[y] Tortola Visitors Guide
The largest of the British Virgin Islands, Tortola is known for having some of the best beaches in the Caribbean because of its untouched and underdeveloped natural state. You won’t experience the crowds of the U.S. Virgin Islands, or the overbearing resorts, on this laid back 24-square-mile island characterized by rugged mountain peaks on the Southern coast, and white sandy beaches and palm trees on the Northern coast.
Road Town, on Tortola’s southern shore, is the capital of the British Virgin Islands and the site of Government House. Wickhams Cay, a 70-acre town center project, has brought in a large yacht-chartering business and transformed the village capital into a busy city center. Tourists generally find Road Town’s crowded streets less than delightful so most head north or west to find a quieter Tortola, one with roomy beaches, thirteen marinas, and, towering over it all, the 1,710-foot, hike-worthy Mount Sage.
Weather in Tortola
The British Virgin Islands lie within twenty degrees of the equator, Tortola weather is considered tropical; there is no real winter or summer seasons within the spectrum of Tortola weather, just continuous pleasant conditions from January to December. Summer temperatures reach into the high 80s and low 90s, while the winter months see averages in the low 80s.
Where to Stay in Tortola
Tortola’s hotels are meant for escaping the worries of the world, and most are not outfitted with TV’s and all the amenities high-end resorts usually offer. Many of the island’s hotels are small, informal, family-run guesthouses offering only the most basic services. Others are more elaborate and have the typical resort facilities, though none of them are as luxurious and all-encompassing as the resorts in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But that’s why many travelers come here. All Tortola’s beaches are on the Northern shore, so guests staying elsewhere, like Road Town, will have to drive or take a taxi to reach them.
The Villas at Long Bay is a 52-Acre Hillside Estate along the Caribbean and atop of a mile-long stretch Of Silky Sand.
Long Bay Beach Resort & Villas (Road Town; 800/729-9599; longbay.com; rooms from $155-$455), is one of the best resorts on the island. All guestrooms and villas rest along a mile of beach on top a steep forested hillside, giving guests a dramatic view of the sea from their balconies and terraces. The resort offers a cafe, restaurant, spa, and fitness center. Visitors have given poor reviews on the questionable service.
Sugar Mill Hotel (284/495-4355; sugarmillhotel.com; $150 – $620) Former travel writers opened up this hillside hotel which houses a lobby and excellent restaurant inside a 300-year-old sugar mill. A pool is situated on a hillside among the guest rooms.
Moorings-Mariner Inn (Road Town; 800/535-7289; $150 – $250), is in the middle of the boating headquarters with lots of action and people, this lively inn offers rooms with simple furnishings, rattan furniture and some balconies. A restaurant and pool are on site.
Frenchman’s Cay Hotel (West End; 800/235-4077; frenchamns.com; $250 – $400), is a small number of one and two-bedroom condos overlooking Sir Francis Drake Channel. All have a full kitchen and dining room. There is a small pool and a restaurant.
Ft. Recovery Tortola Villa Beach Resort (800/367-8455; fortrecovery.com; $150 – $350), is a remote and lush beachside location within the remnants of a Dutch fort. All suites and four-bedroom villas have great views and kitchens. The resort offers yoga and exercise classes.
Nanny Cay Hotel (Road Town; 866/284-4683; nannycay.com; $150 – $250), is located in the heart of the nautical scene close to Road Town and shopping. Rooms are done in white with tropical decor. Most of the 38 rooms have a sea or garden view at this hotel with a restaurant and pool.
Lambert Beach Resort (East End; 284/495-2877; lambertbeachresort.com; $80 – $350), is a remote north shore Mediterranean style cottage a few steps away from the beach with a restaurant and pool. The two-bedroom villas on the hillside have full kitchens.
Activities in Tortola
The beaches draw the tourist and keep the natives. The untouched natural quality of the beaches makes them so unique and incredible.
One of the most popular, Cane Garden Bay, is cradled by lush, steep hills, tall arching palms and finely crushed sand of coral and rock that is soft underfoot. Since it is the favorite, expect more people than you would see on other quieter beaches.
Other beaches to see Josiah’s Bay, Brewer’s Bay, Long Bay on Beef Island.
Hiking: Sage Mountain National Park sits at an elevation of 1,780 feet. Covering 92 acres, the park protects the remnants of Tortola’s original forests not burned or cleared during the island’s plantation era.
Horseback riding: Shadow’s Ranch, Todman’s Estate (284/494-2262), offers horseback rides through the national park or down to the shores of Cane Garden Bay. The cost is from $50 per hour.
