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British Virgin Islands

Updated: Oct 2, 2012 03:54 PM EDT
A couple taking a sunset stroll on Tortola's Cane Garden Bay. (©British Virgin Islands Tourist Board) A couple taking a sunset stroll on Tortola's Cane Garden Bay. (©British Virgin Islands Tourist Board)
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  • St. Thomas, USVI

    St. Thomas, USVI

    St. Thomas is not only the shopping hub of the Caribbean, but is also one of the top destinations for sailing, scuba diving, and fishing.More >>
    St. Thomas is not only the shopping hub of the Caribbean, but is also one of the top destinations for sailing, scuba diving, and fishing.More >>


The British Virgin Islands embrace 40-odd islands, some no more than just rocks or spits of land in the sea. Only three of the islands are of any significant size: Virgin Gorda (Fat Virgin), Tortola (Dove of Peace), and Jost Van Dyke. These craggy and remote volcanic islands are just 15 minutes by air or 45 minutes by ferry from St. Thomas.

With its small bays and hidden coves, once havens for pirates, the British Virgin Islands are among the world's loveliest cruising areas. The islands mainly attract those who like to sail, although landlubbers will delight in the beaches. Despite predictions that mass tourism will invade, the islands are still an escapist's paradise. The smaller islands have colorful names, such as Fallen Jerusalem and Ginger. Norman Island is said to have been the prototype for Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island. On Deadman's Bay, Blackbeard reputedly marooned 15 pirates and a bottle of rum, giving rise to the well-known ditty.

Even though they are part of the same archipelago, the British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands are as different as Dame Judi Dench and Julia Roberts. U.S. islands like St. Thomas are deep into mega-resort tourism, but it's still a bit sleepy over in the B.V.I., where the pace is much slower and laid-back, and the people seem more welcoming. Even the capital, Tortola, seems to exist in a bit of a time capsule.

Most of the resorts on Virgin Gorda are so isolated from each other that you'll feel your hotel has the island to itself. For those who want to be truly remote, there is a scattering of minor hotels on a handful of the smaller islands. Peter Island has the poshest lodgings, and there are modest inns on Jost Van Dyke and Anegada. Some places are so small that you'll get to know all the locals after a week. With no casinos, no nightlife, no splashy entertainment, and often no TV, what does one do at night? Jost Van Dyke has only 150 souls but six bars. Question answered.

Fun Fact: Did You Know ..

- Richard Humphreys, a Tortola-born man, founded the first black university in the United States.

- William Thornton, a B.V.I. citizen, designed the U.S. Capitol Building.

- In 1752, the B.V.I. were the major Caribbean supplier of cotton to Britain.

- Tortola, in 1756, had 181 white men and 3,864 slaves -- about 21 slaves to each planter.

- In 1831, free blacks living in the B.V.I. were accorded the full legal rights of British subjects.

- As late as 1869, the steamship Telegrafo was held in Tortola and officially charged with piracy.

-  In 1969, the wreckage of the HMS Nymph, which sank off Road Town in 1783, was discovered.

- In the late 1960s, the British foreign secretary offered the B.V.I. for sale to the United States.

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