Anegada

Flat, empty, and so low-lying that early explorers feared it would slip beneath the sea, Anegada and its accompanying charms are singular among the Virgin Islands. Its attractions are simple: fresh seafood, solitude, and miles of empty white beaches. Athletes and adventurers can complement the quiet times with world-class kitesurfing, or expeditions through the island’s wild interior, a land of epiphytes, wild orchids, and rare iguanas. Wherever you go, there is little chance of meeting a crowd. More likely, you won’t see anyone at all.

The 15-square-mile island stands guard over the Anegada Passage, a 6,000-foot underwater chasm used as a thoroughfare by ocean liners and cargo ships. The nearby North Drop, where the sea depth plunges from 180 feet to more than 1,200, teems with large game fish. The island is buffered by the Horseshoe Reef, the third largest reef in the world, which extends south and east of the island like an underwater tail. The reef is as famous for the danger it poses to mariners as it is for its size and beauty.

Anegada peaks a mere 25 feet above sea level at its highest point. The west end of the island is dominated by salt ponds, wetlands home to rare and endangered wading birds, including flamingos. The eastern third of the island is a scraggly limestone wilderness, a surprising land of loblolly trees, cacti, epiphytes, wild orchids, and bright yellow century plants. The island is home to the Anegada rock iguana, an ancient-looking lizard that has been the focus of intense conservation efforts since 1997.

The island’s only town, The Settlement, is a sparse collection of homes, shops, churches, and government buildings barely touched by the current of change that has swept through other Virgin Islands. Anegada’s laid-back lifestyle is not an invention for tourists. It’s the real thing.

Boats can sail up to several docks along the island’s southwestern shore, but only after navigating a perilous course through reefs that have ensnared more than 300 ships since people started to keep track. While beautiful to look at, the beaches along the southern coast are not standouts for swimming and snorkeling. That honor belongs to the north coast beaches: windswept, wild, and nearly always empty. No land stands between Anegada’s north coast and the other side of the Atlantic, and the waves that beat these beaches deposit an intriguing jumble of natural and human-made rubbish.

Anegada is spectacular, but it’s not for everyone, least of all people who want to do something besides enjoy the beauty of their surroundings and the society of their companions. But for travelers wishing to truly get away, this is the place to be.


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The North Coast

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The north coast is what most people come to Anegada for, and it does not disappoint. Stretching from Loblolly Bay at the east and winding all the way to West End Point, the north coast is more than a dozen miles of unblemished, uncrowded, perfectly white beaches.

The waves from the often-wild Atlantic Ocean crash onto the barrier reef several hundred yards offshore; smaller waves make their way onto the beach, depositing intriguing ocean riffraff.

A number of small roads branching off from the main loop road provide access to the coast, but many people choose to base themselves at either Cow Wreck Bay or Loblolly Bay, home to two of the most popular restaurants and beach bars. Both have good snorkeling, but the reef is closer to shore and easier to access at Loblolly.

The north coast is a perfect playground for kitesurfing: Cross-onshore winds and the shelter provided by an offshore reef make the area around Keel Point ideal for this exhilarating water sport. Windsurfers and surfers are drawn to the waters near Ruffling Point on far northwest tip of Anegada.

Anegada iguanas

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Low cages adjacent to the government administration building are temporary home to dozens of critically endangered Anegada rock iguanas. The BVI National Parks Trust operates the iguana head-start facility, where hatchlings are housed until they grow large enough to survive on their own.

Before the 1960s, iguanas outnumbered people on Anegada. The creatures roamed the island’s limestone wilderness, nesting in the summer, while finding plants, fruit, and the occasional centipede for food.

The Anegada rock iguana, also called the stout iguana, grows up to six feet long and can live up to 80 years. It is native to the entire Puerto Rican bank—the islands that stretch from Puerto Rico to St. Croix—but development has pushed the animals out of every island except Anegada, where for many years it was unbothered by hunting, human encroachment, or predators. But development brought new threats for the iguanas, particularly an upswing in the population of feral cats on Anegada. Cats, it turns out, like the taste of iguana hatchlings. Habitat loss and roaming livestock also contributed to their decline. By the early 1980s, estimates put the population at fewer than 300 animals.

In 1997 the BVI National Parks Trust opened an iguana head-start facility with a half dozen young hatchlings collected from the wild. Young iguanas live in screened in cages at the facility for about six years until they are large enough to survive on their own in the wild. Since the facility opened, more than 170 iguanas have been released, and scientists track their progress through satellite devices.

