British Virgin Islands Vacation
by Lester Picker
[This article originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun Travel section. Some information may be dated, so please check beforehand.]
The epiphany arrived for me without fanfare somewhere around midnight the second day. Here I was, on my back, hands under my head, looking up at the night sky over the British Virgin Islands. The Milky Way clouds stood out almost as clearly as the stars and galaxies around it. A shooting star punctuated the scene every few minutes.
Two things made this scene stand out from any other vacation. First, I was with my five closest “guy” friends, all of them similarly laid back at the moment, each of us with a Cuban cigar in hand and some of us with a glass of choice Cabernet. Second, our conversation was accented by the gentle rocking of the 51-foot catamaran we had rented, now at anchor off Virgin Gorda, a to-die-for tropical beach.
And therein was the epiphany. This was no mere vacation. This was the ultimate, the penultimate, the Platinum Plus, the mother of all vacations. Except that mothers, of course, would not have been allowed. Nor daughters, or wives or sisters. We even fired the woman chef who came with the boat. This was a guy vacation; 51-feet of pure testosterone.
Single sex vacations are gaining in popularity, as friends seek to unwind from the pressures of everyday life without adding the stresses associated with more intimate romantic attachments. Women have been traveling together for decades, sharing adventurous experiences while banding together for safety reasons. Only recently have all-male vacations begun to catch on in popularity.
In the planning for months, the six of us, ages 45 to 52 and friends for more than a decade, had rented the catamaran, complete with captain, from The Catamaran Company, one of the many charter companies serving the British and American Virgin Islands. Our plan included leaving all work behind (except for my trip notes, of course), limiting ourselves to one suitcase each (we figured we could jump in the water if we needed to wash off a sweaty T-shirt), and bringing good music, mostly supplied by Randy, who is an accomplished musician and jazz pianist. Bill had sent the chef a list of dietary preferences weeks before, so she could provision the galley for us.
When we arrived in St. Thomas, we took a taxi to the ferry, which would get us to Tortola, the hub and largest of the British Virgin Islands. While the rest of us transferred our baggage to the ferry, one our group, the owner of a multi-million dollar international business in the D.C. area who shall remain anonymous, negotiated with the driver. That is the simplest explanation I can think of for why the $24 taxi fare cost us exactly $50. But, hey, I don’t negotiate international business deals every day, so what do I know? Anyway, the point is that the taxi transfer from airport to ferry should be $4.00 per person, including baggage. Caveat emptor.
The ferry itself is an interesting experience, as tourists share space with locals bringing all manner of goods from St. Thomas. The ferry winds itself between islands and, on the typical sunny day with the trade winds blowing, is an enjoyable trip. The rolling hills of the islands and their deep green color, provide a visual depth to the water and white sand beaches. Going through customs is an informal affair.
As we disembarked on Tortola, Captain Ron was there to ferry us by dinghy directly to Stars and Stripes, previously owned by Dennis Conner, and now in the tourist trade. The first rule of the boat was ‘no shoes,” which we gladly abided by for the remainder of the week.
Once on board, Cathy, our supposed-to-be chef, briefed us on the provisions she had stocked for us, how to use the galley, and where to find critical items tucked here and there in cupboards and under seat cushions. Since our plans forced her to find short-term room and board on the island, we had agreed to pay her a stipend for the week. She left to spend the week hanging around local beaches with friends. Someone has to do the tough jobs.
So, there we were, six guys scarred and wired from months of figuratively swimming with sharks, now ready to face the real ones lurking in the crystal clear waters (we didn’t see even one). Once our gear was stowed, we immediately set sail, the perfect afternoon weather buoying our moods. Lathered with sunscreen, a must on the water under tropical skies, we hit the deck to take in the wind and salt air.
By sunset, we reached Jost Van Dyke, a small island west of Tortola with remote white sand beaches, where the spectacular red sunset set the tone for the evening. Working together, our group somehow pulled together a dinner of diced tuna steaks with shrimp and scallops, sautéed with garlic and herbs, over a bed of wild rice. Fresh multi-grain bread, steamed asparagus and a choice of two elegant wines rounded out the main course.
On deck, Randi, an amateur astronomer, briefed us on the night sky, which appeared so close and bright we all felt suitably humbled. As the boat gently rocked to the rhythm of the waves, we divided the cabins. Four of us slept inside, and two of us slept under an awning on deck, the gentle, cool breezes lulling us to sleep in an instant.
The next morning dawned under a bright sun, as three of us started the day with a morning dip off the back of the boat - au natural. A pot of wine-dark coffee and a breakfast of eggs, bread and cereals revved up our engines. By nine, we were on the water, singly or in groups, engaged in whatever water pursuits were available. Joel, a fanatical wind surfer, gave Randi and me lessons. Bill tried his hand (and feet, and at times his entire body) water-skiing. Jay and John kayaked the island, exploring its marine caves and beaches.
After a light lunch, we spent the better part of the afternoon loafing, catching a nap, reading, or just talking one on one, in what turned out to be a daily pattern. At one point, I lay on the netting that separates the catamaran hulls as we skimmed the surface at eight knots. Looking down, I could see the bottom some thirty feet down, and occasional fish scurrying by. Above, billowing clouds dotted the skies. The thought occurred to me that perhaps life does get better as you get older. Here I was surrounded by friends I love, and with whom I could let down my guard. Life was definitely good.
