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Tortola and the British Virgin Islands have a reputation among seasoned travelers as the creme de la creme of the Caribbean, but legions of cruise passengers calling at Tortola have responded with a collective shrug and a hearty, "What's all the hoopla about?" The reason is that the assets of Tortola proper are limited in size and number, and the presence of even one large cruise ship in port puts enough visitors on the ground to overwhelm and overrun most of them. By way of example, passengers might take a shore excursion to Cane Garden Bay on Tortola's north shore, lauded by all the major travel journals as one of the top 10 beaches in the Caribbean, only to find a beach jammed nearly as elbow-to-elbow as Coney Island.
This is not to say that Tortola has little to offer. It has its own attractions in every category. A visit to Tortola, however, also offers a genuine chance to experience other islands in the BVI chain. These include Norman Island, Jost Van Dyke, Peter Island, Marina Cay and Virgin Gorda. All are a doable day trip to cruise passengers calling at Tortola.
Tortola and most of the BVI are mountainous islands, and, though verdant-green when seen from afar, the climate and vegetation are much drier than many Caribbean isles. Tortola has no rain forest per se. Cactus and succulents are more common than ferns, and rushing streams and waterfalls are virtually nonexistent. The dry climate of the islands has a beneficial side effect; because of the lack of runoff, the clarity of the sea is more dependably higher than many other places in the Caribbean. For that reason the BVI are a popular destination for divers and snorkelers. Because of the protective effect of the islands surrounding Tortola, seas tend to be calm here most of the time, making the region a welcoming destination for those prone to motion sickness and who want to participate in small-boat excursions. The steady winds and calm seas also make Tortola and the BVI one of the world's premier yachting regions, and any sailing excursions, whether ship-offered or independently booked, should be at the top of every interested visitor's list.
Lastly, one of Tortola's greatest attributes is the genuinely friendly attitude of its residents; don't expect the venality and sub rosa resentment of Americans often found in the Caribbean. The BVI are 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.
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Other Eastern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Antigua • Castaway Cay • CocoCay • Freeport • Grand Turk • Great Stirrup Cay • Half Moon Cay • Jost Van Dyke • Key West • La Romana (Casa de Campo) • Labadee • Nassau • Nevis • Princess Cays • Samana and Cayo Levantado • San Juan • Santo Domingo • St. Croix • St. John (U.S.V.I.) • St. Kitts • St. Maarten • St. Martin • St. Thomas • Tortola • Virgin Gorda
The Painkiller -- a concoction of dark rum, cream of coconut, pineapple and orange juices, topped with nutmeg -- is the signature drink of BVI. It originated at Soggy Dollar Bar at White Bay in Jost Van Dyke.
Tortola isn't known as a shopping mecca. But if you like Caribbean island music, track down a CD by Tortola's main recording star, Quito Rymer. These CDs can be found at the gift shop at Quito's restaurant/club, Quito's Gazebo, in Cane Garden Bay, or from numerous other gift shops on the island.
Other great souvenirs: A bottle of Pusser's Rum (or a piece of Pusser's signature logo merchandise -- their duffels and outdoor-wear are high quality). Or a sampling of spices from Sunny Caribbee.
English, though Caribbean patois is common.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The BVI use the U.S. Dollar for their currency. ATM's are commonplace.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock in Road Harbour, Tortola's only "town." From here you can cover most of Road Town on foot; most eateries and shopping venues are within easy walking distance. The major local asset in Road Town, however, is the ferry docks. For those who really want to see what the BVI are really about, the ferries are your best friends (see "Getting Around," below).
Though you can eat and shop in Road Town, if that's the extent of your Tortola experience you will be missing out on what the BVI are all about!
Taxis: Safari cabs and mini vans are typical modes of taxi transport. Find taxi stands at the cruise pier in Road Town, Soper's Hole or near Wickham's Cay. Taxis can be chartered based on the Taxi Tariff available at the ports of entry and provided by each driver.