Exploring Deserted “Treasure Island”: Across Drake Channel from Tortola lays Norman Isle. Although it used to be a pirate den with treasure ships at anchor, it is now deserted by all except some seabirds and small wild animals. Legend has it that Norman Isle was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
The caves are one of the most well-known snorkeling spots in the B.V.I., with spectacular fish, and maybe even a small octopus, squid, garden eel, and colorful coral. Intrepid hikers climb through scrubland to the island’s central ridge, Spy Glass Hill. A private boat rental is the only way to reach Norman Isle. Contact Boat Rentals — Moorings Limited (284/535-7289 or 284/494-2331; www.moorings.com). They rent 33-foot to 47-foot catamarans ranging from $440 to $1,420 per day for a 3-day minimum rental. A skipper on board is optional for an extra $139 a day.
Snorkeling: Smugglers Cove is at the extreme western end of Tortola. A favorite local beach, it’s a little difficult to reach, but worth the trek for its great marine life. It’s especially good for beginning snorkelers because the reef is close to shore and easily reached. You’ll see sea fans, sponges, parrotfish, and elkhorn and brain corals. East of Cane Garden Bay is Brewer’s Bay Beach, reached along the long, steep Brewers Bay Road, another great spot for snorkelers and surfers.
Botanical Gardens: J.R. O’Neal Botanical Gardens four-acre gardens in the center of Road Town are great for those interested in the tropical flora of the Caribbean islands. Exotic flora, a mini rainforest and a lush variety of exotic indigenous plants, waterfalls and ponds will be seen on this excursion. Other attractions include the different tropical bird species and red-legged tortoises that have made the gardens their home.
Nightlife: Bomba’s Surfside Shack, Cappoon’s Bay (284/495-4148), is the oldest hangout on the island, sitting on the beach near the West End. Despite its appearance, the shack puts on quite a party. Every month Bomba’s stages a full-moon party, with free house tea spiked with hallucinogenic mushrooms. (The tea is free because it’s illegal to sell it.) The place is also wild on Wednesday and Sunday nights when there are live music and an $8 all-you-can-eat barbecue. Open daily from 10 am to midnight (or later, depending on business).
The bar at The Moorings/Mariner Inn, Wickhams Cay II (284/494-2332), is usually busy with the yacht owners from the nearby marina.
Another popular choice is the Spyglass Bar, in the Treasure Isle Hotel, Road Town (284/494-2501), where a sunken bar on a terrace overlooks the pool and faraway marina facilities.
The Bat Cave, Waterfront Drive, Road Town (284/494-4880), is on the ground floor of Spaghetti Junction. You’ll hear current pop hits playing nightly.
The Jolly Roger, West End (284/495-4559), offers local or sometimes American bands, playing everything from reggae to blues. In the same area, visit Stanley’s Welcome Bar, Cane Garden Bay (284/495-9424), where a crazy crowd gathers.
Sebastian’s Seaside Grill, Apple Bay (284/495-4212), features live music as well. Rhymer’s, at Cane Garden Bay (284/495-4639), serves up tropical drinks and ribs with occasional steel-drum bands playing into the night.
Tower Night Club, West End (284/494-1667), is big Friday through Sunday nights for those looking to dance to a DJ.
Where to Eat in Tortola
The restaurant scene in Tortola is casual and relaxed and offers up tastes from all over the world.
Brandywine Bay Restaurant (284/495-2301), a South shore spot some call the best on the island. The romantic spot on a cobblestone terrace overlooking the Sir Francis Drake Channel is run by a husband and wife team well-known for their Florentine menu that changes daily and features only fresh produce.
Sugar Mill (284/495-4355), in Apple Bay, is housed inside a 300-year-old sugar mill which makes for a unique setting for such fine Caribbean fare as their famous Curried Banana Soup (recipe published in Bon Appetite).
Dinner at Round Hill (284/495-9353), is a five-course meal compliment of Jocelyn and Allan Rhymer in their villa overlooking the Cane Garden Bay beach. Reservations are necessary for the few tables in their home where they serve up some of the best food on the island with what is unquestionably the best hospitality.
Capriccio di Mare (284/494-5369), is a local hit for offering the freshest pasta and best pizza in this small Italian cafe.
Sky World (284/494-3567), one of the best restaurants on the island, sits high on a 1337 foot peak and delivers spectacular views of the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. The restaurant has two sections, one more formal and requiring long pants and collared shirts, the other more casual. The same great menu applies to both sections. The fresh Pumpkin Soup is a favorite.
The Jolly Ranger (284/495-4559), an open-air bar and restaurant, serves up stewed conch and burgers and great pizza to mostly locals. Call ahead to see about live music and entertainment.