There are some real dives on the British Virgin Islands
The British Virgin Islands are a string of islands which provide safe sailing, fabulous snorkelling and amazing diving
Feeding the gigantic tarpon at Saba Rockin the British Virgin Islands. Photograph: Alan Betson
“I’m not getting off the boat, and I’m definitely not getting into the sea if there are fish in there,” the seven-year-old declared. That’s a bit of a potential problem when you have just booked three weeks on board a catamaran in the British Virgin Islands. We last visited there 10 years ago and have hankered to return ever since.
The British Virgin Islands (BVIs) are awesome. It is our family’s ultimate foreign holiday, but it has changed a lot since we last visited there 10 years ago. Sitting at the top end of the Caribbean archipelago, the BVIs are a unique string of islands providing safe line-of-sight sailing, fabulous snorkelling and amazing diving.
The islands are blessed with year-round sunshine, reliable winds, a small tidal range and gentle currents, and only the very occasional hurricane. Best of all the islands are sprinkled with palm tree-fringed, bleached white sandy beaches.
The secret to unlocking the best of this paradise is to charter a boat and then it is up to you to decide where to swim, sail, explore, dine, dive, soak up the sun and relax.
For us to return to the islands we combined the purchasing power of three families and targeted the shoulder season of June to get the best mix of weather, price and crowd avoidance.
We booked with Sunsail, choosing a 44ft Sunsail catamaran for the first two weeks shared by our good friends the McGrath family. For the third week we stepped down to a 38ft Cat when my parents flew out and replaced the McGrath parents, while we kept their teenagers on board. Our ages ranged from a seven-year-old, three teenagers, four middle-aged adults, and two grandparents in their very early 70s . This holiday fitted the “best holiday ever” category for us all.
Happy bunniesIt’s a bit of a two day trek to get there. First, there is an overnight at Gatwick. Then an early BA flight to Antigua Airport, which has been dramatically upgraded in recent years. Plugged in to Kindles, iPads, mp3 players and on-demand movies, all our passengers were happy bunnies despite the five-hour interval between flights.
Then there was a three-stop, island-hopping propeller plane journey taking us from Antigua to Tortola. It was late at night when we finally arrived.
Our tiredness evaporated on sight of our pre-provisioned, air conditioned 44ft Cat which was like a miniature five-star hotel on water. Creature comforts included a microwave, large fridge-freezer, push-button toilets and an on-board generator, in addition to the optional extra kayaks strapped to the front. The marina at Road Town was well appointed, catering swiftly for weary travellers with good pizzas and ice cold beer.
The next morning myself and my co-captain attended the skippers’ briefing. The rest of the group undertook a more extensive provisioning.Then our knowledge was put to the test as we tentatively struck out for our first anchorage, Cooper Island, a short distance away.
Cooper is one of the best achorages in these islands.The flotilla option for the first week is a good choice for a rusty sailor, and is also a great way of meeting other families. Mooring at most locations is made easy by picking up mooring buoys and tying off, with a mooring official calling in the evenings to collect the nightly fee of US$30.
Turquoise blue waterFinally,with the stresses of travel out of the way, the joy of the BVI islands unfolded. The boat became a multi-level diving platform for the teenagers to jump into the crystal clear turquoise blue water. The average water temperature is 27 degrees C.
We began chilling on deck with books in hand, and maybe the odd “painkiller”, the local rum-based cocktail, while watching for the turtles surfacing for air as the flames from the onboard BBQ danced against the evening sky.
Some of the many highlights for us included visiting the Baths in the BVI National Park on Virgin Gorda – a geological formation of gigantic granite boulders with huge, knee-high, water-filled spaces beneath to explore.
Dinghies are not permitted to land and must moor offshore on the buoys provided, thus involving a short swim to shore, but we managed to find a safe spot along the rocks to deliver the 70-year-olds on to the beach without much difficulty.