Renting a Car: You'll need a BVI license, about $10 and obtainable with a valid driver's license. Don't forget to drive on the left side of the road. Rental agencies include D&D Car Rental (West End, Road Town; 284-495-7676), Hertz (Road Town; 284-494-6228), Itgo Car Rental (Town Road; 284-494-5150).
Ferries: Ferry transport is the primary form of moving people between Tortola and the other islands in the British Virgins. Think of them as oceangoing buses. Ferry service from the several companies serving the islands is frequent, dependable and affordable.
There are three regions in Tortola where you can catch a ferry: Road Town (central), Soper's Hole (West End) and Beef Island (East End). Soper's and Beef Island can be reached by taxi for about $20 per person round trip. Individual ferry companies and routes are discussed under the heading for the islands each serves (See Island Hopping, below, or Virgin Gorda Port review for specifics on ferries operating to or within Virgin Gorda's waters).
Watch Out For
There aren't dangerous animals or snakes, but a few plants (e.g. oleander and elephant ears) are poisonous if consumed. The manchioneel, or poison apple tree, is a shrub or tree that grows near the beach. It's fruit, sap and leaves are caustic -- a severe irritant to skin and eyes -- and toxic if ingested.
Also, smoking is prohibited in all public indoor and outdoor spaces, and within 50 feet of these spaces. This applies to all beaches.
Jost Van Dyke
Named for a pirate (as legend has it), this pristine island to the northwest of Tortola has a lovely sand beach at White Bay and the BVI's most famous beachside bar.
Getting There: Ferry service is offered from West End by New Horizon Ferry Service, Ltd. Call 284-495-9278 for rates and schedules. It will take about forty-five minutes each way to Jost Van Dyke.
BVI's most famous beachside bar, Foxy's in Great Harbour, serves West Indian specialties. The bar opens at 9:30 a.m. and the kitchen at 11:30 a.m. Major draw is Foxy Callwood, himself, a legend in the BVI. A prolific songwriter and storyteller, he holds court most afternoons offering in addition to his regular repertoire, calypso tunes improvised on the spot, featuring specifics about his individual audience members, maybe even you!
A hotel on White Bay, Sandcastle is a short walk from the ferry dock. In addition to the excellent beach Sandcastle serves lunch daily from 11 a.m. at the Soggy Dollar Bar, birthplace of the Painkiller. Entrees include flying fish sandwiches, rotis and other dishes.
By and large this island features one asset, the elegant, exclusive resort that almost always appears in the top five Caribbean resorts lists of the major travel magazines.
Getting There: Peter Island Resort operates its own fleet of ferries, round trips (about 40 minutes each way) from the resort's marina to Baugher's Bay, a long walk or short taxi ride from the cruise pier. Call the Peter Island Resort (800-346-4451) for rates and schedules.
Peter Island Resort, an upscale resort, offers day visitors access to its private beach, the utterly beautiful Deadman's Bay. Powder-soft white sand forms a scimitar framing a crystal-clear Caribbean bay, with nice, shallow snorkeling reefs at either end. To get to the beach, walk up the hill paralleling the marina and follow the signs down the other side to Deadman's Bay. Beach equipment (windsurfers, sailing equipment, sea kayaks, etc.) can be rented, if available, but resort guests, of course, have priority. The resort's swimming pools, beach furniture, hammocks and cabanas are off-limits for visitors, so, if you want to use the beach, bring your own beach towel to plunk yourself down on.
Deadman's Beach Bar & Grill is open to non-guests, but be aware that it has a dress code, and conservative cover-ups are absolutely required. Deadman's prices are not cheap, but the food -- pizza, sandwiches and burgers -- and setting are excellent. On select Sunday afternoons and Wednesday nights there is live music from a terrific steel band.
Off the eastern tip of Tortola, tiny Marina Cay offers a vest pocket-sized beach, Pusser's restaurant and company store, small resort, marina and a handful of shops and an Internet Cafe.
