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Nicknamed ‘nature’s little secret,’ the British Virgin Islands are a sailor’s dream destination. Think warm waters, untouched isles, consistent wind, and lively beach bars. You’ll find these islands east of Puerto Rico, scattered amongst the US Virgin Islands.
When the opportunity came to spend a week sailing through the Caribbean with Sailing Virgins, I leaped at the opportunity. After being a crew member onboard a handful of yachts with creepy yacht captains, I was desperate to go on a trip with like-minded sailors. And at the end of the week, qualify as a captain myself.
Planning your trip to the beautiful British Virgin Islands? Here’s what you’ll need to know before you go.
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How to get to the British Virgin Islands
I’ve traveled to some of the most remote corners of the world. No destination prepared me for how hard it could be to get to (and leave) the British Virgin Islands.
At a glance, British Virgin Islands looks easy to get to, right? Au contraire my sweet naive summer pea. The best way to get to the BVI is to fly into St. Thomas (STT) on a major airline. Then, take a ferry from St. Thomas to BVI. Try to arrive at least a day before your sailing begins just in case of missed connections or delays.
A few ferry companies connect St. Thomas to Tortola: Road Town Fast Ferry, Native Son Ferry, and Smith’s Ferry. The ride costs around $60 and takes roughly an hour, depending on weather conditions. Depending on how crowded the ferry is, you might have a long line awaiting you on the other side for customs.
While there is an airport on Tortola/Beef Island in the British Virgin Islands (EIS), airlines here are incredibly unreliable. Delays and cancellations are common. You’ll likely stop over and change your airline carrier in Puerto Rico before flying to your main destination.
The best time to sail in the British Virgin Islands
The best time to go on a sailing trip to BVI is from February to July. The weather in August can get a bit too hot and humid for comfort, and teeters on the edge of hurricane season (August to November). Many bars, hotels, and restaurants close during hurricane season. December and January typically see great weather and fewer crowds.
No matter when you go, it’s the Caribbean! Pack plenty of sun protection to beat the equatorial heat and a rain jacket in case of tropical storms.
Yacht charters vs. sailing schools
Need help deciding whether to charter a yacht or enroll in a sailing course? There are a few factors to consider.
If you’re already a competent sailor, or you’ll be traveling with an experienced skipper, you could bareboat charter a yacht. This is generally the most affordable way to cruise through the BVI — but comes with the most responsibility. You’ll be on the hook for all trip logistics — reading the weather, navigating, provisioning, cooking, and cleaning during your time onboard. If you want the freedom to relax onboard, or participate as often as you like, consider chartering a yacht with a captain and/or crew.
There are plenty of charter options; Dream Yacht Charter and BVI Yacht Charter are two popular options in the British Virgin Islands, each with a variety of boats. The ‘don’t be gentle, it’s a rental’ ethos of charter guests is strong in the Caribbean — boats are a little beat up around here. Double check every system before setting sail.
If you want a hands-on experience, consider signing up for a sailing course. There are courses catered towards every experience level, from first-timers to those looking to get a commercial captain’s license. Sailing Virgins offers beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses all throughout the year. Getting my 101, 103, and 104 sailing certifications with Sailing Virgins was one of the best trips I’d ever been on — land or sea.
Sailing in the British Virgin Islands is generally beginner-friendly, with a few caveats. Consistent winds, abundant good-quality mooring balls, line-of-sight navigating from island to island and warm waters make it an easy place to sail.
However, the British Virgin Islands tend to attract a sailing crowd that might not have the best manners. Boat charter companies are more worried about credit cards than credentials, which means you might be sailing alongside incompetent captains. You’ll have to be extra vigilant about anchoring near clueless vessels, and being defensive when it comes to who has the right of way.
Tools like Navionics and Navily will help you get from point A to B and find excellent moorings and anchorages. Most mooring spaces fill up by mid-day during the high season. Reserve a mooring ball through the BoatyBall app in select spots.
The best things to do in the British Virgin Islands
You won’t run out of things to do in the British Virgin Islands. From hiking to surfing to snorkeling to sailing, it’s an outdoor adventurer’s destination. While we didn’t get to every corner of the islands, these were the activities my sailing trip enjoyed most in the British Virgin Islands.
