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Friday, September 4, 2015

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The British Virgin Islands – a bit of heaven on earth

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Many islands in the Caribbean offer sun, sea, sand, snorkelling and sailing, but the British Virgin Islands trumps them all for sugary stretches of white sand, flawless weather for world class sailing and extraordinarily clear turquoise waters that bring snorkellers and divers from all over the world.

You may never want to leave the British Virgin Islands. [Melody Wren photo]

This is one place that meets the needs of a wide cross section of people with discriminating taste.

Be careful if you visit the British Virgin Islands – you may not want to leave. I met several tourists-turned-residents. Of course, many of them were Brits who feel particularly at home driving on the left side of the road and enjoying traditional afternoon tea. And one can understand their abandoning England’s pitiful climate for this almost perfect tropical weather year-round.

But the islands have other virtues, too. With a population of just 25,000, they are small enough to retain a humble, friendly atmosphere, yet special enough to attract a substantial number of celebrities.

A collection of more than 50 small islands, islets and cays with a long history of piracy and slave trading, this was first a Dutch colony and is now a British territory. It serves as a playground to some of the wealthiest people in the world, but there is plenty to do even if you don’t own a 100-foot yacht.

Gigantic cruise ships routinely stop in the harbour of the capital city, Road Town, disgorging thousands of passengers into the native habitat for a few hours. But, unlike other port cities, Road Town still feels like a real place rather than a way station structured around T-shirts, refrigerator magnets and duty-free jewellers. It pulses with street life, bands playing, the fresh catch of the day being sold out of temporarily parked trucks and lots of strolling locals happy to pass the time of day with a tourist.

The island of Tortola and most of others are mountainous, and though they are lavishly green when seen from afar, their climate and vegetation are much drier than those in many of the other Caribbean isles. This has a beneficial side effect: because of the lack of runoff, the the sea is dependably clearer than in many other places in the Caribbean. That’s one of the reasons these islands are a popular destination for divers and snorkellers.

And because of the protective effect of the islands surrounding Tortola, seas tend to be calm most of the time, making the region a go-to destination for those prone to motion sickness who still want to participate in small boat-based excursions.

The steady winds and calm seas also make the islands one of the world’s premier yachting regions, and sailing excursions should be at the top of every interested visitor’s list.

Sailing enthusiasts come from all over the world to indulge in their hobby, but you can enrol in a program whether you are an absolute beginner or are striving for a captain’s certification. We met many tourists arriving to board a charter with friends or family to sail through the islands for a week or so. I also met a couple from Brazil embarking on a five-year sail around the world with a three-week stop in the islands. The area boasts the largest concentration of bareboats (boats rented without crew to experienced sailors) in the world.  Day sail yachts that offer half and all-day trips are an ideal way to explore the outer islands.

Depending on what type of experience and price point you want, there are many resorts to choose from: Tortola has the biggest variety and best bargains, including the historic Sugar Mill. Virgin Gorda is known for exclusive resorts like Biras Creek and  Little Dix Bay, and the Bitter End Yacht Club is a classic Caribbean seaport village.

Private island resorts range from the affordable, eco-friendly Cooper Island Beach Club to the luxurious Guana Island Resort and Peter Island Resort, and the outrageous Necker Island, owned by Sir Richard Branson, rents for up to $53,000 a night.

Among the islands’ greatest attributes are the genuinely gracious residents. The area is amazingly safe and crime-free. It’s not unusual to find yachts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars docked in marinas, with the key clearly visible in the ignition

With views that are stunning and delightful at every turn, with luminous turquoise waters, uninhabited islands and a leisurely, relaxed pace found only in the Caribbean, this location is a must see.

Melody Wren’s trip was sponsored by the British Virgin Islands Board of Tourism, www. bvitourism.com

Visit her travel blog for resort details: www.melodywren.wordpress.com.

Some resorts to consider:

Virgin Gorda Island: Biras Creek Resort, www.biras.com; Bitter End Resort, www.beyc.com; Rosewood Little Dix Bay, www.rosewoodhotels.com; Tortola: The Sugar Mill, ­www.sugarmillhotel.com

Private Islands: Cooper Island Beach Club, ­www.cooperislandbeachclub.com; Guana Island resort: www.guana.com.

How to get there: Air Canada flies directly to San Juan, Puerto Rico, several times a week. From San Juan, a small plane takes 30 minutes to Beef Island, British Virgin Islands. ­www.aircanada.com


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