Hellooooo out there! It’s been awhile since we’ve talked, so I hope you all have enjoyed your holidays and are having a wonderful 2015! We are thinking of you.
Now first things first, have you ever even heard of Tortola? If not, no sweat — we hadn’t either until 4 years ago, when we took our first vacation to our now favorite place — the British Virgin Islands.
As you well know, we have a serious crush on Jost Van Dyke. But before claiming it as our favorite BVI, we felt we had to give the other islands a run at the title.
Last year we gave Virgin Gorda a shot, and this year we visited Tortola for 4 days before heading to Jost. Here are our first impressions of Tortola. We hope you enjoy!
Tortola is the largest (~12 mi x 3 mi) and most populated (~24,000 folks) island in the BVIs. For that reason alone, it is the least appealing to us — yes, when we think BVI’s, we think solitude and peace. So Tortola was already a step behind in our mind when we showed up. (Sad, but true. And yes we know we’re spoiled!)
That said, Tortola is GORGEOUS. Every island in the BVIs is gorgeous, who are we kidding?!?!? So, really, our comments only regard the relative gorgeousness of one island to the other. Every choice is personal. Our best tip for the BVI’s: Know yourself and what you like to do, and pick your island (or boat) accordingly. There is something for everyone!
Let’s start with the views – no matter where you are in Tortola you will have a gorgeous view of neighboring islands, whether the US or British Virgin Islands.
Sigh. I’m still ecstatic that something so stunning is so relatively close to us!
Getting oriented in Tortola
Arriving in West End, Tortola was easy (by ferry from St. Thomas) but getting oriented was slightly harder. With a rented SUV and a sometimes helpful map, we set out on Day 1 to get our bearings.
Let’s start by saying no 4-cylinder vehicle (as our trusty, but gutless, Daihatsu Terios was) is a match for the hills of Tortola. Jeff grinded up hills in the lowest gear, as I was certain either the engine would fall out, or the car would just fly over backwards from being on such a steep incline. Fortunately, neither happened. But it made for 4 days of comical conjecture.
A simple map of Tortola is below; for a more interactive map from the Ultimate BVIs, click here. We’ll start by providing some overall impressions of the island, then move to the important stuff — the beaches!!
Besides the steep roads, the other notable was the lack of helpful signage, or in hindsight, maybe it really was our map. Either way, we spent a bit of time saying “is that a driveway? or a road?” only to deduce that surely it was a driveway, before having to turn around because indeed it was the road we were looking for!
During this “exploration” of the island (let’s not call it lost), we came across some soon-to-be familiar characters. Tortola is a land of roosters (they are everywhere and crow at all hours! and their progeny are everywhere too!) and billy goats (they’ll just as easily stop traffic as graze on the side of the road). The egrets and donkey (my favorite) were lesser knowns, but still adorable and had to be included.
While amused by the wildlife, we also noticed a plethora of wall murals around the island. Clearly, Tortolans are proud of their heritage – from murals about working life, to the role of church in the community, to their distillery heritage (rum, anyone?), to generally colorful wall paintings.
Even on our first day, this gave us a good insight into the connected community that is Tortola. A very proud people.
And last but not least, the lack of clean drinking water was something I had trouble getting used to!
In both Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke, the water was fine to drink. But in Tortola, you had to buy bottled water from the store or the below vending machines around the island.
Per our villa staff, the locals can drink the water since they are used to it, but they recommend that we do not. So I’m not 100% sure what is in it, but rest assured, we drank bottled!
There are other environmental issues still to be upgraded in Tortola (and across the BVIs), in particular, waste removal and recycling. Currently sewage is dumped into the harbor by Road Town. There are signs warning of sewerage outflow, thus no swimming. That’s hard to see, in such a stunningly beautiful natural environment.
Currently there is no recycling program either, however, a non-profit organization called Green VI is currently collecting glass bottles of all colors and turning them into art. We bought a suncatcher for our kitchen window, to support their work. Their work truly was beautiful.
Before heading to the beaches, we’ll start with Road Town — the largest city and capital of the BVIs — with ~9,000 inhabitants. Road Town is where the ferries and cruise ships come in. These make Tortola one of the easiest places to stay if you want to take day trips to other islands in the US or British VIs.
As we learned, it’s pretty much closed up on Sundays (when we went, of course), and it’s full of taxi trucks ferrying cruise ship passengers to and fro most other days. So, really, unless we needed something in particular we steered clear of Road Town.
And what, you ask, could be important enough for us to head to Road Town? Two things — the ferry to Anegada (more on that in a later post) and chicken chips.
Yep, you got it, Jeff finally found his beloved chicken-flavored potato chips. On one of our previous trips to Jost, we had learned of a British grocery store in Road Town that sells British products to ex-pats. We hunted it down and came out with $20 worth of potato chips of all flavors (but mainly chicken).
For you Americans who have no idea what this is all about — Kiwis (and Brits) have the most interesting potato chip flavors (see below) — and it’s one of the things Jeff misses most. Yay, Road Town!!!!!
Another notable in Road Town was the Botanical Gardens. We only had 20+ minutes to scoot through them before heading off to our ferry, but they definitely deserve a return trip. Not too many flowers were in bloom at that time, but the people were friendly, gracious and lovely to talk to. We’ll go back some day.
West End/Soper’s Hole
The West End of Tortola (in the lower left portion of the above map) holds another small ferry terminal and really only exists for that purpose, from what we can tell. The ferry to Jost Van Dyke leaves from West End, so we visit this area on every trip.
Nearby Soper’s Hole is a marina for the day trip charters and boats mooring overnight or for the season.
The view below is from West End overlooking Soper’s Hole with Frenchman’s Cay in the background. Idyllic.
