Words by Duncan Madden
The British Virgin Islands are a well-known aquatic playground for private yachts and luxury yacht charters in the Caribbean but there are hidden treasures for those willing to explore
Forming a natural border between the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea, the BVIs are a scattering of handsome islands, coves and unspoilt beaches widely regarded as one of the best Caribbean destinations to visit on a superyacht.
There are luxury resorts and world-class restaurants, but if you’re in search of solitude and the promise of something off the beaten path, this Caribbean archipelago still has a few hidden gems tucked away along its undulating coastlines. You may bump into Branson along the way, but Necker Island these are not.
1. Dive in wonderland
The British Virgin Islands are a diver’s dream, peppered with flourishing reefs, some of the best shipwreck dives in the world and an abundance of aquatic life; most head for the famed Rhone wreck or Norman Island Caves.
To avoid the underwater crowds, head south east from Tortola across the teal waters of Sir Francis Drake Channel towards Ginger Island, one of the last undeveloped private islands in the BVIs (currently for sale, if you’re interested).
Off the southern shore you’ll find Alice’s Wonderland, a coral garden every bit as colourful and enticing as its name suggests.
Sloping upwards from 24 to 12 metres deep (you can moor directly over it), push through the surface surge and you enter a dramatic seascape of pillar and star coral heads, home to purple and green sea fans and soft gorgonians dancing in the currents. Large grouper, spotted morays, jewfish and African pompano are common, as is the reclusive longsnout butterflyfish.
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“There’s no best time of year to see the spotted eagle rays,” says Mike Rowe, course director at Sail Caribbean Divers. “The water temperature is so consistent year-round, it keeps the marine life ‘local’. That doesn’t make them easy to find, though.”
Rowe’s favourite spot to spy the elusive rays is tucked away on the northern side of Norman Island, in Benures Bay. Spyglass Wall is named after Spyglass Hill, where pirates once kept watch for treasure-laden merchant ships crossing Sir Francis Drake Channel – as immortalised by Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island. The Wall drops sharply from three metres to a fine-sand bottom 18 metres below and is perfect for snorkellers and divers alike.
Alongside the spotted eagle rays there’s a great chance to see turtles, squid, tarpons, spadefish, plus southern and eagle rays cruising across the seabed.
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As it shears downhill, Gorda Peak spreads its rocky tendrils into the sea to reveal caves and grottos for the intrepid to explore above and below water.
Yachts approaching the dive site Mountain Point should keep an eye out for two mooring balls in front. Jump in with snorkelling gear and head for the cave in front of you – but beware the surge, which can push the weak and unaware onto sharp rocks and shallow reef.
Feeling brave? Take a deep breath, swim down and into the corridor between the rocks for about three metres, looking for the opening above. Your reward is your own private cave pool: glowing blue, glass-still water framed by sheer walls reaching up 12 metres to a vaulted ceiling and a small opening that casts shards of light. Simply magic and an experience that should be on everyone’s Caribbean bucket list…
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“Most folk head to the North Drop off Anegada where the fishing is great. But it gets too busy for me,” says big-game fisherman Captain Sandy.
“I prefer the South Drop, because only locals know about it and the fish there bite more.”
And he should know: Sandy holds the unofficial record for the biggest tuna, wahoo and blue marlin ever caught in these waters, the latter more than four metres long and weighing just over 500 kilos. It took him more than six hours to reel in. Those marlin are best found between June and October, but Sandy’s tip is the August full moon, when he “guarantees” you’ll catch something big. To find it? “Head south west for about 15 miles from the south tip of Virgin Gorda and you’ll be right over it. Or come and ask me and I’ll take you there myself.” Speak to a local – everyone knows him.
Picture courtesy of Anegada Tourist Board
The surf can be fickle in the BVIs, but it’s always worth having your board. On flat days, you can still make use of it with a paddle trip through the largest remaining pristine mangrove-forest network in the archipelago, Hans Creek.
Just minutes from Trellis Bay on Beef Island, Surf School BVI is the sole key-holder to this forest. Private tours start upwind at the end of the mangrove lagoon and drift outside the reef downwind, circling back through the lagoon.
It’s a wonderful opportunity to see roosting sea birds, and turtles, barracuda, bonefish and shark pups glide through vibrant waters, inches below. This is the perfect place to get a rare glimpse into what makes these islands so special.
Start the day with the best johnnycakes in the Carib at Sugar Apple (one mile south of central Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda). At lunch, grab a seat among the locals and watch Miss Cynthia cook; her stewed chicken and spiced mahi mahi are worth visiting the BVIs for all on their own.
For something more heart-stopping, follow the North Sound Road up to local secret Hog Heaven, and get your hands sticky. Gorge on barbecue ribs, sip lethal rum-laced mamajuanas (“steeped in local tree barks” claims chef Blondie) and feast your eyes on the best views in the BVIs: the North Sound’s myriad blues, Necker and Mosquito islands, and Larry Page’s Eustatia (two of the most exclusive private islands owned by celebrities).
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