Surf, swim and sail the alluring Caribbean waters off the British Virgin Islands’ tranquil Tortola.
Tortola, the capital of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), is all about enjoying the Caribbean Sea. The island is hugely popular as a base for chartering sailboats, is renowned for pristine scuba-diving reefs and draws surfers from all over the world to visit its north shore’s perfect waves. When visitors dry off from ocean fun, they can explore a lush, volcanic island characterized by steep, hilly roads with enough twists and turns to make one dizzy, but with nearly every turn unveiling yet another exquisite white, crescent-shaped beach to enjoy on your Caribbean vacation.
Tortola, which means “land of turtle doves” in Spanish, is situated just northeast of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), collectively forming the Virgin Islands archipelago “discovered” by Christopher Columbus. Amerindians/Pre-Columbians actually first settled the BVI in 600 B.C.; the islands were more recently occupied by the Dutch, followed by the British, with BVI officially becoming a British self-governing territory in 1967.
Visitors to Tortola typically arrive either via ferries from the USVI (Native Son or Road Town Fast Ferry) or via air, primarily through San Juan. Hotels and charter boats are about 15 to 45 minutes by taxi from the arrival points.
Tortola serves as the northern backbone to Sir Francis Drake Channel, a swath of water that cuts through the middle of the long BVI chain, the islands on each side buffering the channel for easy passage, hence its status as a sailing haven. Most BVI charters are picked up from Tortola bases such as at Nanny Cay Marina, a naturally sheltered marina with restaurants, boutiques, provisioning and more.
Nanny Cay Village within the marina offers luxury villas, starting at $2,000 for a minimum five-night stay, a perfect respite before embarking on one’s sea legs, while Nanny Cay Hotel offers more modest accommodations; rates for doubles start at $120 per night in the summer season (May 1 to Oct. 31), $180 per night in the winter (Nov. 1 to April 30). [Read more about Sailing in the British Virgin Islands.]
Favorite sailing destinations around Tortola include the natural wonders of The Baths on Virgin Gorda, where huge granite boulders form caverns and grottos along the beach’s edge. Jost Van Dyke, the most popular day trip destination, is renowned for its beach bars like Foxy’s and a casual feel that’s the antithesis of contrived Caribbean settings. The Bight, a bay at Norman Island, is a very popular anchorage, once a hideout for swashbuckling pirates and now home to Willy T, a floating bar/restaurant, and caves nearby through which visitors can snorkel or dive. The list of gorgeous sailing spots goes on. [Read more about Virgin Gorda travel and Jost Van Dyke day trips.]
Long known for some of the prettiest reefs and the most famous shipwreck in the Caribbean, Tortola also boasts many prized mooring spots that are also great for Caribbean diving. The wreck of the Royal Mail Ship (R.M.S.) Rhone sank in a fierce hurricane off of Salt Island in 1867. At the time, it was a custom to strap in passengers to keep them from falling from their bunks, resulting in all perishing in the hurricane but one lucky Italian and some crew.
The ship’s remains are amazing to view, scattered over a football-size field with the colorfully encrusted bow, crow’s nest and even the Italian’s “lucky” porthole all teaming with fish. Blue Water Divers gives a thorough guided tour of the wreck site. A single-tank dive starts at $70.
Another favorite dive site is Santa Monica rock near Norman Island with tons of ledges and pinnacles playing home to eels, octopus, enormous crabs and graceful eagle rays. Near to that is Angelfish Reef where you may spot an elusive seahorse and just about every other Caribbean underwater creature imaginable. Fort Recovery Beachfront Villas (standard suites start at $210 per night) and Nanny Cay Village are both convenient to diving.
For a special stay on Tortola, head to the north shore where it’s a surfer’s dream and there are two charming hotels in Apple Bay. One, the Sugar Mill, is a wonderful small hotel set amidst 17th-century sugar plantation ruins with gorgeous accommodations at not outlandish prices (rates start at $240 per night). The Sugar Mill restaurant is also arguably one of the finest in the Caribbean featuring West Indian and Caribbean fare in a romantic stone-walled setting.
Just down the road is Sebastian’s on the Beach Hotel & Restaurant with an easygoing charm that parallels the casual surfing crowd that frequents the 35-unit hotel. There are rooms or suites for all budgets; the beach rooms are quite nice (from $145 per night during surf season) and the cliff villas even prettier (from $200 per night). Ask about weekly plans or less costly garden rooms.
The surfing is pretty good, too. Steve Sprechman of Miami says about the location, “To me this is absolute paradise, perfect waves that are easy to get to, a hotel right on the beach and when you’re not surfing, you’re sitting around the beach talking to all the other surfers.”
Many of the surfers have been visiting for more than 20 years from as far away as California and even Guam. A big draw aside from the “perfect waves” is that there’s no “localism,”—no one claiming the waves as their own as in other popular surfing spots. Surf season is November through April. Sebastian’s rents surfboards for $12 for up to four hours and $25 for the day.
When the sun’s gone down, the north shore of Tortola also offers some of the island’s liveliest restaurants and nightlife. Bomba Shack by Sebastian’s is infamous for full moon parties that draw hundreds to the quirky seaside bar where donated patron panties hang from the ceiling. Close by is Cane Garden Bay, home of a gorgeous beach and popular beachside restaurant/bars like Myett’s and Quito’s. Or, many visitors make the short trek to Jolly Roger on the west end of Tortola, which is always lively.
So what else is there to do on the island? The main town, Road Town, is not particularly well suited for tourists, and instead is aimed more at business such as offshore banking, which is a staple of the BVI economy. However, the French bistro in town, Le Cabanon, is good for fine dining and the Sky Bar, a quarter mile above town, offers wonderful sunset views.
Other touring highlights on Tortola include a hike atop Sage Mountain, a national park featuring the highest peak on the island (1,716 feet) with great vistas and bird watching; a visit to the Callwood Rum Distillery in Cane Garden Bay where rum is produced much the same as 200 years earlier; or a swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery near Road Town.