Tortola

High hills, winding roads, and spectacular vistas define Tortola, the most populous and most developed of the British Virgin Islands. The island’s crooked spine runs 12 miles east to west, sandwiched by ridges that plunge down to crystalline blue waters and fringing reefs. Trace the coastline along a succession of spectacular bays, some scalloped by sandy beaches, others buffered by thick mangroves, and still more which are home to settlements ranging from small villages to the BVI’s capital, Road Town. Exploration on Tortola is an adventure, one whose rewards include secluded beaches, memorable day hikes, and colorful beach bars.

Tortola is the hub of the British Virgin Islands. It is an authentic Caribbean island largely uncontaminated by the commercial onslaught of international chain stores and fast-food restaurants, but with enough modern creature comforts to set most visitors at ease.

Tortola caters to a range of tastes and interests. Sage Mountain National Park, a tropical forest studded with mahogany trees, fern trees and giant elephant ear plants, has the BVI’s best hiking. Dozens of beaches offer no end of relaxing seaside pleasures as well as more active ones: surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking and snorkeling are popular. Tucked amid the jumbled streets of the capital, Road Town, is a collection of compelling historic sites. Tortola’s fleet of pleasure craft and dive boats depart daily for excursions to sites up and down the Sir Francis Drake Channel.


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Cane Garden Bay

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If you’ve ever seen a brochure promoting the British Virgin Islands, chances are you’ve seen a photo of Cane Garden Bay, a picture-perfect crescent beach along the northern coast of Tortola. Just a 10-minute drive from Road Town, Cane Garden Bay is what many people dream of when they think of the beach. The setting is lovely, with expansive white sand, a smattering of long-necked coconut palms, and the quaint feel of a seaside village. The atmosphere is fun: There are a half dozen beachfront restaurants, lots of beach chairs, and—on most days—plenty of people.

Island music spills out from restaurants, bikini-clad patrons sip cocktails in the sun, and youngsters make sand castles and splash around in the sea.

Tucked into the trees a few yards away from the beach, Callwood Rum Distillery has produced rum in virtually the same way for nearly 400 years. Surrounded by tall trees and sugarcane the stone and wood factory dates from the plantation era. It is the BVI’s only working rum distillery and a world apart from the industrial, and better-known, rum factories on neighboring St. Croix.

Callwood Rum Distillery produces, bottles and sells four varieties of rum under the brand name Arundel Cane Rum. It is made from sugarcane grown on various farms on Tortola and trucked to the factory in March and April each year. The distillery’s product includes clear white rum, light rum, dark rum and a special sweet blend “for the ladies” with a piece of cut sugarcane inside. Estate Arundel is the plantation-era name for this corner of Cane Garden Bay and the fields of cane and other crops which once surrounded it.

Step inside Callwood’s Rum Distillery and you will immediately feel transported back in time: Wooden barrels and demijohns of aging rum line the old stone walls, the air carries a pleasant scent of molasses and rum, and the light is dim.

The building, equipment and method has been the same for generations and it is a sight to behold, especially since it is all still in use.

Admission to the distillery is free, but you should definitely splurge on the $2 tour. Here, a guide walks you around the property pointing out the cane-crushing equipment, and describing how the sweet cane juice is cooked down and fermented before being placed in the distillery behind the building. If you visit from March to August—the production season—you may see an aspect of rum production taking place: cane crushing, cooking down of the cane juice, or the distillery itself fired up and clear, 140-proof raw rum trickling into a barrel inside the shop. The distillery is open year-round and even outside of production season, the short tour is well worth a stop. If you want to take pictures, you’ll have to pay for a tour or buy at least one bottle of rum.

Cane Garden Bay is the preferred destination for cruise ship visitors, who are taxied over the mountain and disgorge onto the beach between the hours of 10am and 4pm. If you don’t like crowds, you may want to avoid Cane Garden Bay when a ship is in port, but don’t miss it entirely.

Smuggler’s Cove

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Arguably Tortola’s best beach, Smuggler’s Cove is purely natural: soft white sand, a perfect crescent shape, picturesque sugarloaf mountains, an offshore reef for snorkeling, calm waters, schools of fish, and diving pelicans.

The bay is usually calm, although when the north swell is large, the small waves that crash at Smugger’s are perfect for boogie boarders and easily avoided by swimmers who just want to soak in the crystal waters.

The shallow reef on the western end of the beach is good for snorkeling and best on calm days. There is another reef, a bit longer swim from the beach, off to the eastern side. Beachcombers will enjoy exploring the rocky ends of the beach.

