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Virgin Gorda Overview
Virgin Gorda ranks as a popular cruise destination because of its white sands and clear, turquoise seas. Plus, the island is undeveloped enough to still feel like a private, exclusive place.
One of the most popular and fascinating natural attractions in the Caribbean is also located here -- a beach strewn with giant boulders known as The Baths. Brought to the ocean's edge by volcanic activity, the boulders form caves, grottoes and tidal pools, well worth exploring.
Christopher Columbus spotted the island in 1493, on his second trip to the New World, and gave Virgin Gorda its name. Looking at the island's mountain ridge -- and no doubt tired of being at sea with a bunch of sailors -- he thought what is now called Gorda Peak looked liked the belly of a reclining chubby woman. Hence, he called it Virgin Gorda, or "fat virgin" in Spanish.
A no man's land for a time, Virgin Gorda and other British Virgin Islands were used by pirates as a base for raids on Spanish galleons (large sailing ships). Capt. William Kidd was among the more notorious.
The British established a sugar trade on the island in the 1700's, but that ended when Britain abolished slavery in 1838. A copper mine was opened around the same time and operated for about 24 years before it was abandoned. The ruins are now part of a national park.
Fishing and farming were the way of life for a century. Then Laurance Rockefeller, the New York financier and conservationist, came in the 1960's and opened an exclusive eco-resort called Little Dix Bay. By the 1970's, Virgin Gorda was "discovered" as a tourist destination, and tourism remains the mainstay of the economy.
Only 12 miles from Tortola, the 8.5-square-mile island, with a population of 3,500, remains remarkably quiet. Most visitors hang out at swanky private resorts or arrive by private yacht to enjoy some of the best powder sand beaches in the Caribbean.
Given the rather small geographical scope of the island and the large number of taxis available, it's a pretty easy place to explore on your own. Visitors typically are drawn to two main areas of interest -- attractions near Spanish Town at the south end of the island and North Sound at the other extreme. Offshore, popular attractions include The Dogs, the marine area protected by the BVI National Parks Trust and considered to be one of the best snorkeling and diving sites in the Caribbean -- the waters are teeming with marine life and colorful coral formations.
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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 national drink is the "Painkiller," made of rum, pineapple juice, orange juice and coconut milk.
English is the official language in this island, though Caribbean patois is common.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the U.S. Dollar. ATM's are commonplace, and there's even a FirstCaribbean International Bank branch in the Yacht Harbour complex.
Where You're Docked
If you are anchored off Spanish Town, you will be tendering into the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour, which is home to plenty of shops and restaurants. It might look like a tourist complex, but it's actually the island's main commercial center.
If you are in the North Sound (a favorite place for small cruise ships to anchor), you may tender to the main dock at the Bitter End Yacht Club, a full-service resort.
In Spanish Town, you walk off the tender about 250 feet from an open-air shopping complex with a number of resort-wear and gift shops, restaurants, a dive shop, bank, bakery and laundromat. Buck's Food Market, a full-service grocery store, is across the parking lot. If you linger at the pier, you'll find yourself among palm trees and sailboats.
In North Sound, you tender to Bitter End Yacht Club, a resort complex overlooking the blue sea. The resort features gift and souvenir shops, restaurants and water sports offerings, including a sailing school (open to guests and visitors).
Note: There is no public transportation.
By Taxi: Open-air jitneys or vans are the typical modes of visitor transport. With taxi fares, the more passengers aboard, the better the per-person rate, so it pays to round up a group and share a ride. The 10-minute ride to The Baths from the Yacht Harbour costs about $4 per person for four people. A 90-minute island tour is about $15 per person, for a minimum of three passengers.
The fare to the Bitter End or Gorda Peak is about $17 to $20 per person. Be aware that the road system in Virgin Gorda is incomplete, which means you need to take a ferry to some spots. (For example, to get to the Bitter End from the Yacht Harbour, you take a taxi to Gun Creek and then the ferry to your destination.) If you are doing a multi-hour tour, make sure the taxi has air-conditioning -- not all do.