Iguanas do live in the wild, but they are difficult to find. The animals are shy, and they sense your presence long before you know they are there. If you do get near one, you will likely hear it scampering away through the bush before you can lay eyes on it. If you really want to glimpse an iguana—and they are worth seeing—visit the head-start facility.

Board sports

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The conditions around Anegada are ideal for kitesurfing, windsurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, and surfing. A variety of conditions, from flat-water lagoons to windy northeasterly facing beaches, create a variety of experiences perfect for beginners all the way up to experienced athletes.

Kitesurfing is the most popular board sport on Anegada, thanks largely to the presence of an excellent kitesurfing school and rental depot at Keel Point, where prevailing northeasterly wind makes the conditions perfect for learning the sport. More experienced riders will find endless options around the island.

Stand-up paddleboarding is another fun way to explore the shore, and it’s easier to learn than kitesurfing; most people get the knack in less than an hour and then delight in the pleasure of exploring astride a board. Paddleboarding is especially easy and fun where there is little wind and chop: The Flats along the southern shore are ideal.

For more information about kitesurfing and stand-up paddleboarding on Anegada contact Tommy Gaunt Kitesurfing. Practitioners of other board sports—windsurfing and surfing—are more or less on their own. The break at West End, Anegada, is the most favored location around the island for surfing, but it is difficult to reach from the shore: You need a boat to get there.

Sportfishing

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Anegada has two excellent options for sportfishing: hunting for marlin and other game fish on the legendary North Drop, a deep-sea fishing ground near Anegada, and fly-fishing in the flats on the southern shore of the island.

The North Drop is a deep ocean trench that runs north of the Virgin Islands, reaching depths of 1,200 feet and more in places. Anegada is the closest of the Virgin Islands to this famed sportfishing ground, where anglers battle with blue marlin, wahoo, dorado, tuna, and other prized fish.

The game fish are attracted by clouds of baitfish—squid and flying fish among them—that congregate to feed off the upwelling currents that come out from the Drop. Sportfishers from St. Thomas, Tortola, and Virgin Gorda head up to the North Drop regularly, but boats based on Anegada have the shortest sail of all: a mere 20 minutes ride.

The other type of fishing on Anegada is fly-fishing for bonefish, one of the most elusive and challenging game fish around. Spend all or part of a day trying to catch one of these “gray ghosts,” which have strength disproportionate to their small size and spook easily. Bonefish feed on the flats from Setting Point eastward to the end of the island, but if you really want to catch one, you will need a guide who knows how to find them.

Anegada lobster

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During daylight hours, stroll out onto any of the restaurant docks in Setting Point, Anegada. You will find living lobsters, lots of them, kept in lobster pots just below the surface. Spiny, pink, and plump, these crustaceans were plucked from the reef by island fishers. They are destined for someone’s dinner plate—perhaps yours?

No trip to Anegada is complete without a lobster lunch or dinner. Served simply with drawn butter and grilled by chefs who have been cooking lobster for generations, it is sweet, succulent, and one of reasons to come to this island.

Eating lobster is a messy undertaking, if you are going to do it right. Use your fork and fingers to get at the tail meat, and then ask for crackers to help you break into the arms where little morsels of sweet seafood await discovery. You’ll need a second plate on which to place the emptied lobster shell as you work through your meal. Anegada lobster is cooked and served simply, with a small dish of drawn butter for dipping. Side dishes such as rice, potatoes, and vegetables often come separately in family-style platters. A whole lobster, served as two halves, with salad and sides, costs $50-55 and is the most commonly served portion; a half lobster usually costs $35-40.

Part of the pleasure of a lobster dinner is watching the ritual of its preparation. Around sunset, when all the dinner reservations have been made, you will find island chefs preparing the lobsters for dinner: cleaning, seasoning, and grilling them over open-air fires on the beach. It’s a ritual that is interesting to watch, and if you come at the right moment, you can get a picture of yourself holding a lobster in each hand.

The BVI Tourist Board and restaurants on Anegada present an annual Lobster Festival every November on the weekend following American Thanksgiving. During the daylong event restaurants on Anegada prepare tasting menus featuring lobster in traditional and inventive preparations.

