My wife and I decided several months ago to book a couples trip with a few friends to the US and British Virgin Islands following a busy Christmas season for both of us. We had been looking forward to it since booking the trip in the summer. Then in September, Hurricanes Irma and Maria, both monster Category 5 storms, passed directly over the BVIS. The footage we saw online was heartbreaking. For several months I stayed in touch with Selwyn, our booking agent who also would serve as cook, mate, and anything else that needed to be done on the boat, along with Captain Tonic, our witty guide who would steer us from island to island. Our rental home that we were to stay in on St. Thomas our last day was completely destroyed, and it took us right up until the last week to find accommodations for all of us due to the widespread destruction of most of the hotels and rentals on the island.
After Christmas we had a decision to make. Many of the destinations on the islands were hit very hard, but some of the main spots were back open for business. We spoke with everyone who had booked with us and decided we wanted to be among the first to come back to St. Thomas and the BVIS. It just seemed like the right thing to do, and we were all excited to leave the cold weather behind. We’d already seen snow and temperatures well below freezing—the coldest few weeks I can ever remember here in South Carolina, and winter had barely begun!
So we took off for St. Thomas in shorts and hoodie sweatshirts, ready to peel back a layer upon reaching our destination. We landed on the island at 2PM. Upon exiting the plane, the scene before us was gorgeous. Much of the vegetation had returned. The palms were sprouting new fronds, and the city was bustling. It was clear that many, if not most, of the structures on the island were damaged, but the spirit of the island certainly was not. We hopped in a cab and headed to the Tortola ferry.
Our conversation with the cab driver was informative. The island’s population had decreased significantly. Many retirees left St. Thomas for the mainland after the hurricanes, as did many service employees who rely on tourism for income. Since schools were closed for several months, many who had families back on the mainland left so that their kids could attend public school. As the construction and rebuilding efforts continue, I’m sure we’ll start to see many of these folks come back, but getting the needed supply of lumber and materials to the islands has likely been a huge obstacle to overcome, as we passed many structures that seemed to be “under construction” but without lumber or materials to continue with the effort.
We boarded the ferry and headed towards Tortola. Within 5 minutes I’d already seen Spanish Mackerel and jacks jumping on either side of the boat, and I couldn’t wait for our real trip to begin. We passed St. John, a gorgeous island with fewer structures than some of the other islands. One couple in the group had honeymooned on St. John and they were excited to see it again.
After a while we arrived in Tortola and cleared customs. We met up with Selwyn at The Moorings, where she informed us that dinner was almost ready and we’d be eating on the boat that night! Our new home for the next 4 days was a 46ft catamaran. We unloaded our bags and we were excited to speak with her about the plan for the next day as she mixed her special rum punch—her version of the Painkiller that is so popular in the BVIS. So as we talked about where we were going to go, a thin dreadlock man with a toothy smile jumped on the boat—Captain Tonic. He introduces himself and says to us, “Don’t make a plan tonight. We don’t make a plan. Because you gonna wake up da next morning, change da plan. Then what you got? Waste a plan!” Words of wisdom from a man who’d been sailing his whole life, so we adhered.
The next morning we awoke and helped Tonic load the boat with supplies. We found out we were the first trip since the September hurricanes for he and Selwyn, so there was a palpable sense of joy among the two of them and it was awesome. We were excited to set sail. He found out I liked to fish and told Selwyn he’d be back in a minute. About two hours later Tonic comes back with two rods that were older than me that he said he’d gone back and snagged from his bar that he owns, outfitted with Penn Senators that had to be among the first ever made, and only spooled with about 100yds of line. He then tossed me 4 hand line spools he picked up from a local store. And he had several boxes he wanted us to load, full of steak, lobster, and shrimp. We loaded the boat and Selwyn put away the essentials.
We left the dock and set out for our first destination. Tonic recommended we check out The Baths on Virgin Gorda before it got busy. So we left Tortola and aimed for Virgin Gorda. As soon as we pulled out of the marina we were met with a gusty headwind and 4-6ft seas. It was awesome! It would be the only rough sailing day of the trip, but we pushed through and arrived at our destination, mooring about 400yds from the shoreline along with only three other boats.
Tonic told us to jump in and be back at the beach in two hours. We all were eager to jump in the water and we did just that. We swam the 400yds to the beach and began exploring The Baths. The Baths are incredible. The beach is made up of monstrous granite boulders, made smooth by millions of years of tides, and if the ocean weren’t right there you’d swear you were walking along in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The trail along the beach took us in and out of these boulders, and tide pools would sneak in between them, creating “the baths” and caves that were just really cool to see. We even happened upon some fossils in the rock, seawater lapping over them at times, and it was just a really cool thing to see. After an hour of hiking we made it to another beach, with a trail that went up over the boulders to the top of the hill. We made it to the top for conch fritters and an awesome panoramic landscape, and then we made our way back down to the beach.
