Here is the full, uncut version! If you've seen the magazine this might sound a little different :)
“I have never been this far from home before,” I think. My husband, Tim Johnson, along with our friends John and Kari Hamra, are on a trek to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Peering out the plane’s small window, I’m amazed how close together this string of islands are to one another. I can see that Tortola isn’t going be the only island we will be visiting, it’ll just be our home base.
We arrive in Tortola a few days later than scheduled, but we’ve landed and we are just so excited to have made it. Our lost luggage doesn’t even faze us. We learned this is a common occurrence for BVI (British Virgin Islands) travelers due to the small plane from San Juan. It flies so regularly, that if they can squeeze a few more people on board and leave a few pieces of luggage behind, they will. Most likely they will show up on the next flight (which might not be until the next day). That taught us our first lesson: Pack a swimsuit, some undies and a toothbrush in your carry-on.
Our villa is on the opposite side of the island in Apple Bay, so a rental car is a must. We take a scenic drive down the ocean road across the 10 square miles of the island. We pull up to our villa and park across the street in a large field. Panic slowly sinks in at the first glance of our villa. It crosses my mind that the website we used to make our reservation could have been fabricated, but I will not make any quick judgments. We run across the small road, around the villa and onto the back deck. Relief, I am amazed. The cliché statement “Don’t judge a book by its cover” quickly comes to mind. The villa’s view is breathtaking. Our deck sits directly on the beach with the ocean about 30 feet away. This couldn’t get any better.
Without delay, Tim and John sprint into the ocean already having their swim trunks on (lesson No. 1). We marvel at the beautiful view and decide to walk down to Sebastian’s Bar for dinner and a few drinks. With the open-air set-up, we opt for a table as close to the ocean as we can get. After dinner and a free sample of Sebastian’s homemade rum, we head down the beach a little farther to the most infamous beach bar in the Caribbean: The Bomba Shack. It is off-season on the island, so not many tourists occupy the sand-floor bar. It’s mostly locals. A perfect opportunity to learn all about ’Tola from its people. Lesson No. 1: Ask the locals. They are so helpful and willing to chat and share their advice. After a few Red Stripes and rounds of ring swing (a local bar game) we decide to call it a night because we have our big snorkeling excursion in the morning.
Still newbies, we left our villa early to find the marina where we are to meet the charter company. We are greeted at the boat with a cooler full of beer, a frozen gallon of the infamous rum punch and snorkel gear. We hop on the boat and hit the rough waters across the channel to begin our adventure. Our first stop is at the Great Harbour on Peter Island. At first sight, the bay doesn’t look very impressive. But I jump in and encounter so many interesting creatures below the surface, like sea cucumbers, a sting ray and patches of coral. We move right along to our second snorkeling spot, The Indians, an underwater national park. When Christopher Columbus traveled across the ocean, the four rock towers on the horizon shot so high up they resembled an Indian headdress, and so The Indians received their name. We anchor down, jump in the water and start exploring. Our fearless and hilarious guide, Clive, guides us between the rocks, through underwater tunnels and through schools of fish. I’d been snorkeling before, but I’d never seen so much coral in one place. We swim around the entire formation and quickly work up an appetite. We decide to check out The Caves on Norman Island on the way to our lunch spot. Our small group of four allows us to see and do more things than a normal snorkeling trip might, so we take full advantage. Pirates Bight, our lunch spot, is a secluded area—only accessible by water! This is where we discover the Bushwhacker, which quickly becomes the drink of choice for everyone but me. Don’t get me wrong; it was good. I’m just not a huge fan of nutmeg, which the locals love to put on everything.
In search of a food market, we take a trip to Soper’s Hole Marina. We stumble upon D’best Cup, a small breakfast shop with great smoothies and sandwiches. We walk around the adorable marina and let the multi-color buildings pull us in to unique shops and watering holes. We stop for a drink at the famous Pusser’s. We coax the bartender into giving us the rum punch ingredients, which we plan to purchase at the Harbour Market. The market is small but has everything we looking for, from sandwich meat to fruit and veggies to frozen pizza. After the market, we stop by our villa to make sandwiches and drop off our purchases before we drive to Smuggler’s Cove, a small, secluded beach a few bays over from ours. We follow a dirt road covered by palm trees to the cove. There are only a couple families that share the beach with us. This secluded beach has a tiny beach bar made simply of two pieces of plywood, a few liquors and a blender plugged into a car battery. My smoothie from breakfast left me craving another one. This round I wanted some alcohol. Lesson No. 3: A smoothie does not have alcohol; it is called a daiquiri. Sipping our daiquiris and lounging on this secluded, clean beach has us quickly adding this locale to our Tortola must-see list. We travel back to our villa and elect to stay in for dinner. We grill shrimp, asparagus and corn on the grill and enjoy the beautiful sunset on our patio.
Give yourself extra time because you never know when you will walk outside to leave and your tires have magically gone flat. Lesson No. 5: Come prepared to change at least one flat tire.
