Taking Tortola Time

January 9, 2014 Trundlers Tales

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Trundler Antonia Banks abandons her watch and wakes up with the roosters in the largest of the British Virgin Islands

‘Nature’s Little Secrets’ (aka the BVIs) have a constant temperature of  30oC with cooling Trade Winds. There are few resorts, which suits me fine as I dislike sanitised chalets behind barbed-wire fences.

Tortola is remote and time-consuming to get to from the UK, again ideal as I enjoy the experience of travel as well as the destination. The population is under 20,000 and it’s largely unspoilt and ‘franchise-free’. No McDonald’s and chain stores. I often travel alone there, feel safe and comfortable doing so; and other lone travellers here say the same.

My Tortola trips include the following ‘activities’

  • Soaking in the warm, salty sea (a cure for most Winter aches), snorkelling and day-sailing.
  • Watching yachts and catamarans anchor and moor with varying expertise.
  • Taking ferries to different islands and exploring by car and on foot.
  • Saying “I wonder where that track leads…?” and following it to a previously unseen beach.
  • Shopping for unusual clothes and gifts in Tortola’s capital Road Town.
  • Leisurely meals on palm-shaded decks overlooking gorgeous beaches, watching pelicans diving for dinner.
  • Close-up sightings of dolphins and hump-back whales.
  • Walking through the smells, sounds and sights of glorious tropical rainforest with the “co-KEE” of Cuban tree frogs and skittering lizards and iguanas.
  • Meeting and sharing stuff with enchanting people from different Caribbean islands.
  • Making lifelong friends.
  • Dancing barefoot under the stars to music from the nearest beach bar.
  • Being woken by the “Tortola Alarm Clock”…roosters.  Feeding scraps to chickens that are everywhere.
  • Feeling warm.


Trundler Fact File

Getting there

Tortola has three Ports of entry.  At the island’s East End, Beef Island International Airport is served by ‘puddle-jumper’ planes from Puerto Rico and LIAT air from Antigua.  The island’s two international Ferry Docks are at West End (quiet) and Road Town (busy), both accessible from St Thomas, US Virgin Islands.  My favourite route is by air from UK to New York (EWR/JFK), New York to San Juan Puerto Rico (SJU), overnight in a San Juan hostel then a morning flight to Tortola Beef Island (EIS).  You can also fly to St Thomas (STT), then take a ferry to Tortola.

Where to stay

Cane Garden Bay is the island’s liveliest beach with quirky bars and restaurants, boutiques and convenience stores.  Small hotels and vacation apartments are dotted along the beach and on hills overlooking the Bay.  The vibe is relaxed and casual…you can buy a drink at one bar and take it to the next.

On Cruise Ship days the beach gets very crowded between 10am and 3pm (three large ships can double Tortola’s population). Most bars have Happy Hour, typically 4 – 7pm, some with live music and bands into late evening.  Cane Garden Bay sunsets are breathtaking.  An absence of light pollution makes this place a star-gazer’s paradise.

Brewer’s Bay is a quieter, more serene beach with only two bar/restaurants (both closed after 4pm). There’s a campground for those who don’t mind bugs, and a coral reef in mid-bay that is good to snorkel from shore.  Josiah’s Bay beach on Tortola’s north coast is best for surfers.

Where you stay is governed by how you want to get around.  For walking convenience, choose somewhere near the beach.  For great views and breezes, stay on a hillside (unless fit, you’ll need transport).  On a budget and happy to head into the unknown?  Walk into a bar and politely ask where you can rent a room: someone’s cousin’s wife will know a family with a spare room…and they will phone them on your behalf.

Pristine five-star manicured luxury with uniformed bellhops is unknown here.  If that’s what you want, don’t come to Tortola.  Some accommodations may look shabby-chic but they’re mostly clean and comfortable.

Getting around

Tortola has steep hills, hairpin bends and unreliable road signs (if any).  Many road surfaces are rough, with speed bumps in unlikely places.  You dodge cows, goats and the ubiquitous chickens.  However, driving is easy when you get used to it.

If you get lost, people eagerly give directions (although not always accurately).  Cars drive on the left as in UK.  They’re all left hand drive…an initially scary experience for the ‘newbie’ front seat passenger!  There are several reliable car rental companies near each port of entry.  Choose a 4WD jeep-style, since speed bumps wreck ordinary saloons.  Drink/driving is self-regulating in the BVI: use caution and common sense after a few beers.

If you prefer not to drive, consider taxis.  There are published set fares per passenger: check the total cost before you get in.  Taxis wait at all ports of entry and at the main taxi stand in Road Town.  Most bartenders will call you a taxi on request.

The cheapest and most interesting way to get around is to hitch a ride (my favourite). Stand on the verge facing the traffic and point in the direction you want to go.  Someone will stop within a few minutes.  It’s safe, no payment is expected, and you meet some fascinating people.

Local customs

Tortola’s conservative residents are respectful and welcome respect in return.  Good manners are very important here.  When walking into a shop or public space before noon, say “Good Morning” to the room in general.  Between noon and sunset, it’s “Good Afternoon”.  After dark, “Good Night” is a greeting, not a farewell.  Local people consider tourists to be rude when they don’t observe customary greetings.

Beachwear on the beach is fine: not so in shops, restaurants or residential streets.  (Think bikinis/Speedos and bare feet in Tesco’s Teddington or Acacia Avenue, Aldershot…!).  Please cover up.  Respec’ Mon…

“Island time” is a phenomenon peculiar to the Caribbean.  Many BVIslanders do not wear a watch and on-the-dot punctuality is rare.  Try not to let it spoil your holiday.

People often hitch a lift/get out of a car in unlikely locations, such as in the fast lane of Tortola’s only dual carriageway.  When driving, expect that the car in front will stop suddenly to let out a mother and three young children into the middle of the road. They will be oblivious to other traffic.

You park your rental jeep in a Road Town car park.  On returning to your car there’s a minibus parked, blocking you in.  Don’t get angry: the keys are in the ignition.  Jump in, move the bus. Drive away in your own car.  It’s expected, and it happens all the time.

Lastly, with any misunderstanding just smile, gaze earnestly and ask “What should I do?”…should solve most problems.

Sources of information

Forum for BVI visitors and bareboat sailing people www.traveltalkonline.com/forums/postlist.php?Cat=0&Board=bvi

Newbies to the BVI www.bvinewbie.com/

“Limin’ Times” for Tortola entertainment  www.limin-times.com/

Day sail Kuralu catamaran (small groups, excellent service) www.kuralu.com/

BVI/USVI Ferries info. website www.bestofbvi.com/info/info_bviferry.htm

Taxi tariffs www.bvinewbie.com/taxi-fares-bvi-tortola/

BVI Dodgy Driving (hints for staying alive!): www.facebook.com/groups/150272195057336/