The British Virgin Islands (BVI) consist of about 50 islands and cays. While about 15 of the islands are inhabited, only four of them are large islands with substantial population: Virgin Gorda, Tortola, Jost Van Dyke, and Anegada. These volcanic islands are dotted with hidden coves, sheltered harbors, and small bays, making the BVI a popular destination for sailing and yacht-cruising. The soft, pristine beaches are the islands’ other attraction – uncrowded and a perfect place for the stressed out urban tourist to unwind and get away from it all.
The British Virgins Islands are actually only a ferry ride away from the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas, for one, is accessible by a ferry service that leaves from Tortola. Although geographically close to one other, the British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands are completed different from one another. The latter is more resort-oriented and crowded, catering to mass tourism, whereas the British Virgin Islands is slow-paced, a little short on infrastructure, and devoid of any resort or man-made attractions; you’ll find no casinos, no mega-resort, no lively entertainment venues, no glitzy shopping strips. In fact, the hilly terrain and long distances from one town to the other make the BVI seem like a remote, stranded set of islands in the middle of the Caribbean; some people love this about the BVI, while others much prefer the over-commercialization of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The British Virgin Islands was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 who claimed it for Spain. But the Spaniards did not settle the islands or do anything to enforce their claim. Over the ensuing century, it was visited at various times by the British including Sir Francis Drake who anchored on the islands prior to his successful attack on Santo Domingo in 1585. In the early 17th century, the Dutch settled the islands, establishing forts and using the BVI as a warehouse to transport cargo between North and South America. In the 1640s, the Spaniards attacked the Dutch settlement and massacred everyone, effectively ending the Dutch attempt at colonizing the islands.
The British captured BVI in 1672 during the outbreak of the Anglo-Dutch War, and it has remained British ever since. In the mid-18th century, cotton and sugar plantations were set up and slaves brought over to work them. The British also set up a court in Tortola to try captured pirates of the Caribbean, thus establishing a permanent British presence on the islands. Unfortunately, the sugar cane plantations were wiped out during a hurricane in 1819 and agricultural production has not recovered ever since.
In recent years, BVI has experienced economic revival by catering to the financial services industry. Due to favorable laws that permit offshore companies to incorporate in BVI without paying local taxes, the British Virgin Islands is now the leading offshore financial centers in the world, and its residents enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes in the Caribbean.
Tourism plays an important role in the BVI, and is supported by scheduled ferries, charter boats, water taxis, rental boats, and local plane services between the British Virgin Islands and other Caribbean islands. Water is the main attraction for tourists, providing opportunities for sailing, deep-sea fishing, and beach bumming. Coral reefs and shipwrecks make scuba diving a real adventuresome experience. And whales and dolphins leapfrogging with high artistic impressions afford genuine whale-watching opportunities. There are also various camp sites such as at Anegada, Mount Sage National Park, Jost Van Dyke’s Little Harbour, and Brewer’s Bay on Tortola. You’ll also find numerous resorts and outfitters for water sports everywhere.
Sailing, of course, is the most popular endeavor in the British Virgin Islands. The year-round nautical winds of the BVI make it an ideal sailing destination. Annual regattas abound and there are also a number of charter and rental companies where you can access boats and yachts, and make arrangements for single day and multiple-day sailing excursions.
The nightlife on BVI is virtually nonexistent. However, there are a number of low-key bars. The biggest “party island” of the BVI is Jost Van Dyke where there are dance venues and bars that serve tasty margaritas and cocktails.