British Virgin Islands
The British Virgin Islands consist of over 60 relatively unspoilt idyllic Caribbean islands each boasting supremely white beaches and deep turquoise waters worthy of any honeymoon holiday brochure. People settled on the islands over a thousand years ago, travelling from South America, the Caribbean and Africa. There is therefore a very rich cultural heritage, the different elements of which are not easy to isolate and much of the history is mixed with legends and lore of the sea. Europeans settled in 1648 and there followed various attempts to extract minerals and spread religion across the area.
The largest island is Tortola which is home to the commercial centre and capital, Road Town, and is the busiest island in terms of transport to the other islands in the region. At only nine miles long and three wide, Tortola does not offer that much in terms of opportunity for exploration and the real appeal of the area lies in the waters surrounding the islands. Sir Frances Drake Channel, named after the first Western visitor to the region, is sheltered enough to make for leisurely sailing but with more exposed areas providing a more exciting and challenging experience. The setting is remarkable, with the coral visible across much of the waters and a rich abundance of marine and aerial wild life. Since autonomy was granted in 1967 the islands affairs have been dealt with by a governor appointed by the monarch of the United Kingdom. The proximity to the United States and Puerto Rico however influences the economy and culture more directly than the United Kingdom.
The official language is English and is spoken on all the islands. The wide mix of nationalities that have come to settle on the islands however has led to the existence of a West Indian variation of English which has its own words and phrases that differ between islands.
Since 1959 the British Virgin Islands have used the US Dollar as their official currency. At time of writing (November 2006) $1 USD is equivalent to £0.51 and 0.76.
The islands enjoy a sub-tropical and occasionally humid climate. The higher temperatures are countered by the trade winds that make the hotter times of the year far more bearable. Rainfall varies between the islands but is generally low. The hurricane season is June to November with six affecting the area since 1995 and visitors should ensure they take out sufficient travel insurance in the event that their trip is cancelled for this reason. Temperatures do not vary massively between summer and winter. Summers are hot with average temperatures between 26 and 31 degrees Celcius but only slightly lower, 22 to 28, in winter.
Any visitor to the British Virgin Islands would be foolish not to take to the water in some form of vessel. Small power boats can easily be rented in suitable conditions and used to explore the islands and their more exclusive beaches. If you have some sailing experience a dingy or yacht is a more exciting option although these are not suitable for longer distances or very strong winds. For a longer trips a chartered yacht, with or without captain and/or crew is suitable, and boats are available with every imaginable level of luxury available. Deep sea fishing trips are also available, or can be incorporated to one of the above.
National Parks A quick and easy way to sample the areas beautiful fauna and intriguing land wildlife is through the many national parklands dotted across the islands. The J.R. ONeal Botanical Gardens in Road Town is a great place to start with water features, bird houses and a miniature rain forest. Sage Mountain National Park is set in the high altitudes of Tortolas mountain ridge and has towering trees and a rich and diverse group of animal species which provide a great contrast to the placid waters bathing the islands.
The British Virgin Islands are not the ideal place to visit on a shoestring and the shop prices and products reflect this. Most resorts a served by a few local shops selling drinks, snacks and other useful items such as insect repellent for much lower prices than at the resorts themselves. Main Street is the busiest and primary shopping area in the capital Road Town, with everything from clothing, beach accessories and local delicacies. The chutneys, rums and spices are excellent, if a little expensive although the general stores and supermarkets often stock cheap versions. Wickhams Cay is another good target for shoppers with more clothing outlets and a craft village.
The locals are keen to entertain visitors and get them involved with the drinking and dancing that take place at the beachfront bars and clubs. The music is mostly reggae and calypso, providing ideal rhythms for even the most inhibited guest to trying swinging their hips to. Single female visitors should be aware that many of the local young men who offer themselves for holiday romances my only be doing so in order to secure some sort of financial maintenance for long after the women have returned home.
- To drive on the islands you must be in possession of a valid British Virgin Islands Driving License.
- A temporary license can be obtained for a fee of $10.00 USD from the Traffic Licensing Office or Car Hire Agencies on presentation of a valid license from the visitors home country.
- You must be at least 25 years of age to drive on the British Virgin Islands and driving is on the left.
- Most of the roads on Tortola are paved although there are many treacherous inclines and turns on the inland roads so great care must be taken.
- The less developed islands have mostly single track roads, the majority of which remain untreated.
- The speed limits are 20 miles per hour within cities and 35 miles per hour outside, driving standards can be low however and these regulations are often flouted.
- There is a current campaign to reduce the amount of drink driving and exceeding the blood alcohol limit (80mg per 100ml of blood) face severe fines or imprisonment.
- Drivers and passengers must wear seatbelts at all times.
Food and Drink
Every level of catering can be tracked down on the islands without much trouble. The street vendors and snack bars of Road Town and other busy areas sell cheap West Indian and Caribbean dishes. Fresh fruit is also sold on the streets but those with a delicate stomach may be advised to steer clear of this as it may not have been washed properly. The restaurants are mostly upmarket affairs with astounding views, menus and excellent service. They can be a little austere and normally have a dress code, but rarely disappoint when it comes to the standard of the food. Seafood is unsurprisingly the speciality (namely the Anegada Lobster), other traditional dishes include Indian flatbreads called Roti and grilled breads call Pate both of which are come filled with meat, seafood or vegetables.