With picture-perfect beaches, sprawling private islands and world-class hotels, The British Virgin Islands is a tropical paradise like no other

 

Words: Will Moffitt

When Laurance Rockefeller first laid eyes on Virgin Gorda he must have thought he was dreaming. In 1958 the billionaire conservationist stumbled on this untamed stretch of tropical paradise with its verdant hills rising from sandy beaches, hidden coves and ancient volcanic boulders.

Rockefeller purchased a half-mile crescent of soft white sand on the island’s southwestern shore, tucking cottages in and around this palm tree-shaded idyll. Six years later Little Dix Bay opened as a new style of island retreat, crafted from local materials that married comfort with conservation.

The luxury hideaway has since hosted billionaires, conservationists, celebrities and even royalty – Elizabeth II and Prince Philip ventured here on their grand Caribbean tour.

That regal connection is but one facet of the islands’ storied history. Famously christened by Christopher Columbus after the legend of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 virgins, The British Virgin Islands (BVI) comprise around 60 Caribbean islands that were first populated by South American tribes around 100 BC.

The Spanish Empire claimed the islands in the early 16th century, but never settled them, jostling for control of the region with their European counterparts. In 1672 the English captured the largest settlement of Tortola, annexing Anegada and Virgin Gorda eight years later, establishing military bases and sugar cane plantations on these shores.

Granted autonomy in 1967, signs of the island's colonial past are not always inconspicuous. At Rosewood Little Dix Bay guests are assigned personal “butlers” and near my stilted Tree House Suite is a red post box, standing incongruously amongst swaying palm trees and crawling lizards.

The property was brutally withered by Hurricane Irma months shy of completing a hefty restoration but has since reprised itself as a grand dame of the Caribbean, located 59 miles from the Puerto Rico mainland.

Below: Little Dix Bay which opened in 1964 as an eco-retreat that married comfort with conservation

 

 

Clustered around a complex of thatched buildings, the hotel is in keeping with Rockefeller’s eco-friendly ethos – blending five-star facilities and impeccable service with vernacular styling to form a tropical haven. Along with the dedicated butler service there’s a calming hilltop spa, fitness centre, tennis and pickleball courts, and a hotel farm.

It’s also home to three of the island’s best restaurants, each dabbling in a different speciality. Sugar Mill serves up tapas and fresh seafood, while Pavilion treats guests to slow-cooked local delicacies and sweeping sea vistas. Reef House, the resort’s chic beachside restaurant, offers a Mexican-inspired menu with tequila cocktails, empanadas and irresistible fresh lobster tacos.

Meanwhile, for a night cap the hotel’s legendary Rum Room is hard to beat: packed to the rafters with rare and aged rums that are blended, strained and spiced into refreshing cocktails.

In keeping with its colonial legacies BVI rum is Pusser’s, a stiff spirit once produced by the British Royal Navy, that infuses the Painkiller, a signature cocktail made from cream of coconut and fruit juice best enjoyed after a day of seafaring.

With its calm waters, steady winds and well-equipped marinas, it’s no surprise that BVI is the sailing capital of the world. Dream Caribbean Blue, a company delivering all-inclusive yacht charters established by husband-and-wife team Christina and Gregory Clum, should be the first port of call for those seeking to traverse these seas in a custom built catamaran.

Hosted by an uber friendly and diligent crew you’ll slip idly through emerald islands and cays, basking in the midday Caribbean sun, cocktail in hand, before dropping anchor and diving into shimmering azure waters.

The BVI has a host of must-see maritime features, including The Baths and Devil’s Bay National Park where a jutting mass of granite boulders sculpted into being by ancient volcanic activity loom over secluded beaches and secret rock pools.

Snorkel The Indians, a remote archipelago of islets populated by barracudas, zebra-patterned Sergeant Majors, vibrantly coloured parrot fish and – if you’re really lucky – a turtle roaming the turquoise-hued depths.

Then drop anchor at Norman island, an untamed wilderness that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. And be sure to cap off the day with a drink at Willy T, a decommissioned tanker turned floating bar that has been dealing in late night revelry since 1989.

Below: The legendary Rum Room at Little Dix Bay, and the impossibly beautiful Guana Island

 

 

Finally, no trip to BVI is complete without a stay on Guana Island. Named after an Iguana-shaped outcrop on its northwestern coast, the sprawling 850 acre private island is jaw-droppingly beautiful: think chalk white beaches, lush layers of tropical forest, undulating mountains and cacti-strewn hills.

With only 18 rooms sprinkled along a scenic ridge, the retreat has positioned itself as a secluded refuge, attracting luminaries from art, literature, politics, and industry. Boasting seven beaches, an orchard, flamingo sanctuary, dozens of hiking trails and low-key dining options – the bar is self-service and open to all – it’s a place to see the Caribbean before it went public; to marvel open mouthed at its raw and rugged beauty just as early explorers once did.

Perhaps most impressive about Gauna Island is its residents. Not only its ever-smiling genial staff but the Stout Iguanas, who roam comedically about the place like they own it. On my final day, two of them crawl in my path and I feel a surge of full-blooded jealousy that these reptiles get to call this place home.

 

 

British Airways offers return flights to BVI from London Gatwick via Antigua.

Stays at Guana Island start from £3,599 pp with two sharing a Sea View Cottage for 7-nights with Tropical Sky. Flights from London to Tortola and boat transfer to Guana Island included. www.tropicalsky.co.uk

Stays at Rosewood Little Dix Bay start from $1,020 per night in an Ocean View Cottage. Treehouse Suite starts from $1,875 per night. www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/little-dix-bay-virgin-gorda

Seven-night sailings onboard Dream Caribbean Blue start from $40,000 for 10 guests, with a captain and chef. www.dreamcaribbeanblue.com

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