British Virgin Islands – old-school Caribbean

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  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Laid-back Caribbean islands

    You want the Caribbean, but you want it the laid-back, unfussy way, with rum bars and beach shacks and rickety taxis that rattle you along dirt roads. If that’s your style, says Jeremy Wayne, you need the British Virgin Islands. But go now, before the high-rollers move in.

    ‘God remembers!’ shouts the headline from the broadsheet the large black lady in the jaunty straw hat and canary-yellow sun dress is reading, wedged into the seat next to me on the Liat prop-plane. We are flying from Antigua to Tortola, a 30-minute hop across the water. He has certainly remembered these islands. Strung out between St Maarten and Puerto Rico, this British Overseas Territory comprises 60 islands, islets and cays. From the lush hills and valleys of Virgin Gorda, the ‘fat virgin’, to the impossibly beautiful, flat coral island of Anegada, seeming to float like a disk in a limpid pool, the British Virgin Islands will knock your socks off.

    Pictured: kayaks on a Tortola beach

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Guana Island, BVI

    At Beef Island airport, the most civilised in the Caribbean by a mile, an immigration officer peers at me through Dame Edna specs. ‘Welcome to BVI!’ she says, as if she means it. A portrait of William and Kate, grinning like Cheshire cats, looks down on incoming arrivals, a masterpiece of cheesiness. You will love the Virgin Islands, love them before you’re even out of the airport.

    Down at Trellis Bay, a perfect curve of sandy beach and palm trees dotted with rum shacks, I spy my neighbour from the plane, the lady in the canary-yellow dress, sitting incongruously on a bench, alone, drinking cherry crush. As the lights start to twinkle and the scent of plumeria hits the air like a wave, I take the boat to Guana Island, 12 minutes away.

    Pictured: a cottage at Guana Island

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Private-island resort Guana

    The guest rooms in Guana’s cottages are painted white, with bleached-wood furniture. Somehow simplicity has evaded great swathes of the Caribbean, where gaudy fabrics sound the death knell for good taste, but not so here. Established in the 1930s by the Bigelows and now owned by the Jarecki family – Henry Jarecki, a naturalised-American philanthropist, is a psychiatrist by profession who made his squillions in precious metals – Guana has long been a nature reserve. Along with its gorgeous beaches, all yours for the asking, the island is home to an ongoing flora-and-fauna project. Iguanas cruise the paths like extras in a dinosaur movie, and down in the orchard there are papayas, coconuts, mangoes and bananas, which, just like in the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, you can pick right off a tree.

    After sunset, you dine on the Queen’s Terrace: butternut-squash soup followed by grilled swordfish cooked by a Catalan chef with golden hands and a Hollywood smile. Later you wander over to what is known as the Garden of Eden, just along from the main house, where a ruined arch and park bench make up the romantic little section called the English Garden.

    Pictured: the English Garden at Guana

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Best hotels in the BVI

    This is a Caribbean story, but it is not the Caribbean of Colin Tennant, or a story about the fleshpots of Barbados, or a tale of riches and super-yachts. This is about an altogether simpler Caribbean and a few families – the Bigelows and Jareckis of Guana (and now Norman Island, too), the Hokins of Bitter End, the Penns of Hodge’s Creek and the late, great Laurance Rockefeller of Little Dix, the grand-daddy of ecotourism – all of whom recognised a kind of utopia and then set about making it liveable in. Pioneers all, they never confused comfort with luxury, and they interfered with their surroundings as little as possible, thereby creating the ultimate luxury: the ability to live simply in nature.

    Pictured: inside a cottage at private-island resort Guana

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Little Dix Bay, Virgin Gorda

    On a lazy Sunday morning, I head out to Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda. In a part of the world full of gorgeous beaches, there can’t be a more jaw-dropping one than this: half a mile of blinding-white sand, the buildings behind it all hidden from view, just as Rockefeller planned it. Little Dix, 50 years old this year, is still one of the loveliest hotels in the Caribbean, smart but not especially sophisticated, with good food and a great spa and kid-friendliness built into its bones. There are no room keys, no garish colours, no jarring notes of any kind, except perhaps for the mugs and polystyrene cups at teatime, tea being something of an institution at Little Dix. Some of the staff have been here for 40 years or more, and Michael the boatman has been on Virgin Gorda for 26 years, though in all that time he hasn’t ever been to Guana, a 20-minute boat ride away. Curiosity is never going to kill this cat.

    Pictured: Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Rum bars on Virgin Gorda

    Slip out of the back door at Little Dix and you can amble into Spanish Town, 15 minutes down a dusty road, everything down-at-heel but somehow vivid, bright and alive. ‘Dare to be Different!’ says the sign outside Ashley’s hair salon, swaying hardly at all in the non-breeze. I resist and instead make for the Goose Bar, a grog shop where a blackboard announces Piña Coladas, Margaritas and Rum Punches at a knockdown price – only the Dominican barmaid doesn’t know how to mix any of them. At the bar next door, I drink Pusser’s (the local rum) and Coke, as a dreadlocked Guyanan, strung out on who-knows-what, fixes me at the bar and tells me Pusser’s will kill me in six months flat if I’m not careful.

