Earth : North America : Caribbean : British Virgin Islands : Tortola
English is universally spoken throughout the British Virgin Islands. Those who work with tourists will speak quite clearly, but older natives have a thick and distinctive West Indian accent that, when spoken quickly, can be very difficult to understand. Because of the influence of British culture, a stronger emphasis is placed on politeness and decorum. It is generally expected to begin any conversation with a "Good morning," or whatever time of day is applicable, rather than the common American English habit of simply beginning a conversation without salutation.
Air travel is the usual way to access the BVI, however, long-distance direct flights are not available, and you must transit one of the four Caribbean gateways; San Juan, St. Thomas, Antigua & St. Maarten. Connections are readily available through commuter airline operations on the lower end, if your schedule allows.
There are several reliable scheduled airlines serving Beef Island, so don't think you need a private charter - these are mainly for oligarchs and movie stars
Air Charter companies, like Fly BVI and Aeroshares Charter, LLC have become more popular in recent years. These charter flights get you to your destination directly, without transfers or water shuttles. They will also be there if your arriving flight is delayed for any reason. No sense paying for a Villa in Paradise or having a bare boat charter sitting at the marina under contract while you wait at the airport. That's no way to spend your vacation.
The airport on Tortola, Terrence B. Lettsome Airport (IATA: EIS) a.k.a. Beef Island Airport is located on the East End. Some travelers opt to fly into St. Thomas, having Fly BVI Air Charter meet them for the 14-minute flight. Some opt to travel on the water ferry to Road Town, then take taxi to their villa or marina. Though, depending on the ferry schedule and your arrival and departure times, this option can virtually tie up the better part of two days during your vacation.
Tortola is also visited by cruise ships. Virtually all dock at a large pier near the entrance to the inner harbor at Road Town, with fairly easy walking into town.
The Tortola Ferry moves between Tortola and St. Thomas. In actuality, there is a group of several different ferry companies that provide service between the two islands. These ferries are what connects the people of the British Virgin Islands with the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The ferries link the city of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas with either Road Town or the West End of Tortola.
The ferry is one of the more popular ways to reach Tortola from the U.S. This is due to the fact that Americans can reach Tortola via only one direct flight and then a short ferry ride. This will no doubt save the traveler several hundred dollars, since a second flight would not be necessary.
You can catch one of the ferries, almost anytime of day. After 5:00PM most of the services are shut down for the evening. The ride lasts about 50 minutes depending on the weather. The scenery is well worth the price of the ride.
Vary greatly between companies. Some of the companies even alternate their schedules between themselves and another company. For a current list take a look at this page's ferry schedule .
Many travelers find it easier to just buy two one-way tickets from different companies instead of one round-trip ticket with the same company. Since ferries from different companies are coming and going constantly, you should be able to catch a ferry at any time during the day. Often times one company will be convenient upon arrival, but not upon departure. Just check the schedule to find out if this will be the case for you, if not then by all means, buy the round-trip ticket and save a few bucks.
Many affluent visitors will take a charter boat trip from one of several marinas to some of the best places, as many smaller and less-inhabited islands offer mooring and amenities. While charter-boat tourism makes up the bulk of travel to the British Virgin Islands, there are many beautiful places throughout the four main islands that are easily accessible.
There are many small independent auto rental businesses, all with relatively comparable rates. Prices range from US$50 per day and up, as demand is usually high. Driving in the BVI can be very difficult, as many winding mountain roads and cliffs, washed-out roads, and roaming livestock compound the difficulty of driving on the left side of the road. Driving can be a good way to see the entire island of Tortola at your own pace.
Another way to see the island is to organise a readily available taxi 'tour'. Taxis are abundant on Tortola, and so long as you use a legitimate taxi association driver prices will generally allow you to travel anywhere you wish but for less than the cost of renting a car. Always ensure that you thoroughly confirm the fare charge before you get into the taxi.
"Buses" in Tortola refers to full-sized passenger vans, or large modified open-air pickup trucks with bench seating and a canvas top: these are known locally as "safaris". Traveling by bus can be less expensive than having a taxi to oneself, and is often an option when traveling from the airport to Road Town, or from town to either end of the island.
