I visited Tortola and Anagada in the British Virgin Islands for the Great Destinations Radio Show to see whether you can take a holiday on a budget in these ‘millionaires’ playgrounds.’
One of Tortola’s biggest attractions is Pusser’s Outpost Pub – I was going there purely for research purposes, honestly! Pusser’s is considered a must-visit in Tortola and it is conveniently open seven-days a week. Although it’s termed a pub, Brits shouldn’t expect the Rover’s Return or the Queen Vic! It’s an intriguing mix of British and American influences, but that’s probably not surprising with the BVI’s history and geography.
The pub is quite dark inside and it oozes character. Its wood panelled walls are plastered with shields from visiting Royal Navy ships and the ceiling is covered in life rings. There are lots of British naval artefacts but some of the décor, like the Tiffany lamps around the bar, were straight out of the States. The menu was also a bit of a US/UK ‘mash-up.’
I went to meet millionaire owner Charles Tobias at his stunning villa overlooking Roadtown Harbour. “You’ll notice we have cod and chips on the pub menu. Not fish. Cod,” he said. “There’s Shepherd’s Pie and we do a good Yorkshire pudding, too.” There were American menu items as well, like lobster and mac, and surf and turf. Prices were surprisingly affordable.
Charles was clearly proud of his pub, as he should be. But I wanted to talk to Charles about Pusser’s rum. Many visitors make a beeline to the pub to have a ‘tot’ and buy souvenir enamel Pusser’s mugs. Sitting in Charles’ grand office surrounded by nautical and military antiques and personal gifts from British royals I could see that he had a great love of Britain.
Charles explained how he came to own the Pusser’s brand. Until the 1970s British sailors were given a daily measure of the rum as a perk. Charles remembered his father returning home to Canada following his WW2 service. Mr Tobias senior sustained injuries during combat in Dieppe and was sent home to recuperate. Charles’ uncle was still on active duty but was allowed to take Charles to see his father. The pair carried a gift – a bottle of Pusser’s.
A few decades later, Charles was in the military, working as a fighter pilot in the US Marine Corps in Vietnam. He later drew on that experience to develop a successful missile-avoidance system that made him millions. When he sold the business, Charles decided to go sailing on what he describes as “a five and a half year vacation” and when he discovered the BVI, he never left.
Whilst sailing the world Charles was sourcing spare parts for his boat in Gibraltar when a British warship captain shared a bottle of Pusser’s rum with him. Charles learned that it was to be phased out and thought, “it would be a hell of a thing” to save the brand, so he bought the rights to the Admiralty’s blend of five West Indian rums. He wanted to give something back, and since the 1980s, a percentage of each sale of British Navy Pusser’s Rum goes to The Royal Navy Sailors’ Fund. The Queen awarded Charles the MBE for his charitable work in 2011.
At Pusser’s Pub in Roadtown, the rum menu features cocktails honouring Nelson and other British naval heroes. There’s also the famous ‘painkiller’ – a mix of Pusser’s rum,
pineapple and orange juice, cream of coconut and nutmeg. Daphne Henderson devised the cocktail in the BVI and Charles ‘cracked’ the secret recipe and tweaked it but always gives Daphne credit for its creation. He won a legal suit in the USA when he discovered that some bars were selling this cocktail using other rums. “It has to be Pusser’s,” he told me, adding that to use other brands would deprive the Royal Navy of the charitable income.
The strong ties between Britain and the BVI remain. Charles told me that locals had no desire for independence. They have their own government but the UK-appointed governor remains the ultimate authority.
Things weren’t always so happy in this sun-drenched tropical paradise. You can learn more about the dark days of slavery and the disorder that followed emancipation inside the Folk Museum in Roadtown. Curator Joanne Hill estimated that 20,000 African people were captured and forced to work on the islands. Slavery ended in 1798 but former slaves were still expected to work under ‘forced apprenticeship.’ When they rioted and burned down homes the plantation owners fled and were discouraged from re-settlement. If I’m honest, its not the most high-tech or best laid out museum I’ve been too. It’s more like a school project with documents and pictures stuck to the walls and a selection of old household implements.