Wander through the labyrinth of the Baths on Virgin Gorda
The beauty of being on a sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands is that you’re not beholden to tour times to see its main sights. Arrive at the Baths during the early hours or just before sunset, and you’ll have this natural wonder to yourselves.
The Baths of Virgin Gorda is a natural maze of natural pools, rock formations, ladders, and beaches. Watch as the sunlight pours in through rock crags, sparkling on the waters below. Granite stones, called batholiths, were pushed to the surface after volcanic activity, forming the grottos that you see there today.
Take care when hopping from rock to rock (edges are sharp), and bring snorkeling gear to explore the reefs in the tide pools out in the ocean.
Sip a painkiller at the Soggy Dollar
The British Virgin Island is no stranger to fun beach bars, but if you go to just one, make it the Soggy Dollar. Swimming up to the Soggy Dollar with a soaked bill tucked in your bathing suit is a rite of passage for sailors. Beeline it to the bar and order a painkiller, the BVI’s drink of choice — island lore states it was first concocted at the Soggy Dollar. Sip your drink of coconut cream, Pusser’s rum, orange juice, pineapple juice, and ground nutmeg on the white sandy beach. Turquoise waters await when it’s time to cool off.
To keep the party going, carry on to Foxy’s for karaoke and Willy T’s for truly on-the-water drinking and dining.
Spend a day in Cane Garden Bay
An untouched beach is rarely far away on Tortola, but if you want a bit of natural beauty and action, venture to Cane Garden Bay. You’ll find the island’s signature white sands, calm waters, and a handful of beach bars doling out cheap cocktails, seafood, and pizza. Some nights draw live music. The waters are generally calm, and it’s a hub for making friends with locals and other cruisers alike.
Plenty of mooring spots are available in the bay, plus a small gas station selling ice and a small selection of essentials.
Explore Anegada Island
A flat, coral island on the eastern end of the British Virgin Islands, Anegada Island is a tranquil place to explore. Sugar sand beaches surround the island; you’ll find a beach bar to sink your toes into. Many properties that used to welcome tourists to the island have yet to open after the 2017 hurricane, making it a little quieter than the islands found elsewhere.
Grab your mask and snorkel and search for rays, reef sharks, and sea turtles cruising along the island’s reefs. When it’s time for dinner, head to Sid’s Pomato Point for tacos, drinks, and dancing. Save room for their key lime pie!
Search for secluded bays
Some of the best spots in the British Virgin Islands have little fanfare online. In our case, this ended up being the tranquil anchorage of Little Harbour on Peter Island. A haven for sea turtles and surrounded by scrubland hills, it’s a prime place to spend a full day in the sun. Trek towards the top of the island a discover abandoned buildings, or just laze away on the rocky shore.
Another favorite is Guana Island — technically, the shoreline is privately owned, but there’s a cute cove with a handful of mooring balls ideal for swimming and snorkeling.
Cruise to Norman Island to find the muse of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. While the whole of the British Virgin Islands is rife with buccaneer history, Norman Island in particular had its fair share of gold-greedy pirates and showdowns.
Enjoy a decadent dinner at CocoMaya
Escape from the galley and get off of dish duty by having an upscale meal at CocoMaya, a restaurant where you won’t feel out of place wearing your nicest outfit and dressiest pair of sandals that’s been shoved towards the back of your bunk.
CocoMaya serves street food and tapas-style dishes like sushi rolls, skewers, gyoza, tacos, empanadas, and a handful of larger plates. Don’t skip the honey sesame cauliflower! Once the meal is done, kick off your shoes and venture to the sandy dance floor for live music. Cornhole and other games await those who prefer to keep the evening mellow.
Road trip around Tortola
Rent a car or join a tour exploring the main island of the British Virgin Islands, Tortola. At just 12 miles long and three miles wide, it’s possible to see many of its main highlights in just one day. Start in Road Town, the sleepy but quaint main ‘city’ of Tortola to shop for souvenirs. Then, venture west along the beach road to Smuggler’s Cove and Long Bay Beach. It’s rare to find Long Bay Beach truly crowded!
Looping along the northern end, stop at any sight that delights — there are many. Cane Garden Bay is a must, where you can drink and dine on sugar sands, and sample rum at the nearby Callwood Rum Distillery. Brewer’s Bay is a little off the beaten path, and has great snorkeling along its western edge. Further east, you’ll bumble into more scenic bays like Trunk, Josiah, and Lambert Bay.