From hidden-away idylls like Brewer’s Bay to psychedelic full-moon parties, Tortola is the island that offers the most diverse experience in the Virgin Islands’ chain.

RUGGED AND FORMERLY VOLCANIC, ringed by a series of coral reefs and powdery beaches and the commercial, political and transportation hub of the British Virgin Islands; Tortola is impossible to overlook.

As bustling as Tortola can be, there are numerous ways to escape cruise ships and the other hubbub of day-visitors. Like so many places, one has just to step a few feet off the path to find solitude. In this article, we will make a deliberate attempt for discovery on Tortola—keeping our modest budgets in mind but splurging when we must.

Firstly…What to Avoid

Unless you need to purchase an engagement ring, catch a ferry or meet the Chief Minister, it’s best to avoid Road Town, the Capitol. Keep in mind that Road Town does not offer much at all late at night and Virgin Island taxi drivers are loathe to hang around too late.
Likewise, avoid the temptation of Cane Garden Bay when cruise ships are about. Instead, go early in the morning, late in the afternoon or when no ships are in port. Click here for a complete schedule of cruise ships to Tortola.

Where to Spend Your Days

Cane Garden Bay is as delightful a beach as one is likely to find save the fact that the taxis dump 80% of the cruise ship passengers here.

It’s unfortunate that the ships offer very little else to do on land and the slow-going, sinuous roads make further destinations time prohibitive for cruise ship visitors.

Cane Garden Bay is a large, half-moon shape, turquoise bay with eateries and lodging for all budgets–and a beach to die for. You can also find numerous renters of water sports gear. I recommend hooking up with Last Stop Sports which offers everything from bikes and kayaks to SCUBA gear and small boats with weekly-rates available.

What would a trip to the islands be without a visit to an authentic old-time rum distillery?

One could bring camping gear in a large, waterproof bag and kayak to innumerable cays and islets that dot the area. Needless to say, this suggestion is for experienced kayakers only.

Right in Cane Garden Bay is the Callwood Rum Distillery. Come to see the local Arundel rum being made in what is touted as the oldest-continuously operating rum distillery in the eastern Caribbean.

Brewer’s Bay

In contrast to the crowds of Cane Garden, Brewer’s Bay is mellow like yellow, with a great beach and fantastic snorkeling. This is the island’s only official campsite and at Nicole’s, a beach bar and burger shack, one can rent full snorkel gear.

Bring your own tent or rent one already prepared. Sometimes a shuttle is available but you need to call ahead for that. I have actually seen wild cows laying on the sand and wading in the water here. Most would say that this is the best beach-accessible snorkeling on Tortola.

Photo by Tony Gatti

Mountains and Dolphins

Want to stretch your legs? Sage Mountain National Park offers hiking trails across 91 acres with the reward of standing at the highest point in the Virgin Islands – 1,780 feet.

You can pick up maps at the Mountain View Restaurant which sits at the trailhead. Horseback riding is available at Shadow’s Ranch (284.494.2262).

Like dolphins? Who doesn’t? At Dolphin Discovery, just outside Road Town, one can get in a pool with these playful creatures and with some supervision ride them, feed them and learn a great deal about them.

This probably isn’t the “swimming with the dolphins” fantasy you’ve been harboring, but it gets you in the water with them until that chance encounter occurs somewhere in the wild. $80 buys you 45 minutes and a dolphin kiss while $140 gets you a kiss and two rides plus a little more!

The Full Moon Party

This beach bar, built with the flotsam and jetsam found on the shore and then tastefully decorated with bras and panties, is not to be missed.

The most (in)famous party in the Virgin Islands occurs once a month on the full moon at Bomba’s Surfside Shack.

This beach bar, built with the flotsam and jetsam found on the shore and then tastefully decorated with bras and panties, is not to be missed at any time of the month; but on the full moon something special happens: a reggae band plays all night, a traditional West Indian barbeque is prepared and a large cast-iron kettle brews psychedelic mushroom tea for one and all.

Magic mushrooms are legal to possess and consume here on Tortola but illegal to sell – although that doesn’t deter the multitude of vendors who line the road that runs parallel the beach.

“Magic, magic, get your magic here, mon!!” These sales calls can be heard up and down the street. Some people partake and some just observe, but the best advice is to participate if you have tried shrooms before, but not to try them for the first time here.

The wild scene, the sometimes rough surf, loud music and crowds and the ubiquitous presence of strong rum drinks can all contribute to a good time gone bad if you’re not careful (or experienced).

I’ve tried to understand how such a law slips through the cracks. The best explanation I’ve heard is that long ago there was an attempt to write a statute outlawing these indigenous psychoactive mushrooms; but instead of using the correct binomial nomenclature for the funny fungi, the statute-maker used one for a completely normal mushroom that doesn’t even grow on Tortola and it never got corrected. Sometimes it’s good to have aloof lawmakers!

Bomba bases his full moon dates on the Old Farmer’s Almanac and a hand-written sign can be found on the premises with dates for the year.


Where Do You Go from Here?

While Tortola offers a wide range of activities and experiences, so do a number of other islands that are all within an hour’s ferry ride (see complete ferry schedules). There are some other-worldly spots to be found like the Baths of Virgin Gorda, the caves of Norman Island, snorkeling the Indians; and some out-of-this-world party hangouts like the Willie Thornton, the Pirate’s Bight and Foxy’s Tamarind Bar.

Anything can happen in places like these when society gets left behind by time (and geography) and the bygone sub-culture of revelry springs forth out of the sea.

Here you have a plethora of good-natured, eccentric human beings able to convincingly imagine themselves as pirates, sea-rogues and the like. It is all rather like a carnival.

Tortola itself is only a 45 minute ferry ride from St. Thomas.


One More Thing

Both the US and British Virgin Islands use the US Dollar as their official currency and it is important to note that while Americans don’t need passports to travel to the US Virgin Islands, They DO need one to enter the British Islands. No visa required in either case.

Please see “Jost Van Dyke: A Chill Caribbean Getaway” for more information about the Virgin Islands and look for the next article in the Virgin Island series where we will explore the seaside labyrinth of towering granite boulders known as the Baths of Virgin Gorda.

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