VIRGIN GORDA, British Virgin Islands — "How about some fresh-brewed espresso and warm, flaky croissants . . . in bed?" I murmured to my husband shortly after sunrise one morning in Virgin Gorda.
"Wrong island," he said, thinking back to the excellent French food we enjoyed several years earlier during our honeymoon in Martinique. Then he looked over the side of the bed and saw two pairs of eyes staring up at us: our 2-year-old twin daughters who had just padded out of our cottage's other room. "No," he shook his head, "wrong life."
OK, so we weren't eating and drinking our way through a pampered week at a posh resort. While we love the romance of a peaceful tropical island as much as the next couple, this time we were traveling with our toddlers, who are definite inhibitors of both romance and peace. And unlike most visitors to the British Virgin Islands, we don't even sail. Then what were we doing on Virgin Gorda?
While this tranquil corner of the Caribbean has a well-deserved reputation as an idyllic playground for the yachting set, we found that it also is a comfortable, manageable place for a quiet family holiday at the beach. And with off-season rates in effect usually April 15 through Dec. 15 (we visited in late April), we found it to be surprisingly affordable.
The kinds of activities that our children enjoy--building sandcastles on the beach, exploring hidden caves, chasing lizards and chickens and splashing around in warm, tranquil water--are all abundant and free on Virgin Gorda. One of our favorite sandy spots was the beach at Spring Bay, on the island's southwestern shore. The beach is scattered with the enormous boulders that distinguish several of Virgin Gorda's beaches, as if the Jolly Green Giant had brought his toddler twins to pile up rocks on the water's edge.
To get to the beach at Spring Bay, we hiked down the short but steep-for-toddlers path from the main road. First, you reach a small cove sheltered by several towering boulders, with a single picnic table nestled under swaying palms. We continued walking across the sand to the next cove, where the nearly deserted beach was longer and the surf gentler. This is the beach for the Guavaberry Spring Bay Homes, a collection of cottages that perch like treehouses on stilts up the hill and back toward the road.
Another good spot for kids is the Baths, one of Virgin Gorda's best-known attractions, where pools of water formed between the huge boulders. The Baths were the only place we saw more than a handful of other people. In spite of the beach's popularity with humans, a surprisingly large array of brilliantly colored tropical fish dart between the boulders, making this one of the best snorkeling spots on Virgin Gorda.
What made the Baths a great place for the kids, though, was what our family called the cave. We started walking west toward Devil's Bay National Park, where the boulder/pool/beach combination is reportedly most dramatic. Although the trail over the rocks and through the tide pools turned out to be too challenging for our girls, we were able to enjoy a cave-like room--which a tour guide dubbed the Cathedral Room--near the start of the path. The rocks arched above, shielding us from the sun, while below a shallow pool provided the perfect toddler wading area.
Our other favorite beach was at our hotel. We stayed at the Fischer's Cove Beach Hotel, a handful of cottages and hotel rooms on a sheltered cove. The Fischer's Cove staff was extremely helpful to our family and welcoming even to our sometimes rambunctious twins. The cottages--either spacious studios or the family-size, one-bedroom units that slept our family of four comfortably--are painted a brilliant, shocking pink that almost glows in the heightened island light. The cottages are decidedly basic, furnished in a hodgepodge of yard-sale finds and hand-me-downs and without telephones or TVs, but all are within a few steps of a lovely strip of sandy beach.
The hotel's veranda is a picturesque spot to have a cocktail and watch the sun set like a spectacular flame across the water and then down into the green hills of neighboring Tortola. Or it is, if you've left the kids at home. Our girls headed instinctively for the railing overlooking the beach below, squeezing under it to see how far they could hang their heads out over the sand, while my husband and I shouted, "No! No! No!" So much for romantic sunsets.
Fischer's Cove is about a 10-minute walk south of the Yacht Harbor, where a miniature mall serves as the island's main shopping area. We helped keep our costs down by walking into town most days to buy bread, fruit and cheeses for breakfasts and lunches, which we ate on the patio outside our cottage accompanied by a family of chickens and numerous little lizards. My daughters were fascinated by the wildlife, especially the quick-as-lightning lizards, which the girls repeatedly tried to lure into their hands with scraps of peanut butter sandwiches.