Charter Advisors Special Feature
Hidden Gems Of The BVI's
by Capt. Kev
Over the decades I've had the very special opportunity to explore the BVI's, but sometimes the extended exploration is out of necessity. Why? Because when you sail the British Virgin Islands as often as I do, you need to search out new things and new ways of enjoying something that has become very familiar. Think of it this way. If you visit your favorite lake too many times in a summer, it quickly falls off your "favorite" list. It's too familiar; it's to "normal". It's the same in the islands. At least for me it is. I still have that excited feeling every time I arrive at the dock. I'm always looking forward to getting on the water, but once I'm ready to leave the dock I ask myself the same question, "Where do I go this time?". Not to sound like a Caribbean snob, but I've been there, done that. That's when I ditch the guide book and start talking with friends. Local BVI friends. They steered me off the beaten track and back on it again to look and experience what I missed all the times before. Little did I realize how much I passed right by or willfully avoided because I assumed it wasn't "my thing". Here are a few things I've discovered and re-discovered over the past few years that shouldn't be missed the next time you're in the British Virgin Islands.
From time to time I've been blessed with the company of a pod of dolphins playing in my bow wave. Hours can be spent watching them play, effortlessly gliding from one jump to the next, seemingly inches from certain death by pointy bow. But these aren't the dolphins I'm talking about. I'm referring to the Dolphin Experience on Tortola. I made the assumption that this activity was best left to pink tourists. Something for the cruise ship hoards, not the seasoned sailor or charter yacht crew. While it might be true that the sunburned, camera adored visitor would be very happy indeed visiting the dolphins, I never expect myself to be giggling like a child, playing with dolphins like I'd never seen one before. The truth is, I hadn't seen dolphins like this before. And I'm not even one of those "dolphin" people. Never-the-less, it was really damn cool. The dolphins did tricks, the played catch, and were even nice enough to pull me around the water. But that wasn't it. I was then escorted over to the area where the two big adult males spent their time. They were friendly, but big. It felt like I had just jumped into the water with two great whites. Did I mention they were big? I swam out, and was instructed to lay flat in the water with my knees locked. The next thing I remember is being lifted clear of the water. In a split second I had gone from floating in the water to standing on the heads of two massive dolphins as they rose out of the water, kicking up on their tails. What a rush! Riding high on a dolphin nearly fully extended out of the water fifteen or so feet off the water. Then they tossed me even higher (laughing in a way only a dolphin can). When I finally splashed down, I had a grin that lasted the rest of the day and into a good part of the next.
I used to avoid these kind of "tourist" type things. I'm glad I listened to my local friends. They were right. It was a blast! Some of the most fun I've had not on the boat.
Sea It Clear Glass Bottom Boat
Full disclosure, my buddy Gumption owns and runs Sea It Clear, Glass Bottom Boat tours. But, being a sailor that can anchor or tie up at all the good snorkel spots just fine on my own, I thought a glass bottom boat would be a bit of a step backwards. Once again, I got this one wrong too. And in getting it wrong, I was missing out on a lot of Gumption's local knowledge and a very special experience.
As you may have read already, we spent some time on Sir Richard Branson's Necker Island (again). This too was the doing of Gumption and Sea It Clear tours. Our on his glass bottom boat, I learned about "the valley of the starfish" and saw tons of starfish, some bigger than my upper body! Gumption showed me where to find sea turtles without fail, and just how deep the reef between Prickly Pear Island and Saba rock is (the answer is 2-feet!). We explored areas of the Eustasia Reef that I would have never been able to access, even with the dinghy. It's not just depth, it's also about where to go and how to approach and navigate the reef. He brought me deeper into the reef shoals than I have ever been. Fan coral, stags horn, brain coral, and the rainbow of colored fish that accompany these beautiful eco-systems. But that was the half of it. The other half of our journey was on land. Sir Richard's land to be precise. Lemurs, Flamingos, Ibis, Giant Tortoises, Red Tortoises, curious humming birds, iguanas, and stunning views of the Caribbean that "the Richard" get's to personally enjoy. (read "Wild Time on Necker Island" for the full scoop). One of the best surprises I've had in a long time in the BVI. But we warned, if you want a tour with Gumption, best to book before you come down to the islands. The secretes out on this one.
Yep, if you've sailed the BVI's you've been to The Baths. This "Stonehenge by the sea" is a prime stop for sailors and the pink cruise ship tourists alike. But there's a trick here too. After mooring up the boat it's a short swim to the beach at the baths, from there a hike to devils bay though the giant boulders. Might I suggest something slightly different though. Rather than heading from the boat to the beach and down the beaten path, swim from the boat to the left of the beach. You'll be presented with the same massive boulders except with little to no tourists. Snorkel your way there and though the boulders in peace without being flipper slapped. And it's seen fewer people, so the nature is very pretty indeed.
First off, the Cooper Island Beach Club is a awesome spot for lunch. Most hang out and play beach-bar games, or snorkel right off the beach. It's a very pretty and protected spot. But, just a short dinghy ride away lies Cistern Rock. From the mooring field, look to the right (from the beach look left), you'll see it. It's kind of hard to miss. It's a big rock out in the water, very near by. When you motor over in the dinghy, you'll see a dinghy tie up. Tie off, put on your mask and get a view of the underwater world like you've never seen before. Be safe though, if there are heavy seas, wind, or current, come back another day. This one is for calm days only.