There are some “must-stop-here” places in the BVIs. The stunningly beautiful Saba Rock is one. Kayak across to see the resident gigantic tarpon fish (90 per cent bone, not very edible!) being hand-fed from the dock, afterwards sipping a “painkiller” in a hammock as the sun goes down. This is also the playground of the rich and famous. Saba Rock lies beside Eustatia Island, widely thought to be owned by Larry Page from Google. Richard Branson spends his days on the adjacent privately owned Necker Island.
Anegada was another highlight for us. We started out early for a long beautiful sail to this low-lying island situated 11 miles from the main islands. Barry, who collected our mooring fee is, in his own words, “the only black guy in the BVI’s with blue eyes and an Irish mother from Clonakilty ”. We gave him an Irish flag which he proudly flew on his dinghy.
Baby sting rayExceptional seafood made eating out while bare foot at his Whistling Pines restaurant a memorable experience. We hired an eight-seater jeep to explore the safe shallow beaches of Cow Wreck Bay and Loblolly Bay. This was where our seven-year-old learned to snorkel as a baby sting ray shot past. Conches the size of footballs were casually strewn on the largely deserted long sandy beaches.
Brewers Bay was another favourite, the horse shoe-shaped bay largely deserted. The lush hillside in the evening light was soothing as we sat in peaceful stillness in this quiet calm bay.
Another gem is Sandy Cay – your picture postcard desert island. It was like being in a David Attenborough documentary where sting ray cruise the shallows, parting the shoals of millions of tiny fish as pelicans dive-bomb the shoals looking for a mouthful of food. Terns landed on the pelicans’ heads hoping to share some of the contents of the fish catch in the pelicans’ beaks.
Shopping in Sopers Hole is a must for a spot of retail therapy, the pastel coloured shopfrontslike something from a movie-set.
The Caves and the Indians at Norman Island provided exceptional snorkelling for even the most nervous first-timer. The seven-year old, getting braver by the day, was able to snorkel off the back of the yacht in his life jacket, played with the fish that shoaled around us in an aquarium-like experience.
On land, the charming little graffiti-covered shack at Pirates Bight Beach is now gone, replaced by a rather swish shop and restaurant which charges $25 to use the beach furniture.
Diver qualificationThe absolute highlight has to be the diving. Our teenagers completed their PADI open-water diver qualification over the winter months in advance of the holiday. Subsequently they were blown away by the BVI dives, (probably of their lives only they just don’t realise it yet).
Our initial panic on hearing that Sail Caribbean Divers was booked up for the duration of our stay subsided when we discovered We Be Divin’ located on the far side of the marina in Road Town harbour. Our dive guides were Steve from South Africa (who was dive leader to Paris Hilton for a time, no less!) and JP from Co Down, of all places, which added to the relaxed yet wicked sense of humour on board the dive boat.
Their intimate local knowledge brought us to the best dive sites over the course of our 10-dive package ($500 per person).
Our favourite dives had to be on the wreck of the RMS Rhone, one of the best diveable wrecks in the world, with large swim throughs, teeming with life, boasting its own resident seahorse. ($95 with Sail Caribbean for a night dive on the Rhone).
Wreck Alley has sunken barges with so many gigantic stingrays that we lost count, munching on the eel worms which poked their bodies from the sand like a sea of grass. Turtles – turtles everywhere – sharks, barracuda, trumpet fish, lion fish, crayfish, the list is endless.
The holiday’s only low points were being charged $141 for in-harbour mooring overnight in Virgin Gorda Spanish Town, (#Never again), and Spring Fiji Water costing $245 for five crates ($8 per bottle!), promptly returned to the shelf.
The teenagers learned to drive the dinghy, giving them a bit of independence when they needed to hook up with other half-fish, half-iPad, feral teens they met along the way.
By the end of the three weeks the seven-year-old also got his chance to master driving the dinghy, earning his “Dinghy Captain” T-shirt. He learned how to tie knots and create a fishing line to try to catch barracuda, miles away from the world of wifi.
