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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The BVI use the U.S. dollar for its currency. ATMs are commonplace.
English, though Caribbean patois is common.
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)
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.
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.