The Beaches of Tortola
Now for us, the beaches were the best part. The driving around Tortola could be a bit “stressful” (nothing like the stress of the real world, mind you, but harrowing, let’s say). So heading down to the beaches was a wonderful escape.
Starting from the West and going East (follow along with the map above if you like), here are the beaches of Tortola.
We had heard a lot of “buzz” about Smuggler’s Cove, so, of course, we had to go. In hindsight, some of that buzz was from our rental car guy — who told us that the road was “not paved” and to drive carefully.
He was correct. We would definitely recommend driving to Smuggler’s Cove from Long Bay rather from Soper’s Hole, and a high clearance car wouldn’t go astray.
The route over the hill from Soper’s Hole was interesting/treacherous, driving on gravel roads with dry gulches every so often in case of rains. Thank goodness for Jeff’s GPS, and his excellent driving skills, or we would have never made it to this beach.
As you can see, it’s quite lovely, but we’re not sure it warrants the rough drive. I imagine people come here because it’s “buzzed” about, rather than for actual perks — or at least from what we saw.
Unfortunately for us, though, the winds were unusually high for all 4 days of our stay, so no snorkeling was possible. That made it difficult to tell which beaches were calmer than others, since they were all angry! It’s possible that Smuggler’s Cove is known for its snorkeling…(?)
Other notables about Smuggler’s Cove was that there are no beach bars/restaurants, so all food/water/tasty beverages for humans or pups alike must be brought in. From what we could tell, most beaches on Tortola were pup-friendly. What a good life for a pup!
And for us, the view of Jost Van Dyke in the background was also a lovely sight to behold!
Long Bay Beach is aptly named given that it’s a mile long of white sandy beach. We visited it near the middle, and the view in each direction was beautiful but different.
To the right (east), the long stretch of sand culminates in a large imposing structure that I assume is a hotel.
Looking to the left (west), it culminates in a rock outcropping — completely natural. I bet it’s not hard to figure out which we preferred!
But our favorite of it all was the Nature Boy Beach bar. We love the creative beach bars that characterize beaches all around the BVIs, and this was no exception. A guy named Winston (Nature Boy, apparently he’s on Facebook) created this bar from natural materials. A wonderful place to grab a cold beverage while chilling on such a gorgeous beach!
Apple Bay/Capoon’s Bay/Carrot Bay
We’re still not exactly sure where each of these bays begin and end but Apple Bay extends into Cappoon’s Bay (site of the world famous Bomba’s shack, ok, maybe BVI famous), which extends into Carrot Bay.
The view below is from Capoon’s Bay looking toward Carrot Bay. The notable difference here being that there is very little beach — most of it is rock. This is a great surfer’s beach and there were many pelicans as well — so likely nice fishing around there.
Though now that I mention it, I don’t think we saw one fisherman during our whole time on Tortola. Odd.
And what does any good surfing beach need? A surf shack. This is Bomba’s shack, which I had only heard of from a friend a week before our trip, but had to find. Apparently his “full moon” parties are the best in the BVIs, involving drinking, dancing, girls losing clothing, and special ‘shroom tea.
We’re too old and practical for such carry on, but I’m sure it was a hoot.
Sports Illustrated covered this bar back in 1999 as the “wildest bar in the Caribbean.” From the talk we heard around the island (full moon parties are a big deal), it doesn’t seem like much has changed in 15+ years.
Cane Garden Bay
Continuing on around the coast was Cane Garden Bay — the one that reminded us the most of White Bay on Jost Van Dyke. Lined with beach bars/restaurants with many sailboats moored at sea, this beach had the touristy Caribbean feel to it. Not overcrowded, but just enough energy to know that people were around.
The only downside of our visit here was the drone that someone was playing with. It drove the local dog nuts — he barked like mad until the man finally took it down. Dogs know nature and drones aren’t natural! Good dog…
A quick walk across the street from Cane Garden Bay is the Callwood Rum Distillery. The Callwood family has been distilling rum on this site since the 1800′s and it is claimed to be the oldest continuously operated pot distillery in the Eastern Caribbean. Not too shabby!
For $1 a person, we tasted 4 rums. From the white (moonshine-esque) rum to the sweet lady’s rum (also called the horny rum/panty dropper). These Carib’s have an obsession with ladies losing their clothes!
After a quick history lesson from the young Callwood who helped us with our tasting, we headed back to Cane Garden Bay to watch the sun set.
This is a very hard life.
Brewer’s Bay is where we stayed during our time on Tortola. We chose it for its isolation. This was confirmed as we entered Customs and the young agent asked us where we were staying.
We responded “Icis Villas in Brewer’s Bay.” He looked at us funny and said “You know it’s isolated over there, right?” We said yep, that’s why we chose it. He kinda rolled his eyes as if to say “to each his own.”
Indeed, it is a quiet bay set amongst a tropical palm tree-laden valley. We didn’t spend near enough time there (opting to peruse the island instead), but its beauty, isolation, and lack of crowds really was up our alley.
The below pic overlooks Brewer’s Bay…
There is a beach bar on each end of the beach, both very quiet and closed daily by 4pm (we never got there in time!). There is also a campground right on the beach with elevated platforms to pitch your tent on, for those who are so inclined. What a breathtaking view for a campground!
Last but not least was Josiah’s Bay. If you’re keeping track on the map above, there are several bays in there (from Shark to Trunk) that we never could find, but anywho. [Again, it was the dilemma of "is this a driveway or is this a road?" Eventually we just stuck to the main road.]
Josiah’s Bay was another surfer’s paradise, and we encountered yet another drone there, presumably taking pix of a fairly good surfer who was riding the waves.
And that concludes our tour and impressions of Tortola, the largest island in the BVIs. If we missed anything, please let us know! Until then, we are on our way to Jost Van Dyke for some more relaxation…
Again, happy new year to all!