“I told you this was paradise,’’ Chuck Ward said, as we drove the inflatable dinghy to famous Willy T’s bar, located on a pirate ship anchored off Norman Island. The sun, heading to the other side of the world, painted the horizon rosy pink. It was our fifth day on a chartered sailboat trip through the British Virgin Islands, and we had spent it sailing calm waters and swimming and snorkeling in The Caves, a jumble of water-carved openings in craggy sea cliffs, home to a fringing coral reef and thousands of tropical fish.
We followed Chuck’s eyes to the platform jutting out the back of Willy T’s, where two young women in teeny-weeny bikinis jumped into the too-blue water below. “The scenery is fabulous,’’ Chuck joked, as we tied up to the floating bar and climbed aboard.
It was Chuck, Pam’s husband, who had persuaded us to join a group of colleagues in a three-boat flotilla on a six-day trip here. Cruising with steady trade winds, tranquil seas, and among nearly 60 sun-drenched islands (16 are inhabited) was bucket-list material for him. We, however, had some reservations. Six days of sharing cramped quarters aboard a moving vessel did not sound much like paradise to us.
“You need an attitude adjustment,’’ Captain Jelly Belly (he insisted it was his real name) told us the first night on our sleek 46-foot catamaran sailboat. We had rushed up in a hurry, bombarding him with questions about Internet and cellphone coverage, and inquiring how long it would be to the next marina with supplies. “No worries,’’ he said, handing us a cold Painkiller, the local drink of choice. It proved true to its name.
That evening, we dined on crab cakes, garlicky linguine and shrimp, and fresh, grilled mahi mahi at Charlie’s, a sleek, open-air restaurant on Tortola. We spent the first night aboard our vessels, docked at the Moorings headquarters and marina on Tortola, the jumping-off point for our adventure.
The boat was roomier than expected, with four berths tucked up in the massive hulls of the catamaran, and strategically-placed, built-in cabinets. Each berth had its private bathroom and shower. There was plenty of seating in the dining salon, and another good-size table and seating area out on the deck. The shelves and refrigerator were packed with food and drinks; bottles of sunscreen and rum and a bowl of Dramamine crowded the counter.
Early the next morning, we motored out of the marina, off to explore the legendary stomping ground of pirates and buccaneers. In less than two hours, we were anchored in Deadman Bay, and snorkeling in warm, turquoise water. We watched schools of tropical fish as they darted in and out of the coral reef that edged the sandy beach. An hour or so later, waterlogged and happy, we climbed back on board, slathered on sunscreen, and relaxed on the deck as we cruised to the island of Marina Cay, our home for the night.
“To my fellow pirates and our day at sea,’’ Amon Williams, our boatmate, said that evening, as we toasted with rum punches and shared platters of crispy conch fritters. We were at Pussers Restaurant on the small island of Marina Cay, overlooking the picturesque Sir Francis Drake Channel, dotted with craggy islands and rocky formations. It had not been a bad day at all.
“Welcome aboard the Big Ting,’’ Captain Donnell Flax said as we boarded the 42-foot deep sea fishing boat the next morning in Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. We thought a half-day fishing expedition would be a nice break from the relax, eat, drink, relax, read, swim, relax, snorkel cycle of sailing. And it was. The four-hour excursion was marked with slow moments looking for fish to furies of excitement and drama when we finally hooked and landed one. In the end, our group pulled in several big wahoo and a couple of mahi mahi, and returned to our sailboats invigorated by the hard-won catch. (We ate the fish for lunch the next day, served with our captain’s famous spicy tartar sauce.)
We spent the afternoon at The Baths, one of the most popular attractions in this autonomous British overseas territory. Heaps of giant boulders were set along a string of sandy beaches, forming natural caves and grottoes. We followed a marked path through the rocky maze, hiking among the rock formations, wading through sea caves, and exploring secret pools. The path ended at a pretty, white sand beach, where we swam and snorkeled above the coral reef that lined the bay. Later, we returned to the boat and cruised to Spanish Town for the night.
