For island-hopping beach-lovers, the British Virgin Islands are paradise. From Jost Van Dyke to Anegada, the BVI offers a bevy of secluded coves and idyllic anchorages along with intimate resorts that jibe with the territory's low-key, nature-friendly feel.
The beaches themselves range from the classic beauty of pure white sand and crystal-blue water to the otherworldly sight of strands coursing through fantastical rock formations. And though it's no problem moving between the islands, you need a scorecard to tell exactly which unimaginatively same-named beach you're on. Going by the number of White Bays and Long Bays (at least three of each), the two Great Harbours, and the fact that Sandy Cay is right next to Sandy Spit, Christopher Columbus must have delegated the naming details to his assistant, Vasco de Obvious.
JOST VAN DYKE
This is one you dream about: a spotless stretch of eminently walkable sand fronted by inviting blue water and backed by an eclectic mix of beach bars and snack shacks. A knobby hill splits the beach in two, with most visitors gravitating toward the west side. Coral barricades the bay, though two cuts allow boaters to enter and anchor in the narrow slash of water between the reef and the sand. Few yachts stay here overnight because of the close quarters, so the beach clears out before sunset. Cruise-shippers ferried to the beach early in the day gravitate to the Soggy Dollar Bar; the crowd thins as you move east or west. The best snorkeling away from the boats is along the far west arm of the bay. A trail at the east end of the beach leads over a hill to Great Harbour -- a 20-minute walk.
- Where to stay: Sandcastle (284-495-9888; sandcastle-bvi.com) is a quiet cottage property beside the Soggy Dollar. Of the eight rooms, four sit just behind the beach's palms in two rondel cottages. Accommodations are basic, clean and airy. There's no air conditioning or phones; beachfront rooms have sun-warmed showers.
- Where to play: The famous Soggy Dollar Bar (284-495-9888; sandcastle-bvi.com/soggy) is under new ownership, and many yachties these days pay with waterproof credit cards instead of wet cash, but the Painkillers are still eminently analgesic and the hammocks still swing between the palms at this classic beach bar. The kitchen does a good job with flying fish and jerk chicken breast sandwiches, and their conch fritters serve as a good base for a Painkiller or Mango Madness marathon.
Seddy's One Love Bar (onelovebar.com), is a flotsam-and-jetsam-decorated hole in the beach that looks a little dark and forbidding from outside. Duck in, though, and you'll receive the warmest of welcomes and coldest of beers from Seddy Callwood and his wife, Raquelle.
East of White Bay's hump, Ivan's Stress-Free Bar (284-495-9358; caribbeancruisingclub.com/ivan) is the coolest chill-out spot, with an honor bar, light lunch menu and Thursday night barbecue.
- Hot stuff: For the best old-fashioned beach food (burgers and hot dogs) check out Jewel's Little Snack Shack (284-495-9286).
Great Harbour and Little Harbour
The beaches at Jost Van Dyke's other two main stops are nothing compared to White Bay, but both feature mandatory stops for any beach-bar aficionado. Calypsonian raconteur Foxy Callwood put Jost on the map, and his Tamarind Bar and Grill (284-495-9258; foxysbar.com) is still going strong. Foxy himself entertains, but only during the day; live bands play at night on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The popular restaurant has a full menu heavy on seafood; Friday and Saturday are barbecue nights.
Corsair's (284-495-9294) is Great Harbour's newest bar/restaurant, serving full English breakfasts, light lunches with homemade soups and a full dinner. Ali Baba's (284-495-9280) is the spot for down-home Caribbean food.
Over at less-visited Little Harbour, both Sidney's Peace & Love (284-495-9271) and Harris' Place (284-495-9302) have garnered loyal followings for their friendly, laid-back atmosphere and fresh lobster.
- Hot stuff: Not only does Foxy host the world-famous Old Year's Eve Party, but he also organizes a Wooden Boat Regatta and Halloween Cat Fight, boat races/excuses for big raucous parties. Check his Web site for the latest details.
SANDY CAY, SANDY SPIT
Sandy Cay and its little spit of a sister lie close together off Jost Van Dyke, forever causing confusion. The good news is that both are about as idyllic as it gets: simple swirls of sugary beach surrounded by luminous aquamarine water. The uninhabited islets are tiny -- you can circumnavigate Sandy Spit in less than five minutes, and only two lonely palm trees stand above its scrub -- but the castaway experience of landing on either is immeasurable. Snorkeling is good on the Cay and terrific in the shallow, coral-filled lagoon on the east side of the Spit (only enter the lagoon if it's calm; large swells could drop you onto the reef). There are no facilities on either island.
The best beaches on the BVI's big island are arrayed along its northern coast. Touring from west to east, the first is a true end-of-the-road experience and one of our favorite secret strands. Smuggler's Cove's perfect arc of soft sand is untouched by development save for Smuggler's Cove Bar, a celebrated spot tucked back into the sea grapes. The cove is a no-go area on most charter company charts, meaning that they feel the surrounding reef makes it too risky for their boats to anchor here, so the only people you'll find at Smuggler's are those who know that the quiet beach, calm water and excellent snorkeling (the reef is clearly visible about 30 yards offshore) are well worth navigating a rental car along the twisting, rutted track or making the hike from Long Bay.
