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Tortola and most of the British Virgin Islands are mountainous, and while they boast verdant-green hills, the climate and vegetation are much drier than many Caribbean isles. In Tortola, 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 water clarity is dependably higher than many other places in the Caribbean.
For that reason, Tortola and the BVI are a popular destination for divers and snorkelers. The protective effect of the islands surrounding Tortola causes the seas to be calm most of the time, making the region an attractive destination for those prone to motion sickness during small-boat excursions. The steady winds and calm seas also make Tortola and the BVI one of the world's premier yachting regions. Sailing excursions should be at the top of every interested visitor's list.
A visit to Tortola also offers a 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 within reach for a day trip from Tortola, assuming you have a full day in port. This is not the case on all itineraries, so be sure to check ferry and ship schedules carefully before departing.
One of Tortola's greatest attributes is the genuinely friendly attitude of its residents. The island is safe and crime-free. It's not unusual to find yachts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars docked in marinas with keys visible in the ignitions.
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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 the 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 Rymer's restaurant/club, Quito's Gazebo, in Cane Garden Bay or from numerous other gift shops on the island.
Other great souvenirs include 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 its currency. ATMs are commonplace.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock in Road Harbour, Tortola's only "town." A major expansion of Tortola's cruise dock was under way in 2015, with plans for the development of the land alongside the pier, which will completely transform this tiny port. The five-acre development plan has two phases. The first (completed in summer 2015) involved lengthening and widening the existing pier, while the second phase includes landside development, including the addition of several restaurants, a marketplace, retail stores, a pool, bar and trolley line, among other features.
You can cover most of Road Town on foot; most eateries and shopping venues are within easy walking distance. The major asset in Road Town, however, is the ferry docks. For those who want to see what the British Virgin Islands are really about, the ferries are your best friends (see "Getting Around," below).
As you disembark in Road Town, be prepared for construction. You will find an information kiosk staffed with people handing out maps, ferry schedules and brochures, and taxis are readily available. For other facilities like ATMs, shops and cafes, it's just a quick walk into town, where you'll find pubs with Wi-Fi, restaurants and even a small market. Main Street features cute souvenir shops, where you can find local crafts and jewelry. While Road Town is worth a visit, if that's the extent of your Tortola experience, you will miss out on the best of the BVI.
By Taxi: 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. Roads on Tortola are very steep and winding. If this makes you uneasy, avoid the safari cabs.
By Rental Car: You'll need a BVI license, which costs about $10 and is 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) and Itgo Car Rental (Road Town; 284-494-5150).
By Ferry: Ferries are the primary form of moving people between Tortola and the other islands. 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 Hole and Beef Island can be reached by taxi for about $20 per person roundtrip.
Watch Out For
You won't encounter dangerous animals or snakes, but a few plants (oleander and elephant ears, for example) 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 lies to the northwest of Tortola. It has a lovely sand beach at White Bay and a popular beachside bar. Ferry service is offered from West End by New Horizon Ferry Service (284-495-9278). It takes about 45 minutes each way to Jost Van Dyke.
Foxy's Bar in Great Harbour is a renowned beachside hangout serving West Indian specialties. Try the Sly Fox and Dread Fox, specialty house drinks made with Foxy's own rum. A 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.
Sandcastle, a hotel on White Bay, is a short walk from the ferry dock. In addition to its excellent beach, Sandcastle serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily at the Soggy Dollar Bar, birthplace of the Painkiller. Entrees include flying fish sandwiches and rotis.
Peter Island: By and large, the island features one asset: the elegant, exclusive resort that often appears in the top five lists of Caribbean resorts by major travel magazines. Only 300 of the island's 1,800 acres have been developed. Peter Island Resort (800-346-4451) operates its own fleet of ferries making roundtrips (about 40 minutes each way) from the resort's marina to Baughers Bay, which is located a long walk or short taxi ride from the cruise pier.
Peter Island Resort offers day visitors access to its private beach, the utterly beautiful Deadman's Bay. Powder-soft white sand curves along a crystal-clear Caribbean bay, with shallow snorkeling reefs at either end. To get to the beach, walk up the hill parallel to 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 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 has a dress code, and conservative coverups are absolutely required. Deadman's prices are not cheap, but the food -- pizza, sandwiches and burgers -- and setting are excellent. On select Sunday afternoons, a terrific steel band plays.
