While tourism in the BVI is reportedly not yet what it was five years ago, it’s coming back in a big way. Most boat charter bases and marinas have been rebuilt or repaired, businesses have reopened, and fuel, groceries and provisions are readily available. As a result, the crowds are growing, so it may take a while to find an open mooring ball, a space at the dock to refuel or a table at a restaurant. But before you get put off by that idea, remember that this is a good thing. After several very tough years, the BVI are finally regaining a sense of normalcy.
The islands narrowly escaped the worst of the 2022 hurricane season, and the region has largely recovered from the twin hurricanes (Irma and Maria) that devastated the islands in 2017. A different kind of natural disaster crippled tourism in 2020 and 2021, as all Caribbean nations imposed Covid quarantines and travel restrictions to stem the pandemic. But by early 2022, the BVI government had started relaxing its Covid protocols. Now that tourism is up, the question becomes: How can cruisers avoid crowds? I suggest going in the spring and fall.
I made a voyage through the islands in October on a Moorings 4500 catamaran out of Road Town, Tortola. Moonshadow is owned by David Crichton, a retired surgeon from Colorado. Crichton has sailed all over the world and cruised extensively through the Caribbean, off and on in the BVI for the past 27 years. He enjoys the islands most when he’s got them to himself, which is why we were there in the fall. His crew included his son Scott, a metallurgist, Kim Singleton, a retired health executive, and me. With 10 leisurely days, we had time to meet local islanders and explore off the beaten track.
Having cruised the BVI myself a couple of times in high season over the years, I found this trip stunningly different, simply because we didn’t have to wrestle with hordes of other boaters. On this voyage, we hit virtually every popular destination the islands have to offer: the Bight on Norman Island; the Baths and Leverick Bay on Virgin Gorda; Foxy’s bar, Sandy Spit and the Bubbly Pool on Jost Van Dyke; Soper’s Hole on the West End. At every place, there were always open mooring balls waiting for us, and sometimes ours was the only boat. We got spoiled fast.
At three of the usually most-crowded restaurants in the BVI—Top of the Baths on Virgin Gorda, Foxy’s on Jost, and the Willie T floating bar at Norman Island—there were empty tables. Finding room to swim was never a problem at any of the three best snorkeling holes—the Indians off Norman Island, the wreck of the Rhone off Salt Island and the underwater cliffs at Great Dog Island. The snorkeling was the best I’ve ever experienced in the BVI, in large part because the warm ocean was crystal-clear—the strong trade winds of winter hadn’t arrived yet to stir up the sand and cloud the usually pristine Caribbean water.
Never once did I have to break out my earplugs—often a late-night necessity in high season to muffle the din from nearby booze boats or bars on shore. While many people come to the BVI expressly for the legendary bacchanals (full moon parties at Bomba’s Shack near Soper’s Hole, the New Year’s Eve parties on Jost Van Dyke), that’s not why we were there. One of many highlights on this trip was the evening we spent quietly anchored alone in Pond Bay off Virgin Gorda, north of the Baths, watching yet another stunning sunset and savoring a gourmet meal we’d cooked on board.
Stretched out on the bow trampoline with after-dinner drinks and marveling at the infinite dome of stars in the pure Caribbean sky, we soberly debated some of the deeper questions of life: Are Oreo cookies really food, or just a chemically engineered taste bomb? And what wine pairs with them best?
Those were the really good experiences. But of course, there are trade-offs to cruising the BVI in the fall or spring, when the weather is still unsettled, seasonal wind patterns are changing and rain is more likely than in winter.
The biggest risk in fall is that hurricane season runs to November 30. By luck, we had excellent weather for almost the entire trip, but right at the end of October, the edges of Tropical Storm Lisa in the southern Caribbean blanketed the BVI with heavy winds and rain. A few days later, Hurricane Lisa plowed into Belize. The following week, yet another storm north of the BVI, Nicole, made history as only the third hurricane ever to hit Florida in November. Anyone chartering a boat in the Caribbean during the shoulder seasons needs to pay extremely close attention to the weather. It’s a good idea to keep in close contact with the charter base if trouble is brewing at sea, and be prepared to shelter in a protected bay or change your plans quickly if you have to. And remember that charter companies can order you off the water if a hurricane is imminent.
Also, finding an open restaurant sometimes can be a problem in the off-season. This was especially true on Anegada, a remote island with few dining options. We were disappointed to discover that Anegada’s lobster season didn’t begin until November 1. Having sailed to the lobster capital of the BVI in October, we were out of lobster luck.
The Changing Islands
The BVI are definitely back in business—still a gorgeous place and a world-class destination for cruisers. But as we saw and heard from locals, the storms of 2017 changed things. While most debris has been cleaned up, scars are still visible. There are sunken boats rotting on shore and in the mangroves; homes are gutted or boarded up; some restaurants, resorts and marinas are still blown apart and sitting vacant. Construction equipment and crews are a common sight.
Fortunately, most hotspots that were damaged have reopened, and some are as good as before (Foxy’s Tamarind on Jost Van Dyke), or new but smaller than before (Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda, Foxy’s Taboo on Jost). A few have returned even bigger than ever (Pirates Bight on Norman Island, Saba Rock on Virgin Gorda).
The original Willie T, wrecked on Norman Island by Irma, is now an artificial reef sunk off Peter Island. Its replacement (a former oil tender brought down from Louisiana) is bigger, better lit and much cleaner, so it’s lost some ambience. Customers can still jump off the top deck without any clothes on, but they won’t get a free T-shirt if they do. (A bartender told us they were spending way too much money on shirts.) Nowadays, a Willie T shirt can set you back $100, even if you’re naked.
I was very happy to discover that my favorite restaurant—Biras Creek, nestled in a spectacular spot on Virgin Gorda overlooking both Gorda Sound and the Atlantic Ocean—is being reconstructed and may reopen by 2024. But while I was talking to an older worker there, our conversation soon turned to how the character of the BVI is changing, both physically and culturally, because of what the islands have been through.
“The old Bitter End used to be funky, and the original Saba Rock used to be very funky, which made them so fun,” he said. “But that’s gone, and new ones are modern and crisp, and not the same. The new generation, the new boaters, that’s what they want.”
This article was originally published in the February 2023 issue.