Hitch-hiking is still fairly common in Tortola during the daytime, as crime is fairly uncommon. Rather than the American "thumb" technique, Tortolan hitch-hikers will point with the index finger from an arm extended in the direction they wish to travel. Pickup trucks will often stop to allow riders in the back, and many drivers on this still-personable and friendly island will stop to give a ride.
From the eastern end of Tortola, Beef Island, to the west end, there are many spectacular white-sand beaches along the north shore. Most deepen very gradually and have light surf, allowing for very leisurely swimming. However, some beaches do have heavier surf and undertow, so it is always wise to ask someone, or observe any signs, before swimming. The list below does not encompass all the beaches, but rather points out some of the most popular and easily accessible ones.
Long Bay, Beef Island is just minutes from the airport, a long, curved stretch of beach that is one of the more secluded and little-used beaches. There are no amenities available.
Lambert Bay is a very long beach, with moderate surf, and less clear water than several other beaches. There are two well-sign posted roads, one for the hotel and one for the beach. The hotel is very welcoming of lunch and dinner guests.
Josiah's Bay is a surfer's beach popular with natives as well. It's another good-sized beach with heavy surf when in season, and a strong undertow at the corners of the beach. However, many swimmers enjoy this beach, and the waves, simply by swimming away from the corners of the beach and at a safe depth. The beach extends very gradually, allowing swimmers to range far from the shore. There are two bar/restaurants at Josiah's Bay. The Grape Tree offers excellent food at moderate prices, and the larger bar, with a large stock of alcoholic beverages, offers food as well. Neither are fine dining establishments but rather casual beach bars.Brewer's Bay is the only non-white sand beach on the island. The sand is a dark gold! The bay offers snorkeling opportunities in calm weather, but because of the runoff routes from the mountains, the water is often murky after even moderate rain. Development around the island has circumvented nature's natural filtration systems, such as salt ponds, and as a result most beaches are not attractive after heavy rains because of runoff from roads that zig and zag up the mountainsides, and home development sites cut harshly into the sides of the mountains as well. That said, Brewer's Bay is an excellent place to go if you want good snorkeling right off the beach, decent food, friendly locals, reasonably warm water (late April), and some peace and quiet. Watching the pelicans diving into the watch for fish is fascinating, but can be a little unnerving when they plunge in near where you are snorkeling! These pelicans and other predators (nothing scary) are after the large schools of small "feeder fish," which will let you swim along in their midst. If you take some bread or bagels with you in a plastic bag, the smaller fish will almost eat right out of your hand. A taxi from Road Town was only $28 each way ($7 each if you share a ride with 3 others). The drivers are happy to narrate what you are passing and will stop high above the harbor for a nice scenic photo opportunity.
Cane Garden Bay is the most popular, populous, and touristy of the beaches available. Boats moor here, and on the nearly 3/4 mi length there are five restaurants, one bar and two vendors. It is also the only beach where there is a supermarket nearby. Live music is common. You will find it a Myett's (happy hour), Elms and Quito's, where local guitar legend Quito Rhymer often plays. There are two parts to this beach and one half, before Quito's dock, has no bars or restaurants and so mostly deserted.
Apple Bay is a surf and party area, and does not offer much in the way of swimming. It is here that you will find the "Bomba Shack," a main party site for the island's full moon parties. During these parties the street is often flooded with native and tourist party-goers, and hallucinogenic mushrooms, which are legal to possess and use in the BVI, are readily available. Users should state a preference for fresh, live mushrooms if available. Apple Bay and Josiah's Bay are the two surfing areas of the island. There are several good restaurants here, Sugar Mill (fine dining), Coco Plum, Sebastian's and Bomba's. On Fridays there are fish frys under the two huge banyan trees.
Long Bay - West End Not to be confused with Long Bay - Beef Island, this beach at the western end of the island is easily accessible, very large, and has good swimming and moderate surf. There are several restaurants and bars, however, they sit back from the beach rather than spill onto it, as in Cane Garden Bay.