Getting There: A complimentary daily ferry service is operated by Pusser's between Beef Island, Tortola and Marina Cay. The trip takes less than ten minutes. For schedules call 284-494-2174.
Pusser's operates a resort, shop and restaurant here. The restaurant opens daily at 11 a.m. and serves the usual Pusser's fare. The resort's marina also has small outboard motorboats, Hobie Cats and beach toys for rent. Try renting one of the Boston Whaler skiffs for a five-minute scoot across the bay to tie up at the mooring over the lush snorkeling reef, or contact Dive BVI Ltd. (284-495-5513) to book scuba or snorkeling trips.
Getting There: Speedy's Ferry Service and Smith's Tortola Fast Ferry run frequent ferries between Road Town and Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda. Depending on the vessel and weather, allow between an hour and 90 minutes for passage. (284-495-5240/495-5235)
Been There, Done That
Go For a Sail:
There is no shortage of sailing yachts available for full or half-day trips. These excursions usually include a sail across the Sir Francis Drake Channel to one of the islands to the south of Tortola, and normally feature snorkeling, beaching and lunch either onboard or at a shoreside restaurant. Three prominent charter operators who sail from Road Harbour or the nearby Village Cay Marina are listed below. Since rates, itineraries and schedules vary widely, contact each one in advance either by phone, email or log in to their website for specific offerings on the day of your port call.
Patouche Charters offers sailings on a 50-foot schooner, a 48-foot catamaran or a 28-foot Bertram power boat. (Road Harbour; 284-494-6300; email@example.com)
Aristocat Charters offers day sails and snorkel trips to the surrounding islands on two boats, both of which are 48-foot catamarans. (Soper's Hole, West End, or Village Cay, Road Town; 284-499-1249; firstname.lastname@example.org)
White Squall II offers sailings on an 80-foot schooner to the Caves at Norman Island and the Baths at Virgin Gorda, both with excellent snorkeling. (Village Cay; 284-494-2564; email@example.com)
Go For a Dive:
All dive operators offer two-tank morning dives. Contact individual dive operators for the availability or feasibility of "discover scuba" programs for non-certified divers. The British Virgin Islands offer some of the best scuba diving in the Caribbean. Of special interest is the wreck of the RMS Rhone, sunk in a hurricane in 1867, considered by many to be among the top 10 wreck dives in the world. Also worthy of exploration are the many reefs off the coast of Tortola and her neighboring islands. Dive operators serving the Road Harbour area are:
AquaVentures (Road Town; 284-494-4320; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sail Caribbean Divers (Hodges Creek, East End; 800-321-0994/631-754-2202; email@example.com)
Go For a Hike:
Sage Mountain, Tortola's national park, is criss-crossed with well-marked hiking trails, or hook up with a ranger for a guided walking tour. Great scenery and views of the sea.
Go For a Swim With a Dolphin:
Dolphin Discovery at Prospect Reef Resort -- which also has programs in Grand Cayman, Cancun and Cozumel -- offers visitors a chance to swim with dolphins in Prospect Reef Port. (866-393-5158/284-494-7675; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Crafts Alive Marketplace is a collection of gaily colored tents, on the waterfront; while it sells some of the same batiks and tourist trinkets of marketplaces on other Caribbean islands, there are a handful of genuinely interesting stalls. Don't miss Sophia Dawles, a talented West Indian artist who displays her oils, watercolors and acrylics on a card table. Altruists may want to check out the BVI Community Craft Shop, whose handmade items, ranging from Christmas ornaments to rag rugs and fish-scale ornaments, are locally made.
