Sunday, October 22, 2006


The British Virgin Islands are the most popular charter destination in the world. Here's why.

LEGEND says there were pirates in these waters of the British Virgin Islands and here was one, just inches away from me. His breath was foul, his hair tangled from wind and salt water, his beard scruffy and his eyes bleary.

"Argggh," he said, staring me in the eyes.

Not frightened, I turned away from the mirror and then promised myself I'd stay away from the cold, rum-drenched Painkiller cocktails of the previous evening.

We had come to the Caribbean not to find pirates, but to find the treasures they had left behind. The British Virgin Islands have become the most popular charter destination in the world, with dozens of charter companies launching thousands of visitors each month onto these aquamarine waters. Surprisingly, many of these boaters have sailed the waters of the BVI time and time again, returning like migrating birds to the warm temperatures and soft trade winds. What is the enduring allure of this cruising paradise? We were here to search for the real treasures of the BVI.

With this mission in mind, we chartered a Lagoon 43 power catamaran from The Catamaran Company, and it served our purposes admirably. It was fast enough to reach each island easily, it had roomy accommodations and, since the weather didn't cooperate all the time, it proved to be seaworthy and comfortable, even for those passengers in our crew with landlubber tummies. (To learn more about this boat, read our test of the Lagoon 44, an updated version of the 43, in the September issue).

Our starting point was The Catamaran Company's headquarters at Nanny Cay on Tortola, where many charter businesses are based. We were delayed the first afternoon waiting for our provisions but, once loaded, Anden zipped easily at 20 knots across to Norman Island, the first stop in our treasure hunt.

Norman is an island with a legend, since it's supposedly the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island"; with coves named Money Bay and Privateer Bay, that's no surprise. Pirates once anchored in The Bight, a protected cove now popular with boaters. Today, charter crews consume their rum on a faux pirate ship, the William Thornton, a sometimes raucous night spot in The Bight, though there is also partying ashore until the wee hours. The real draw for Norman are the caves of Treasure Point, where you can snorkel deep into a tall cavern.

From Norman, we cruised past Dead Man's Chest, where the dreaded Blackbeard once marooned 15 men. We were headed for another treasure of the BVI: The Baths on Virgin Gorda.

Until you've seen and explored them, The Baths are hard to explain. Boulders are piled haphazardly as if by a giant, and the result is a series of eerie, half-submerged caverns lit by shafts of sunlight. You wade through the warm pools and end up at a pristine beach for snorkeling. A word of warning: Get here early to beat the crowds.

Although there are mooring buoys, The Baths aren't secure for overnighting, so we chose to cruise farther into Gorda Sound and eventually docked the boat at Biras Creek Resort. This luxe property is superb, from the tropical beachfront rooms to the hilltop four-star alfresco restaurant that has views in all directions. When you're ready to spend a night ashore, this is one of the best places to be.

Later in our cruise, we overnighted at the Bitter End Yacht Club, which isn't as much a yacht club as a celebration of everything boating. Guests in the hillside lodgings (and those staying aboard dockside) have access to fleets of small power and sailboats for exploring, a pair of waterfront restaurants give an onboard chef the night off, and a waterfront pub is always filled with boaters from around the world.

Another day, we picked up a mooring at Marina Cay, just across from the anchorage where Black Sam Bellamy based his pirate operation. Bellamy wasn't all bad, since he didn't murder everyone aboard the ships he plundered. In fact, he once returned a ship to its crew when he found it didn't sail up to his expectations. From a hill, Bellamy's lookouts could spot Spanish galleons sailing up Sir Francis Drake Channel, laden with gold and jewels for the royalty of Spain. We, however, chose to pillage the Pusser's Rum store on Marina Cay. The anchorage is pleasant and a good place to get an early start for exploring The Baths.

Next on our list was an entire island named for a pirate, Jost Van Dyke. En route, we were waylaid by tiny Sandy Cay. Picture in your mind the perfect tropical island: ringed with white sand; picturesque palm trees swaying; gin-clear water lapping at the edges. You've just seen Sandy Cay. Laurance Rockefeller donated the island to the British government as a national park, with the proviso that it stay in its native state.

