TORTOLA, B.V.I. — The Jeep moaned, and Evelyn Wingate eased it into first gear as naturally as you or I breathe. Only I wasn't breathing. We were climbing a hill meant for goats, not cars.
At last the view from the peaks of Tortola rewarded our audacity. To the north was the Atlantic Ocean, south stretched the Caribbean. Off to the east, rounding the edge of nearby Guano Island, raced a covey of sailboats, spinnakers billowing, in the annual round-Tortola derby.
Evelyn's husband, Dana, was crewing on one of those boats, and although we couldn't tell which one, we cheered him from our far-off mountain perch.
Fleeing New York I had found fresh air, warm sun, sparkling sea, a blinding sky and lush hills. This was Paradise, and to prove it, the congregation at the small open-air Belle Vue Methodist Church a few feet below our vantage point let loose with a lusty gospel chorus.
Sea a Fickle Master
I was supposed to be on the water, not looking down on it from 1,500-foot slopes. But the sea is a fickle master and I was destined to spend this day on land waiting for my host, Wallace Buell, to drag himself home from a hurricane that marooned him 400 miles northeast. So Anne Buell and I took a tour, with Evelyn at the helm, as we ground up and down Tortola's volcanic hillsides.
Periodically, we rolled off the hills and through beach-front settlements with names such as Brewers Bay, Cane Garden Bay, Carrot Bay, Apple Bay, villages even prettier than their names.
So steep are the roads that as they're built the construction crews press metal rakes into the fresh slabs of concrete to make indentations, which give vehicles some traction when it rains.
Queen of the British Virgin Islands, Tortola is separated from the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John by a narrow passage of water and a big gap in culture. St. John has a large national park and extensive camping and resort facilities. St. Thomas and St. Croix are renowned for their shopping and night life.
But not Tortola. Standard guidebooks mention it only fleetingly, although the island boasts more than a dozen hotels and resorts for vacationers looking for no more entertainment than lying on the beach.
Rugged Ocean Speck
Tortola is an island where goats snooze in the airport parking lot, a rugged ocean speck where the capital town is named Road Town, because it's about the only place where there is more than one road. It's a land without traffic lights, a place whose few roads are wound about with hairpin turns, making it difficult to exceed the speed limit of 35 m.p.h.
Much of Tortola is dry and scrubby, but it has areas of dense tropical vegetation; there is even a bit of a virgin rain forest near the 1,740-foot peak of Mt. Sage. As we explored, Evelyn rattled off the names of dozens of tropical plants. The turpentine tree was easy to spot: I just had to remember that locals call it the tourist tree because it's red and flaky, just like most tourists after a week in the Caribbean sun.
The ginger tom is Tortola's national flower, and its yellow flowers sparkle on hills and in yards the island over. Also here are mango, maumee apples, papayas, sea grapes (which are used to make jelly, marmalade and wine) along with bananas and sugar cane.
Towering elephant trees (kapoks) have sinewy buttress roots that hold up the trunk like a Gothic cathedral.
Most of these overgrown hillsides were once terraced with sugar cane. Through the 18th and early part of the 19th Century Tortola was one of the sugar islands. It was one of the legs in the rum-sugar-slaves triangle that bound Africa, the American Colonies and the West Indies.
At the remains of an 18th-Century military settlement on the main road a few miles west of Road Town we found a dungeon out of a horror book. In a small, shadowy room was scrawled graffiti of an old clipper ship and a few words in French. Down a short passageway was a dank room, pitch blank but filled with the ghosts of men locked up there two centuries ago. We stumbled outside, disbelieving that the sunlight still danced on the sea only 200 yards from that black hole.
But Tortola doesn't attract many visitors who are content to simply tour the island. Most come here because Tortola is at the center of a sailor's paradise. Like thousands of others every year, I came to Tortola to sail to some of the hundreds of beaches and anchorages in the British Virgin Islands. Although I was lucky enough to know someone with a boat, many outfits offer boats for charter.
For those who know how to sail, bareboating is the way to go. Bareboat charters don't include a captain or crew. For the less experienced (or the more indulgent), the charter outfits send a captain and crew along to do the sailing.
In any event, it's hard to go wrong in a climate where the daytime temperature all year is usually between 77 and 85 degrees. Both the Buells and the Wingates came here as charterers before buying boats in the northern United States and sailing down the coast.