The British Virgin Islands (BVI) is a British overseas territory, located in the north of the Caribbean Sea to the east of both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. They are part of the Leeward Island chain. The approximate co-ordinates are 18° 20′ N 64° 40′ W. The archipelago of the Virgin Islands archipelago is made up of the US Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.
The British Virgin Islands enjoy a sub-tropical climate, moderated by the trade winds. Temperatures remain fairly steady year round with a daily maximum of around 29°C in the summer and 25°C in the winter. The BVI averages about 115 cm of rain per year, although this is higher in the hills and coast is drier. The wettest months are September through to December. The British Virgin Islands are in an area that can see hurricanes from June to October and this effectively limits the sailing season to November – May.
Amongst the many attractions on the British Virgin Islands are the; numerous white sandy beaches; the baths on Virgin Gorda, snorkelling on the coral reefs near Anegada; the well-known bars of Jost Van Dyke Island.
The British Virgin Islands include the main islands of Anegada, Jost Van Dyke, Tortola and Virgin Gorda together with over fifty other smaller islands and cays. The smaller islands include; Beef Island, Cooper Island, Ginger Island, Great Camanoe, Great Thatch, Guana Island, Mosquito Island, Necker Island, Norman Island, Peter Island, Salt Island. Only some fifteen of the islands are inhabited. The BVI are mostly volcanic in origin and have a rugged, hilly terrain. Anegada is the exception and is a flat island composed of limestone and coral. Tortola is the largest island, approximately twelve miles long and three miles wide. Road Town, on Tortola, is the capital of the islands. The British Virgin Islands have a total population of around 22,000 people.
The Virgin Islands were first settled by Arawak Indians from South America around 100 BC and inhabited the islands until the fifteenth century when Carib Indians from the Lesser Antilles Islands displaced them. The first European sighting of the Virgin Islands was in 1493 by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas. He called them Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes (Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins); this was shortened to Las Vírgenes (The Virgins).
In the early sixteenth century the Spanish Empire acquired the Virgin Islands and developed copper mining on Virgin Gorda. Subsequently the English, Dutch, French, Spanish and Danish all sought control of the Virgin Islands. They became a notorious pirate haunt. During the process of European colonisation the native Amerindian population was all but wiped out.
In 1648 the Dutch established a permanent settlement on the island of Tortola. The British captured Tortola from the Dutch in 1672, and the British annexation of Anegada and Virgin Gorda followed in 1680.
The Virgin Islands were considered principally a strategic possession, but were also planted when there were favourable economic conditions. The British introduced sugar cane that became the main crop and source of foreign trade. Slaves were brought from Africa to work on the sugar cane plantations and the islands prospered until the growth in the sugar beet crop in Europe and the United States reduced sugar cane production significantly.
In 1917, the United States purchased St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix from Denmark for US$25 million, renaming them the United States Virgin Islands and the British renamed the islands they controlled as the British Virgin Islands. The British Virgin Islands were administered either as part of the Leeward Islands Colony or with St. Kitts and Nevis, with an administrator representing the British Government on the Islands. Separate colony status was gained for the British Virgin Islands in 1960 and they became autonomous in 1967.
Since this time the BVI have moved away from an agricultural economy towards tourism and financial services and have become one of the richest areas in the Caribbean. Politically tourism is the more important of the two employing large numbers of the local population and many of the businesses are locally owned. However, economically, the financial service sector is by far the more important and provides nearly 50% of the Government’s revenues in the form of licence fees for offshore companies.
The Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, also known as Beef Island Airport, has regular connections to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Saint Thomas, USVI. There are also flights from most of the major islands in the Caribbean, Antigua and Saint Martin. It is located on Beef Island, just off the eastern tip of Tortola. Virgin Gorda and Anegada have smaller airports. The islands are a popular destination for cruise ships in the Caribbean and they use the British Virgin Islands main harbour in Road Town on Tortola. The official currency of the British Virgin Islands is the US dollar. Major credit cards are honoured at the larger BVI establishments but do not expect to use them at small restaurants.
The traditional music of the British Virgin Islands is called fungi after the local cornmeal dish with the same name, often made with okra. The special sound of fungi is due to a unique local fusion between African and European music. The fungi bands, also called “scratch bands and use a great variety of instruments. Fingi is a form of festive dance but also contains humorous social commentaries and is a source of BVI oral history.