There are no facilities save a pit toilet and Nigel’s informal beach bar and snack shack at the eastern end of the beach. Shade is limited since Hurricane Irma came through in September 2017.

Smuggler’s Cove is at the end of a bumpy gravel road. Four-wheel drive is not a necessity, but it helps. To get there, drive past Long Bay and continue past a steep uphill segment at the end of the beach. Here the road turns to gravel and you can choose from the low or high road: Either route takes you to the beach. The government owns the land surrounding Smuggler’s Cove and has said it eventually plans to make it a national park.

Fahie Hill Mural & the Ridge Road

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As you climb up any of the steep roads that rise spectacularly to the top of Tortola’s spine, the air gets cooler, the breeze intensifies, and the views become more and more fantastical. Once at the top, the narrow Ridge Road winds past hillside communities and cool roadside bars. This is what Tortola residents refer to as “up country,” and it is the most rural part of the island. A drive along this winding piece of pavement is sure to be one of the most memorable of your visit to Tortola.

Be sure that your Ridge Road drive includes a cruise by the Fahie Hill Mural, about 10 minutes drive from Road Town.

A gifted painter, Reuben Vanterpool was born and raised in the village of Great Mountain, a green and rocky terrain tucked in the hills above Road Town. Vanterpool’s memories of life in the 1950s and 60s come to life at the Fahie Hill Mural, created in 2001. The mural is a colorful piece of community art depicting large-scale images of island life from the last century.

The mural began when artist Rueben Vanterpool sketched a series of memories on a retaining wall and, with the help of other artists, painted them in vivid colors.

Panels show how islanders raised and gathered their food: They depict young men fishing, older men watering cattle, and the whole family working together to terrace land for crops. One panel illustrates women baking bread in traditional Dutch brick ovens. The mural also illustrate how islanders had fun: One panel depicts a fungi band at work, and another shows traditional dancing.

Sadly, Vanterpool’s museum and gallery, Jenesis Studios, was damaged in Hurricane Irma, and was forced to close for repairs. The mural and museum is along the Ridge Road between Great Mountain Road and Johnson’s Ghut Roads.

Sage Mountain National Park

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Hikers at Sage Mountain National Park can climb to the highest point in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, 1,716 feet above sea level. The 92-acre park in west-central Tortola is also home to scenic overlooks, a forest untouched for over 500 years, and a host of delightful tropical trees, flowers, and animals.

Like the rest of Tortola, Sage Mountain experienced significant damage when Hurricane Irma struck in September 2017. Huge mahogany trees snapped in two, and the entire forest was left denuded and bare. The visitor’s centre was mostly destroyed, and park signage blew away. In the months since, leaves and green has returned, but the grandeur is diminished. Thankfully, however, it is still beautiful, peaceful and relaxing – just different than before.

The National Parks Trust has erected dozens of signs that identify trees and plants along the trails, including the West Indian mahogany, elephant-ear vine, and bulletwood tree. Bromeliads, air-dwelling tropical plants, bejewel the forest canopy and ferns carpet its floor.

Visitors will hear the sounds of resident birds and bo-peeps, one of the most common kinds of tree frogs. You may also catch glimpses of the fast-moving bananaquit, a tiny yellow-breasted bird, and will certainly see lizards.

The entrance to Sage Mountain National Park is about 0.3 mile from the parking lot, at the end of an unpaved road that cuts through private property. Once inside the park, you can choose to follow the North Trail, which descends slightly before passing through some of the oldest and most lush parts of the forest; the South Trail, which cuts through drier forest; or the Central Trail, which follows the spine of the ridge. All three trails meet at an old fig tree at the western end of the park. Other trails track eastward from the park entrance and climb past an impressive lookout to the highest point in the park. Unfortunately, directional signs within the park are limited.

Wear sturdy shoes, bring lots of water and plan to spend about two hours to explore the park.

Brewer’s Bay & Mount Healthy

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Quiet and largely undeveloped, Brewer’s Bay Beach is the reward for people brave enough to drive down one of the two steep roads that plummet from Tortola’s Ridge Road into Brewer’s Bay. A long, straight, hard-packed beach with fine caramel-colored sand, Brewer’s Bay attracts both residents and tourists. Located between two long fingers of land and towered over by steep verdant hills, the bay is protected, and the water is usually calm. A shallow, sandy shelf extends a long way from the beach, making this an ideal spot for swimming and water play. Snorkelers should head to the western end of the bay and explore along the rocky shore. Watch out for sea urchins among the rocks.