This is another of my favorite snorkel spots. It's a rocky cliff of an outcropping at the far end of Virgin Gorda (opposite from the baths). You'll see it marked clearly as "Mountain Point" on your chart. If you come across the mosquito island pass, you've gone too far. Drive under power toward the cliff wall and you'll spot the day-time park mooring balls. Moor up and dive right in. Snorkeling close to the rock wall turns up all manner of sea life. Eagle rays are often spotted here!
I've written about this special spot before, but it always surprises me how few people have heard of it. Most head for Foxy's Tamarind (orginal Foxy's) or Soggy Dollar and miss this lesser known "Foxy" spot. Located at Little Jost Van Dyke at Diamond Cay, this slice of heaven is just that, heaven on earth. A shallow reef sits just behind the mooring filed (read, don't go too far back into the mooring field), perfect for snorkeling, Foxy's Taboo with their hummus, kabobs, and my favorite burger in the islands, slightly hidden along shore, and the elusive bubbly pool trail head are all here. Top that off with the one of the best spots in the Caribbean to watch the sunset and you have something very, very special. Put it this way, I once got in trouble with my wife for not telling her the sun was setting one evening. I wish we had a sunset DVR that night. She was right to be pissed to. The sunsets here are that good. Missing it sucks.
It's funny how many of the best places are just slightly to the right or left of where most people go anyway! This is exactly the case here. Kelly's Cove (look for Water Point on your chart) is at the entrance to the Bight at Norman Island. It's a small cove with only five mooring balls. If you take one of the balls closer to the shoreline you get an awesome soundtrack of waves gently rolling ashore to fall asleep to at night. During the day it provides access to some of the best off the boat snorkeling you can imagine. Squid, sea turtles, yellow tail, blue tang, parrot fish, you name it. If it's on a reef, it's probably here. All that with very few neighbors, bright starry skys, and easy dinghy access to Willy T's and Pirates Bight (but you can't hear them, see them, or smell them from here. Bonus!). I enjoy a good party, but I like being able to leave and find tranquility afterwards even more. Kelly's Cove is perfect for exactly this. Just do me one favor. Don't, please, for the love of god don't, tie a stern line to shore from the mooring ball. Some like to do this to keep the boat oriented when it's calm. What they are actually doing is setting up a nice clothes-line for people in their dinghies. The lines are hard to see and the distance from the mooring field means that the line will be fairly long. Leave the stern-to stuff up to those at anchor who are much closer to shore than us using the mooring field.
Prickly Pear Island
This small uninhabited island is under the BVI parks trust. Which means it's a wildlife sanctuary with few visitors. It even has a campsite for those who always wanted to camp out and sleep on the beach. But what I like is this... On one side of the island sits the Beach Bar. Probably the most relaxed place to chill and have a drink with your toes on the sand anywhere. And on the other side of the island (take the dinghy), are two very long, very deserted cresset shaped beaches. Beach the dinghy in the sand and your there. Be sure to pack a picnic lunch and bring a blanket because you won't want to leave. It feels like you've left the world and are happily stranded on a beautiful deserted island. But there's more. Look for a break in the trees and brush. If you can spot one, trek on back, you'll find a salt pond hidden away. If there's water in it, you'll often find flamingos hanging about. Then, when the heat of the day starts to warm you up, grab your mask and dive right in to the protected warm Caribbean water. Head for the rock outcropping at the end of the beach nearest to Saba Rock. You'll see all kinds of fish, along with pods of calamari, I mean squid. The best part, is you truly feel like you're all by yourself. That these big, beautiful beaches are all yours and yours alone. Funny thing, while you're there, they are. Just don't tell anyone.
The Cannons of the North Sound
From time to time I'll see this one in a guide book for the BVI's, but they never actually tell you where or how to find these little gems. And by gems I do mean cannons. But not just cannons, anchors too! Even old wooden ribs from a wrecked ship. I'm guessing the one the cannons and anchor belonged to. But that's just a guess. To find these first you need to get to the North Sound of Virgin Gorda. Then dinghy over to Saba Rock. Behind Saba Rock sits the Eustasia reef. A Very pretty and very shallow reef. Mind the coral heads and you can motor the dinghy out. If this isn't your thing you can always lift the engine and break out the oars. It's an easy paddle anyway. Directly behind Saba rock, 150 - 200 yards out sits a lonely parks mooring ball. It's not something you're going to see from shore. The ball is small and usually hidden by the movement of the water. You'll see it once you're within 50 yards or so. Finding the ball is a trick unto itself, but once your there you can hop right in with your mask and snorkel, then look down and you'll see nothing. Fish and turtles, yes, but no anchors, no cannons. This is where the guide books leaves off. To find the cannons and the anchor, swim 45 degrees off either side of the dinghy bow. To the left, cannons! To the right, anchor! Remember to look straight down. I've had people with me that were always scanning forward as they swam and would swim over the top of these glorious underwater sites and miss them every time. The underwater artifacts here are real. Resist the urge to touch. You're snorkeling with the real deal, not something created or sunk to attract divers.
Like they say in the BVI's, "Natures Little Secrets". Indeed!
So there you have it. A few of my favorite spots, and what to do with em when you get there. The secretes are in your hands now, so do me this one favor, don't tell anyone.
When you visit any of these places, post a picture on your social media page with these two hash tags #WishYouWereHere #CharterAdvisors and you just might get one of our "Sailing Badassador" T-Shirts!
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