    Pictured: the Beach Grill at Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    What to do in the BVI

    What I need – what everyone needs on Virgin Gorda, which is madly, deeply beautiful but vertiginously steep, its roads unlit at night – is a reliable taxi driver, so I’m pleased to find Cyril. After my errands are run, we stop for a drink at Hog Heaven, a bar on the road high above Leverick Bay, with a view of the islands – Necker, Saba, Scrub, Tortola, Anegada in the distance – so heart-stopping it turns grown men into blubbering girls. Speaking of girls, Cyril tells me he has a lot of daughters, which of course is a blessing, but they all want new laptops, which is not. I hope I’m not flattering myself when I say he seems quite pleased to have my company, happy to get out of the house for an hour or two.

    Pictured: a rum bar on Tortola

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean


    From Spanish Town I catch Speedy’s ferry to Tortola, the big island. Speedy’s is not a very apt name for this company, but today my luck is in. It’s Commonwealth Day, which means lots of people are not working, and this morning the ferry is on time. And it’s virtually empty, too, except for a couple of tourists and guess who? The lady in the canary-yellow dress, only today she is wearing burnt orange. ‘What you doin’ here?’ she asks me, like an old but irritable friend, and I respond with the only possible answer, which is that I could very well ask her the same question.

    Pictured: a view of Tortola

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Road Town, Tortola

    At the road town docks, I am met by J’Quelah, who is holding up a sign with my name on it. J’Quelah is five years old. Her dad, Aaron, who is very up on BVI history and sings along to local band the Lashing Dogs as he drives, is taking me over to Frenchmans. A few miles west of Road Town, the hotel is Daphne du Maurier and Cornwall through and through, with a bit of Agatha Christie thrown in for good measure. I’m thinking of A Caribbean Mystery or Evil Under the Sun, as I see people lying out, like fish on the slab, turning golden brown, or children gathering shells or catching crabs from the rocks – though you couldn’t imagine anything remotely unpleasant happening here.

    Pictured: wooden seating at Cooper Island Beach Club

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Frenchmans, Tortola

    I absolutely adore Frenchmans, with its pretty, stone-built rooms, its shallow bay, its magical views and its altogether old-fashioned cheeriness. I mean, if you didn’t have children of your own, you’d want to get hold of a few just to bring them here on holiday, such a perfect place is it.

    Tortola is packed with history, a lot of it related to sugar and the slave trade. Road Town, the capital, is a vital, hard-working little community, with a sense of scale and its place in the world. Not every town has that and it’s to be treasured. Road Town is neither quaint nor ugly, but neat and practical, like St Peter Port or Gibraltar – without the 1950s council flats or squalid pubs. Definitely my kind of town. Along with the usual trippery shops, unavoidable in any Caribbean port, it has two great roti places, a world-class restaurant called The Dove, and a flourishing economy based mainly on offshore banking and yacht chartering. It also has a social conscience. HM Prison, the oldest building in town, was the site of the execution in 1811 of Arthur Hodge, the first British plantation owner ever to be hanged for the murder of a slave.

    Pictured: Frenchmans on Tortola

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Cooper Island Beach Club

    East of Road Town, over at Hodge’s Creek (which, now that I know a little bit about Arthur Hodge, doesn’t strike me as such an appealing name for a creek), Margaret Penn treats me to lunch. She and her husband Romney, a hugely successful local architect, hotelier and developer, are BVI royalty. A dead ringer for Anne Bancroft, and nifty on her iPad, Margaret fills me in on her plans for revitalising the harbour here, along with the creaky old Marina hotel. There will be nothing flash, I suspect, just comfortable rooms done up in simple good taste.

    Ten minutes from Hodge’s Creek is Cooper Island, one of the string of small islands that face Tortola across the Sir Francis Drake Channel. New owners have turned the Cooper Island Beach Club into one of the loveliest spots in the BVI, although ‘beach club’ is a little misleading. There’s a bar and restaurant at the water’s edge, and just a handful of newly renovated cottages climbing up the gentle hill. Everything here is blonde wood, white paint and taupe, a Kelly Hoppen dream, with not a patterned bedspread in sight. The spiffy bathroom works, as does the concealed fridge. There are mosquito nets and a ceiling fan, which you need as this is an eco-friendly resort with no air-conditioning (although I did spy an air-con unit in the beach-club office).