I had one final historic stop to make in the town, The Old Government House, an impressive colonial villa set in magnificent gardens. Locals nicknamed it Olympus because it’s on a hill and the governor (aka ‘God’) lived there. It’s now a museum, after locals successfully petitioned to save the building from demolition when the UK Foreign Office found structural defects. You can wander around the rooms, enjoying the period furniture and view what was Princess Margaret’s bedroom.
Out in the gardens are four cannons. Two were salvaged from the BVI’s waters; the others are bronze Howitzers dispatched from London during Queen Victoria’s reign. You can take a packed lunch into the garden – just don’t get crumbs on the cannon!
If you want to understand how the British have governed the BVI, this is the museum to visit. I met up with historian Mitch Kent for a guided tour. Mitch hails from England but he’s a local now as he’s lived in the BVI for 22 years. He’s living the dream too – his home is a boat.
I’d never admit to being interested in stamps for fear of entering a no-credibility geek zone but Mitch made the impressive museum collection of BVI stamps come to life. One of the rarest items sought by philatelists is the ‘missing’ Virgin Islands One Shilling. The most recent sale of a specimen raised over $300,000. That raised my interest. And then Mitch made BVI stamps more exciting by making my dull, trainspotting-like childhood hobby just a little bit racy. He asked me to imagine trying to smuggle that amount of money out of the country. It would be impossible. However you could cross the border with a stamp worth that amount in your pocket. Not so nerdy now, eh?
The more recent stamps on display at the museum are very colourful and feature BVI fish, flowers and beaches. Mitch told me that the stamp producers quickly learned that the stamps could be used to market and promote the BVI’s beauty, in the days before the internet.
I asked Mitch for his advice on what to do in Tortola, apart from looking at stamps. He told me that one of the BVI’s most popular historic sites is a wrecked steamer, The Rhone. It was big international news in 1867 because there was no Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump to fill the papers back then. Whether you snorkel or dive, head to Salt Island and you can get a good view of the remains of the ship on the seabed 80 feet below you. The 1970s film The Deep was shot around here, which probably isn’t the best tourist promotion!
I caught up with the editor of the national paper The Beacon to ask his recommendations – a good journalist always knows what’s worth visiting! Freeman Rogers moved from the USA around 10 years ago and loves the BVI. His Tortola tip was to rent a jeep and find a secluded beach at the north end of the island. For snorkelling he reckons the best place is Cane Garden Bay.
And if you’re a little more adventurous you could wander up a dry watercourse. More experienced hikers can clamber over boulders to climb the hills around the island. They’re called ghauts, pronounced liked ‘guts,’ and from Freeman’s description that’s what you need to tackle them. For a second I did wonder whether he was trying to engineer next week’s front page. I can see the headline now – ‘Idiot UK Travel Reporter Rescued From Rocky Ravine.’
Another less-strenuous activity is dancing on the beach. Well, it’s certainly not strenuous if you do a lame, side-to-side, dad-dance like me. Each month local artist Aragon Dick-Read hosts a massive event on Trellis Bay Beach in Tortola’s East End. I was keen to find out more about that and his art, as his name kept cropping up in conversation. I headed off to his art studios.
Aragon’s studio is a collection of sheds, some sturdy some less so. They’re built on the sandy land adjacent to the beach and host gallery spaces, workshops, a few stray cats and artists. It’s all a bit hippy, if we can still use that word in 2016. (Maybe I’ve just started a trend by doing so!) The artwork spreads outside too, with metal and wooden sculptures on the foreshore and also standing out amongst the waves.
Artists drift in and out like the tide and join this creative collective, working either inside or in the shade provided by the magnificent spreading branches of the trees on the beach. I arrived to meet Aragon but he wasn’t there. It’s all a bit chilled and mañana. One of the artists, Moon, came over and offered to try to contact Aragon. Whilst Moon was trying to get the mobile to connect she motioned me towards a box of organic vegetables and vegan spreads. “Help yourself to anything you want to eat,” she said. One of the gallery cats curled itself around my leg, probably hoping I had smuggled in some meat.
Moon was having trouble with the cell network so she continued to lead me around the gallery space cradling the handset under her chin. The light and airy rooms were filled with sculpture, prints, ornaments and Aragon’s famous blockwork image tee shirts. His clothing depicts Caribbean activities and wildlife. He later told me that the shirts were so distinctive they had started conversations between strangers who had recognised a fellow BVI-lover in places as diverse as Moscow and Israel.