Western Salt Ponds

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Anegada’s Western Salt Ponds, declared a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1999, cover more than a third of the island. They are home to migrating seabirds and shorebirds and are an important spawning area for a type of mullet fish. Before refrigeration, islanders used salt from the ponds to preserve meat and fish.

The ponds are a bird-watcher’s paradise. A trained eye will spot ducks, plovers, sandpipers, herons (including great blue herons), kingfishers, falcons (including peregrine falcons), and flamingos, the most well-known birds to inhabit the ponds.

Greater flamingos are native to Anegada but by the 1980s were all but gone. In 1990, 20 birds were reintroduced in the Western Salt Ponds, where, to the delight of conservationists and the National Parks Trust, they have reproduced steadily and attracted several volunteers looking for a new place to live.

Estimates are that as many as 200 flamingos now call Anegada home.

It can be difficult to see the shy creatures, who spend most of their time wading in the parts of the salt ponds farthest away from roads and people. As you drive around the ponds, keep your eyes peeled for small dots of pink in the distance. Ask around in advance to find out which pond the birds have been frequenting recently. Regardless, binoculars are the best way to watch the birds, and a telephoto lens is required if you want to take good pictures of them. These wild flamingoes are not accustomed to people, so above all else don’t try to get near them. Your presence will interfere with nesting, breeding, and feeding, and therefore threaten their continued survival.

The ponds are surrounded by scrubby plants, including several species of mangrove and a number of succulents, including one that Anegadians add to salads for a sharp, briny flavor. You will need a guide to help you identify this plant; don’t start nibbling on everything you see. Keep your eyes open for Anegada’s endemic plant species: Acacia anegadensis (poke-me-boy), Metastelma anegadensa (wire wist), and Cordial rupicola (black sage).

The Western Salt Ponds are a minimalist landscape: flat, mostly empty, with understated colors. Most tourists don’t give them a second glance. But those who do are rewarded; they are uniquely beautiful and can be a nice place to walk if you grow weary of the beach—just keep track of your route so you don’t get lost. A number of narrow roads feeding off the main road that circles the island provide easy access to the ponds. Keep in mind that the ponds expand and contract depending on the amount of rainfall, so be careful not to drive too close and get stuck in soft spots. Also be mindful that these lands are protected, so fishing, hunting, and otherwise extracting materials or animals from the ponds are illegal.


Planning Your Time

For most people, Anegada’s chief attraction is not planning your time. The established must-dos—seeing the rare Anegada rock iguanas, taking a stroll along the dramatic north coast, eating a lobster, and spotting flamingos at the Western Salt Ponds—can easily be accomplished in a day. But people who love the island cannot get enough of its singular charms, and will want to stay a week or longer.

Overnight visitors to Anegada should assess just how much of the island’s jarring solitude they want. Some people stay for weeks and leave rejuvenated; others feel stir-crazy after just a few nights. Regardless of your disposition, it is wise to pack a good book (or two) and a deck of cards, since most hotels do not have television and there is next to no nightlife.

Anegada is a good day-trip destination from Tortola or Virgin Gorda. Due to the lengthy ferry ride, it’s a long day – but without question it will be a highlight of your vacation.

Getting to Anegada

Most people arrive by ferry from Tortola or Virgin Gorda. Ferry operators serving Anegada are the Road Town Fast Ferry and the Anegada Express. Inter-Island Boat Services offers occasional trips from St. Thomas and St. John to Anegada on weekends and special occasions.

The tiny Anegada air strip is located in the center of the island. Several air carriers provide charter flights from Tortola to Anegada on small three- to nine-seater aircraft. During peak tourist season, you may find scheduled flights, though this is hit or miss.

Getting around Anegada

Taxis will be at the dock if you arrive with a scheduled ferry on Anegada. If you are traveling with a charter, ask your charter company to arrange for a taxi or recommend one to you or call for one on Channel 16.

A rental car will give you the freedom to explore all corners of the island at your own pace. Expect to pay about $65 a day for a four-door four-wheel-drive vehicle. There are no road signs, few landmarks, and no streetlights, so expect to get a little turned around when you’re driving—especially at night—even if you have a map. Driving hazards are few, but be aware of the livestock that roam the island, sometimes stopping to rest in the middle of the road.

Where to stay

Accommodations on Anegada are generally simple, yet comfortable. A clutch of hotels and guest houses along the southern shore are convenient to the ferry and restaurants. Accommodations on the north shore are closer to the beach, but more remote.

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