By Rental Car: You'll encounter some very steep roads especially if you head up to Gorda Peak, so a 4x4 vehicle is recommended, with rates around $60 per day. Driving is on the left. Several companies will pick you up at the dock if you make reservations: Try Andy's Jeep Rental (284-495-5252), Speedy's Car Rental (284-495-5240) or Mahogany Rentals (284-495-5469).
By Ferry: The Bitter End Yacht Club ferry (284-494-2746) runs between Gun Creek and the yacht club hourly on the half hour, free of charge, and takes less than 30 minutes. The North Sound Express (284-495-2138) runs between Spanish Town and the Bitter End Yacht Club, a trip that takes about 90 minutes, and reservations are required; there is a fee to ride, with reduced fares for kids and infants.
Watch Out For
If you decide to explore on foot, you'll often have to walk in the street. There aren't many sidewalks.
The Baths formation is a geological wonder, featuring giant boulders spewed from an ancient volcano and scattered on a white sand beach. You can view the boulders from the sands, but to really experience the place, you'll want to climb through the caves, some so narrow and short that occasionally you'll have to drop to all fours to get through, until you come out into a boulder harbor. Along the way, warm tidal pools form in grottos as light romantically filters through crevices in the rock -- a perfect place to take a dip. There are ropes to hold on to during the more treacherous parts of the established trail, though anyone moderately fit can make the trek. You can swim around the boulders, and snorkelers will find an abundance of sea life. Be aware the footpath to reach The Baths is rough and uneven. Part of the BVI National Parks Trust, the park entry fee is $3; kids 10 and younger are free. The site is about 1.2 miles from Spanish Town and easily accessible by taxi.
Scuba diving is popular, and divers will find plenty of enticements including the wreck of the RMS Rhone, sunk in a hurricane in 1867 and considered by many to be among the top 10 wreck dives in the world. The many reefs in the Dog Islands off the coast of Virgin Gorda also are popular among divers and snorkelers. Dive operators offer two-tank morning dives. Contact individual operators for the availability of "discover scuba" programs for non-certified divers. Operators include Dive BVI, with an outlet at the Yacht Harbour and another at the North Sound (800-848-7078, 284-495-5513) and Kilbride's Sunchaser Scuba (800-932-4286).
Been There, Done That
You can catch a ferry to Tortola, but the most desirable destination is Anegada, about 15 miles from Virgin Gorda and the northernmost of the BVI. On Anegada, you'll find an oasis with only 150 residents and many miles of unpopulated white sand beach, hundreds of pink flamingoes and excellent snorkeling; Anegada's Horseshoe Reef is the third largest continuous reef in the Eastern Caribbean. Several charter companies cruise to Anegada on full- or half-day tours from the Yacht Harbour, including Spirit of Anegada (284-340-7777) and La Boheme Charters (284-541-4861). But a big caveat: Be very conscious of your ship's departure time when planning your excursion.
Hikers will want to make a beeline for the 265-acre Gorda Peak National Park, donated by Laurance Rockefeller in 1974. At 1,370 feet, the peak is the highest in the BVI. A wooden observation tower at the summit affords panoramic views of the island, sea and neighboring islands; on a clear day, you can even spot Anegada. The park is rich with indigenous flora and fauna including the world's smallest lizard, the Virgin Gorda gecko. The main trail to the top takes 25 minutes but is steep at times. An easier second trail gets you to the top in about 40 minutes. Note: Getting to the trailhead in the park requires some very steep driving; a 4x4 vehicle is recommended.
For history buffs, the Copper Mine National Park on the island's rugged southwestern tip is home to ruins of a mine built by Cornish miners in 1837 and abandoned in 1862, because of declining market prices for the ore. You can still see ruins of an engine house, chimney and mineshafts and spot copper veins. Ocean-view trails around the ruins offer a nice hike.
Best for Exploring: See The Baths, above.