Marina Cay: Off the eastern tip of Tortola, Marina Cay and its eight acres offer a tiny beach, Pusser's restaurant and company store, small resort, marina, a handful of shops and an Internet cafe. A complimentary daily ferry service is operated by Pusser's Marina Cay Resort (284-494-2174) between Beef Island, Tortola and Marina Cay. The trip takes less than 10 minutes.
Pusser's operates a resort, shop and restaurant. The restaurant opens daily at 11 a.m. and specializes in seafood and Caribbean cuisine. 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 (284-495-5513) to book Scuba or snorkeling trips.
Virgin Gorda: The main draws there are Virgin Gorda's yacht clubs, natural beauty and upscale resorts, including the famous Bitter End Yacht Club. Virgin Gorda is also home to the famous rock formations called the Baths. A popular tourist destination, these large volcanic boulders sit on a stretch of beach on the southern end of the island. They form grottos, caves and pools where visitors can snorkel and explore.
Speedy's Ferry Service (284-495-5235) 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.
Been There, Done That
Helicopter Tours: For a different perspective, see Tortola and the BVI by air. Antilles Helicopter Services is a BVI-based company that provides scenic helicopter tours starting at $90/person. (Beef Island Airport 284-441-7335)
Private Yachts: There is no shortage of sailing yachts available for full-day 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, beach time and lunch either onboard or at a shoreside restaurant. Prominent charter operators sail from Road Harbour or the nearby Village Cay Marina include. Patouche Charters (Road Harbour; 284-494-6300) offers sailings on a 50-foot schooner, a 48-foot catamaran or a 28-foot Bertram power boat. Aristocat Charters (Soper's Hole, West End, or Village Cay, Road Town; 284-499-1249) offers day sails and snorkel trips to the surrounding islands on its two 48-foot catamarans. White Squall II (Village Cay; 284-541-2222) offers sailings on an 80-foot schooner to the Caves at Norman Island and the Baths at Virgin Gorda, both with excellent snorkeling.
Scuba Diving: Operators offer two-tank morning dives. Contact individual dive operators for the availability 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 and 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 the neighboring islands. Dive operators serving the Road Harbour area include AquaVentures (Road Town; 284-494-4320) and Sail Caribbean Divers (Hodges Creek, East End; 284-495-1675).
Sage Mountain: Tortola's national park, Sage Mountain, is crisscrossed with well-marked hiking trails. Hook up with a ranger for a guided walking tour to explore great scenery and views of the sea.
Shopping: Perhaps you're in the mood for a little shopping. Crafts Alive Marketplace is a collection of colorful tents on the waterfront in Road Town. You'll find some of the same batiks and tourist trinkets of marketplaces on other Caribbean islands alongside handmade crafts. Or check out the BVI Community Craft Shop, featuring handmade items ranging from Christmas ornaments to rag rugs and fish-scale ornaments.
Mi Amor Jewelers (284-494-7477), a conventional cruise port merchandise outlet, can be found at Wickham's Cay 1, near the cruise pier.
Sunny Caribbee Spice Shop and Art Gallery (119 Main Street, Road Town; 284-494-2178) offers gift-packaged spices, hot sauces, soaps, lotions, herbs, teas, coffees, etc. One of the more exotic offerings is the Arawak Love Potion and West Indian Hangover Cure gift set. The shop also sells Caribbean crafts.
Best for Families: Cane Garden Bay Beach is a beautiful stretch of white sand on Tortola's north shore, about a 25-minute taxi ride from the pier in Road Town. It's a popular spot for families because of its clear, calm water, restaurants and watersports. You can rent standup paddleboards, kayaks and jet skis on the beach. It gets crowded around midday, so the earlier you arrive, the better.
Best for Snorkeling: Taxi drivers are familiar with snorkeling hot-spot Brewer's Bay. It is lovely and secluded; however, the bay can sometimes see dangerously high surf and rip currents during winter months. You'll also spot an old sugar mill and the ruins of a rum distillery there.
