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Enjoying the Sun, Sea on Idyllic Isles

January 24, 1988|DIANE NOTTLE | Nottle is a free-lance writer living in Boston

ROAD TOWN, British Virgin Islands — At low tide a sand spit and a rocky reef connect Green Cay in the British Virgin Islands with a smaller, uninhabited island.

It is the classic desert island of comic strips, with a clump of palm trees in the middle and a ring of sand around the edge. You can walk the perimeter at a leisurely pace in three minutes.

The island has a fine snorkeling reef off one side, but other than that there's nothing to do.

The same is true of many neighboring islands, and maybe that's why people go there.

You'll find no museums or galleries or symphony orchestras; there's not a movie marquee anywhere in sight. In contrast with St. Thomas and other ports in the U.S. Virgin Islands, there's precious little shopping.

("Don't take a lot of cash," a traveling companion had advised me. "There's nothing to buy." He was right.) If you're looking for excitement, the British Virgins are the wrong place to go.

Mostly Sunshine

So what do you do in a paradise where there's nothing to do? Simply lie back, relax and enjoy what's there:

Sunshine, interrupted just often enough by warm, light rains that serve as freshwater showers to wash off sand and suntan oil. The ocean water, never chilly, yet always refreshing. The sand, which can be pressed and molded under a beach towel to fit your body's contours. The people, always happy to furnish a ride in a dune buggy or a lime fresh off the town tree.

It's possible, of course, to enjoy all these elements from a base such as the resorts on Peter Island and Virgin Gorda. But why limit yourself to one island? The ocean is a better route to paradise.

Island-Hopping

There are three main ways to tour the British Virgins by sea: take a voyage on a cruise ship, bring your own boat or fly down and charter one.

For those with either enough money or enough compatible people to split the cost, a yacht charter--either "bareboat" or with provisions and crew--provides maximum freedom and mobility. (I guarantee that no ocean liner will stop for a swim off Green Cay.)

Sailing in these islands is comparatively easy. The waters, so clear that hazards are easily visible, have minimal current. The tides rise and fall only about a foot. The trade winds that dominate the weather all year mean good sailing anytime.

And short distances--the British Virgins stretch barely 30 miles from east to west, and even St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgins lies only 10 miles from the western tip of Tortola--mean that you can island-hop in an hour or sail all day.

When I joined five other Bostonians for eight days of sailing, we had no definite plans except to get away from it all. We chartered a 50-foot sloop called La Bash from Caribbean Sailing Yachts of Road Town on Tortola.

At the beginning we knew only that we would fly to Tortola via San Juan, stay overnight, pick up our boat and be on our way--wherever that way might be.

Columbus' Solution

When Christopher Columbus saw hundreds of islands--some sprawling, but most of them tiny--dotting this section of the Caribbean, he despaired of christening them individually, as he had his previous discoveries.

He simply named them for the 11,000 virgins who died with St. Ursula when the Huns attacked Cologne in the 4th Century. Except for busy ports such as Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, they remain true to their name: unspoiled and unassuming. They're what Americans imagine Tahiti to be (and what, sadly, it no longer is).

If I had to choose just one island to epitomize the chain it would be Jost Van Dyke, northwest of Tortola. Named for a Dutch pirate, it is hilly like all the major islands, blanketed with greenery and sparsely populated.

Jost Van Dyke once had almost 600 people, one native said, but most have gone off to the United States to seek their fortunes; now the population stands at about 200. They have six cars among them. Who needs a car on an island with unpaved roads? When people here have money, they spend it on boats.

Respectable Town

The major town is Great Harbour, a strip along the waterfront that includes the government administration building, a church, a few houses and four bars, with Rudy's at one end and Foxy's at the other.

Americans on vacation often receive stern lectures from the customs officers when they come ashore wearing only swimsuits; they easily forget that Great Harbour is a town, not a beach, and should be respected with adequate attire.

Going ashore for a walk after anchoring in Great Harbour late one afternoon, Marion and I met an old man who introduced himself with a name I heard as Cointreau.

He proudly told us of his orchard on the hill, where he grew bananas and tropical fruits that were sounding less and less exotic every day.

Cointreau insisted on showing us the lime tree in the center of town, from which he handed us several limes from the hundreds ripening. When we demurred, he explained that really it didn't matter--there were plenty for everyone.

Uphill and Down

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