It’s not a cheap holiday. Our excuse was being 20 years married and the fact that the teenagers won’t want to know us in a few years’ time. It certainly is up there with the “holiday of a lifetime” experience, creating long-term memories for every member of the group. We sailed, swam, snorkelled, dived, kayaked, sunbathed, read, chatted and, most importantly, chilled.
A 44ft catamaran flotilla for two weeks (flotilla one week and bareboat one week) for eight people in June 2016 (price includes taxes/flotilla fee/fuel/boat insurance/permits/SAR and transfers) is £5,060, plus flights are £656 each. Total is £1,289 per person.
A 38ft catamaran bareboat for a third week cost £2,886 for eight people in June 2016 (price includes taxes/fuel/boat insurance/permits/SAR). Total is £361 per person.
The above prices do not include Dublin to Gatwick flights, and overnight stay in Gatwick.
Alan booked with Sunway on a Sunsail Holiday, receiving a 10 per cent discount.
Sunsail prices start from €585 per person based on six sharing a bareboat charter in Dubrovnik, Croatia, including flights from Dublin, transfers and seven nights’ accommodation and checked-in baggage. Departs May 14th, 2017.
For reservations on flotilla sailing or yacht charters in the Mediterranean or more information on Sunsail contact Sunway on 01-2366800 or visit sunway.ie
Notes and tips
The ideal exploration of the British Virgin Islands would be over two weeks. Make life easier by pre-provisioning your boat online before travelling for the first night and following morning essentials.
Bring a three-pin to US two-pin travel adaptor, and also bring a four-plug extension cord.
Provision approximately 30 litres of drinking water for eight people for a week.
The US dollar is the currency most widely accepted. Credit cards are also widely accepted.
The British Virgin Islands are minus four hour GMT. We found it easier to leave the body clocks on Irish time, rising with the sunlight from 6am and hitting the bed by 9pm local time.
Sunsail provides a mobile phone and a rapid repair service which we availed of twice, once when we overloaded a winch and again when one engine would not start.
We were bitten by the sailing bug 12 years ago when we took a flotilla sailing course and holiday in Gocek, Turkey. Learning how not to bump the boat off the pier and easing into sailing under the watchful eyes of a flotilla leader enabled us to take our first visit to the BVIs. We completed our skipper qualification two years ago with Sovereign Sailing out of Kinsale. But don’t let a lack of sailing experience deter you as it is possible to hire a local skipper who will guide you around the best of the BVIs.
Best suggested route:
- First night: Road Town (big provision at Rite Way food market five minutes from marina);
- head to Cooper Island opposite Road Town (one hour )(snorkel and beach);
- the Baths (get there early avoid the crowds and cruise ship days);
- overnight at Marina Cay (nice shop and restaurant, ice and wifi);
- sail to Saba Rock, Virgin Gorda (get there early for free water and bag of ice). Limited moorings. Feed the gigantic tarpon fish at 5pm. 600 litres of water cost $40;
- sail to Anegada (four tofive hours). Hire a car ($75). Visit Cow Wreck Beach and eat out at the dock (lively, $38 per head) or more relaxed bare foot at Whispering Pines;
- sail back (four to five hours) to Brewers Bay on the north side of Tortola and chill. Mooring is swell dependent – watch out for reef and submerged cable;
- stop off at Sandy Cay off the eastern side of Jost van Dyke, an absolute must. Mooring and landing on the beach is swell dependent;
- maybe on to White Bay – lively (the Soggy Dollar bar);
- or on to Sopers Hole on the southwestern tip of Tortola (shopping and provisions) and over to Norman Island for two nights (snorkel the Indians and the Caves, visit Pirates Bight Beach);
- maybe stop off at Peter Island (nice snorkelling);
- last night in Cooper Island to chill (two nights if possible).