Finding Paradise in the Virgin Islands

With renters in our Florida house during February and March, Dave and I were looking for a warm spot to spend a couple weeks while we waited to return home. I had never been to the Virgin Islands, and given the islands’ prolific ferry system and the numerous island options to explore, it seemed like a good choice. Plus, both the USVIs and the BVIs use USD so there was no currency to exchange, or exchange rate to be bothered with. We settled on two weeks split between the BVIs and USVIs. We flew in to St. Thomas (Charlotte Amalie) and took the ferry to Tortola BVI for our first week.

When we landed in St. Thomas, we took a taxi to the Charlotte Amalie ferry terminal, which is closer to the airport than Red Hook. The taxi system is confusing…once you’ve collected your luggage, you’ll wander outside and look around aimlessly until someone approaches you and asks if you need a taxi and where you’re going. Then you’ll be told to wait until someone points in the direction of a line of vans and with luck, you’ll get on the right one. Be sure you have enough cash because we never found a taxi that took anything else. Our fare came to $8 per person plus a few dollars for our luggage and a tip. All in it was about $20 for the 10-minute ride to the ferry.

Once at the ferry port you’ll need to get in line to buy your tickets (they take Visa) and check your bags. Round trip ferry tickets to Tortola were $60 per person and bags cost extra. Once the porter takes your bags, he will expect a tip, and ours wasn’t shy about letting us know. It’s important to know that you will need a passport to go to the BVIs, and even if you stay in the USVIs, you’ll need your passport at the airport to return to the mainland.

When we arrived at Road Town in Tortola, we went through immigration and paid a $10 tax to enter. The ferry port at Road Town on first sight appears hectic and intimidating. We quickly grabbed a taxi to our hotel for the week, Sebastian’s on the Beach, about 20 minutes away. I can’t lie, my initial impression of Tortola was not good. The island was ravaged by hurricane Irma in 2017, and the rebuilding process appears to be going very slowly. The roads were in disrepair and the ruins of homes, businesses, cars and boats were everywhere. I began to wonder if it was going to be a long, miserable week on the island.

We arrived at Sebastian’s and my spirits were somewhat lifted. We were greeted by a friendly staff and checked in to our garden room. The room was dark and small, but the bed was surprisingly comfortable and the linens were clean and crisp. We unpacked and quickly made our way to the beach where we finally found the tropical paradise we had been searching for. We have traveled the world and have never seen water so blue (the clearest water is in Croatia in my opinion). We grabbed some cold beers and found chairs where we watched the sun set and the pelicans dive.  The next morning we asked if any ocean front rooms were available and luckily, we were able to upgrade to a much larger and sunnier room. It was starting to feel like Tortola was going to work out.

Thanks to the ferry schedule, we were able to check out two of the BVI’s other islands: Jost Van Dyke (from the West End ferry) and Virgin Gorda (from Road Town ferry). Jost is a tiny little island of approximately 250 residents, and a magnet for yachts and sailing charters. When you arrive by ferry, there is a queue to take guests to the famous (and crowded) Soggy Dollar Bar. Instead, go right and take a short walk to Corsairs in Great Harbor. Here you will find friendly service, cheap beers and great food. From your bar stool you can stare at the aquamarine water all day long without the cruise ship and yacht crowds. And, if you really must check out the Soggy Dollar, you can flag down a taxi and mingle with the masses until your heart’s content.

On Virgin Gorda we took a taxi to The Baths and had a nice lunch at Top of the Baths restaurant before heading down the rugged path to the beach. When we arrived at the beach, we were awed by the natural beauty created by the boulders and enjoyed floating in the small pools; there is also a small beach bar to get a cold drink. There are opportunities to explore the caves and grottos created by the rocks, and snorkeling is encouraged. Depending on the time of day you may have to compete for space from visitors off the many private boats that anchor in the bay. It’s best to come very early or very late (but be mindful of the ferry schedule… the last boat leaves at 6:00 PM). The Baths is a park so you should expect to pay a small fee to enter, however, we were there during a national holiday and admission was free.

While on Tortola, we spent a day wandering around Road Town. The main street is a cluster of colorful businesses and a few restaurants, and near the cruise port there is a shopping center and vendor stalls selling hats, beachwear and smoothies. Another afternoon we took a taxi to Smuggler’s Cove, which is a good swimming and sunbathing beach, and Nigel runs a lively and fun bar until about 5:00 PM.

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Nigel’s Bar at Smuggler’s Cove on Tortola

Most of our time on Tortola was spent on the beach at Sebastian’s and eating at the various restaurants. Our favorites were D’Coal Pot and Bananakeets. The food at both was really good. The ambiance at D’Coal Pot was cozy and relaxed, and the view at Bananakeets is the best on the island. One thing to note about dining out in Tortola: it’s very expensive. Just tell yourself you’re paying for the view and the food and you will feel better about it.

