License plates, billboards and postcards all refer to it as "Nature's Little Secret."
And once you see it for yourself, you'll call it that, too – only it may not be as much of a secret anymore once you describe the beauty, tranquility and utter peacefulness of the British Virgin Islands to your friends.
Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean sits BVI – including the major islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke – as well as dozens of lesser islands, many with interesting names such as Salt Island, Fallen Jerusalem, Broken Jerusalem, Scrub Island and others.
BVI is located 60 miles east of Puerto Rico, just 15 miles from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The capital city, Road Town on Tortola (Spanish for "turtle dove"), boasts about 80 percent of the entire population – and only one traffic light. But everyone is so courteous, there's no need to even worry about it.
The next most populous islands are Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, Peter Island, Marina Cay and Guana Island. They're all hilly and of volcanic origin, except for Anegada, the most northerly island which is low lying and of coral origins.
Christopher Columbus first saw the Virgin Islands' peaks in 1493, and they made such an impression on the explorer that he named them Las Once Mil Virgenes, after the legendary 1,000 virgins who St. Ursula (a British princess) was supposed to have led to their martyrdom near Cologne in Germany.
For those who seek sources of Jewish sustenance – and so think they'll have to take a ferry over to nearby St. Thomas, USVI – to satisfy their interests, Chosen Voyage, an all-kosher cruise line, touts the British Virgin Islands as one of its popular destinations.
The 23,000 inhabitants include a high percentage of immigrants, as the BVI is a melting pot of nationalities and cultures, with a small but still important Jewish population.
Make a Splash!
Today, more than hundreds of years after Columbus' sighting, each island has its own captivating charm, with the influence of the plantation era evident in the many historic ruins of forts, sugar mills and great houses around the islands.
For example, there are more than 60 historic sites in Road Town alone, and Tortola is the starting point of many BVI holidays where you can spend a lazy afternoon visiting points of interest or just deciding what palm tree to lie under on some secluded beach. Long Bay is probably the longest beach on the island, great for making a splash or spending a tranquil day.
Road Town is quaint and charming, a blend of West Indian traditions and modern aspirations. Additionally, there is a welcomed quiet on these islands, with no casinos or high-rise hotels filled with hundreds and hundreds of tourists flooding onto the beaches. This is part of the charm of the BVI.
One of the "must sees" on any tour of Road Town is the J.R. O'Neal Botanic Garden, where tropical plantings, many of them native to the BVI, are arranged by habitat and plant type.
Another necessary site to see on Tortola is the Fahie Hill Wall Mural. The mural, which began as a simple community beautification project, now delights visitors and locals alike. The panels form a virtual time warp back to the l940s and '50s, featuring fishermen huddling to catch crabs under the glow of a full moon, and women baking bread.
Following a tour of Tortola, take the ferry to Spanish Town and enjoy the sights on Virgin Gorda (named "The Fat Virgin" by Columbus because it resembles a reclining figure), the second largest island in the chain. With so much to do here, you might decide to hike the rugged trails that wind through the National Parks, part of a trust created by Laurance S. Rockefeller; or swim at the Baths (one of the most popular attractions), where huge granite boulders provide secret saltwater rock pools, mysterious grottoes and deserted beaches.
Later, enjoy a delicious lunch at a hillside restaurant cooled by gentle tropical breezes.
Next, take in the sights at Jost Van Dyke, named for an early Dutch settler reputed to have been a pirate. Just 4 miles by 3 miles in size, this rugged little island boasts an eventful past as home to Arawak Indians, Caribs, Dutch, Africans and British.
In fact, William Thornton, the architect of the U.S. Capitol, was just one of the many distinguished people born here.
This island is where the fun begins and almost never ends. And though it's indeed small, it is still known for its lively parties at Foxy's, one of the most famous bars in the Caribbean, and Ivan's Stress Free Bar, where a delicious home-cooked meal of barbecued meat with all the fixings was waiting for this weary traveler – all highlighted by a big hug and even bigger smile from Ivan himself, a man never too busy to make all his guests feel right at home.
For more information on the islands, call the BVI Tourist Bureau at 1-800-835-8530.