We hopped back on the boat and Tonic asked us if we wanted to see Bitter End Yacht Club. We set sail for Bitter End, and Tonic tossed out two lines, securing the rods with a small tether behind his captain’s chair. It wasn’t too long before we’d hooked up with some Spanish mackerel and bonita. He said he’d occasionally catch a yellowfin or a dolphin, so I was locked in on those lines from there to Bitter End. As soon as we got within a mile of Bitter End, we could see a noticeable difference in the foliage of the islands. Judging by what we were seeing, Bitter End took the full brunt of the storms. A small adjacent island still looked like a desert—for some reason no vegetation had returned to one side of it. Bitter End itself looked like an atomic bomb had gone off. The structures on the beach were a total loss. The cottages in the hillsides were gutted—roofs and windows gone on all of them, and in many cases you’d only see a foundation. A large burn pile towered on the beach, as a few guys were dragging debris and doing the only thing they knew to do with it. Not too far away, Tonic pointed out the mast of a 50’ sailboat—about 200yds up in the trees! The entire boat had been swept or blown deep into the hillside, now covered by some vegetation, with the mast sticking atop the trees. It was a sad sight and I must say that it will take years for this area to fully recover. No one said a word as we continued past Bitter End towards our evening mooring destination. We docked at bar/restaurant not too far from Bitter End and spent the night on the boat.
The next day, making sure not to make the plan until that morning, we discussed spending the day at Soggy Dollar. Tonic approved of the plan and took us over! Tonic put lines out again of course, and we hooked up with something under sail that had some pull to it. I knew it wasn’t a bonita or a Spanish, and as I got it on its side I could tell it was a barracuda. We got it on board and Tonic kept it. Don’t ask me what he did with that thing. It may have ended up in our stew. I have no idea. If it did, I’m going to tell you it was delicious and I don’t really want to know if that cuda was in there or not!
We moored at Soggy Dollar and spent the day there. Two bars were now open on the beach. Soggy Dollar was in full swing, although we largely had the beach to ourselves and only saw about 6-10 other boats moor up throughout the day. We had a blast playing corn hole and ring toss and hanging out on the beach. That afternoon we left Soggy Dollar and landed in the cove at Foxy’s. We all swam in to check out the bar and left our mark at Foxy’s, with all the Clemson grads in the group signing a Tiger Rag and leaving it secured above the bar. We jumped in the dinghy and headed back to the boat for dinner. At this point I should say that all meals on the boat were spectacular! Selwyn managed to cook local fare for every meal, putting her own spin on it and we often ate seafood and soup/stew that Tonic would add to, putting conch or fish or anything else we caught in the stew and it was so good for the soul I’m telling you.
The next day would be our last full day on the boat. We set sail for a few snorkeling destinations. First, we moored at “The Indians”—several huge rock formations that protrude from the ocean floor and create pockets of beautiful sea life and activity for divers and snorkelers. We jumped in and spent several hours snorkeling in this area. The fish were gorgeous—various parrotfish and other beautiful fish with so many different colors. We hopped back on the boat and had lunch before sailing to the next destination—“The Caves.” Tonic told us to take our snorkel gear out and pointed us in the direction of the best caves, and we swam in. These rock formations are on the shoreline and have been filmed in several movies. The ocean over time has dug out caves in the rocks, and we snorkeled into these caves. Tonic particularly wanted us to see these in the evening, and as the sun went down over the horizon the coral and some of the sea life on the rocks became luminescent, glowing in various shades of purple and orange, and it was really awesome. We snorkeled back to the boat and pulled around the corner to where Willy T’s used to be. The old boat was now up on the beach, completely destroyed, a shell of what it used to be. We moored within 100yds of it, as Tonic said, “We catch da snappa all night long in dis spot.” I personally thought he was joking but I wasn’t sure. We were able to hang out in a very nice restaurant/bar on the beach in this area. Again, very few patrons still at this point, but it was evident the employees were so happy to see us and we were happy to be there! As we made it back to the boat, Tonic was already hand lining. He’d taken some leftover steak and had put it on a hook and dropped it down twenty feet or so. We watched him intently as he pulled up a yellowtail snapper. The moment he threw that fish on the deck he had me hooked. I pulled out a hand line and put some steak on it, and even though we were eating dinner there at a table on the back deck, I’d throw a line in and work it under the handrail and over the seat back. The next 6 or 7 hours were a blast! We landed about two dozen yellowtail snapper, along with a small amberjack and hooked up to several large barracuda that gave us a fight before breaking off. I think I stayed up until 3AM that night fishing.
We awoke the next morning and realized our trip on the boat was coming to a close. We had breakfast and sailed back to The Moorings, where we docked the boat at Tortola and packed our bags. We caught the ferry back to St. Thomas and cleared customs. By the time we arrived at one of the only hotels on the island that was open, it was noon. We checked in to the rooms and dropped our bags. Our hotel was near the airport but on a beautiful bay—a hidden gem of a beach. We had a blast reminiscing about the trip. The next morning we packed our bags and boarded the plane to come home, back to our busy lives in the Carolinas.
The BVIS did not disappoint! They were hit very hard by the storms but many of the local stops are back in business, and they are eager for tourists to return. We will definitely do this trip again and I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a quick getaway a short flight from the Southeast!