Best for Beach Bums: Smuggler's Cove is the perfect beach for quiet relaxation because it's located on the far western end of the island and a bit difficult to get to. Many visitors opt for a more convenient beach, so it might be just you and the locals.
Best for Surfing: For the dedicated surfer, try Apple Bay. Surfing conditions vary but are generally best in January and February. It's a small beach that gets crowded when the surf is good. Boards can be rented at HIHO (284-494-0337) in Road Town.
Meals often include a variety of seafood, chicken, and goat. Saltfish is also popular. Common side dishes include rice and peas, sweet potatoes, fried plantains, beans and lentils. Fresh fruits abound, like passion fruit, mango and soursop. A favorite dish is fungi, which is similar to polenta and is made from cornmeal and okra. Also popular is roti, a flatbread that is deep fried or stuffed with other ingredients, like lentils, curry and vegetables. And don't forget the rum.
Pusser's Road Town Pub and Company Store: Casual dining offers a classic experience in a fun atmosphere at this chain, which has outposts throughout the BVI. Sit on the outdoor porch and enjoy jerk pork and chicken, burgers and fish and chips. Make sure you order the Painkiller, the national drink of the BVI. (284-494-3897; open from 11 a.m. daily)
Capriccio di Mare: Casual and elegant Italian fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Great frittatas and tiramisu. (Road Town, across from ferry dock; 284-494-5369; open from 8 a.m. Monday to Saturday)
Pusser's Landing: Similar to the Road Town outlet, this restaurant has a more picturesque setting and more extensive menu. Excellent conch chowder and fish and chips. (Across from the custom's dock; 284-495-4603; open from 11 a.m. daily)
Fish 'n Lime Inn: Great seafood, with live music on Wednesdays and Fridays. (On the waterfront at Soper's Hole; 284-495-4276; open for lunch and dinner daily)
Charlie T's Lobster House: A Pusser's restaurant, this is a rustic hangout for residents and yachties on the waterfront at Fat Hog Bay. Charlie T's features lobster, shrimp, crab and other seafood dishes, as well as roti, burgers, steak and pizza. (Fat Hog Bay; 284-495-1010; open 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. for breakfast and from 11 a.m. for lunch and dinner daily)
Quito's Gazebo: Although you'll find excellent salads and grilled seafood, 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. The gift shop next door offers souvenirs and Quito's recordings. (The Ole Works Inn; 284-495-4837; open from 11:30 a.m. Tuesday to Sunday)
Myett's Garden & Grille: This restaurant 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. Great breakfast burritos with fresh guacamole. They also offer massages upstairs. (284-495-9649; open from 11 a.m. daily)
Staying in Touch
Wi-Fi is available at The Pub (Road Town near Road Town Marina), Village Cay Marina Hotel (Road Town), The Moorings restaurant (Road Town, Inner Harbour), Pusser's Landing (Road Town), Le Grand Cafe (Main Street, Road Town) and more. Access may be slow.
Best for First-Timers: A visit to beautiful Jost Van Dyke is a great way to spend the day. This famous little island was named after a pirate and is home to a beautiful beach, shops, restaurants and watersports. Most cruise lines offer half-day tours, which include a half-hour boat ride from Tortola to Jost (you will probably swim or wade ashore), and some include lunch. Try the Painkiller cocktail at the Soggy Dollar Bar.
Best for Families: A dolphin experience is a fun and easy option for families looking to avoid long taxi rides or ferries to other islands. Dolphin Discovery Tortola at Prospect Reef offers the chance to touch and interact with dolphins, as well as swim with them in an open pool. This is a half-day excursion (or shorter), and kids must be at least 5.
Best for the Adventurous: For ships not making a separate port call at Virgin Gorda, a tour of the Baths is a great choice for a shore excursion. Hike through the jumble of boulders that create tunnels, arches and pools, and wander through the caves. This is a half-day tour, and some lines include the opportunity to snorkel.
For More Information
On the Web: British Virgin Islands Tourist Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Tortola
IndependentTraveler.com: Caribbean Travel Guide
--Updated by Carrie Calzaretta, Cruise Critic contributor