The British Virgin Islands are one of the Caribbean’s most popular yacht charter destinations and Tortola is home to the world’s largest fleet of charter yachts. Prospective charters can choose between Skippered or bareboat charter. Motor or sailing vessels. Monohulls or catamarans. The short distances between the islands, often only 2 to 3 hours, make the BVI perfect for the first time yacht charterer and for families with young children. There are many flights to the BVI making access easy. On the downside the BVI can become crowded at peak periods; Christmas; Presidents Week and the Easter holidays. The first two weeks of July are also extremely busy due to Puerto Rico’s holiday schedule. Charter Yachts require a National Park Permit; ask your charter company for more details.
Moorings are increasingly popular throughout the British Virgin Islands to prevent anchors dragging on the bottom and damaging the important coral reefs. Although the cynics will tell you it’s also about revenue raising and at $30 per night it is hard not to sympathise with this point of view. Overnight moorings are on 18” white balls. Other mooring buoys will be encountered while sailing in the BVI and are colour coded as follows;
Orange – Non-diving, day use only.
Yellow – Commercial dive vessels only.
Large Yellow – Commercial vessels or vessels over 55′ in length
White – Non-commercial vessels, for daytime dive use only.
Blue – For dinghy use only
Also note that there is a 90-minute time limit on all moorings.
The major harbour in the British Virgin Islands is at Road Town, on Tortola. And most charters will start and end here. Village Cay Marina is one of the full service marinas available in Road Harbour offering fuel, water, ice, provisioning, laundry, shower facilities, beauty salon and spa. There is a fresh water pool and a waterfront restaurant and bar. Other marinas in Road Town Harbour include Fort Burt Marina and Inner Harbour Marina. There is also another full service marina in Nanny Cay that offers another starting point for yacht charters. The Nanny Cay Marine Centre has amenities including showers, water, gift shop, laundry, ice and fuel, provisioning, storage lockers and two restaurants. There are also a dive shop, mechanical repairs, refrigeration, welding and a 24 hour chase boat service. Allow time at the beginning or end of your yacht charter to explore Tortola. Driving around the island’s steep and winding mountain roads offers some breathtaking views. Some of the finest beaches in all of the BVI are located at Cane Garden Bay and Long Bay, on Tortolas’s north shore. Restaurants on Tortola are held in high regard throughout the Caribbean. Shopping and nightlife tend to be low-key, but a selection of small clubs playing local music can be found in Road Town and in the beach bars around the Tortola.
West End is shown on the charts as Soper’s Hole, a protected harbour lying between Frenchman’s Cay and Tortola. The Soper’s Hole Wharf and Marina offers a full range of services located in charming colourful houses. The Pusser’s Landing features waterfront dining in two restaurants and bars, an outdoor terrace and the company store.
Jost Van Dyke Island was named after a Dutch pirate. It has beautiful beaches, great food and music. Jost Van Dyke is the home to the famous “Full Moon” parties held at Foxy’s and Sidney’s Peace and Love Bar.
Anegada Island is known for its beautiful pink, sugar sand beach and snorkelling with age-old shipwrecks and coral reefs. Anegada’s Reef Hotel is renowned for the local lobster. The dining room and bar are directly on the beach. If you go ashore on Anegada carry bug spray with you. You have been warned!!!
Moorings are available and anchoring is possible all along the coast of Virgin Gorda. Or you can get a berth at the nearby Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour, a marina with docking for 110 vessels, where the ferry arrives for land travellers. Shops are concentrated around the Yacht Harbour area, especially at the Courtyard. Virgin Gorda Island is famous for The Baths, a day filled with cave exploration and water holes within this unique rock formation. Dinghies are no longer allowed on the shore here and you must swim from a dinghy mooring to the beach. The Bitter End Yacht Club is located in North Sound and is a great place pick up a mooring. You will be amongst some of the beautiful yachts in the BVI here. The small deserted island of Prickly Pear is a great lunch and snorkelling spot and is just a dinghy ride from the Bitter End Yacht Club. Spanish Town on the southwest side of Virgin Gorda is a popular stop over for shopping and provisioning.
Norman Island or “Treasure Island” as the locals know it is home to the pirate ship “William Thornton”. Legend suggests this to be the fabled site of Long John Silvers treasure trove. Norman Island lies close to the boundary line separating the BVI from the US Virgin Islands. Although uninhabited it is alive with tourism. The caves here are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the BVI. This is a popular overnight anchorage and many charterers will take dinner aboard the Willy T, a 100′ steel schooner.