A great way to see the islands is by boat. Sailboats and motorboats can be rented or chartered with a crew from any major harbor. The conditions for sailing and motoring depend on the time of year and anchoring off islands can be tricky, so either be sure you know what you are doing or hire a crew.
If you are an experienced sailor, it doesn’t get any better than the BVI. Line of sight sailing in moderate trade winds, no currents to speak of, barely any tides, and few underwater obstructions other than the shore itself make sailing around the islands very relaxing. Most of the 60 or so islands and cays are only a couple of hour’s sail from your next destination.
Road Town, on Tortola, is one of the principal centres for bareboating (self-hire yacht chartering) in the Caribbean. It is the headquarters of Sunsail Sailing Vacations and Tortola Marine, located in the Road Reef Marina; Conch Charters, BVI Boat, and The Moorings which are four of the main charter boat companies operating out of Road Town/Road Harbor. Ten minutes from Road Harbour is Nanny Cay Marina where you can find Horizon Yacht Charters and The Catamaran Company. BVI bareboat charters can also be booked well in advance through a wholesaler such as LateSail which works out of the same ports and often through the same operators.
Cars can be rented on the larger islands such as Virgin Gorda and Tortola, but are obviously unnecessary on many smaller islands where goat paths and foot trails are the main mode of transportation. There is one scooter for rent on Jost Van Dyke. There are several rental car agencies at the airport and a couple other rental car locations around Tortola.
Be aware that the roads are very hilly, the standard of the roads is low, the standard of the driving is very low, and there are no specific laws against driving whilst under the influence. People driving in the BVI for the first time are advised to think as if everyone else on the road is trying to cause an accident and make it look like their fault – although that is not actually true, it will give you the right frame of mind to have when get behind the wheel. Polite honks are common as a sign of showing thanks for letting them go in front of you, or as a signal that they are letting you in. It is also customary to stop for pedestrians who may not necessarily always be crossing at an intersection.
Taxis in the British Virgin Islands can be expensive. Do not bother to try and haggle – taxi prices are fixed by law. Taxi rides can be colourful – sometimes taxis are shared with other passengers or the driver may stop en route to run an errand. Either way, it’s a good chance to really get to know the island!
Nature is the main attraction in the islands, with coral reefs, white sandy beaches, and scenic seaside villages the main draw.
Other attractions include historic villages, churches, and, if the sun is too much for you, a museum in Road Town, the shady Botanic Gardens or the rain forest on Sage Mountain in Tortola.
The quality of beaches in the British Virgin Islands, even by Caribbean standards, is very high. Because of the large number of beaches, particularly on the north side of Tortola and the west side of Virgin Gorda, the beaches are generally not crowded (with the exception of Cane Garden Bay on Tortola, which is next to a densely populated area). It is not uncommon, even during tourist season, to be able to have a more remote beach largely or entirely to yourself for an afternoon. With the possible exception of Cane Garden Bay, beaches in the BVI do not tend to have the vendors pestering tourists which are characteristic of some other Caribbean islands. Conversely, many of them do not have any amenities, so remember to bring your own lunch and water!
The Virgin Islands is the most popular area for a sailing vacation in the Caribbean. This is a first-timers paradise, since the islands are close together and well protected from the Atlantic. You wake up to sunshine and a blue sky, choose the cruising target of the day by pointing on a nearby island and set sail in a comfortable trade wind. There are many yacht charter companies and marinas in the British Virgin Islands. Apart from cruise ship passengers, the majority of visitors to the British Virgin Islands stay on liveaboard boats or charter sailing vessels.
- Scuba diving
The BVIs are home to the wreck of the RMS Rhone which served as the site for the underwater scenes in the 1977 Nick Nolte/Jackie Bisset/Robert Shaw flick The Deep. The Rhone is the best-known and most often visited dive site in the islands. Lying just west of Salt Island, the Rhone is a former Royal Mail Steamer that sank in a hurricane on October 29, 1867 with the loss of nearly all lives. A spectacularly large 310 ft (94 metres) steamer in her previous life, she’s now a three-site dive, with each chunk resting at varying depths, from 20 to 80 ft (6 to 24 metres).
Apart from the Rhone, the BVI boasts several other shipwrecks, the most notable of which are the Chikuzen, a collection of four purposely sunk wrecks in ‘Wreck Alley’ off Cooper Island, the Inganess Bay, the Fearless, the rarely dived Parmatta, and an aircraft off Great Dog Island. In addition to wreck diving, the BVI has the usual plethora of coral reefs that one would expect in a Caribbean diving destination.
A list of dive operators in the BVI can be found here. When diving on a guided tour, expect to pay around US$80-100 for a two tank dive and about US$50-60 for a one tank dive, although cheaper deals can be had as part of a package. Most dive operators do not charge extra to use their equipment if you decide to leave yours at home, and most are happy to pick up guests who are staying on boats en route to dive sites (‘rendez-vous diving’ in local slang). Almost all dive sites in the BVI have permanent marker bouys on them attached by the National Parks trust. If you are on a boat, confident in your diving skills, and are a semi competent navigator, it is easy to locate these bouys and dive most of the sites without a guide.
It is illegal for non-British Virgin Islanders to remove any marine organism from BVI waters without a recreational permit. A permit is available for charterers who intend to fish while in the BVI. The cost is $35 ($10 application fee; $25 for the permit). This temporary fishing permit can be obtained from the Department of Conservation and Fisheries: Department of Conservation and Fisheries, The Quastisky Building PO Box 3323 Road Town, Tortola. Tel: (284) 494-5681/3429 or (284) 468-3701 ex. 5555/1 Fax: (284) 494-2670 E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org The government office closes early on Friday afternoons and doesn’t reopen until Monday morning. For charterers arriving on the weekend, it may be a couple of days before you can get a permit. When you arrive for your charter, check with the local staff for advice on obtaining a permit. There have been instances of extremely zealous enforcement of penalties for fishing without licences (including 5 figure fines), so visitors should be mindful of that.
Spearfishing (of any kind) is strictly prohibited in the BVI, as is any kind of marine harvesting whilst using scuba equipment. With appropriate licences, visitors can hunt for lobster and conch by hand whilst free diving (ie. with no snorkel or scuba tank) during the relevant hunting seasons.
Several beaches offer surf-oriented breaks, including Josiah’s and Apple Bay.
The annual “HiHo” windsurfing race-cum-travel-tour is held on or around the 4th of July weekend. For a week, internationally renowned competitors participate in formal course racing. Recognized as “One of the 100 top BVI adventures” by the BVI Tourist Board, the HiHo fleet is easily recognized by the distinctive event and sponsor flags flown by the charter fleet. The event generally stops for a day or two at Virgin Gorda, a night on Anegada, one or two nights around Tortola and finishes with a day of racing around the area of Sandy Cay, west of Jost van Dyke. Participants join in a 15-mile ocean dash from the waters around Necker or Gorda directly to Anegada. This event is unusual in that Anegada, a low-lying island, only becomes visible to someone at ocean-level during the last five miles of the race.
- BVI Kite Jam. Annual, week long kite boarding event including professional demonstrations, races, parties and awards ceremony. BVI Kite Jam is a kiteboarding event held in the beautiful British Virgin Islands, and is open to amateurs, professionals and spectators. This week long event is packed full of of Freestyle, Sliders, Big Air, Wave riding and long distance racing all in some of the windiest and most spectacular locations in the world such as the North Sound, Necker Island, Anegada and Eustatia Sound.