A Catamaran Charter Adventure: Tortola

A Catamaran Charter Adventure: Tortola

The Spanish named it “land of the turtle doves” for its shape and beauty. For anyone that has had a chance to visit the largest island in the BVI chain while on a catamaran charter, they would agree that Tortola is aptly named. From its spectacular beaches, to its protected anchorages, to the incredible vistas atop Mount Sage to the series of lesser ridges undulating and spilling with hairpin turns to the azure blue sea below, to the centuries-old ruins to the hustle and bustle of the BVI’s capital, Road Town – the twenty square mile volcanic island of Tortola has something for everyone. Tortola is the sailing capital of the Caribbean.

There are no fewer than 12 bareboat companies, more than 800 bareboat yachts, several dozen crewed yachts, water sports rental companies, 5 scuba companies and about a dozen marinas all based on Tortola. For those on a catamaran charter, Tortola is an ideal point from which to analyze the other British Virgin Islands. With so much centered on cruising and the sea, many visitors do no realize that Tortola offers a variety of fun adventures onshore in addition. In fact, most people fly into Beef Island or get off the ferry at West End, hop on a catamaran charter and use their complete vacation exploring some of the smaller nearby islands without ever experiencing Tortola. So, let’s begin…

The pictureque Drives

A really incredible way to experience the breathtaking beauty of Tortola is to simply excursion around. The sheer descents, hairpin turns, and driving on the left make driving on Tortola an adventure in itself. For the less adventuresome, hire a taxi. The fares are reasonable, and the friendly drivers provide a wealth of local knowledge. There are basically two main roads in Tortola. One follows the mountain ridges and the other the coast with many smaller tributaries spilling off of them- most notably, the North Coast Road.

The spectacular Ridge Road, with its breathtaking views, follows the central spine of Tortola. An ever changing ground of ridges and valleys appear in series as the road follows the contour line of the central range- dipping by “ghuts” or stream valleys and ascending slopes to reach the next peak. Vistas show peaks from Tortola’s ocean headlands and outlying islands of Great Camanoe and Guana Island. The pictureque excursion slowly wraps around the “amphitheater” produced by Road Town Harbour. The islands across the Sir Frances Drake Channel can be seen in the distance. The most level part of the road is at the top of the mountain where you will see Tortola’s rural and pastoral culture. A turn-off goes down to Cane Garden Bay and nevertheless further on, another turn-off goes up to Mt. Sage National Park. Ridge Road finally dips to the North Beach Coast.

The Coastal Road snakes along the outer perimeter of the southern shore along Tortola’s Sir Frances Drake Channel from the Beef Island airport on the East End to Soper’s Hole on the West End, connecting several charming rural communities in between. The route is divided in two sections by Road Town in the middle. Blackburn’s Highway is the section from East End. It passes Fat Hog’s Bay, Maya Cove and other bays over a series of ridges looking out to Virgin Gorda. The route then comes into Road Town where it is called Waterfront excursion. The section past Road Town is called Drake’s Highway. Passing the nautical village of Nanny Cay, this is the flattest and low-lying stretch of road on Tortola. You will enjoy picturesque views to the other islands across the Sir Frances Drake Channel. A turn-off at Zion Hill Road leads to the North Beach Coast, but if you continue on, you will reach Soper’s Hole.

The emotional North Beach Coast Road takes you to the finest beaches and greatest surfing sites on Tortola. The road offers panoramic views of Cane Garden Bay before descending steeply to this beautiful and popular anchorage. It then ascends out of Cane Garden Bay by woods to Windy Hill. The route then drops again into Great Carrot Bay, a coastal fishing village. This area is known for its incredible cloud formations as the trade winds lift over Tortola’s mountainous spine, often dropping localized rain showers and sprouting bright rainbows. The road continues past several bays. At this point, the route is called Long Bay Road for its panoramic views of Long Bay Beach. The road continues to climb to Belmont Point, where you will find the entrance to cozy Smuggler’s Cove and the end of this road.

The Main Settlements

Another thing to do is analyze the three main settlement areas on Tortola, namely, Road Town, West End and East End.

