When we dream of 'getting away from it all', our mind typically envisions a white-powder-sand beach, warm turquoise water, and a piña colada. A lone palm tree provides shade on our own little deserted island as we gaze out to our sailboat, reminding us that, where we are, no one else is, and that's just the way it should be.
For two weeks, this daydream was our reality. We gathered our friends (8 total), rented a catamaran, and together sailed around the British Virgin Islands. Our itinerary: find our own piece of paradise and spend as much time there over our two-week vacation as possible. Let's just say we didn't have to search very far.
Our home for two weeks in paradise was the 4-cabin Oxia Lagoon 420. Designed to maximize comfort and space while cruising, the layouts of the two hulls in the 4-cabin version are symmetrical: each cabin has a central double bed with a private bath, large hull windows and closet.
In the galley, a full kitchen and dining area are next to the chart table and navigation station. Above deck, the cockpit with its large bench seats and table is protected from the sun and bad weather by a rigid bimini top, and the foredeck is ideal for relaxing.
We arrived on a small, eight-passenger plane to Road Town, Tortola, the largest of the islands. Thankfully the pilot didn't need any help as Tim was too busy looking at the scenery in the copilot's chair.
After stocking our boat with food and supplies, and receiving a 15-minute introduction from the charter company, we were ready to set off. We raised the sails and made our way across the Sir Francis Drake Channel.
Upon successfully crossing Sir Francis Drake Channel we dropped anchor in The Bight, the largest bay on Norman Island, where we would spend the night. Norman Island itself is steeped in fantastic tales of pirates and treasure. It is Norman Island that Robert Louis Stevenson used as his model island in "Treasure Island", and for good reason. The island has a documented history of pirate booty being stowed upon it.
"And thereupon we all entered the cave. It was a large, airy place, with a little spring and a pool of clear water, overhung with ferns. The floor was sand...in a far corner, only duskily flickered over by the blaze, I beheld great heaps of coin and quadrilaterals built of bars of gold." ~ Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
In August 1750, a Spanish treasure galleon named Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe sought shelter from a storm on the North Carolina coast. The crew mutinied and the treasure, said to consist of (amongst other things) 55 chests of silver coins, was loaded into two small boats, one of which was manned by Owen Lloyd. The first vessel perished, but Lloyd escaped to St. Croix.
After disposing of some of the money, he proceeded to Norman Island where the treasure was buried. Lloyd and his crew were later arrested in St. Eustatius, but word of the treasure spread, and residents of Tortola went to Norman Island and dug it up for themselves.
There the historical record ends, but local rumors abound that a member of a well-known local family had been fishing near Norman Island and took shelter in one of the caves on the Western coast of Norman Island during a storm. When the fortunate fisherman woke the next morning, a large number of rocks had broken off into his small craft, as had a small chest, supposedly filled with gold doubloons. The story cannot be verified as no legal application for treasure trove was ever made, but it is known that members of the family ceased being fisherman and left Tortola at about the same time to open some shops in Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas.
Rumors persist of more pirate gold to be found on Norman Island, although to date no applications have ever been made for treasure trove.
With all of this rich history, our first order of business was snorkling for treasure! We quickly jumped in the water and while we didn't find buried chests, we did discover a large number of Milk Conch shells! Milk Conch are typically smaller than the well known Queen Conch, getting their name from the iridescent white color on the inside of their shells.
The next morning we left Norman Island and made for Fisherman's Wharf. On the way, we stopped at a series of four rocky pinnacles rising out of the ocean known as The Indians. This area is known for its diverse coral and sea life, as well as an underwater tunnel.
Soper's Hole, aka Tortola's West End, is a kind of tropical urban "gunkhole," a nautical term for a delightful spot to anchor. Soper's Hole has a quaint charm, and after a morning of snorkling we were looking for a place to relax further and enjoy a little shopping and island fare.
OUR DESERTED ISLAND
After having our fill of fresh seafood in Soper's Hole, we decided we needed more relaxation. Specifically, our own personal island. Turning north around the west corner of Tortola, we made for a little island just east of Jost Van Dyke known as Sandy Spit. A fitting name, the entire island is smaller than a football field. Our own private island, complete with a palm tree, dinner roasted over a fire in the sand, and Terry serenading us with his ukulele. Deciding we had found our paradise, we methodically unloaded food and drinks on 'our' island via numerous dinghy trips (right). This place was absolute paradise.
