High hills, winding roads, and spectacular vistas define Tortola, the most populous and most developed of the British Virgin Islands. The island’s crooked spine runs 12 miles east to west, sandwiched by ridges that plunge down to crystalline blue waters and fringing reefs. Trace the coastline along a succession of spectacular bays, some scalloped by sandy beaches, others buffered by thick mangroves, and still more which are home to settlements ranging from small villages to the BVI’s capital, Road Town. Exploration on Tortola is an adventure, one whose rewards include secluded beaches, memorable day hikes, and colorful beach bars.

The beach at Long Bay in Tortola. Photo © Susanna Henighan Potter.

The beach at Long Bay in Tortola. Photo © Susanna Henighan Potter.

It is an ideal jumping-off point for water-based pursuits and day trips: Sailing, diving, snorkeling, and windsurfing are the most popular pursuits.Tortola is the hub of the British Virgin Islands. Development has dulled some of Tortola’s charms but hardly destroyed them. It rewards its visitors with the juxtaposition of a traditional Caribbean island and modern creature comforts, without the commercial onslaught of international chain stores and fast-food restaurants. Tortola caters to a wide range of tastes and interests. It is an ideal jumping-off point for water-based pursuits and day trips: Sailing, diving, snorkeling, and windsurfing are the most popular pursuits and Tortola’s marinas are home to the Virgin Islands’ largest fleet of charter yachts. Excursion outfits ferry visitors to outlying Norman Island (believed to be the setting of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island) and Salt Island, home to one of the Virgin Islands’ most famous shipwrecks, the RMS Rhone. Meanwhile, landlubbers will find two excellent national parks, several historical attractions, and dozens of quiet, undisturbed beaches.

Planning Your Time in Tortola

You could visit all of Tortola’s major attractions in a day, but why would you want to? People don’t exhaust themselves with that kind of frenzied activity here, and you would be silly to buck the trend. The whole point of vacationing in a place like Tortola is to slow down. A week is enough time to explore Tortola, figuring in a few do-nothing days spent on the beach and one or two day trips to surrounding islands.

Travel map of Tortola, Virgin Islands


Where to Stay

Look for accommodations outside of Road Town—the capital city offers little in the way of ambience. If your first priority is the beach and your second is the beach bar, you will be happiest at Cane Garden Bay, the island’s premier beach, with the widest array of accommodations, restaurants, and entertainment choices. The only downside—and it can be significant depending on your disposition—is the throngs of cruise ship visitors that descend on the bay many days from October to March.

If you prefer to make a quieter beach your home base, look for places to stay near Apple Bay, Long Bay, Brewer’s Bay, or Josiah’s Bay—all nice beaches that lean toward the quiet side. Remember that accommodations away from the beach can be a good value, and hillside rooms generally have better views and more breeze than those directly on the water. Nowhere on Tortola is more than 10 minutes from a beach.

Day Trips

Tortola makes a convenient day trip from St. Thomas, St. John, or Virgin Gorda. If you have only a day, take an open-air island tour and spend a few hours at one of the beaches: Cane Garden Bay if no cruise ship is in port; Smuggler’s Cove, Josiah’s Bay, or Brewer’s Bay otherwise. Add on a hike at Sage Mountain National Park or a stroll through the Joseph Reynold O’Neal Botanical Gardens if you have time.

If you’re staying on Tortola, you have a lot of options for day trips: St. John and St. Thomas, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, Anegada, Peter Island, Marina Cay, and Norman Island are all popular and convenient choices.

Boats swarm North Sound during the annual Leverick Bay Poker Run. Photo © Todd VanSickle.

Boats swarm North Sound in Virgin Gorda during the annual Leverick Bay Poker Run. Photo © Todd VanSickle.

Ferries depart from docks and marinas all over the island; they range from large interisland catamarans to supply boats with room for a few passengers. From West End, you can catch ferries to St. Thomas (30 minutes, $55 round-trip), St. John (20 minutes, $55 round-trip), and Jost Van Dyke (30 minutes, $25 round-trip). From Road Town, boats sail to St. Thomas (1 hour, $55 round-trip), Virgin Gorda (30 minutes, $30 round-trip), and Anegada (75 minutes, $60 round-trip). You can also take a ferry from Trellis Bay to Virgin Gorda (30 minutes, $50).

Many resorts and restaurants offer free ferry service; you only have to dine at the resort or restaurant giving you a ride to the island. These private ferries operate from Baugher’s Bay, near Road Town, to Peter Island (20 minutes, free); from Palastina to The Bight, Norman Island (20 minutes, free); and from Trellis Bay to Marina Cay (5 minutes, free) and Scrub Island (10 minutes, free). While advance reservations are not required for public ferries, it’s a good idea to call ahead to confirm the private ones. It is also possible to hitch a ride to Cooper Island with dive guides Sail Caribbean (Hodge’s Creek, 284/495-3244), for $15 round-trip.

Day-sail operators are scattered around the island, but you will find most operators in Soper’s Hole (West End), Road Town, or Hodge’s Creek Marina (East End). Advance reservations for day sails are essential, especially during high season.

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon U.S.& British Virgin Islands.