Marcia insists she help with my little suitcase so I follow her upstairs. Pausing, I see her smiling down at me from a landing wall. I shake my head in confusion. Marcia's life-size image appears on a large poster. It shows Marcia standing on a balcony of her hotel. Below the poster, a creation of the local tourist board, runs the line 1,500-ROOM RESORT AND CASINO. NOT COMING SOON. That descriptor would sum up the British Virgin Islands, but there's a lot more to tell.
Marcia opens the door of my room and I am enchanted, sheer white curtains drawn back to reveal a little balcony with whicker table and chairs, overlooking an exquisite bay where private sail boats ride at anchor. We face west, and already the sun floods this pretty room with late-afternoon rays. By the windows, stands the king-size bed with a pretty blue and white coverlet, a colour scheme repeated throughout this self-catering room with ensuite bathroom, sitting area and well-equipped kitchen area at the rear. Marcia has thought of everything. There's even a first-aid kit! The property is called The Lighthouse Villas.
The tourism people here have launched an "Intimate Hideaways, Charming Cottages, Inns, Hotels and Villas Programme" (now changed to Jewels of the BVI). Apart from a handful of low-rise luxury properties, 'intimate hideaways' is what tourism in the BVI is mainly about. That and sail boats!
The slogan for the British Virgin Islands is "Nature's Little Secrets," an apt description for the 60 unspoiled islands in this chain. Their names reflect the colourful history of pirates, merchants and adventurers: Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost van Dyke, Angegada, a favoured destination for sailors owing to its variety of islands with safe anchorages and gentle, prevailing winds. Large companies such as SunSail manage a fleet of sail boats of all sizes for charter. Most people settle for 'bare-boat' charters, boats you sail yourself without captain or crew. Mooring cans are provided in most approved stopping areas, so you don't need anchoring skills.
But what if you're a land-lubber? My time short, I visited only Tortola and Virgin Gorda with the Intimate Hideaways brochure in hand, but I was charmed. Most start their vacation on Tortola, the largest island. It's beautiful, the interior lush and hilly, roads steep and full of hair-pin bends, views magnificent, flowers and birds abundant, white-sand beaches accessible and lovely.
Whenever travel magazines compile pretentious 'World's Best Beaches' lists, BVI invariably makes the grade. Unlike sister 'country,' the U.S. Virgin Islands, rampant development has not been allowed; hence the slogan on the poster featuring Marcia. There is a handful of low-rise, luxury properties but there are no multi-national chain hotels, all-inclusives, casinos, high-rises, shopping malls, MacDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken nor are beach vendors allowed.
Unless a confident driver I recommend you hire a taxi. Tortola isn't large, but the roads are steep and twisty, and you need your eyes for the scenery. After experiencing the roads you may - or may not - rent a car for a few days, but be prepared for a challenge. An added difficulty is that cars are left-hand drive (imported from the States)
but islanders drive on the left! Drivers should be aware that cycling is a popular sport here, groups often encountered on the challenging roads. Taxis are readily available and inexpensive.
A morning or afternoon with a stop for lunch familiarizes you with the capital, Road Town. Close to the harbour is a craft market. Among the ubiquitous t-shirts, sarongs and shell art, there are tempting art and artisans' studios for souvenirs and gifts. Main Street is quaint, containing boutiques, galleries and restaurants. There's a small museum in the Governor's House for an overview of the islands' colourful history, and tiny yet pleasant J.R. O'Neal Botanical Garden containing hummingbirds and butterflies and a little aviary whose peach-faced love bird is a show stopper! A picnic here would be pleasant, benches provided.
Sage Mountain National Park in the interior covers 92 acres and offers fine hiking trails. Close to the Park is the Skywalk Café for lunch or dinner with beautiful views on all sides and good food accompanied by a joke or two from the Glasgow-born owner. If you go for dinner, plan to be there before sunset for the fabulous views.
Ask your driver to take you to the Ridge Road murals - 25 paintings depicting island life by different local artists. Don't forget your camera. Frenchman's Cay is the touristy area of Tortola, a completely protected cove containing a marina for visiting and resident boaters who choose not to anchor out. Money is the international language spoken here with bars and restaurants, a fine food supermarket and fancy gift stores, including a Pussers store where the islands' famous Pussers rum - once the British Admiralty's choice for the daily 'tot' can be purchased for $8.50 a bottle.
The natural features of Virgin Gorda are quite different from Tortola. Virgin Gorda is rocky, sandy and although hilly in the interior, not as lush; however, coast and beaches are gorgeous. This island is home to some famous, expensive resorts such as Little Dix Bay and the Bitter End Yacht Club. The ferry ride over is a relaxing way to spend half an hour, and you won't want to leave this island nation without a photo of that famous beach area called The Baths.
This region, with boulder-strewn coves and anchored sailboats is famous but has become quite a tourist attraction, therefore busy thus don't spend the day on the beach there. Part of the BVI National Parks Trust, there's a $3 fee at the head of a rocky but well worn trail which will take you to the beach in five minutes. Lockers for your outer clothes allow a scramble through the boulders, sea-water pools and ladders to Devil's Bay. Use a waterproof bag for your camera, and wear shoes that can get wet. A pleasant and popular restaurant sits atop the trail with a large, view-blessed patio for a welcome drink or bite to eat and a pool which all guests are welcome to share.
When I revisit, I will stay again on beautiful Tortola, even if - as I hope - I can visit some of the other islands. On Tortola, many of the properties are set in the hills where they offer attractive views, breezes, no insects and many birds and butterflies. Small properties are located in, near or above the north-shore village of Crane Garden Bay where Sandra Henley, from Saskatchewan, owns the Mongoose Apartments set in the woods behind the little town. Marcia's lovely Lighthouse Villa apartments, described above, are also in Crane Garden Bay. Crane Garden Bay is a Mecca for visiting sailboats with its protected bay, safe beach and lots of sand-between-the-toes beach bars and restaurants. There's a well-stocked supermarket in town called Bobby's. Visiting yachts create a demand for good food and a selection of wines and spirits, which also makes
self-catering here pleasant and easy. In early April every property I visited had vacancies, but I was told reservations are necessary in the busy high season - December to March.
If you like a larger, up-scale, resort-style property Long Bay Resort offers rooms in its hillside hotel and villas on a glorious, mile-long beach, a nice place to visit for the informal beach restaurant where I ate. The Sugar Mill Restaurant in the Sugar Mill Hotel also has an excellent, expensive reputation.
Tortola boasts over 60 restaurants in all categories. If a place looks popular with locals, it's a good choice with all tastes catered to from big hamburgers to fine fish and the local fast-food, Indian-inspired roti.
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine www.thetravelsociety.com.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
There are no direct flights from Canada (or the U.S.) to the BVI (their landing strip will not accommodate large aircraft). The most direct route for Canadians is via San Juan, Puerto Rico, where frequent connecting service is offered by American Eagle, LIAT and Cape Air. The islands can also be reached from other Caribbean islands such as Antigua, St. Kitts and St. Martin. The BVI take a bit more effort to reach but they are unspoiled by mass tourism and definitely worth the effort. There's a $20 departure tax payable in cash or travellers cheques only.
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/