Jost Van Dyke - The Bubbly Pool
We spent the night anchored just off of Sandy Spit, in waters also protected by Jost Van Dyke and Little Jost Van Dyke islands. The next morning a few of the more adventurous decided to take a long dinghy ride over to Jost Van Dyke in search of a hike which would lead to some tide pools.
A short hike across the island brought us to a place known as the Bubbly Pool. As the large waves crossing the Atlantic ocean encounter the island they are funneled through a small channel in the rock before dispersing into a deeper pool near the shore.
This natural formation creates a fun place to play, allowing the force of the waves to carry you into the pool. In our experience, the name Bubbly Pool may not have conveyed just how powerful these waves truly are!
CANE GARDEN BAY
After exploring Jost Van Dyke we made our way back to the north side of Tortola to our next overnight moorage, Cane Garden Bay. Widely considered one of the best and most beautiful bays not only in the islands, but the world, we had the privilege of spending the night in its calm and protected waters.
After some snorkeling and stand up paddle boarding, we took the dinghy to shore for a stroll on the beach and some drinks as we watched the sunset.
Continuing our course east along the north side of Tortola, we made our way to Marina Cay, a tiny 8-acre island protected by the Caminoe islands and Scrub Island to the north, Virgin Gorda to the east, and Tortola to the south and west. Further, a small reef extends beyond Marina Cay, making the waters very calm here, and a perfect place to drop anchor for the night.
That evening we decided to have a night out. It can be quite a challenge to stay dry in nice clothes when taking the dinghy to shore. Thankfully, there were no accidents, and we made it to shore on Marina Cay, home to Pusser's Restaurant.
Pusser's gets its name from the daily issue of rum given to members of the Royal Navy. The sea and rum are synonymous, and for more than 300 years, Great Britain's Royal Navy issued a daily rum ration on board Their Majesties' ships. This tradition, one of the longest in seafaring history, continued unbroken from 1655 to July 31, 1970, on which day the Navy stopped their daily issue of Pusser's rum.
The next morning we set off early for the 17-nautical-mile journey to Anegada. Unlike the other volcanic islands, Anegada is a flat coral atoll, surrounded by an 18-mile long shallow reef, and ship graveyard, known as Horseshoe Reef. At its highest point the island doesn't reach 30 ft. above sea level.
It makes for a difficult journey as setting off from Tortola you cannot see Anegada on the horizon, and therefore must rely on your instruments for guidance as well as to help navigate a reef that has claimed hundreds of ships. The miles of pure, untouched, white-sand beaches are well worth the risk!
Anegada is a large island, nearly 15-square-miles, and because most of it is not navigable by boat due to its surrounding reef, we decided to rent a truck for a day to see more of the island. Despite being the most isolated of the British Virgin Islands, Anegada is home to nearly 300 people who live in the only village on the island, known simply as The Settlement.
On the north side of the island is Cow Wreck Beach, or as we named it, Conch-a-palooza! Snorkeling just off the beach here we found countless conch shells half-buried in seagrass.
If the conch shells weren't amazing enough, when we returned to the pristine white sand beach to relax we noticed we had the entire beach to ourselves. A lonely bar without any staff, where payment for self-made drinks is on the honor system, was our only company.
Being the northern-most island of the British Virgin Islands, Anegada is exposed to the swells traveling across the Atlantic. Couple these swells with its large reef and there is great potential for surfing. Cameron was eager to get on his board, while the rest of us continued our search for conch shells.
After two days at Anegada we made the long journey back to the main chain of islands to restock at Leverick Bay on Virgin Gorda with fuel and water before heading back out to Saba Rock (right) and the Bitter End.
SABA ROCK AND THE BITTER END
Saba Rock is another small island, only about an acre-and-a-half in size, most of which is taken up by the resort of the same name. Protected by Eustatia, Prickly Pear, and Virgin Gorda islands, it made for a great place to moor for the night.
On the north side of Virgin Gorda, facing Saba Rock, the Bitter End Yacht club is a world class resort and yachting destination. There were many nice, expensive yachts to admire here. The name itself is believed to have a nautical origin, a bitter being a turn of a cable around posts, or bitts, on a ship's deck, and the bitter end meaning "the part of the cable that stays inboard." Thus, when a rope is paid out to the bitter end, no more remains.