Best for Snorkeling: Devil's Bay Beach is a small beach with white sands, located right by The Baths. Follow the trail from The Baths ($3 park admission price applies). In the sea, you'll find colorful fish and coral.
Best for Families: Spring Bay Beach is adjacent to The Baths and attracts fewer people. The beach features tables for picnicking and boulders with crevices to explore. You can reach the beach through The Crawl, a cave trail from The Baths, or much more easily from Tower Road. You can snorkel here in quiet, sheltered pools around the rocks.
Best for Lounging: Savannah Bay Beach, just north of Spanish Town, is a long, curving stretch of sand that attracts relatively few visitors, partially because to site is a bit of a walk from the roadway. It's also a good snorkeling spot, but bring your own equipment (no rental outlets).
Best for Watersports: In the North Sound, most of the beaches are attached to upscale resorts and reachable by private ferry. Bitter End Yacht Club has a tiny beach, which is open to outsiders. It's a fun place to kick back. For watersports enthusiasts, the resort's water sports department rents catamarans, sea kayaks, windsurfers, outboard skiffs and sailboats. Sailing lessons are available.
Grilled Caribbean lobster, conch, goat or chicken curry and other regional specialties appear on restaurant menus along with more standard international fare. For a local snack, try patties, which are baked meat pies filled with ground beef, saltfish, tuna or chicken.
In Spanish Town, the Bath and Turtle in the Yacht Harbour serves up casual dining in an open-air courtyard. This is a good spot to try the Painkiller cocktail. The menu offers favorites including fried dill pickles, burgers, pizza, pulled pork and fish tacos, or try the house specialty of ginger and pineapple ribs. If you want to grab sandwiches to take to the beach, stop by the nearby LSL Deli. (284-495-5239; open daily 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Above The Baths, the aptly named Top of the Baths is located at the trailhead and serves such local tastes as conch fritters, jerk chicken, stewed oxtail and grilled lobster tail as well as international fare. The open-air balcony setting is so pretty it's worth taking a cab ride just for lunch -- even if you don't head down to The Rocks. You can look out past palm trees to the harbor and might even spot your ship. Plus, the place has a swimming pool you can use for free. Beware: The Painkillers might leave you lethargic. (Open from 11 a.m. daily.)
Located at the five-star Rosewood Little Dix Bay, the resort opened by Rockefeller, the Pavilion Restaurant serves a nice buffet spread on a large dining terrace for $35 per person, from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. The resort is about a 10-minute cab ride from the Yacht Harbour. (284-495-5555.)
In the North Sound, the Clubhouse Grille at The Bitter End Yacht Club has a full lunch buffet for $25 per person. Lunch is served 12:15 p.m. to 2 p.m. If you're coming from Spanish Town, you would catch the ferry at Gun Creek. (800-872-2392.)
Staying in Touch
You can find wireless service, though not necessarily speedy, around the island, including at the Bath and Turtle cafe in the Yacht Harbour. Order a beer or other menu item, and your Wi-Fi access is free. There is also an Internet cafe in the complex, and while access isn't cheap --about 20 cents per minute -- it's less than you'll pay on the ship.
Best for Relaxing: Sail away on a three-hour Savannah Bay catamaran cruise, with time to swim, snorkel or lounge on the beach.
Best for Diving and Snorkeling: Certified divers will want to book a two and a half hour one-tank or 4-hour two-tank excursion to The Dogs (the main diving area) or to explore the wreck of the RMS Rhone. Snorkelers should also head to the colorful underwater displays at The Dogs, where your tour boat will drop anchor at one or more sites during a three-hour excursion.
Note: Conspicuous by its absence is The Baths. That's because if you arrive at Spanish Town, it's so easy and cheap to get there it doesn't make sense to book an excursion. The only exception is if you want to arrive at The Baths by sea, which requires some swimming from a tender, or if there is a value-added addition such as a picnic on a beach.
For More Information
On the Web: British Virgin Islands Tourism Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Caribbean
IndependentTraveler.com: Caribbean Travel Guide
-- Updated by Fran Golden, Cruise Critic contributor