On the promontory between Brewer’s Bay and Shark Bay to the east, the 18-acre Shark Bay National Park is a nice place to hike, if you can find it. One of the newest national parks on Tortola, it is also still relatively unknown. Hiking here consists of two trails: One trail leads to “bat caves,” rooms created by huge boulders that provide hikers with a destination and a quiet, cool place to rest. A second trail tracks to the end of the headland through a dry landscape of wild frangipani, Turk’s head cactus, and lovely views.

The National Parks Trust signs don’t include distances, but none of the Shark Bay walks are long: It takes no more than two hours to thoroughly explore the park including hiking both trails. Paths are rough and rocky, so good shoes are advised. To find Shark Bay, look for a one-lane estate road at the first switchback as you depart Brewer’s Bay heading east. Park your car along the main road and walk about 10 minute along the estate road to find the park entrance identifiable by the painted green steps which lead to the trailhead. Unfortunately, there are no park signs pointing you to the trailhead, and directional signs inside the park are limited.

On the ridge east of Brewer’s Bay is Mount Healthy National Park. A well-preserved 18th-century windmill is the centerpiece of the park, perched atop a foothill overlooking Brewer’s Bay on the north shore.

Built around the turn of the 19th century, the Mount Healthy windmill provided power to crush sugarcane grown on the surrounding plantation, owned by Tortola’s wealthiest planter, Bezaliel Hodge.

All other plantations on Tortola used an animal round—a simple mill operated by mules, horses, or oxen—to power their cane-crushing machine, as windmills were expensive to build and required 360-degree exposure to winds to be worthwhile.

A short trail circles the edge of the park, and there’s a picnic table. Usually breezy, this is a pleasant spot to spend some time.


Planning Your Time

A week is enough time to explore Tortola, figuring in a few do-nothing days spent on the beach and one or two day trips to surrounding islands.

Tortola makes a convenient day trip from St. Thomas or Virgin Gorda. If you have only a day, take an open-air island tour and spend a few hours at one of the beaches: Cane Garden Bay if no cruise ship is in port; Smuggler’s Cove, Josiah’s Bay, or Brewer’s Bay otherwise. Add on a hike at Sage Mountain National Park or Shark Bay National Park if you have time.

Getting to Tortola

There are no nonstop flights from the U.S. mainland to Tortola.

You can fly via San Juan, and land at the Beef Island Airport (EIS) on the eastern end of the island. Alternatively, fly into St. Thomas (STT) and catch a ferry to Road Town, Tortola. If you choose this route, remember that the last ferry to Tortola leaves St. Thomas at 4:15 from Charlotte Amalie; it’s advisable to get a flight that touches down in St. Thomas no later than 3 pm. Ferry companies operating between the U.S. and British Virgin Islands are Native Son, Road Town Fast Ferry and Inter Island Boat Services.

Getting around Tortola

Tortola is a relatively small place—12 miles long and about 3 miles wide—but it is not necessarily easy to get around. There is no public transportation, except for an ad hoc system of private shuttle buses; the steep hills make walking and biking challenging.

If you expect to do a lot of exploring, it is wise to rent a car. There is a plethora of car rental agencies on Tortola. Almost all of them rent two- and four-door SUVs, ranging from small Suzuki Sidekicks to large Mitsubishi Pajeros. Expect to pay about $70 per day for a rental that seats four people, more for larger ones.

Taxis are a good option if you don’t want to drive on Tortola’s narrow, windy roads. Taxis are available on demand at the airport, ferry dock, cruise pier and large hotels. Otherwise, ask your accommodation to recommend the closest taxi stand.  Taxis rates are regulated by the government, but it is still a good idea to agree up front on a rate. The fare between the airport and Road Town for one person is $27; two people will pay $14 each; three people, $12 each. From Road Town to Cane Garden Bay is $24 for one; $12 each for two; $8 each for three.

Rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft do no operate on Tortola.

Where to Stay

Look for accommodations outside of Road Town—the capital city offers little in the way of ambience. If your first priority is the beach and your second is the beach bar, you will be happiest at Cane Garden Bay, the island’s premier beach, with the widest array of accommodations, restaurants, and entertainment choices. The only downside—and it can be significant depending on your disposition—is the throngs of cruise ship visitors that descend on the bay many days from October to March.

If you prefer to make a quieter beach your home base, look for places to stay near Trunk Bay, Smuggler’s Cove, Long Bay, Brewer’s Bay, or Josiah’s Bay—all nice beaches that lean toward the quiet side. Remember that accommodations away from the beach can be a good value, and hillside rooms generally have better views and more breeze than those directly on the water. Nowhere on Tortola is more than 10 minutes from a beach.

In addition to hotels, there is a robust villa and apartment rental market for visitors via websites VRBO, Homeaway and Airbnb.

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