Eustatia island is a short dinghy ride to the north of Saba Rock. The waters here are very shallow, so careful maneuvering was required to avoid coral heads. The island itself is believed to be owned by Google co-founder Larry Page. A neighboring island just to the north, Necker island is owned by fellow entrepreneur Richard Branson. Whether or not Eustatia is privately owned, we were not dissuaded from running our dinghy on its shores and snorkeling the shallow waters just beyond them. In terms of variety of shells, Eustatia took top honors during our time in the islands. We found all variety of conch shells, queen, milk, evening fighting conchs, along with helmets, trumpets, and starfish, among others.
Navigating south, along the eastern side of Virgin Gorda, we stopped for the night in Savannah Bay, and had the entire bay to ourselves.
Our next stop, the Baths, is a unique national park on Virgin Gorda's southwest coast. Getting there was a little tricky, as we weren't allowed to run the dinghy up on the beach, but this is the BVI, and the water is warm, so swimming is not a problem.
The Baths is unlike any other beach in the Caribbean. Its white, sandy beaches are framed by gigantic granite boulders, some of these with diameters over 40 feet. The formations are truly majestic. Hiking over and crawling under these behemoths leads to hidden pools and private beaches.
If sailing, beach-combing, surfing, stand up paddle boarding, hiking, and snorkeling weren't enough fun, before we set off from Tortola a few of us bought fishing licenses so we could try our luck while cruising around the islands. The charter company set us up with some rods and reels, Cameron packed some tackle, and the fish were willing sport. We caught small tuna, jacks, mackerel, snapper, and Andrew even hooked into a small reef shark!
As we began to make our way west, back through the Sir Francis Drake Channel along the south coast of Tortola, we decided to moor at Cooper Island for the evening. Taking the dinghy to shore we discovered a lively scene at the Cooper Island Beach Club, complete with good food, games, and shopping along the boardwalk. Little did we know that just beneath the waves out in the bay awaited some of the best snorkeling we would ever see...
The variety of marine life that we saw near Cooper Island was some of the best we had seen thus far. We saw barracuda, tarpon, all sorts of tropical fish, squid, eels, turtles, puffer fish, sharks, and even spotted eagle rays.
WRECK OF THE RMS RHONE
On October 29, 1987, The RMS Rhone was in Great Harbor of Peter Island. Rhone's Master, Robert F. Wooley, was slightly worried by the dropping barometer and darkening clouds, but because it was October and hurricane season was thought to be over, they stayed in the harbor. The first half of the storm, later known as the San Narciso Hurricane, passed without much damage, but the ferocity worried the captain as their anchor had dragged and they might be driven onto the shore of Peter Island. They decided to head away from the rocks and out to the safety of the open sea, strapping the passengers to their beds, which was normal safety practice at the time.
As they were making their exit from the islands the wind suddenly switched directions, throwing them into the rocks. The ship broke in two, and cold seawater made contact with her hot boilers which had been running at full steam, causing them to explode. The ship sank immediately, the bow in about 80 ft. of water, the stern in 30 ft. 123 people were known to lose their lives that day, and were buried on the nearby Salt Island, of which the wreck lies just offshore.
Today, the wreck is a popular dive spot, but because it lies in such shallow waters you can just as easily experience it, and its many inhabitants, with a snorkel.
Our last night aboard the boat was spent in Sprat Bay of Peter Island. The waters here were so protected that not a ripple was felt or seen all evening, except for the turtles swimming around our boat. Just south of Road Town, the 1,800-acre Peter Island is the largest privately owned island in the BVI, currently held by the owners of Amway. The island is also home to the luxurious Peter Island Resort. No matter how nice the resort may be, we would all contend, nothing can beat our home on the sea these last two weeks.
DEAD CHEST ISLAND
According to legend, the pirate Blackbeard marooned 15 of his crew on Dead Chest Island for a number of days as punishment, leaving them with nothing but a cutlass and a bottle of rum each.
For our crew, this too was the last stop. We anchored just off the island for one last snorkel before heading back to Tortola to return the boat and head home.
Fifteen men on the dead man's chest
...Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
...Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
BACK TO TORTOLA
In two weeks, we had circumnavigated the British Virgin Islands, and the only thing we wanted was to do it again. We were able to explore the islands at our leisure, spending each morning enjoying our current paradise, and planning where to find our next one. We didn't have to search, paradise was everywhere, and best of all we were able to enjoy it with the company of amazing friends.