Confession: We had yet to raise the sails. “Not enough wind,’’ Belly told us. But today, our fourth day on the water, the trade winds had finally picked up. With a little bit of prodding, Belly agreed to unfurl the sails and we traveled quietly and slowly, wind-powered to North Sound, Virgin Gorda. In fact, line-of-sight sailing and two-hour island hops make sailing here doable for even newbie boaters. With our captain’s assistance, we hoisted the sails, took the helm, tied up to moorings and docks, and dropped and lifted the anchor. We could do as little or as much as we wanted.
“We’re yachties!’’ Chuck said, as we entered the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda for dinner that night. The Clubhouse Steak and Seafood Grill, with its dark woods, hundreds of hanging burgees from yacht clubs around the world, and stellar water views, has been a favorite stop for boaters for more than 30 years. Dinner, which included spicy bouillabaisse and broiled Anegada lobster, ended with thick slices of Key lime pie, some of the best we have ever tasted.
On day five some in our flotilla were feeling the need for speed. At the Peter Island marina, we rented 30-foot powerboats. Riding the waves, we zipped around the islands. We cruised by popular White Bay on Jost Van Dyke, home to a long, beautiful crescent-shaped beach and the Soggy Dollar bar, where, it is said, the Painkiller was invented. We then motored to the north side of the island, tied up to the dock, and walked to the Bubbly Pool. “Paradise on earth,’’ a local told us of this natural site. “You’ll see.’’ We were expecting a pleasant soak in a natural hot spring. The “bubbles’’ turned out to be a wild force of seawater, crashing through a narrow opening in jagged sea cliffs, knocking us down and tossing us around like lettuce leaves in a spinner.
We were happy to return to the marina and our gentle, slow-moving catamaran, now on our way to Norman Island. This uninhabited island served as the model for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,’’ and stories of sunken treasures and marauding pirates near Norman are plentiful. We hooked to a mooring in The Bight, a beautiful, robin’s-egg blue bay, ringed by a swath of white sand, with a backdrop of lush, rolling hills. Late afternoon, we snorkeled in The Caves, swimming in and out of natural sea caves amid schools of neon-colored fish
“Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!’’ Belly shouted, giving his best Long John Silver impression, as he watched us dinghy over to wild Willy T’s that evening. It was our last night on the water.
The next morning, we stuffed our belongings, damp towels, and wet bathing suits into duffels, and said our goodbyes. “Paradise found,’’ Chuck whispered as we stepped off the boat in Tortola, looking across the Sir Francis Drake Channel.
We’ll be back.
If you go...
British Virgin Islands
Where to stay
93 North Park Place Blvd.
One of the largest charter companies in the British Virgin Islands, The Moorings offers a variety of sailboat and powerboat options, depending on your group size and experience. If you want to go it alone, you will need to fill out a resume detailing your sailing experience. Those with no experience, or who simply want to sit back and relax, can opt to include a crew.
Where to dine
This casual beach bar and restaurant on the west side of Marina Cay is best known for its Painkiller Punch, and local dishes such as conch fritters, chicken roti, and grilled mahi mahi. Entrees $15-$20.
Clubhouse Steak and Seafood Grille
Bitter End Yacht Club
North Sound, Virgin Gorda
Slip out of your bathing suit and into a summer dress for dinner at this popular stop for boaters for more than 30 years. Save room for the legendary Key lime pie. Entrees $22-$36.
Wickhams Cay 2, Tortola
Perched over the water at the Moorings headquarters on Tortola, this modern, open-air restaurant is a great place to start your boating adventure. Entrees $26-$38.
William Thornton Floating Bar & Restaurant
The Bight, Norman Island
Willy T’s knows that you need something to soak up those shots of rum. They have just the thing: BBQ ribs, jumbo hot dogs, fish and chips, crispy fried chicken and sauteed jumbo prawns ($9-$24.) But it’s the anything-goes atmosphere that makes this floating restaurant legendary in the islands.
What to do
Big Ting Fishing Charters
Half-day, deep sea fishing charters are $1,000 for up to eight people.
Rentals of 30-foot powerboats are $375-$500 a day for up to eight people.