The largest of the British Virgin Islands, Tortola is home to several large bareboat charter companies, and it’s centrally located in the archipelago.
Tortola is a great place to start a Virgin Islands charter. It’s a mountainous island, with many good anchorages and harbors, and it’s the largest island in the BVI.
Getting to Tortola isn’t quite as easy as getting to St. Thomas, but there are quite a few options. The airport, located on Beef Island off the eastern part of Tortola, isn’t equipped to handle large jet aircraft, but it does have many flights going from and to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Ferries are the primary source of inter-island transportation, and the schedule is chock full between St. Thomas and Tortola. The ferry dock in St. Thomas is a brief taxi ride from the airport, and boats travel between St. Thomas and two locations in Tortola; Sopher’s Hole, on the western end of Tortola, and Road Town, the capital of the BVI, located in the center of Tortola.
The BVI are a British Overseas and European Union Territory, and visitors from the United States must go through customs and immigration. Passports are a must, and you need to build time into your schedule to allow for the sometimes crowded and slow process, especially at the ferry terminals. Once you’ve cleared in, there are many taxis and bus services to carry you to your charter base or marina.
Provisioning in Tortola can be challenging, depending upon where your charter base is located, but it’s not impossible. In West End (Sopher’s Hole), and Nanny Cay, there are small but adequate grocery stores. In Road Town there are two large grocery stores with larger selections and more fresh fruits and vegetables. You can also take advantage of several provisioning companies, which do the shopping for you based on orders placed online or over the telephone. As in the USVI, alcohol is duty-free and inexpensive.
While the restaurant selection on Tortola isn’t as wide and varied as in St. Thomas, there is still a good variety: native cuisine, burger and pizza joints, and slick, high-end places. Scattered throughout the BVI is the chain of Pusser’s (as in the famous rum makers) restaurants, which offer a good basic menu with a variety of island-themed cocktails and good service.
If you’re looking for duty-free shopping, the only real choice is Road Town, which plays host to large cruise ships. Again, while the selection of shops isn’t as large as in St. Thomas, there is still an adequate number to choose from.
Within striking distance of Tortola are the rest of the BVI. Of the 50 islands, fifteen are inhabited. They range in size from the second-largest (Anegada) to the tiny rocks off Fallen Jerusalem. All of them (except for Anegada, which is a low, flat island located to the north) are visible from various parts of Tortola, well within a day’s sail or motor.
The primary islands have overnight moorings and onshore attractions (bars and restaurants): Anegada, Jost Van Dyke, Marina Cay, Nanny Cay, Peter Island, Cooper Island, Ginger Island, Norman Island, and Virgin Gorda. The overnight moorings run between $30 and $40 dollars per night. If you prefer the comfort of a mooring to anchoring, getting into harbor in the early to mid-afternoon is a good idea.
The people are, for the most part welcoming and helpful, and Tortola doesn’t suffer from the poor reputation of parts of the USVI. But as in any place where economic disparity is present, precautions should be taken, especially in Road Town. Keep your boat locked when you’re not aboard, and avoid heading into places where you’re the only tourists in sight, especially at night.
Tortola - Peter Island - Virgin Gorda - Jost Van Dyke - Norman Island
Sail from Road Town or Nanny Cay south across Sir Frances Drake Channel to Peter Island, a good overnight anchorage.
Depart early for the Baths, the site of an unusual rock formation at the southwestern end of Virgin Gorda.
Enjoy a few hours of snorkeling and exploring. Since the moorings and anchorage at The Baths are subject to an uncomfortable groundswell, enjoy a short sail across the channel to Marina Cay for the night.
A longer sail will take you up to the northeastern end of Virgin Gorda into the well-protected Gorda Sound. Enjoy the hospitality at The Bitter End, which is wonderfully welcoming to cruisers with four restaurants and a handful of bars.
Another long sail west along the north side of Tortola will take you to Jost Van Dyke, an area where you could easily spend a day or two exploring places like Sandy Cay.
Take some time to re-provision and check in with reality at West End (Sopher’s Hole) Tortola, where the WiFi is available for a fee and covers most of the anchorage.
A trip over to Norman Island will introduce you to the lure of that floating bacchanalia known as Willie T’s, a floating bar and restaurant located conveniently in the mooring field.
Photo courtesy Bitter End Yacht Club