Mi Amor, the one conventional cruise port merchandise outlet, can be found at Wickhams Cay 1, near the cruise pier. (284-494-7477)
Sunny Caribbee is chock-a-block with great, gift-packaged spices, hot sauces, soaps, lotions, herbs, teas, coffees, etc. One of the more exotic offerings -- and a certified great (relatively cheap) gift -- is the Arawak Love Potion and West Indian Hangover Cure gift set. The shop also has some more-elegant-than-elsewhere Caribbean crafts. Next door, Sunny Caribbee has a high-end art gallery that's worth a browse. (119 Main Street, Road Town; 284-494-2178)
If you are looking for a less populated beach than Cane Garden, try Brewer's Bay, the next bay over. All taxi drivers are familiar with it. Lovely, secluded and with decent snorkeling, it, however, can sometimes suffer dangerously high surf and rip currents during winter months. There are also an old sugar mill and the ruins of a rum distillery here.
For the dedicated surfer there are two choices: Apple Bay and Josiah's Bay. Surfboards can be rented at HIHO in Road Town. (284-494-0337)
Casual dining in fun atmosphere, Pusser's Road Town Pub and Company Store, which has outposts throughout the BVI, is a classic experience. Jerk pork and chicken, burgers, fish & chips, etc. Don't miss the national drink of the BVI, the Painkiller. (open daily from 11 a.m.; 284-494-3897)
Capriccio di Mare offers casual and elegant Italian fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Open Monday – Saturday from 8 a.m. (across from Ferry Dock; 284-494-5369)
Soper's Hole/West End
Pusser's Landing is similar to the Road Town outlet, but has a more picturesque setting and more extensive menu. Excellent conch chowder and fish and chips. (open daily from 11 a.m.; across from the custom's dock; 284-495-4603)
Try Fish & Lime Inn for great seafood. (open daily for lunch and dinner; on the waterfront at the entrance of Soper's Hole, West End; 284-495-4276
Charlie T's Lobster House, a Pusser's restaurant, is a rustic hangout for locals and yachties on the waterfront at Fat Hog Bay and features lobster, shrimp, crab and other seafood dishes, as well as burgers, steak and pizza. (open daily for breakfast 7-10 a.m. and from 11 a.m.; Fat Hog Bay, East End; 284-495-1010)
Cane Garden Bay
If you come to Cane Garden by ship's tour you will likely be comped a meal at Myett's (see below). If you are on your own or if you just want to escape the crowds, even if it means paying for your own meal (rather than taking the free one at Myett's) definitely stop at Quito's Gazebo. It's known for excellent salads and grilled local seafood, but the superstar on the menu is the roti (a West Indian wrap with a curried filling of chicken, conch or vegetables), considered by locals to be one of the best in the islands. On Sundays Quito's serves a buffet brunch with live music. Also stop in the gift shop next door for souvenirs and Quito's recordings. (open Tuesday to Sunday from 11:30 a.m.; The Ole Works Inn, Cane Garden Bay; 284-495-4837)
Myett's Garden & Grille has a lovely garden and patio setting. When ships are in port, live music is provided. Casual dining menu of burgers, fish and chips, wraps and rotis. (open daily from 11 a.m.; Cane Garden Bay; 284-495-9649)
Staying in Touch
Wi-Fi is available at The Pub (Road Town near Road Town Marina), Village Cay Marina Hotel/Bar (Road Town), The Moorings, lobby and restaurant (Road Town, Inner Harbour), Le Grand Café (Main Street, Road Town) and more. Access may be slow.
Travel by boat across the Sir Francis Drake Channel and snorkel the caves at Norman Island, reputedly the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island." Duration: about 3 hours.
For ships not making a separate port call at Virgin Gorda this is a great choice, including a beach experience with snorkeling. Though there is no coral to speak of, the setting is spectacular, and hiking through the jumble of boulders that form the topography of The Baths is also popular. Duration 4.5 hours.
Scuba the RMS Rhone, a spectacular wreck dive for certified divers. Duration: 5.5 hours.
Highly recommended: White Squall II offers sailing tours in Tortola.
For More Information
On the Web: British Virgin Islands Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Tortola
IndependentTraveler.com: Caribbean Travel Guide
-- Updated by Jodi Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor