Let’s pretend we’re on TV’s Family Fortunes (or Family Feud if you’re in North America or New Zealand). Name a word associated with the British Virgin Islands. Tick, tick, tick… Time up. Bet you said money.
The BVI does conjure up thoughts of millionaires lording it up on super yachts, or the offshore financial arrangements of the super rich. There’s Richard Branson, too. He’s not short of a bob or two. But if you’d faced this question on telly and responded with “affordable,” then you’d have been blasted with that electronic wrong answer noise.
So, I’ve decided to visit two places in the BVI to see whether you can have a break that won’t break the offshore bank. I also want to know why those families with fortunes make such a fuss about the place.
First, the geography bit. The BVI is a group of around sixty islands roughly 4,100 miles west of London and 1,100 miles from Miami. There are four main inhabited isles – Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost van Dyke and Anegada. I travelled to two of them – Tortola and Anegada. There are no direct flights into the BVI from Europe or North America so unless you can afford a charter or own your own airline (hello again Mr Branson) you’ll need to change planes somewhere.
Now here’s my first BVI tip – travelling from Europe, it is cheaper and quicker flying from London Gatwick to San Juan Airport in the US Territory of Puerto Rico, then taking a short flight from San Juan to Tortola, the main island in the BVI. Most of the flight search engines will route you through Antigua but that’s more expensive. £670 was one of the cheapest return flights to London that I found through Antigua but if you go through Puerto Rico you can make the return trip for around £220 less. The total Antigua journey time is around 14 hours reducing to only 11 hours if you fly through San Juan.
Some words of warning, though. You will be flying into the USA so you’ll need to have a valid US visa waiver called an ESTA. It takes forever to get through US immigration so you’ll also need lots of patience, waiting around for something to happen. That shouldn’t be a problem for Brits who watch cricket – it took me 90-minutes, still not as a bad as a cricket match.
You’ll go through security again for your departing flight to the BVI which means another hour of waiting in line and charmless staff. You can’t even read your iPad or Kindle as San Juan immigration don’t allow the use of electronic devices in the lines. Maybe they’re fed up with arresting smugglers who hold up the process for a selfie? So take a book instead. War and Peace, maybe. And a spare novel for when you finish that.
My second BVI tip is try not to arrive in Tortola on a Sunday. The capital Roadtown is more like ‘ghost town.’ Few places are open. This part of the Caribbean is very religious and traditional. It’s not a problem if you’ve been there for a few days and you’ve got a feel for the place but it can be quite gloomy if you’re a new arrival.
From my seat making the 45-minute crossing from San Juan to Tortola in the almost empty Seabourne Airways plane, I could see the BVI mapped out below. Most of the chain is mountainous with scrub and dense vegetation clinging to the volcanic formed mountains. There are no volcanic cones but instead most islands have green, rounded peaks with colourfully roofed villas clinging to the hillsides. The settlements follow the thin strip of flatter land along the coastline. Anegeda is the exception, being a 12-mile long, thin strip of coral, sand and scrub rising no higher than 28ft.
I started my BVI visit on Tortola. You’ll either need to hire a car to get around the island or get lucky on the scratchcards if you’re going to rely on taxis! They’re exorbitantly expensive and you won’t necessarily get pleasant conversation or a smile, from my experience. One stylish way to travel is with a driver called ‘Lucky’, a former prison warder, who is very welcoming and full of island facts. His taxi is a 1987 Lincoln Towncar with a whopping 221 inch-long wheelbase. He told me the Mafia had owned it because it had a big boot or trunk, which could take six bodies. I didn’t ask where he got it from and how he knew this. Possibly from a former work associate?
Lucky’s Limo was very comfortable but on one occasion I did have to get out to help him back out of a driveway. It is huge and unwieldy, but that doesn’t matter, because you won’t be driving it! If you’re going to self-drive, you’ll be pleased to learn that driving standards seem good, and I base that on personal experiences in Rome, India and the Coventry inner-ring road. The roads are very potholed and bumpy and if you’re British your natural reaction will be to slam on the brakes every time one of the many wandering chickens attempts to cross the road. Why do they do that?
Now I’m on the ground, I’ll be sharing my BVI experiences with you and I’ll be asking locals for their tips on places to go.