Smuggler's Cove Difficult to access but worth the effort, Smuggler's Cove lies at the extreme western tip of Tortola. Accessible by narrow and bumpy dirt roads, this is a small oasis used mostly by expatriate workers who reside in Tortola. There is a restaurant and bar and several small stands selling alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
Brandywine Bay is a recently man-made beach, one of the only on the island's south shore. It is generally not used by locals or tourists, as natural beaches abound.
While Tortola has many of the things you would expect from one of the Virgin Islands like scuba diving, boating and fishing it also has a host of other great things to do like:
With favorable trade winds and near perfect weather, Tortola has become one of the more popular sailing destinations in the world. Thousands of travelers every year raise anchor from Tortola traversing all over the Virgin Islands. Their experience levels range from the professional all the way to the novice (land-lover). Don't think that sailing is just for high rollers, many charter boat companies offer boats for rent as low as $200 per day in the low season .
In fact many people fly in to Tortola just to hop on a yacht and spend their entire vacation on the vessel. These people will often sail to some of the smaller neighboring islands in search of an uninhabited island where they can have the beach all to themselves. Others set sail to enjoy the great snorkeling or fishing. Anegada is a popular destination because of it's bountiful coral reefs. At night there are plenty of moorings (anchorage balls) available in the larger bays.
If you're a novice and entertaining the thought of taking the boat out for the day, don't worry there are classes available for beginners at just about every marina. If you don't have that kind of time, just hire a captain for the day. They usually only cost about $150 per day. Many times you can hire a cook for the day for about the same price.
Truth be told, this is not an island for the lover of malls or entertainment complexes. If you're not offshore partying on a yacht, you could be lying on a beach meditating on the beautiful turquoise waters, or SCUBA or snorkeling looking at the corals and tropical fish, or maybe you're onshore partying at a bar. There's not a heck of a lot to do after you've taken the obligatory tours of the above-listed "attractions", although the original architecture of little wooden houses housing some interesting shops, cafes and an art gallery or two and Cockroach Hall built on a huge rock on Main Street is not be missed.
So let's talk party.
Alcohol is immensely popular in the BVI, both beer and island cocktails, most notably rum. For beer, dark beers are rare. Red Stripe and Carib are the local beers, and other popular beers you'd expect to see are available as well. Roadside stands offer ice-cold beer for two or three dollars each, and bars offer beer at a comparable price to what you'd pay in an average-guy bar in the U.S. Rum Punch and Painkillers are two popular drinks. It is not at all unusual to chat up strangers and both buy and receive drinks. Remember to say "Cheers."
Restrictions on alcohol are very light. Bars usually stay open as long as business is booming, frequently about 3 a.m. on weekends. It is acceptable to leave a bar with your beer, and if you know the bar well, not too unusual to walk in with one, either. Smoking is absolutely taboo in every business and public area in the BVI and cigarettes, though sold in the supermarkets are kept in locked cabinets since a recent law in July 2007. Drinking and driving is strictly illegal and although police generally do not stop cars until they have crashed, if you are found to be drunk you will be prosecuted for it. The roads on the island are at best "basic". Roads that have straightaways have large speed bumps and many are not clearly marked. Many of the roads through the island have a width for no more than one and a half cars and are in a state of disrepair with numerous switchbacks. These are not roads that you want to face with any level on intoxication.
Marijuana is very frowned upon by authorities, so much so that immigration and visitation by Rastafarians was once regulated by legislation in the BVI. Being caught with even a small personal amount of marijuana will almost certainly lead to a stiff fine usually in the region of $1,000 and instant deportation.
Mushrooms are legal in the British Virgin Islands. The native species grows in the hills and is available after rains, which occur throughout the year. Mushrooms and mushroom teas is sold at full moon parties at Bomba Shack in Capoon's Bay and the mushrooms are available from casual purveyors at various bars. This is one experience you have to be in the right place for - do not ask people where you can buy mushrooms, it won't get you a result!
Red Rock Restaurant & Bar, located at Penn's Landing Marina on East End. Expats and tourists together with a few locals blend to eat the good food and hear the latest island gossip and share stories of adventures past & present.
Three Sheets in Road Town, is a wild party scene and when its not wild its a sports bar. The clientele are mainly young expats settled in the BVI and a few locals. Owned and run by the same people as the Bat Cave and Spaghetti Junction.