The majority of the island’s inhabitants live in Road Town, either downtown, along the outskirts, or in the hills above the harbour. The capital is brimming with restaurants, shops and is the site for the hospital, government administration offices and official Governor’s house. The large, beautiful harbour at Road Town has for centuries provided shelter for fleets of English, Dutch, Spanish and French ships. Today, it is a busy center of island life and marine activity with charter boats, cruise and cargo ships. The inner harbour is formed by two large island jetties. Wickman’s Cay on the right adjoins the Main Street area, while Wickham’s Cay II on the left comprises the Moorings charter complicate. Running similar to the water is the slightly touristy Waterfront excursion with its bars, restaurants, shops and markets. A few steps to the west, you will find picturesque Main Street lined with brightly painted 200 year old wooden and stone buildings- a peep into the BVI’s architectural past. The many historic buildings and churches, charming cafes and curio shops cater mostly to locals. It is a great place to look for local arts and crafts, handcrafted jewelry, clothing and silk-screened fiber, in addition as local spices, jams and rum.

The west end of the island, with its main settlement, West End, is home to Tortola’s resorts, an abundance of excellent beaches and fun night life including the infamous complete moon parties at Bomba’s Shack. Many people on a catamaran charter take the ferry to and from St. Thomas and go by BVI customs at West End. Across the ferry dock is a popular anchorage called Soper’s Hole with its charming West Indian architecture. Soper’s Hole has a quaint collection of shops and restaurants, in addition as the beautiful Harbour Market. This market has a large selection, good prices, deli and gourmet items, in addition as general provisions for chartering.

Although not very developed, East End, on the eastern side of Tortola, has its own attractions and activities to delight visitors. Beef Island, just a short bridge span over the tip of Tortola is home to the T.B. Lettsome Airport, and nearby to it is the sailboat-filled Trellis Bay. There are several good bars and restaurants in this rare cultural village, which is a very laid-back beach hangout. You can visit Aragorn Studios where artist Aragorn makes copper and steel sculptures and wood-cut print hand painted t-shirts. You can also buy Carib-made crafts. This is also the place to be for family-oriented complete moon parties. Local ferries are obtainable to take you to nearby Bellamy Cay (home of the Last Resort Restaurant) and tiny Marina Cay (former home of author Robb White and now Pusser’s Porch Restaurant).

National Parks

The BVI National Parks Trust currently manages 17 national parks. These include 16 land parks and 1 marine park (the Wreck of the Rhone). Four of the national parks are found right on Tortola.

Sage Mountain National Park encompasses the highest point of a ridge running east/west along the spine of Tortola. The elevation of the park ranges from 750′ at the western end to 1,780′ at Mt. Sage, which is the highest point in both the US and British Virgin Islands. Most of the park is above 1,000′ and supports some forest species associated with the rainforest in Puerto Rico. The park is laid out with graveled hiking paths throughout.

Mount Healthy National Park is located above Brewer’s Bay. The park was the site of the original Anderson Estate, a sugar plantation dating back to 1798. The ruins of the Mount Healthy windmill are the only one of its kind remaining in the BVI. The windmill was used to grind sugar cane and produce cane juice for rum production. Nearby, there are other remains believed to be from the boiling house and Overseer’s Quarters. The park overlooks the north shore of Tortola.

The J.R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens are located on the site of the old Agricultural Experiment stop, where food crops and other plants were grown experimentally and for propagation for almost 100 years. Named after the territory’s leading conservationist, the gardens offer a delightful haven from the hustle and bustle of Road Town. Visitors will find over 62 species of palms, an impressive cacti collection, and an excellent characterize of rainforest flora.

Queen Elizabeth II National Park is located on the seaward side of McNamara Road in Road Town. This park is an attractive place for relaxation and recreation. The park is truly divided into 2 parts: a playground and a grassy lawn fringed by native trees. It is a popular place for picnics. On the eastern end of the park are the remains of the 19th century Customs building.

Historical Sites

Stories of sugar plantations, slavery, pirates and a thorough history of fishing and farming all played a role in the cultural heritage of the BVI. There are many historical sites to be seen on Tortola which allow those on a catamaran charter to have a greater appreciation of how the BVI played such an important role in the Caribbean’s history. Following are some of the historic sites that can be viewed:

Fort Burt: This fort once guarded the mouth of Road Harbour. It was constructed by the Dutch and later rebuilt in 1776 by the English, who annexed the islands in 1672. It was named after William Burt, Governor of the Leeward Islands. Originally 20′ above sea level, the site offers breathtaking views of Road Harbour and surrounding islands. Although now it is the site of a hotel and restaurant, the foundations, magazines and cannons keep.