    Pictured: Cooper Island Beach Club

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Cooper Island

    As for Cooper Island itself, a heavenly, lush microdot without so much as a paved road let alone a grocery store, its half-a-dozen houses are privately owned, as is all the land. So, beautiful as it is to sail around, it’s also tantalising, because it’s impossible to penetrate the island. On the other hand, you could happily sit on your terrace forever, reading or sleeping or listening to Mozart (or the Lashing Dogs), taking in the view of the beach and the yachts and the islands, and going off to swim, snorkel or sail only when exquisite monotony sets in, which in my case it never seems to do.

    Pictured: Cooper Island Beach Club

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Peter Island

    If you need space, Peter Island has plenty. It is two islands along from Cooper, past uninhabited Salt, which from the water looks like an Orientalist painting. The Peter Island Resort & Spa takes up the entire 1,800 acres. Another older hotel that has kept ahead of the curve, it still puts comfort ahead of luxury; some of the original rooms are positively gemütlich (although its three new villas are pretty sprauncy). And two of its beaches, Deadman’s and Little Deadman’s, rank among the BVI’s best, which is saying a lot.

    Pictured: Peter Island, British Virgin Islands

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Oil Nut Bay, Virgin Gorda

    If this story is a celebration of the simple and the not-so-swish, it is also a warning, because the BVI of old – mellow and unaffected – may be under threat. Sound government, political stability and a strong US-dollar-based economy mean the islands are ripe for development. Smart and super-smart resorts are on their way, or have already arrived. American developer David Johnson’s Oil Nut Bay, a 300-acre community of 88 homes on the eastern tip of Virgin Gorda, is accessible only by boat or helicopter and offers housekeeping and butler services. Its one-bedroom suites have plunge pools and interiors by Fendi Casa. To its credit, Oil Nut is being built with underground utilities, responsible water management and solar power, and the sautéed red snapper with pepperonata and herbed orzo I had in the clubhouse was the best dish I’ve eaten in the Caribbean in 20 years.

    Pictured: a suite at Oil Nut Bay on Virgin Gorda

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Bitter End Yacht Club, Virgin Gorda

    But there’s a new yacht club, too: Costa Smeralda. Also owned by Johnson, it is attracting very big boats, and a super-yacht regatta has now come to what was only recently a very sleepy corner of the globe. Between them, Oil Nut and Costa Smeralda are going to make Sandy Lane or Parrot Cay look like a Days Inn. Marriott’s new baby in the BVI, meanwhile, is Scrub Island Resort, which offers Champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries in its Ixora Spa and holds regular wine tastings in its Gourmet Market. It’s only a matter of time before the airport, expanded and developed in 2004, is extended again.

    Of course, the old and the new can exist side by side. But me, I’m old-fashioned. So give me driftwood over teak, mosquito nets and ceiling fans over sprays and air-con, a sailboat over a Sunseeker, the local grog shop rather than the hotel bar. I’ll take Cyril over a hotel butler any day. And there’ll always be a space in my heart for the lady in the yellow dress (even if she’s wearing orange) because, although we barely know each other, I feel certain we’re going to be friends.

    Pictured: Bitter End Yacht Club, Virgin Gorda

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Hotels in the BVI



    Bitter End Yacht Club, Virgin Gorda Yachtie paradise on Virgin Gorda. Doubles from about £460

    Guana Island Private island, great food, total seclusion Doubles from about £510

    Frenchmans, Tortola Buckets and spades on Tortola. Doubles from about £245

    Peter Island Resort & Spa Private island, great beaches. Doubles from about £295

    Little Dix Bay, Virgin Gorda Where it all started. Doubles from about £295

    Cooper Island Beach Club Killer views, big bar and restaurant scene. Doubles from about £125


    Oil Nut Bay, Virgin Gorda Butlers, helicopters, the works. Doubles from about £615

    Scrub Island Resort Marriott efficiency, sophisticated spa, all the watersports. Doubles from about £230

  • British Virgin Islands - old-school Caribbean

    Where to eat in the BVI


    Cocomaya Beach setting, Asian-inspired menu, best food on the island. Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda

    Hog Heaven Piña Coladas, barbecue, fanatastic views. Nail Bay Road, Virgin Gorda

    Roti Palace Plastic tablecoths, fake flowers, wonderful roti. Main Street, Road Town, Tortola

    The Dove Steamed mussels, beef carpaccio, seared ahi tuna – for when you need a break from burgers and jerk chicken. Main Street, Road Town, Tortola

    GETTING THERE BVI specialist Turquoise Holidays (+44 1494 678400; can arrange travel to any of the properties mentioned. A seven-night holiday in the BVI, staying at Cooper Island, starts from £1,599 per person. Combining two or more islands is recommended; a 10-day trip, with five nights at Peter Island and five at Little Dix Bay, starts from £2,245 per person. Both prices include flights and transfers.

    Published in Condé Nast Traveller January 2014

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