Other good bars and party spots: Bomba Shack in Apple Bay, The Bat Cave near Village Cay in Road Town(hot nightclub), Myett's and Quito's in Cane Garden Bay. In Road Town: the Virgin Queen is a sports bar and serves pizzas, Pussers, next door to Le Cabanon offers wild happy hours, ladies' nights and its own blend of rum and rum-based drinks and also draught beer (sometimes). To the east of the island is the Last Resort (fusion dining and an interesting, eclectic cabaret on weekend nights) situated on a small islet off Trellis Bay in the East End (free water taxi on request).
H.Lavity Stoutt Community College
Work permit needed to work on the island.
The US Dollar is the official currency. Credit cards and travelers checks are widely accepted.
Outside of Road Town, there is Palm's Delight in Carrot Bay also the very strange North Shore Shell Museum which has home-grown soursop daiquiris, good barbeque and a very large number of shells although not much variety in them. In Cane Garden Bay, Stanley's serves burgers and chicken at a budget price and lobster at quite a bit more. The Camp Ground in Brewer's Bay has a very limited menu, but its not expensive. Cruzin's, also in Carrot Bay, has a wonderful island-style atmosphere and great food on the inexpensive side (cruzins.com).
In Road Town and its environs, Nexus, Village Cay Marina, the Pub, and Le Cabanon have good but unremarkable food at mid-range prices. Le Cabanon and Village Cay Marina are more popular as loud and fun bars.
Myetts in Cane Garden Bay has good food, a great bar, the best "happy hour" values in Cane Garden Bay, right on the beach with great views.
Elms in Cane Garden Bay has very good food, on the beach with good views and excellent Caribbean barbecue on Fridays and Sundays.
Stanleys in Cane Garden Bay is located right on the beach, good food and a great place to hang out for hours.
BannaKeet on Windy Hill in Carrot Bay has the very best sunset view on Tortola. Great bar and great food. Live entertainment on Wednesdays and Fridays provided by local Rubin Chinnery.
The Jolly Roger located in the West End has very good food and is located right on the water. It has a great Caribbean barbecue on Fridays and Saturdays.
Peg Legs located in Nanny Cay has good food and is popular with expats.
If $200 for two for a meal with wine is what you are looking for, then try these places.
Like many Caribbean islands, Tortola has its share of critters that bite and annoy. Bring a pleantiful supply of insect repellent to keep the sand fleas and mosquitoes at bay. If you are going to be staying in a "villa", understand that many villas are not as always adequately screened as they are in the United States. Consider bringing some light mosquito netting. If you need mosquito netting when you are on Tortola, try Arawak Designs at Prospect Reef.
The BVI's have several local phone companies providing cell phone service. Understand that you can easily use this service with your USA-based cell phone but it will cost use one to several dollars per minute in roaming charges. To avoid this you can use a local phone that permits you to use "USA Direct", (1-800-872-2881) which has considerably lower per minute charges for calls to the USA. Also, most bars and restaurants on Tortola have Internet connectivity. You can use VOIP such as Skype or Google voice for inexpensive phone calls. If you have a US-based cell carrier and it is available in the US Virgin Islands, another trick to find a location that faces St. Thomas (west end of Tortola). There is a good chance you can pick up the US carrier on your cell phone and avoid the BVI's local carrier's roaming charges. Make certain your cell phone is connected to the US carrier..
Tortola is one of the premier destinations for bareboat sailing charters. However, in the BVI, sailboats are not required to have holding tanks for sewage storage, as they are in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Instead, each boat pumps its raw sewage into the surrounding water. There are rules against flushing the head (toilet) in a marina, but it appears to be unenforceable.
Road Town collects its sewage and pumps it without further treatment into the Sir Francis Drake Channel, several hundred yards offshore.
Toilet paper is not allowed to be flushed from boats. Instead, used toilet paper must be disposed of in the trash can next to the toilet.
Ferries sail to Virgin Gorda, Anegada, Jost Van Dyke and to St. John and Saint Thomas in the US Virgin Islands many times daily. Also available is a once a week ferry to Anegada, the only coral island in the BVI. Several airlines operate daily flights to all the islands of the Caribbean between Trinidad and Puerto Rico.