Sage Mountain National Park is home to the highest point in the BVI’s, so of course we have to see it. The hike isn’t the most eventful, but the view from the top is pretty spectacular. In only a few hours, you can check out the view for yourself. Sweaty and tired, we head to another remote beach, Josiah’s Bay for an afternoon of relaxing and snorkeling. Over the first hill, we run across Rudy’s, a shack on the side of the road, hanging off a cliff. Normally I wouldn’t have stopped at a tiny shack like this but it had been recommended. We grabbed drinks and some fried chicken and took in the tremendous view—all worth the trip. After our short detour we head on to Josiah’s Bay. The Bay is breathtaking like the other beaches on ’Tola, but finding good snorkeling is more challenging and might require you to travel far out in the bay. I would only recommend this spot if you are looking for a calm beach to lie out and play in the ocean.
After Josiah’s we decide to get dressed up for the first time and check out Bananakeet, a hotel/restaurant combo that sits high on a cliff overlooking Carrot Bay, Apple Bay and Jost Van Dyke. The drive is steep with multiple switchbacks, making it hard to take in the view until we park. From Banakeet’s patio, we can actually see our villa across the bay. My seafood pasta is great, but Kari’s ahi tuna with wasabi is amazing.
Lesson No. 5: Go to Banakeet during sunset. They give everyone a free shot at sunset. Yum! Surprisingly we run into Joe and Nicolle, the owners of Patouche Charters who we had rented the boat from on Monday. They’re planning to head over to Jost Van Dyke Saturday and invite us to join them. Elated by this news, we accept the invite. We stay at the bar for a while longer and watch our hometown St. Louis Cardinals game while drinking more bushwhackers.
We had been told we had to see The Baths, but to go early because it can get busy. So we catch the first Speedy’s boat shuttle to Virgin Gorda. The granite boulders start at the entrance to the park. We walk down the twisting jungle-like pathway through the boulders until it opens up to the beach. Sailboats fill our view and the monstrous boulders fade into the ocean. It is stunning and indescribable. We anxiously continue through the cracks and crevices exploring the pathways naturally created between the rocks. We encounter multiple guided tour groups, but it is definitely a place you can explore on your own. We would have stayed longer, but we had told the cab driver we wanted to catch the noon ferry, so we dolefully head back. We stop for lunch when we arrive back on Tortola at The Pub back in Roadtown. With full bellies, we spend the rest of the day relaxing at our villa playing in the water and soaking up the sun.
After four days of sightseeing, we are ready for a chill day at our beach. We play Frisbee, read magazines, and finally get to drink our homemade rum punch. It’s frozen by now, and the gallon jug slowly unfreezes when it’s out in the sun, stuck in the sand next to us. For a dinner recommendation, we enlist the help of our Tortola aficionado neighbors, who make the trip once a year. They suggest Palm’s Delight, a quaint local hot spot. Kari and I both opt for the local dish of roti, a large burrito-esque dish. I try the shrimp variety and Kari has the chicken. They’re similar but have completely different spices and ingredients. Being the non-adventurous eater that I am, I am surprised to find I enjoy it. Lesson No. 6: Be adventurous and eat out of the box. Definitely give it a try when visiting the islands. Palm’s Delight is also known for fried plantains, which pair well with dinner if you visit while they are in season.
It’s Saturday, and we become a little concerned when we don’t hear from Joe and Nicolle. But later in the morning they come through, and we arrange to meet at the docks in Cane Garden Bay. They pick us up and we head over to Jost Van Dyke for a day of hanging at the beach bars and floating in the bay. On the way, we boat past Sandy Spit, a tiny island with one single palm tree—a great photo opp.
We anchor in White Bay. It is the prettiest beach I have seen so far. The coral-free bay makes the water appear much bluer than we have seen, resembling what once seemed like nonexistent images from a postcard. We eat lunch at the Soggy Dollar Bar, sampling the conch fritters, which are delightful. We stroll down the beach for rounds of bushwhackers at One Love, a Bob Marley–inspired bar. It is an island-like, much-prettier version of a weekend at Table Rock Lake, where we are floating around on wet buns, having drinks and taking in the views.
We travel back to ’Tola for dinner at The Jolly Roger. They are having their “drink the bar dry” night to clean the bar for the close of the season. It’s a set price cover, all you can eat and drink. The place has a perfect party atmosphere and is jammed packed. We get a table at the bar upstairs overlooking the dance floor and band, to scope out the place and people-watch. It turns out to be a perfect spot to watch the fun, and we are quickly inspired to go join the party and dance the night away.
This is our last full day on the island. We had been instructed to take the Ridge Road to the airport on Monday morning since it was the annual Carnival Festivities and there would be a huge parade through Roadtown at the same time we would be driving to the airport. We decide to take a test drive since the roads are extra curvy and steep. We want to make sure we leave in enough time to make our flight (brings us back to lesson No. 4). We make a successful trip around the island and spend the rest of the day lounging at our villa. Having spent most of the trip on the go, we spend the last day enjoying our beach, which is secluded, and relaxing. For our last dinner we head back to Pusser’s at Soper’s Hole Marina and witness the most amazing sunset on our way. I can’t think of a more fitting way to conclude our island adventure than a breathtaking Tortolian sunset.
Rum Punch: A Must-Try Make-at-Home Recipe
1 liter of rum
1 (large) can of Guava juice
Half a can of Pineapple juice
Half a can of Orange juice
Small amount of cherry grenadine
Dump it all in the jug and freeze. You’ve got an awesome frozen drink that stays frozen and slowly melts all day. Perfect for the lake, pool, beach or barbecue.