- Hot stuff: Smuggler's Cove Bar was recently resurrected by Matt Denniston, son of the late Bob and Nell (CT&L December 2000) who built it in the '60s and ran it as an honor bar.
Aptly named, this sweeping beach has plenty of room to roam. The sand is ideal, but the exposure to frequent waves has left the sea floor at the edge of the beach on the east end a collection of coral pebbles and chunky-style ironshore. Simply wade past this, though, and you'll find fine swimming (when it's calm, mainly during the summer) or good body surfing/boogie boarding when the swell is up. Walk west, and the water entry gets softer; it's also less crowded when the resort, which backs a large section of the beach, is full.
- Where to stay: Long Bay Beach Resort and Villas (284-495-4252; eliteislandresorts.com) sprawls across 52 acres of beach and steep hillside, featuring villas, suites, estate homes, a spa and three restaurants, including the beachfront bar/restaurant called 1748. The resort's beachiest accommodations are the Seaside Villas, twin cottages that stand on the sand atop stilts, with hammocks strung below great decks.
Capoons Bay/Apple Bay
Everyone who hits the BVI has heard of beach-bar entrepreneur and panty collector Bomba and his refuge made of refuse, Bomba Shack, on Capoons Bay. The beach next to the Shack (and along adjacent Apple Bay) is unremarkable, except that it looks upon Tortola's most popular surf break -- best in a north or northwest wind, when a fun, right-handed ride of up to 100 yards rears up. The real draw here, though, happens after dark, when up to 1,000 revelers crowd into Bomba's beached shipwreck of a bar and spill across the road to howl at every full moon.
- Hot stuff: We've found the infamous mushroom tea less than hallucinogenic, so you might as well stick to rum or beer unless you just want the souvenir cup.
- Where to stay: A tiny beach lies hidden behind a fence across the street from the island's top boutique hotel and its finest dinner restaurant, the Sugar Mill (284-495-4355; sugarmillhotel.com). Though it offers no rooms directly on the beach, the Sugar Mill operates a separate beach restaurant, Islands, (lunch only; try the saltfish fritters), just off the sand.
Cane Garden Bay
This is Tortola's most popular beach for several reasons: It's accessible to cruise-shippers and everyone else visiting the island, it hosts a good selection of beachfront bars and restaurants, and it's a flat-out gorgeous stretch of sand ideally oriented to watch the sunset. Cane Garden is a family-friendly choice best for basking, walking and enjoying the friendly atmosphere.
Cruisers usually arrive around 11 a.m. and stay till 3 p.m.; if you're feeling crowded, the beach is very long and you can always find a lower density. If you do need to escape, drive west to Smuggler's Cove. A reef almost fully encloses the bay, though it's too far to swim through the boat traffic to get to. The reef also acts to limit water movement in the bay, so while it's usually very calm at the beach, the visibility is poor compared to other spots. Lounges are available from the Chair Man; restrooms are found beside Myett's.
- Where to stay: There are a number of small inns and hotels a short walk from the beach (Lighthouse Villas is a standout; 284-494-5482; travel-watch.com/lighthouse), but if you want to be as close as possible to the sand, try to book Unit 1 at Myett's Garden (284-495-9649; myettent.com), which offers three nice guest rooms with air conditioning.
- Where to play: Reggae recording artist Quito Rhymer, Cane Garden's favorite son, owns Quito's Gazebo (284-495-4837; quitorymer.com) next to the dinghy dock. He recently added a second floor to the restaurant, which serves up an awesome view of the bay and beach. Happy hour at the bar is from 4 to 7; Quito plays solo on Tuesday and Thursday nights, then rocks the bay with his band, The Edge, on Fridays and Saturdays.
Stanley's Welcome Bar (284-495-9424) has a satisfying menu ranging from burgers and Honey Stung Chicken to local lobster and grilled mahi. Myett's Garden and Grille also offers the basics, but it gets a little more elaborate, with daily specials that can include roast duck or seafood pasta. Myett's bar has a happy hour from 5 to 7.
A scenic switchback road slaloms down a mountain to this calm, shallow bay. Brewer's is another one dabbed red ("keep out!") on the cruising charts, but the bad news for boaters is good news for those who want a big, soft beach to themselves. Snorkelers luck out, too: They'll find excellent fish-and-critter-attracting reef and rocky structures, especially at the western edge. The tall hills begin to block the sun fairly early, so snorkel the west side in the morning and then move east.
- Where to stay: Concealed within a lush palm grove, Brewer's Bay Campground (284-494-3463) offers 22 tents along with bare sites. It's an awesome location for campers, though the moldering vegetation behind the beach makes it mosquito season year-round, so pack repellant.
