Who Needs a Caribbean Yacht When You Can Take the Ferry?


Elaine Glusac (New York Times, 10 February 2020) explains the freedom she feels when island hopping via ferry. She is especially impressed by the British Virgin Islands’ ferry system as she traveled to Tortola, Virgin Gorda, and Anegada.

Orion was shining brightly in the dark sky above Anegada in the British Virgin Islands. But the constellation had some electric competition in the band of bright mast lights bobbing offshore — “like a bejeweled Orion’s belt,” observed a new acquaintance who introduced himself as Spoons, the pilot of one of those yachts. He and his crew of five friends from the Boston area had paid $10,900 for eight days on a 45-foot catamaran to sail from island to island.

Chartering a boat is one way to island hop in the B.V.I. — and a popular one. According to the tourism board, slightly more than half of all visitors to the British overseas territory’s 60 islands and cays stay on yachts. I, on the other hand, chose a far cheaper way to travel between islands. Using the B.V.I. ferry system, I spent $140 — not including accommodations, which added about $700 to my expenses — over a five-day trip, reaching four ports in bargain, connect-the-dots style.

In the Caribbean, several ferry companies offer opportunities for multi-island vacations, such as the L’Express des Iles, which cruises from Guadeloupe to Dominica, Martinique and St. Lucia. Others offer domestic service, including ferries from St. Vincent to some of the outlying Grenadines, and those that link the United States Virgin Islands.

But few Caribbean destinations offer a ferry system as extensive and convenient as the British Virgin Islands’. The tourism board details schedules and links to seven islands on an interactive web page devoted to island hopping. [. . .]

Seeking a winter warm up and a budget tropical vacation, I went to the B.V.I. in January to test the convenience and cost of the ferry system, hitting the cruise hub of Tortola, the mountainous beauty of Virgin Gorda, and remote Anegada.

Have passport, will ferry

Often, the cheapest flights from the United States that arrive nearest the B.V.I. land in St. Thomas (in the United States Virgin Islands), which is where I caught the 8:30 a.m. Road Town Fast Ferry from downtown Charlotte Amalie to Road Town, the B.V.I. capital, 50 minutes away on the island of Tortola ($60 round trip; the United States dollar is the official currency of the B.V.I.).

[. . .] Two cruise ships in the harbor dwarfed the 149-passenger BVI Patriot when we arrived. After clearing immigration, I hired a taxi driver, Conrad “Dodgy” Lewis — “Dodgy doesn’t describe my driving,” he insisted — to take me from the congested capital over the island’s mountain spine to Cane Garden Bay, one of Tortola’s most popular beaches, and back several hours later, in time for my late-afternoon ferry to Virgin Gorda for $50.

At Cane Garden Bay, lounge chairs and umbrellas colonized the sand in front of a series of restaurant terraces and beach bars, welcoming travelers from the cruise ships, arriving in open-air buses. On an overcast day, I walked the beach between sporadic downpours to the more than 400-year-old Callwood Rum Distillery where Matthew Callwood, a distiller, bartender, tour guide and member of the family that has owned the distillery since the 1800s, led me and two cruise passengers on a tour ($5) of the mostly outdoor distillery works, including a 19th-century sugar cane crusher originally powered by harnessed donkeys. “There used to be 28 distilleries on the island, and now there’s just us,” he said, pouring shots of Callwood’s four rums, including white, spiced and the smoother aged version he recommended. “It’s good for sipping, or putting in your coffee in the morning.” [. . .]

Of bubbles and baths

Racing to make the late afternoon Speedy’s ferry to Virgin Gorda ($30 round trip), I was joined by a day-tripping set of cruise passengers, another American couple bound for a week at a luxury resort, uniformed schoolchildren and several returning islanders clutching bunches of stuffed shopping bags. One visitor leaned over the port railing, welcoming the warm wind in his face for the entire 30-minute passage toward Virgin Gorda, said to have been named Fat Virgin by Christopher Columbus for its pregnant profile.

You can tell a lot about an island by its ferry cargo. There were pallets of bottled water on the boat to Tortola. On Virgin Gorda, Speedy’s deckhands unloaded cases of Veuve Clicquot and Cakebread Cellars wines.

Virgin Gorda has long attracted the rich and famous. Taxi drivers pointed out Morgan Freeman’s former home and Richard Branson’s two nearby islands. Recently reopened after the hurricanes forced substantial rebuilding, Rosewood Little Dix Bay has catered to the affluent since Laurance Rockefeller developed the resort in 1964.

[. . .] Tropical foliage has sprung back on much of the mountainous island, home to a series of national parks, including Gorda Peak National Park, with its panoramic trail to 1,370 feet elevation. Staying overnight on Virgin Gorda offers a rare opportunity to visit its best-loved beauty spot — the Baths National Park, protecting a dramatic stretch of shore where massive granite boulders as big as 40 feet in diameter cluster in the shallows — before the cruise ship crowds arrive.

At 7 a.m. when the first blush of light began pinking the clouds, I started down the park path past cactuses and the occasional orchid to Devil’s Bay where a septuagenarian foursome was quietly skinny dipping. I waited out a 10-minute rain shower in a shorefront cave weathered by the action of the waves. The path continued over and between the Baths’ boulders, sometimes with the assistance of steps or rope holds bolted into the rocks, walling off calm, shallow, swim-inviting pools. I saw evidence of other early birds at the Baths — “M + M 2020” seemed freshly written in the sand — but I never saw them until I completed the roughly mile-long circuit and returned to the entrance at 8:30 a.m. where a line was already forming.

Lobster, yachts and empty beaches

“Tortola is the big city to us,” Dawn Flax, one of the family members who runs Fischer’s Cove, told me when I checked in. “We go there when we need to go to the bank or the lawyer.” A day later, I ran into her at the ferry terminal on Tortola, returning home after a banking run. It was an unintended stop, but when the Wednesday departure from Virgin Gorda to Anegada was canceled, I was forced to the B.V.I.’s hub to catch Road Town Fast Ferry’s 300-passenger Lady Caroline from Tortola to Anegada ($50 round trip).

[. . .] Sandy and flat where its sibling islands are steep and rugged, Anegada — the most northeastern island in the B.V.I., and the only coral island in the volcanic chain — resolved into view like an overgrown sandbar during the one-hour crossing.

“There’s only one cop on the island,” he said, pointing to the empty street. “It’s Anegada, and this is rush hour.”

Technically, the speed limit is 30 m.p.h. And the occasional traffic obstacles were goats. Michael marked up a small map indicating where I would see the island’s flamingos (distantly, in an interior pond), its endangered Anegada iguanas (in conservation cages next to the police station) and its best beaches, especially Loblolly Bay on the north shore, home to beach bars for castaways (Flash of Beauty) and party people (Big Bamboo). [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/10/travel/Caribbean-British-Virgin-Islands-Ferry.html

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