A 35-foot dug out canoe is part of the art display at Trellis Bay. Back in the late 1990s Aragon travelled to Dominica to build the vessel there and use it to retrace the journey made by Carib people to Guyana. It was brought back to the BVI and still gets on the water for pre-arranged trips.
Success. Aragon had been found. He’d forgotten about our meeting so I was instructed to get a cab up to his farm high in the mountains. 20 minutes later I’d experience stunning coastal views, sharp turns and roads that I wouldn’t have wanted to drive on.
We started talking about the beach parties. Aragon explained that they were now one of the biggest tourism draws in the BVI and accommodation numbers spiked around the events. The evenings include tradition Moko Jombi stilt walkers who dance through the crowd. They are backed by a type of local music called Fungi, an acoustic, high-energy, clearly Latin American-influenced repetitive beat. A highlight is the light show both on and off the water, which incorporates Aragon’s art. Aragon fills circular metal frames with burning firewood, which he floats out into the water. At the same time he fires up the outdoor kiln to produce Japanese raku pottery, which requires a red-hot furnace and is quite a spectacle in the twilight. The events are held all year. The 2016 full moon dates are: June 20th, July 19th, August 18th, September 16th, October 16th, November 14th and December 13th.
It was time to leave but Aragon warned that it would be unlikely that I’d get a taxi to take me the 7 miles back to Roadtown. He had to go and run errands and he couldn’t give me a lift all the way to town but he could drop me off at a crossroads where I could hitch a lift to my hotel.
“Is it safe?” I asked like the typical Brit abroad. “Well there are gangs and you have to be careful,” he responded. This was not what I wanted to hear since I’d come straight from the airport and was hauling my entire luggage around with me. On the flight a returning local had told how safe the BVI was compared to the US Virgin Islands. And then he added that there had only been a handful of murders last year and they were all down to drugs. Whatever the cause, I would not have expected that in a community of 28,000. Hmm.
As Aragon’s car drew to a stop lots of young men who were hanging around the crossroads stopped talking and looked over. This didn’t feel good. Then, in a moment, the mood changed. Aragon, who had spoken to me in the posh accent that you’d expect from a top English public school education burst into West Indian patois and told the group that I had come to see him. Waves all round. Moments later, a friend of Aragon’s pulled his car into the space in front of Aragon’s jeep and came over for a chat. It was confirmed that he was travelling to town and I could have a lift with him.
I guess I achieved what I’d wanted to in Tortola. I got to see a side of the island, the real place, warts-and-all, that the people who stay in all-inclusive resorts may not see. I’ll be honest, Tortola isn’t all lovely. There are some rundown and unkempt areas and some tourist rip-off joints but real places aren’t all perfect, are they?
I ate in Sharky’s Mexican restaurant at the Royal BVI Yacht Club that evening. The Mexican was good and the crowd was friendly although rather old and doddery. They’d come out for quiz night and the question master was testing the local ex-pats on their knowledge of ‘The Commonwealth.’ I suspect he’s been using the same questions for 50 years and had only recently changed the word from ‘Empire.’ I wandered out onto the balcony, watching as the setting sun cast pinkish tones on the water in the mangrove swamp. And as I started imagining my next BVI adventure, there was a clue in the name of the beer I was drinking – Island Hopping.
I was looking forward to my next BVI place, the island of Anegada. I’d been advised to go there but to, “expect nothing, because there’s nothing there” – an intriguing comment since it came from someone trying to ‘sell’ me a destination! I was heading there first thing in the morning. I’ll let you know what I think.
Where to stay in Tortola:
Tortola gets booked up pretty quickly, especially in the northern winter when it’s colder in Europe and North America. I wanted to stay in a town centre hotel rather than at a resort so choice is somewhat limited. You won’t find anywhere cheap on Tortola and some of the medium range hotels have fewer facilities than you’d find in a motel in other destinations. I stayed at one of the cheapest places I could find – The Seaview Hotel.
It is an easy 10-minute walk from town. The rooms were a bit tired-looking and the décor needed updating but the room was clean, the staff were friendly, the Wi-Fi worked and it felt safe. The pool looked fine but I didn’t get to use it. I think it would be great if you just need a place to sleep for a couple of nights, as no meals are available. It was overpriced compared to other destinations, but that’s Tortola.