The Dungeon: This fort is located halfway between Road Town and West End. It was built in 1794 by the Royal Engineers and housed a garrison of soldiers responsible for protecting the islands. It was named, “The Dungeon” because of its underground cells where 18th century etchings can be seen.

Fort Recovery: Located at the west end of Tortola, this is the BVI’s oldest intact structure. A turreted gun emplacement with 3′ thick walls, it was built by the Dutch in 1660.

The William Thornton Estate: This plantation was the birthplace of one of Tortola’s most famous sons. Architect William Thornton prepared his first plans for the new US Capital building here. Low stone walls are all that keep of the home. They can be seen by the side of the road at Pleasant Valley.

The Church of Kingstown: Just east of Road Town, you will find this roofless church. This is all that remains of a community of freed slaves established in 1833.

Old Government House and Museum: The former governor’s residence was built in the early 1920’s. Completely refurbished, this national landmark is open for tours in Road Town.

Callwood Rum Distillery: Located in Cane Garden Bay in an old stone plantation building, this 18th century rum distillery is nevertheless operational and looks much like it did several hundred years ago. The original boiler nevertheless operates and produces rum which is stored in the original storage casks. Samples are obtainable for buy. The old guard house is also intact.

Main Street: In addition to serving as Road Town’s main shopping district, Main Street contains several historical landmarks, including the Post Office (built in the mid 1800’s), St. Phillips Anglican Church (constructed in 1840 and said to be the first church built for liberated Africans in all the Americas) and the Virgin Island’s Folk Museum( which houses a collection of artifacts from the Amerindian and plantation periods and the wreck of the RMS Rhone which sank off Salt Island in a 1867 hurricane).

The Sunday Morning Well: This landmark symbolizes where the emancipation proclamation was read in 1834.

Although not a ruin, the Great Wall on Ridge Road creates an outside gallery depicting the cultural history of the BVI. Also known as the Fahie Hill Mural, this community art project features the work of a group of local artists headed by Rueben Vanterpool. Topics on the mural include market day, fishing, cutting sugar cane, baking, heritage dancers, wash day, donkeys carting sand, moonlight crabbing and scenery scenes. There are contributions by Quito Rhymer, Cedric Turnbull, Pearl Friday, Thor Downing, Dean “Ghost” Smith and Garth Hewlette.

The Beaches

A visitor on a catamaran charter simply cannot go to Tortola and miss a beach experience! From the eastern end of Tortola to the west end, there are many sensational beaches along the north shore. These beaches are some of the best in the Caribbean, offering unspoiled beauty and miles of sand. Most beaches on Tortola deepen little by little and have light surf, allowing for a pleasant swim, however, always observe any signs and ask someone before you wade in since some of the beaches have an undertow. Some of the beaches offer beach shops, restaurants and lots of activity, while others are extremely private and tranquil. Here are just some to enjoy:

Long Bay -Beef Island: Just minutes from the airport, this is a long, curved stretch of beach that is one of the more secluded and little-used beaches.

Elizabeth Beach: Also know as Lambert Beach, this is a very long beach with moderate surf and less clear water than several of the other beaches. It is the widest beach on Tortola, providing sun-worshippers plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy the view. It is a favorite picnic identify for locals because of its sheltering palms and fine white sand. Lunch and dinner is obtainable at the hotel. Green turtles nest on the beach in January and February.

Josiah’s Bay: This beach on Tortola’s east end has a long and wide swath of sand that makes it ideal for sunbathing. At certain times in the winter, when the groups reach their optimum peak, this becomes a popular surfer’s beach. There is a small bar on the beach, in addition as a restaurant nearby.

Brewer’s Bay: Once the site of several sugar plantations and distilleries (hence the name), this developed beach is just around the eastern point from Cane Garden Bay. Ruins can be seen on the beach. The sand is dark gold and is the only non-white sand beach on the island. The water offers some of the best snorkeling on the island because of the many reefs.

Cane Garden Bay: Centrally located on Tortola’s north shore, this is a favored anchorage for those on a catamaran charter because it is long, curved and protected from heavy winds. This ¾ mile beach is the most popular, populated and touristy of the beaches. Some of Tortola’s most popular bars and restaurants line the beach and nightly island music can be heard at many of these spots.