After dinner of grilled salmon steaks, we settled down for an evening of high stakes poker, each of us anteing up five dollars for chips. By the time 11 PM rolled around, we were definitely ready for bed.
Captain Ron, 32-years old and an experienced sailor, was as easygoing as a person could be. He accommodated all our destination and activity requests, even making suggestions once he got to know us better.
On our third day, it occurred to us that we hadn’t touched land at all. We sailed to the Dogs, a series of rocky islands east of Tortola, where we anchored and spent a wondrous morning snorkeling in and around the reefs. At West Dog we found a cave carved into the rocks and our entire group snorkeled in and out. Long shafts of sunlight flickered down to the depths of the cave and colorful tropical fish darted in and out, their iridescent colors flashing on and off as they made their appearances.
We were so taken by the experience, at one point we all swam as far as we could into a particularly long cave and then spontaneously gathered in a circle in the water and let out a long holler. Definitely a guy thing.
That afternoon we made a short stop for supplies at the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour, our first landfall. The Yacht Harbour caters to the boating community, with a full-services marina, marine supply store, a dive shop, a quaint bar and restaurant, and a few tourist shops. Virgin Gorda itself is an 8.5 square mile, rambling island due east of Tortola, boasting towns, long stretches of white sand beaches and, for hikers and nature lovers, Gorda Peak National Park. The Park is a favorite for birders, with chances good for spotting some of the more than 200 species of Virgin Island birds. Christopher Columbus named it The Fat Virgin because of its unusual shape; fat in the middle with elongated spurs of land running east and west.
On the fourth day, we did a little snorkeling from the boat in the morning, then sailed for the rest of the day, listening to great jazz en route, talking and relaxing on the nets between the hulls. We were headed for the reefs of Anegada, where we planned to do some heavy snorkeling the following day.
Anegada is a quaint island – actually a coral atoll- only eleven miles long, very narrow, and flat as a pancake, which caters to windsurfers and divers. It offers tourists simple homelike cottages and, for the more adventurous two campgrounds. For dinner, we feasted on lobster at Neptune’s Treasure, a quirky, come-as-you-are seafood restaurant on the south side of the island. The restaurant even catered to those of our group who were vegetarian, with heaping plates of lightly steamed vegetables, potatoes and angel hair pasta. Due to the light Labor Day crowds, the restaurant was like a scene from Casablanca, with people milling about, some smoking, and lots of laughing.
In a trip of highlights, the next major moment came the following day, when we spent a memorable four hours snorkeling the reefs off Loblolly Beach on the windward side of Anegada. We waded into the warm water from the beach, where the reefs literally reach out to just 18 inches below the surface. Just snorkeling you can swim among schools of fish and spend hours taking in the beauty of the varied coral formations. If you are a SCUBA enthusiast, the wrecks which dot the coral reefs are a major attraction for both fish and divers. Gear is available for modest rental fees from one of many shops that dot the islands. Dive boat charters, including night dives, are available for under $100 for a two-tank trip. Basic and advanced instruction is also available. Boats can accommodate families with one diver and the rest snorkelers or observers.
That afternoon, our final one on board the Stars and Stripes, we sailed back to Tortola, Spanish for Turtle Dove, gorging ourselves on fresh island fruits, especially sweet, ripe pineapples, thoughtfully and amply stocked by our ex-chef. Since the boat boasts a charcoal grill on the rear deck, we grilled huge steaks of Mahi-Mahi, with angel hair pasta and homemade sauce.
After dark, we sat around comparing highlights of the trip, before heading into Cane Garden Bay on the northwest side of Tortola to taste some local rum along the many bars that line the beaches. A delightful steel calypso band serenaded the guests to a lively island beat. After living on a boat for five days, we all felt as if the bar itself was swaying.
On our last morning, we woke early, packed our gear and sailed to the south side of the island to pick up our ferry back to St. Thomas. Leaving Stars and Stripes wasn’t easy, after an idyllic vacation of sun, sea and sail. But, parting was made easier by the transition on St. Thomas, with its fine restaurants, pretty side alleys and cobblestone streets, packed with stores catering to the tourist trade. Tiny cafes serving strong Jamaican coffee are interspersed with boutiques selling handmade clothing and jewelry. If you are going to the British Virgin Islands, plan to spend at least half a day touring St. Thomas, its American cousin.
Virgin Island charter boats typically are rented to couples either without captain (known as a bare boat charter) or with. Increasingly, though, groups of all men or women friends will splurge. However, if you’re in a serious relationship with a member of the opposite sex, figure on the trip costing double. Your relationship will never survive unless your significant other gets his or her chance to show off their ideal vacation pictures. Sort of an adult version of I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.
Boats come equipped with everything for a perfect vacation on the water, from windsurfers to water-skis. The boat is also equipped with a VCR, a video library, stereo with CD player, and many other comforts of home. Charter companies will also entertain reasonable requests for special items or activities, such as SCUBA classes or special dietary preferences. Since charter boats cater to the business crowd, they all have marine mobile telephones on board.
The Catamaran Company (1-800-262-0308: http://www.catamaranco.com/) offers bare boats ranging from 37 to 48 feet, each with three to 5 cabins. Crewed boats range from 48-65 feet. Appointments are luxurious (cherry wood interiors, showers in each cabin, electric heads) and every watery whim one could want is provided in the fee. Since our charter was off-season and only five full days, each of us ended up paying only $1,400.