa or resort. In between, there are still plenty of highlights on both islands that are worth participating in or exploring while you're here. This is most definitely a small corner of the Caribbean where "luxury" is more about personal service than all the bells and whistles of a six-star resort, or just being able to experience the natural surroundings without the pressures of schedules and crowds.

Tortola

The island's Spanish name translates to "land of the turtle doves", and Tortola still has its serene and tranquil atmosphere, but if you're someone that also likes to get out from your hotel to dine and shop, then this is the place to be in the BVI. If you're also someone that's adventurous enough to take a jeep to remote small beaches and coves, then Tortola also has those on its north side. Some of the best local activities and places to include on your to-do list:

Cane Garden Bay - for everything you might want to do during a day at the beach - this mile-long stretch of sand has water sport equipment for rent, plus restaurants and bars Some of the leading dining spots in the area are Myetts Garden & Grille - a long-established outdoor dining restaurant and bar that excels in Caribbean fare and its rice and peas, along with late night live music; or Sugar Mill Restaurant - onsite at the hotel of the same name, fine dining in Caribbean seafood with speciaties such as lobster bisque and scallops in puff pastry.

Water Sport Adventure - take your pick from locally based operators and equipment renters that can get you launched into excellent snorkeling, diving, windsurfing, powerboating, fishing or sailing - much of it from bases at Nanny's Cay, Road Town or Village Cay Marina. For diving, Blue Waters Divers at Nanny Cay has introductory courses and half-day dives, and will pick you up from your own sailboat. If you enjoy angling for smaller catch, meet up with Caribbean Fly Fishing at Nanny Cay for some angling for bonefish and tarpon with guides aboard their fully-equipped outboard craft. For more extreme action, try out seasoned Boardsailing BVI at Trellis Bay on Beef Island for intermediate to advanced windsurfing in the channel between Trellis Cay and Marina Cay.

Where to stay

Low-key is still the prevalent style at the best stayovers around Tortola - boutique-size and small hotels skirt Long Bay, Carrot Bay and Cane Garden Bay. There's also a large number of villa style accommodation present here and elsewhere round the island.

Among the most idyllic small resorts, consider either Long Bay Beach Resort on the island's west end, for a stay with all amenities and many activities, both villa, guest room and suite style accommodation, fine dining; and Sugar Mill Hotel at Apple Bay, oozing old world British West Indian charm with just 23 rooms set among the restored ruins of a 17th Century sugar plantation, adjacent to a quiet beach.

Best villa options - There's plenty to choose from, but among the nicest are the three-bedroom Arundel at Cane Garden Bay which affords hillside vistas, easy access to the Bay, but plenty of space and solitude in your villa pavilions of bedroom/bath suites; living and dining areas include luxuriant bed and bath fittings and furnishings, entertainment and home office technologies, an onsite housekeeper who makes your time here flawlessly smooth and pleasant - and there's a garden terrace with hot tub. Or, if you require even more guest space, there's the five-bedroom Golden Pavilion at Little Bay. With its hillside location over the Atlantic, this property's interior and exterior features an Asian-Indonesian style in its graceful architecture and furnishings. The property is divided into two wings - each with self-contained bedroom/bath suites, with the central Great Room where everyone can gather by day or evening. Other amenities include the extensive entertainment technology, the outdoor infinity pool and deck, walking paths winding among tropical landscaping, and a cottage with an equipped gym. Your own personal staff are a phone call away in the area, and when you want to sail away to explore Tortola or further, then cast off aboard the Golden Pavilion's own powerboat, a 29-foot Intrepid which accommodates up to 10 persons. Included in your weekly rental is a day trip on "Chief," to snorkel, dive or just explore among the islets of the BVI.

Virgin Gorda

Virgin Gorda - which translates to "Fat Virgin" from Spanish - was named in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, who saw in the islands around Little Dix Bay the silhouette of a portly woman. Nowadays the image of Virgin Gorda among travelers is a more elegant one of marinas, elegant villas and small hotels. In fact, getting around on this island where goats and cattle have the right-of-way may be best done by water going from one cay, bay or marina to another. There are still activities and places worth getting to and enjoying for the day beyond the area of your hotel or villa:

The Baths - even if you've done more than your share of snorkeling elsewhere, you're likely to be impressed by the snorkeling to be had at this location filled with giant boulders that form grottoes, caves and calm pools. This is an adventure you can stretch out for a full day, with the presence of facilities, restaurants, bars and shops both at water's edge and the hills above. Places for casual to elegant food to revive you: The Rock Cafe - between the Baths and Spanish Town, sit outdoors by the waterfalls for lunch or dinner on Italian and Caribbean dishes; also Top of the Baths for reasonably priced seafood (fresh shrimp, conch dishes) on the hillside above The Baths and splendid views.

Mahoe Bay - this more isolated location on Virgin Gorda's "hidden" beach coast is another snorkeling paradise ideal for visitors staying in the nearby villas or who can drive and park here in the adjacent lot. The Bay is protected by picturesque reefs just off the shore - and a prime spot for snorkeling to observe the abundant marine life including sea turtles. But Mahoe also draws sunbathers who enjoy the wide open sands and windsurfers who appreciate the combination of calmer waters and steady winds. You can bring your own equipment or rent from Dive BVI at Spanish Town and Leverick Bay - they also provide scuba instruction and other deep site dives around the island.

Where to stay:

Virgin Gorda is home to both classic small retreats that reflect British colonial style and more recent additions in larger accommodation. The leading resorts are over on the North Sound, and again there are private villa options for the ultimate honeymoon or romantic hideaway experience.

Among the hotels that stand out for their personal service, stylish interiors and great location: Rosewood Little Dix Bay - perched on a half-mile crescent-shaped beach, and a colorful barrier reef. Guests choose from a wealth of elegant villas, beach houses, and guest rooms; there are three dining venues specializing in fresh Caribbean cuisine, including the open-air Pavilion, the intimate Sugar Mill, and the Beach Grill. Complimentary services include a wide array of watersports, use of the on-site fitness center and tennis courts. With its secluded peninsula location, Biras Creek Resort with just 31 suites also provides plenty of personalized ambiance, while also offering plenty of amenities including water sports, restaurants, spa, tennis courts and beach.

Your best villa options - Sea Fans, a four-bedroom Mahoe Bay area villa decorated in soft Caribbean pastel hues and wicker furniture, featuring indoor and outdoor dining, extensive living and games areas, covered terrace, a freshwater swimming pool, wonderful vistas across Drakes Channel, and easy proximity to the swimming and snorkeling at Mahoe Bay. Nearby (and combinable for larger parties) is Sandcastle - a five bedroom villa property arranged in a series of connecting pavilions with bedroom/bath suites; the style here is elegant tropical with Caribbean furnishings, art, fabrics, accessories - but there are plentiful modern amenities ranging from satellite TV and entertainment technology to office area equipment and state-of-art kitchen. Outdoors, choose to lounge by the enormous pool or make your way a few minute by foot to the lagoon at Mahoe Bay.




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