Anchoring off Sandy Cay is easy. Once off the boat, take the winding nature trails where you might see a coconut crab, a strange creature with huge claws capable of cracking open a coconut.

We didn't linger at Sandy Cay, however, because we wanted to settle in at Great Harbour to meet Philicianno Callwood at Jost Van Dyke. He's known worldwide as Foxy, the owner and entertainer of the Tamarind Restaurant and Bar, one of the most famous watering holes in the Caribbean. The dock in front of this open-air beach bar is always jammed with tenders from the charter fleet, as visitors swill rum while listening to Foxy make up Calypso songs about their home cities far away. Foxy brews his own rum (try the Sly Fox) as well as beer, but it's the convivial atmosphere that draws the crowds every night.

By this point in our cruise, it was apparent that there were several reasons (besides the treasures we'd found) why boaters come back to the BVI. For one thing, the weather is not just pleasantly mild, it's predictable. We hit a front coming through so we had more wind than usual, but we adjusted our routes to fit and pressed on. Sunny skies and mild trade winds are the norm. Easy navigation is another plus in the BVI, with good charts, detailed guidebooks and islands that are within view of each other. Underwater dangers are clearly marked and the buoyage system is good, plus fog is an unknown here.

There aren't many marinas, but there's a system of reasonably priced mooring buoys ($25 a night) at popular destinations, so you don't have to anchor out every night. And, with more than 60 islands and cays in an area roughly 32 miles by 15 miles, there's good reason to come back time after time. You can't possibly see it all in one charter.

From Jost Van Dyke, it's a short hop across to Soper's Hole, a natural harbor at the west end of Tortola that might have been designed by Walt Disney if he weren't busy creating "Pirates of the Caribbean." Lining the full-service marina are brightly colored shops and buildings that are almost a caricature of island style, but fun nevertheless. Soper's is a good first stop for charterers arriving from the U.S. Virgin Islands since Customs and Immigration can clear you into the BVI. Soper's Hole is well-protected in almost any conditions.

Returning our Lagoon power catamaran to Nanny Cay was difficult, but we had proven that the real treasures of the British Virgin Islands aren't gold doubloons or buried jewels, but the sights and delights that draw charterers back year after year.

The Ultimate Sea Trial
By chartering, you can closely evaluate the boat you want to buy.

CHARTERING HAS A LOT OF BENEFITS, including one for those who are thinking about buying a new boat for use in their home waters. Charter operations in the U.S., Bahamas and Caribbean have popular production boat models in their fleet. If you charter one, you'll have the opportunity to really evaluate that model.

Had we not chartered the Lagoon 43 (above) in the BVI, we wouldn't have realized the value of the lounge on the bow; it was the most comfortable seat on the boat, especially in the evening at anchor. It also might not have been apparent in a short sea trial without guests present that more seating area on the bridge would be desirable (new Lagoons have an enlarged flybridge for just this reason). We a so found that the cockpit icemaker was a lot less useful than a cockpit fridge, which wouldn't be obvious on a day outing.

Since they've been in production for so many years, Grand Banks are probably the most popular boats in charter fleets. Grand Banks Yachts has a list of companies that charter its boats on its, but the largest fleet is in the British Virgins at Trawlers in Paradise, which also has Nordic Tugs and Lagoon powercats.

Mainship also has a Web site listing of charter companies.

Blue Pacific Yacht Charters in the Pacific Northwest has a mixed fleet of models from builders like Grand Banks, Bayliner, Meridian, Chris-Craft, Maxum, Silverton, Nordhavn and Carver. Other Northwest charter companies include Island Cruising, with Carver and Meridian, and Cooper Boating, with Meridian, Bayliner, Grand Banks and Ocean Alexander.

In warmer climates, Southwest Florida Yachts has Grand Banks, Mainship and Jefferson, while VIP Yacht Charters in the Virgin Islands has a fleet filled with Jefferson and Tarquin models.

This is just the tip of the iceberg; many other charter companies have production powerboats in their fleets. With a little Internet surfing you could find just the boat you want to try out.

By: Caswell, Chris, MotorBoating, Oct2006

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