Tortola is a small Carribean island located 60 miles east of Puerto Rico. This island hosts the capitol of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), a territory of Britain, and is one of 50 small islands in the area most of which aren’t inhabited. It is a relaxing and informal island where vacationers are very welcomed by the locals, who are known as “belongers.” The highlight of the BVI is sightseeing, diving, snorkeling, and sailing. Tortola is an extremely hilly volcanic island, and driving the hills can be challenging especially since you drive on the left side of the road like in Great Britain, but the steering wheel in the car is on the American side! It is unlike any place I have been before; chickens, goats, roosters, and donkeys can be seen while driving around and sometimes get in your way.
The capitol of the BVI’s is Roadtown on Tortola, which is located on the south side of the island and where most of the businesses are located, and it is the major pickup point for bare boaters. The shopping on the island is minimal, but you will find some local clothing stores and small shops for the cruise ship passengers that come in about once a week. One of the most interesting and fun stores is a small shop called Sunny Caribbee, which is a spice store that sells all sorts of spices from the West Indies including delicious hot sauces, flavored teas, and many other local spices. In addition it offers locally handmade wooden bowls and serving pieces as well as local artists’ works. Other mentionable shops are Latitude 18° (clothing), Hucksters, and Bambooshay Pottery, all of which are located right near Sunny Caribbee. There is an excellent bakery in Roadtown (the Roadtown Bakery) that has the best scones I’ve ever had!
On the other north side of the island is Cane Garden Bay where I stayed in a beautiful home owned by friends (no addresses—the house is just known as Seven Peaks). This small bay is the most attractive of all the small bays because of the restaurants, live music at night, wonderful white sandy beach, and the reef for snorkeling. There are also quite a few places to stay including Myett’s Cottages, Agape Cottages, the Sugar Mill, and Mongoose Apartments. Prices vary according to the accommodations you are seeking as well as the season. Renting a car is a great way to see the island, and it allows flexibility for restaurants, diving, snorkeling, and general exploring. Do stop by Soper’s Hole on the west end of Tortola and also Nanny Cay (there’s a nice shop there called Arawak—you’ll have to hunt for it though!).
The snorkeling on Tortola is excellent; Cane Garden Bay and Brewers Bay are the two nicest spots on the island to snorkel. Each of them is easily accessible by shore, and the reefs are very healthy. On the west end of Cane Garden Bay the reef ranges from about three feet to about 15 feet and is filled with marine life such as nurse sharks (the biggest I saw was about 5-6 ft.), blue tang, slipper lobsters, turtles, angelfish, and trunkfish. Colorful tropical fish are everywhere too! The coral is plentiful too—brain coral, fungus coral, elkhorn coral, fan coral, etc. To get to the nicest part of the reef in Cane Garden Bay, just follow the old pipeline that runs out from the south end of the shore; you will know you’ve reached the best spot when you look up and are directly in front of the house with the purple peaks (Seven Peaks). The beach is so nice at Cane Garden Bay that you can spend the day there snorkeling, beaching, and choosing from one of the many restaurants to have lunch and specialty rum drinks! Stanley’s is a great place to catch a drink.
Just on the other side of Cane Garden Bay is Brewers Bay. This bay also has excellent snorkeling; in some ways it is nicer than Cane Garden Bay with less people and a less disturbed reef because not as many people go there. The beach is beautiful, and there is just one small restaurant/bar there. It can get very hot there since there isn’t much shade, so plan your excursion accordingly. Nearby to Brewers Bay there is a campground and an old rum distillery, which is in ruins. The two times I went snorkeling there I saw many of the same fish I had seen at Cane Garden Bay or while diving in addition to very large tarpon and a nice size hawksbill turtle cruising along the bottom.
Since this was my third trip to Tortola, I stuck with the same dive charter that I had used in the past. The shop is called Dive Tortola and is located in Roadtown. Their friendly and knowledgeable crew and shop owners are very easy to get along with, and best of all I was able to tell them the places I wanted to dive, and they accommodated us. The pictures that are taken are from a Reefmaster Mini with an attached Sealife SL960 strobe from Scuba.com. Each time we went diving there were only about six people on the boat—a luxury! Below is a description of each of the dive sites I dove and the great things to see at each spot.
