The British Virgin Islands are coming back from a year of post-hurricane recovery—and now is the time to visit. BY CLARA WOODBRIDGE
From the window of an airplane, the British Virgin Islands look as lovely as ever. The mountainous green islands are fringed on the edges with powdery white sands that make a perfect gradient from light blue to deep turquoise as it stretches into the Caribbean Sea. This is what the chain of islands—a UK-governed territory comprised of more than 50 masses of pristine land, ranging from the main island of Tortola to tiny dots that bear no formal name at all— have always been. And after a year of hard work, it’s what they are once again.
As has been the case for more than a few Caribbean islands, the last 14 months have been rough for the BVIs. Hurricane Irma arrived on its shores on September 6, 2017, unleashing 185 mile-per-hour winds and torrential rains. In less than 24 hours, the Category 5 storm caused more than $3.6 billion worth of damage to its idyllic shores, leaving thousands without power, water, or food. The picture of paradise was tarnished—in place of the beautiful resorts lined with sparkling shores, there was devastation: roofs ripped off, trees felled, boats capsized, marinas destroyed, and entire populations without jobs or homes. But today, high up in the sky, looking down on its shores, the beloved oasis is, miraculously, once again in fine form.
This is a comeback story. But it’s not the kind where everything snaps back to exactly how it was before. It’s the kind of return that is slow and measured and happens in stages. And right now, locals say, the BVIs are ready for what matters most to an area that lists tourism as its number-one industry: visitors. “I’ve gotten so many messages asking, ‘Do you need anything? Money? Donations?’ ” says Jason Noble, owner of the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jose Van Dyke island. “My answer is to come for a vacation and see us, because that’s what we need. We need to get past the storm and move forward—that helps everybody here.”
“Come for a vacation and SEE US, because that’s what WE NEED. We need to get past the storm and move forward—that HELPS EVERYBODY here.”— JASON NOBLE, OWNER OF THE SOGGY DOLLAR BAR
LUCKILY, Noble’s request is an easy one. Though many resorts continue to rebuild, the opportunities for exploring the BVIs are growing, as hotels and private villas once again open their doors, and droves of charter yachts arrive at its marinas.
Island-hopping has long been a national pastime in the BVIs, and The Moorings—a Florida-based sailing company that specializes in charters throughout the Caribbean—is pulling out all the stops to bring the islands back post-hurricane, including bringing a fleet of new yachts and sailboats to its marina on Tortola. It is from the bow of one of these crewed boats that you can truly experience the new British Virgin Islands. While zooming in and out of coves and hopping on and off deserted islands, there’s a sense that truly nothing has changed—not just since before Irma, but for decades. This is the Caribbean as it once was: unadulterated, unspoiled, and unrivaled.
Of course, every yachting itinerary has to hit the hot spots. But these days, the Baths—Virgin Gorda’s famed rock formations surrounding warm natural pools and caves—aren’t as crowded as they used to be. Neither is Cooper Island, where the beach club bar (famous for its Painkillers, the local cocktail comprised of rum, cream of coconut, and pineapple and orange juices) is usually three or four deep come sunset. The silver lining of Hurricane Irma? The tourists, which usually come in droves this time of year, have yet to fully return. But as winter progresses, and word gets out, that’s all about to change. So, we sail on to more obscure moorings, like uninhabited Ginger Island, whose shores give way to a colorful coral garden called Alice’s Wonderland, where the marine life is brimming with color—but not a single other snorkeler. Then it’s on to the South Drop of Anegada, just 15 miles south of Virgin Gorda, for fishing that’s so good, you hardly need any bait at all to catch a giant tuna. Along the way, the countless coves and impeccable beaches—mostly empty—beg for a pit stop, too.
“All over the British Virgin Islands, LITTLE SEEDS of hope are SPROUTING.”— SIR RICHARD BRANSON
But there are journeys and there are destinations, and on these fabled isles, a few destinations are worth more than a mere pit stop. Chief among them is Necker Island, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s private-island resort due north of Virgin Gorda. Any sailor familiar with these parts knows the mountainous isle well for its Great House, a Balinese-style estate where everyone from Kate Winslet to Barack Obama has stayed. This may be one of the few good reasons for disembarking our yacht and reclaiming our land legs.
There’s no doubt that Necker Island is looking good these days, but that wasn’t the case a year ago, after Irma left its structures destroyed and buried in sand. Branson was there to witness the devastation in person—nearly everything blew away as he weathered the storm along with his family and staff in the resort’s wine cellar—and spent the months that followed raising funds and rallying for government aid. (He even used his Virgin airplanes and Necker Belle yacht to transport emergency supplies to locals). The results of his hard work today are beyond palpable: Necker’s Great House has risen once again on one of the island’s tallest points, with 11 bedrooms (which is two more than it had before). More accommodations are slated to open next year, each with its own private pool.
For Branson, and the BVIs at large, however, Necker’s reopening is just one piece of a bigger puzzle. “All over the British Virgin Islands, little seeds of hope are sprouting,” he said earlier this year while rebuilding his resort. And now, it appears everything is coming into full bloom.
It’s a long road to recovery, but this island paradise is open for business. Here, four more ways to experience the best of the BVIs right now.
Set in the North Shore of Virgin Gorda, this 35-acre exclusive-use retreat has everything and more: four private beaches, 10 powerboats, a helipad, a clifftop spa villa, and a private chef—all for no more than nine guests at a time.
Spread over 850 lush acres, this private-island resort is home to just 15 suites and three villas. Post-Irma, the resort is new and improved, with its seven beaches and miles of hiking trails restored and a new eco-friendly infrastructure.
OIL NUT BAY
The villas at this 300-acre resort on Virgin Gorda are among the BVIs’ most over-the-top. Think Olympic-size pools, garden showers, and panoramic ocean views from every room.
This exclusive-use estate on a secluded cliff above one of Virgin Gorda’s private beaches comes with stunning 180-degree vistas. Among the many luxuries the three-bedroom retreat offers, a favorite is the infinity-edge pool that seems to stretch all the way to sea.
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Cover Photo: Road Town, Tortola, BVI