Over the course of a week, Dave and I fell in love with the BVIs. Once you get to know the residents and learn of their struggle to survive (both before and after the hurricane), you no longer see a landscape of ruin and wreckage. You see progress, grit and the will to be happy in circumstances most could not comprehend. We were humbled by people who lost homes, friends and family and still looked ahead with optimism and humor. Murlise drove us all over Tortola and entertained us with stories of island life and driving a taxi, and Jane and Pet gave us great service with a smile during the many hours we spent at Sebastian’s bar and restaurant. We left the island feeling like we had made new friends.

After our week in the BVIs, we boarded the ferry and headed back to St. Thomas. We arrived in Red Hook and were immediately aware of the difference between Tortola and the USVIs. By comparison, the ferry terminal in Red Hook was modern and well organized and getting a taxi to our rental condo was easy. The taxis on St. Thomas seem much newer and cleaner too. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the rebuilding progress on St. Thomas was occurring at a much quicker pace than in the BVIs.

We arrived at our condo in Point Pleasant Resort where we would spend the next six nights. Point Pleasant rents condos as part of the resort, but there are also privately owned rentals, which is what we opted for. I highly recommend this VRBO rental from Alison! She has a beautiful, comfortable condo that is really well stocked. You’ll love it, trust me! We loved Point Pleasant as well. Not only is it conveniently located to Red Hook ferry, Coki Beach, Coral World and Magen’s Bay, it also has two really good restaurants, three pools, a guest laundry, and all the flora and fauna you expect in a tropical setting. The view from our balcony of the bay was stunning, and each day we watched a large iguana that was perched in the tree branch directly across from us.

During our stay we spent a lot of time enjoying the resort, but we also got out to some of the attractions close by. We didn’t rent a car but in hindsight wished we had. Unlike Tortola, the roads in St. Thomas are in good shape and getting around would have been pretty easy (and would have saved us $40-$60 a day on taxi fare). If we had a car we would have done a lot more exploring.

One afternoon we went to Coral World and Coki Beach. Coral World is like a miniature aquarium but they offer Snuba so if you’re interested in getting up close to the fish, this presents a good opportunity. A few steps from Coral World is Coki Beach, which has chairs for rent and waiters to take your drink order, so you can sit under an umbrella with a beer all day long (the beers are cheap too!). The snorkeling here is also very good if it’s not too crowded.

Another day we took a taxi to Magen’s Bay, which has the potential to be a really good beach day depending on the number of cruise ships in town. There is a $5 fee to enjoy the beach, but it has bathrooms, showers, a nice bar and plenty of taxis at the ready. When the cruise passengers leave at 4:00 PM, you’ll have the beach practically to yourself!

The Red Hook ferry takes passengers to St. John on the hour and the return ferry runs late, so definitely don’t miss an opportunity to explore this beautiful island. There are a ton of beaches to explore, and the taxis run frequently from the ferry to anywhere you want to go. We looked in to renting a Jeep on the island so we could get around more freely, but couldn’t find one that offered one-day rentals (two days was the shortest rental we could find). There is a car ferry from Red Hook, so if you rent a car in St. Thomas you can bring it to St. John and explore at your leisure (the car ferry schedule differs from the pedestrian ferry, however).

We checked out Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay and Maho Bay. Trunk Bay is great for snorkeling and Maho is famous for its turtle sightings. Cinnamon Bay has a large sandy beach for sunbathing and swimming, although the waves were rough while we were there so we didn’t swim.  Because of the cruise ships and the time of day (and year), all the beaches were really crowded. Having a car would have allowed us to get further away from the crowds and we will definitely rent a car next time. Before we left the island, we stopped in Mongoose Junction for Mexican food at Greengos Caribbean Cantina for good nachos and cold beers.

There is so much more to do in the Virgin Islands than we had time for. Nearly the entire island of St. John is a park with ruins, plantations and private beaches to explore. The town of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas has amazing shopping and dining options, and retains its tropical colonial feel thanks to an aggressive commitment to rebuild after Irma. The BVIs have dozens of smaller islands to entice the adventurous or those looking for something more on the wild side. A boat charter for a day (or longer) would be an ideal way to explore the less inhabited islands of the BVIs.

My expectations of the Virgin Islands were different than reality, and I’m glad for it. While a pristine Caribbean island might have felt more comfortable, it would have been considerably less authentic. We went to the VIs looking for a tropical paradise and we found it. But we also found amazing, friendly people who have overcome immense adversity and carry on with a smile. I’m already looking forward to our next visit to this lovely place.

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