Pelican Reef – Pelican Island
Thumb Rock – Cooper Island
Rainbow Canyons – Pelican Island
Diving the bow on my first dive of the day was so incredible. This was my third time back to the RMS Rhone; I always find it fascinating swimming around it thinking about how she sank and the dreadful storm she fought. Once descending to the bottom at about 70 to 80 feet, I swam around the bow looking at all the portholes and swimming along the crows nest covered in coral, crustaceans, and sponges. After spending some time looking in all the holes and crevices, I swam under the bow of the ship and then into the hull looking at all the growth inside. Having a flashlight at this point makes it much more interesting because you can see all the colorful life inside including some huge spiny lobsters hiding beneath the wreckage. After entering the hull I swam out through the center of the ship illuminated by filtered light from above. Since this is a deep dive, it is important to watch your bottom time and no deco limits.
Diving the stern of the Rhone was much more interesting in my opinion than diving the bow. The depth on this second dive was an average of about 30-40 feet. The wreckage of the stern sits closer to show where she hit the rocks on Salt Island. Here there are more fish to see because of the larger abundance of coral life than on the bow. Some of the most interesting things are not just the life on the stern but the ship itself. Swimming among the huge boilers that exploded when she hit the rocks and the massive 15 foot propeller make you feel so minute. There are also a couple of intact portholes; one actually has the glass still in it. Legend has it if you rub the brass three times it will bring you good luck. I’m still waiting to see if it brings me good luck! Also another small piece of the ship’s contents that you can hunt for is the small silver spoon. (I was lucky enough to locate it this time!) Even though this is only my third time back to this magnificent dive site, there’s still so much more to explore. If you have time, spend at least a few dives at each part of the ship to see it all!
Ringdove Rock – Norman Island
Each time I go to Tortola I always take a one-day side trip to another island. One of the most interesting islands that I have visited in the BVI’s is Virgin Gorda. This small island is a half-hour ferry ride from Roadtown, Tortola. While Tortola is hilly and lush, Virgin Gorda is mostly flat and desert like. Once getting into Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda, there is a taxi over to the Baths, which is the main attraction. This is only about a half-day trip since that’s about all the time you need to see it all. The Baths is a national park and has an entry fee of a few dollars. The Baths are large boulders that surfaced after volcanic eruptions and are the sizes of small houses. They are stacked up on top of each other to form giant pathways and small caves to explore, which is the best part. There is also a small beach to relax on and snorkel out among the giant boulders. I would also recommend wearing your booties while exploring the rocks for sure footing. There is a great restaurant nearby the Baths called the Top of the Baths that is a fun place to have lunch, and there is also a pool there that you can cool off and swim in.
The other day trip that I took was to the island of Anegada. You can get to Anegada via ferry or plane. I took a small charter plane from the airport in Tortola to the little airport on Anegada—saving a lot of time. This island is a coral reef no more than three feet in elevation and difficult to see until you approach the barrier reef offshore. Not many people come to this island on boat because of the difficulty navigating through the barrier reefs. As a matter of fact it was a popular island for pirates since they would lure ships onto the Horseshoe reef at night with signal fires hoping to get more booty! The best snorkeling is Loblolly Bay—lots of turtles and beautiful tropical fish. This island is a neat place to visit, but there really is a lack of a town and not much else to do other than sit on the beach and have a famous Anagada spiney lobster lunch at a small restaurant called the Big Bamboo. You can also get a taxi to take you for a short ride around the island for a small cab fare as well. There is a protected lagoon on the island that attracts flamingoes, but it is has restricted access during nesting season.. If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of them (bring your binoculars). It’s truly different and definitely worth a visit at some point.
Tortola and all its beauty is something that takes more than one trip to the BVI to fully understand and learn to love. This small island is quite a happening place and a very fun place to keep going back and seeing. Diving is the best part, and it is what keeps capturing my interest. The warm water and the beautiful underwater life is another whole world in itself to keep returning to. If you are planning a trip to the Caribbean, be sure to keep in mind Tortola and experience it for yourself. The BVI license plate says it all—“Natures Little Secret.”