Apple Bay: Although not a great identify for swimming, this beach is known for its surfing and partying. On any day in season, you can see dozens of surfers from all over the world. The bay is also known for its wild complete moon parties at Bomba’s Surfside Shack.

Long Bay-West End: Not to be confused with Long Bay-East End, this easily easy to reach beach is at the western end of Tortola. It is a mile-long stretch of white sand, perfect for a tranquil walk or to watch the sunset. A resort and several restaurants sit back from the beach on the eastern side. The western side, fringed by palms and sea grapes, offers greater solitude and good swimming.

Smuggler’s Cove: Located at the western-most tip of Tortola, this hard to reach beach is secluded, protected and serene. The water is exceptionally warm, clear and calm. There is good snorkeling off both points and sea turtles can sometimes be seen.

Other Activities

While Tortola has many things you would expect from one of the Virgin Islands, like snorkeling and scuba diving, it also has a large number of other great things to do. As the largest island, Tortola is the center of the BVI’s cultural program. Throughout the year there are events that highlight its high culture like music festivals, regattas, poetry readings, beauty pageants, carnivals, arts/crafts festivals and food festivals. Other fun things to do include:

Dolphin Discovery: Although touristy, Tortola is one of 7 locations in Hawaii, the Caribbean and Mexico that offers an interactive experience to swim and encounter these highly intelligent and friendly marine mammals.

Surfing and Body Boarding: Surf’s up from November to March, but good groups can sometimes be found earlier/later in the year depending on weather conditions. The most popular surf spots are Apple, Cane Garden and Josiah’s bays. If you prefer body boarding, you will not miss out. All of the surf beaches have a wide break, providing plenty of space for surfers and body boarders alike.

Hiking and Cycling: There are many opportunities for hiking and biking on Tortola. Sage Mountain National Park alone has 7 hiking trails. The BVI Cycling Club has an active season and is always welcoming to race participants. If you prefer to take a more leisurely ride, there are bike rentals obtainable.

Horses: Horseback riding is a great way to analyze the mountains in the National Park. Shadow’s Stables on Ridge Road offers riders by Sage Mountain National Park. The owner, Elton “Shadow” Parsons, is descended from a long line of local farmers who tilled the land where the stables now stand. His knowledge of local history and funny stories makes him an excellent guide. Into something more exhilarating? There is a horse racing track in Tortola and the competition is fierce!

Fishing: The waters around Tortola are known for incredible fishing. Hook into trophy marlin or Wahoo, or fly fish for world-class bonefish or tarpon. Local guides always know where the fish are sharp.

Windsurfing: Home of HiHo brand clothing, Tortola offers world-class windsurfing. Trellis Bay boasts some of the best windsurfing on the islands. The channel between calm Trellis Bay and Marina Cay is a world-class windsurfing “gorge” with 3-5′ wave faces from the effect of the trade winds against the ripping 2-3 knot current. This represents most excellent boardsailing conditions, dude! Trellis Bay is also a good place to learn how to windsurf or try kite boarding.

Of course, after any fun-filled day, you are sure to have developed an appetite. The cuisine of Tortola reflects the island’s high cultural mix. Local delicacies include fresh lobster, conch, spicy goat, curries, Johnny cakes, spices, and rum. Seafood, steaks and vegetarian dishes are obtainable with a Caribbean flair. Many styles of dining are offered on Tortola, from four-star dinners in converted sugar mills to delicious rotis and snacks at pastel-painted roadside shacks. in any case and however you choose to dine, your meals on Tortola will be noticable.

Tortola, with a population of around 20,000 is the commercial and cosmopolitan center of the BVI. And however, Tortola remains an easy-going destination. The people of Tortola are friendly, laid-back and known for their warmth and hospitality. The island is one of contrasts- from the warm, clear blue waters; powdery sand beaches; lush green mountains; protected yacht-filled harbours, and centuries-old ruins to the bustle of Road Town; you will find it all on Tortola. Although this largest island in the chain is an ideal point from which to analyze the other British Virgin Islands on your catamaran charter, Tortola offers a variety of exciting vacation possibilities. Book your catamaran charter and discover why Tortola is the sailing capital of the Caribbean’s most popular cruising destination.

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