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Though they are just miles from the U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands are vastly different in comparison. The atmosphere is more calm and peaceful, with an authentic, unspoiled Caribbean experience. But the low-key luxury comes at a price, as a vacation to the British Virgin Islands is a bit more costly compared to its U.S. counterpart. There are no direct flights from the U.S., Canada, Europe or South America to the main airport in the British Virgin Islands. But there are many connecting airports surrounding the territory, making it a quick connection to get there.
The British Virgin Islands consist of the main islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke and over 50 other smaller islands and cays. Road Town, the capital of the British territory, is located on the island of Tortola, which is also the largest island and encompasses about 36 square miles. The classic tropical climate is tempered by trade winds. The wettest months of the year are September to November and the driest are February and March. The British Virgin Islands are occasionally hit by hurricanes, with the hurricane season lasting from June to November.
Tourism is important to the islands and travelers are drawn to the white sand beaches, coral reefs and strong yachting and sailing scene. In fact, The British Virgin Islands are considered the center of the sailing world. A sailor’s paradise, the constant trade winds, daily sunshine and deep blue waters make for ideal island-hopping and easy navigation. It’s easy to find a charter boat that will take you on a day or overnight sailing trip.
The beautiful sailing waters also make for exciting diving that can accommodate any level of diver from beginner to expert. Healthy coral, dramatic sea caverns and breathtaking shipwrecks are all waiting to be discovered by divers.
Travelers who are not interested in water sports still have plenty of things to keep them busy. The islands have 21 national parks ranging from traditional type parks to botanical gardens and marine parks. The islands also have a rich and diverse restaurant scene, with many choices on every main island. there is something to appeal to everyone, from dinner at a casual beach bar to upscale fine dining.
No golf. No glitter. Not much shopping. The British Virgin Islands (often referred to as B.V.I.) may be only a few miles/kilometers away from the U.S. Virgin Islands, but don't expect the tourist bustle of St. Thomas. The British Virgin Islands have spectacular sailing waters and coral reefs that surround them, calm and tidy towns, luxurious accommodations and upscale dining. For many, they are the perfect island getaway.
But, as with most things perfect and luxurious, the British Virgin Islands don't come cheap. The islands' emphasis on small, upscale resorts and their desire to appeal to well-heeled travelers result in a relatively pricey paradise with an exclusive atmosphere.
Although some dozen or so cruise ships visit the islands—with the majority of the cruise vessels visiting Tortola—you're more likely to see yachts. Sailors enjoy steady trade winds, short distances between islands, beautiful views and many sheltered coves where they can drop anchor. These are considered some of the finest sailing waters in the world. Scuba divers and snorkelers also relish the reefs, wrecks and clear waters off the islands.
By whatever means you visit the British Virgin Islands, expect a slow and restorative pace with plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. The panorama includes white crescent beaches nestled at the bottom of steep, green mountains and stunning views of neighboring islands from lofty lookouts.
The British Virgin Islands sustained severe damage during Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017. Recovery is ongoing, but the islands' infrastructure has been restored and many sailing charter companies, hotels and other businesses have reopened. While other Caribbean islands, such as Barbuda, still have substantial infrastructure work to do, BVI is in a better position to welcome tourists.
Geographically, the British Virgin Islands are made up of approximately 60 islands, islets and cays. Some are hardly bigger than a good-sized rock, yet one is large enough to contain a 1,780-ft-/539-m-high mountain.
The four main islands are Tortola (the largest), Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke and Anegada. Almost all of the islands have protected coves and are dotted with thin crescents of blinding white sand and swaying palm trees. They lie on both sides of Sir Francis Drake Channel, about 60 mi/100 km east of Puerto Rico and immediately east of the U.S. Virgin Islands. All of the islands are volcanic in origin, except for Anegada and tiny Sandy Cay, which are limestone and coral atolls. Most are surrounded by coral reefs.
Water-going vessels have long been important to these islands. The original inhabitants—Ciboney, Arawak and Carib Indians—moved between the islands in their oceangoing crafts. In 1493, the islands saw the arrival of several larger boats commanded by an explorer in the service of Spain: Christopher Columbus. Shortly thereafter, pirate ships became frequent visitors to the islands, drawn by the same secluded coves that today harbor pleasure craft. Pirates continued to make use of the coves even after Dutch farmers settled on the islands in the mid-1600s.
The British gained control in 1672. They built sugar, cotton and indigo plantations on several of the islands and imported slaves. After slavery was abolished in 1834, the plantation economy came to an end. Most of the landowners abandoned their holdings shortly thereafter, leaving the islands to the former slaves and their descendants.
In the 1960s, Laurence Rockefeller's elegant resort on Virgin Gorda, Little Dix Bay, kick-started the travel industry, and the Cary family started its charter yacht company, The Moorings, on Tortola a few years later. Now tourism is the mainstay of the country's economy, although there is a burgeoning banking industry as well. Offshore registration to foreign companies looking to incorporate is an important economic engine for the islands.
The main attractions of the British Virgin Islands include yachting, scuba diving, deep-sea fishing and bonefishing, snorkeling, hiking, sailing, swimming, windsurfing, horseback riding, bird-watching and relaxing.
These islands will appeal to those who want to enjoy crystal clear water against a backdrop of beautiful, hilly tropical isles. Go if you have the financial means and want to relax. If you need a lot of action, restaurants, nightlife and shopping, you'd be better off elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Flamingos were reintroduced to the British Virgin Islands after disappearing from the area decades ago. The birds were settled on Anegada as part of the Flamingo Restoration Project and have begun to reproduce, a sign that they like their new home.
Legend has it that the pirate Blackbeard once abandoned 15 troublesome members of his crew on Dead Chest Island, leaving rum as their only provision (they soon died). The event is recalled in the words of a well-known sea chantey: "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum."
Christopher Columbus is said to have named Tortola after a bird he saw upon arriving, the turtledove. However, it probably wasn't a turtledove he saw but a relative of the mourning dove.
The architect of the U.S. Capitol Building, William Thorton, was born on the island of Jost Van Dyke in 1759.
Smuggler's Cove, a beach on Tortola's north shore, was the setting for the movie The Old Man and the Sea.
The RMS Rhone, an 1867 Royal Mail Ship, is a famous shipwreck in the British Virgin Islands. The remains split into two halves, the stern settled at 30 ft/9 m and the bow sank to 80 ft/25 m. Parts of the suspense movie The Deep were filmed at the Rhone.
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