- Where to play: The campground's Bamboo Beach Bar (284-494-3463) serves food all day and has a full bar. Nicole's Bar (lunch only) sits just above the beach at the west end of the bay and features fish sandwiches, hot dogs and ice cream, along with drinks.
Josiah's Bay and Elizabeth Beach
In the look-but-don't-necessarily-touch category, Josiah's is a dramatic beach that can work up big waves and a dangerous undertow. Naturally, surfers and bodysurfers love it when the north swell goes off. It's a beautiful spot to sunbathe and watch the action. Elizabeth is a broad swath of bright sand that's also exposed to the north and north-northwest swell, so it can get hairy. When it's calm, though, there's good swimming.
- Stay and play: Lambert Resort (284-495-2877; lambertbeachresort.com) has 38 accommodations, including suites set at the edge of Elizabeth Beach, with an ocean-front restaurant and a swim-up bar in Tortola's largest pool.
The best departure lounge on earth, Trellis Bay is within walking distance of Tortola's Beef Island Airport. While the beach itself is not the spot to lay down your towel for a picnic (thin and wracky with a lot of boat traffic), it is a fun and funky center of relaxed activity, with working artists (Aragorn's Studio: 284-495-1849, http://www.aragornsstudio.com/; Flukes Maps and Art Shop); cafés -- both the coffee kind (De Best Cup) and the Internet kind (Boardsailing BVI and Cyber Café -- 284-495-2447, windsurfing.vi -- also offers windsurfing lessons), and beach bar/restaurants.
- Where to play: About 50 yards down the beach from the main docks, De Loose Mongoose (serves all day; 284-495-2303; deloosemongoose.com) is a favorite stop on the yachtie circuit. The conch fritters here are the pillowy mega-battered kind, but the rest of the menu -- burgers, rotis, lobster -- is first-rate. De Mongoose's signature drink is the No-See-Um, made with 151 rum, which acts both to help you ignore the bitsy biters that frequent the bay and also alludes to the visual impairment that can occur if you drink too many.
- Hot stuff: Trellis Bay now has its own full-moon party.
Tortola's Long Bay is a very nice curl of white sand backed by thick sea grapes. Few tourists know about it and there are no food spots or facilities, but it's very popular with locals out for weekend beach picnics. There's no reef, but it's a good swimming spot -- just watch the steep drop-off a few feet in.
- Hot stuff: To find Long Bay, take the sand road just east of the bridge that connects Beef Island and Tortola.
This eco-sensitive private island has seven beaches, including a tiny pocket cove at a sheltered anchorage called Monkey Point and a windswept stretch known as North Beach. But the star is White Bay. When you add up the creamy sand, superb snorkeling, thriving wildlife and sunset views, it's arguably the finest beach in the BVI. There's a beach bar, but it's reserved for guests, and the management requests that visiting yachts use the south end of the beach, which is no hardship because that's where the bulk of the reef lies.
- Where to stay: Guana Island Resort (800-54-GUANA; guana.com) includes the entire island, though only a tiny fraction has been developed.
- Hot stuff: Guana's owners recently bought Norman Island, and there are rumors of another resort.
The Baths/Devil's Bay/Spring Bay
Yes, this site and its iconic granite formations have been promoted to death, but trust us: Walking, climbing and wading the path from the beach at The Baths through shady grottoes and sunsplashed pools to Devil's Bay is immersing yourself in one of Mother Nature's coolest Caribbean playgrounds -- and the sand and snorkeling at both ends is sublime. Day-trippers do flock here and charter boats swing from all the moorings, but things quiet down by 2 p.m. Spring Bay is a gorgeous spot, usually empty, just north of The Baths.
- Where to play: Poor Man's Bar at The Baths (open 9:30-5) has a full bar, a little kitchen with burgers and hot dogs and a shady spot to eat them, plus snorkel gear for rent.
Little Dix Bay and the Upper Coast Beaches
Set on 500 acres in its own sheltered half-mile-long bay, Little Dix Bay (888-767-3966; http://www.littledixbay.com/) is an elegantly low-key beach resort. A series of renovations continues to update this 98-room Caribbean classic. Premium ocean-view rooms, suites and beachfront cottages are available a couple of steps from the sand.
Farther north, on the western side of Virgin Gorda, are four stunning strands beneath the gaze of Gorda Peak: Savannah Bay is a lengthy stretch of deserted beach with a nice Italian restaurant called Giorgio's Table (284-495-5367) located on a bluff above the water; Pond Bay, Mahoe Bay and Nail Bay all offer dazzling snorkeling opportunities along fine beaches backed by villa-dotted hills.
North Sound/Prickly Pear Island
Vixen Point, a bustling beach operation on the tip of Prickly Pear National Park, caters to boaters, guests of local resorts like the Bitter End Yacht Club (284-494-2746; beyc.com) and passengers from the boutique cruise liners that squeeze into Virgin Gorda's North Sound, offering all comers beach barbecue and water toys. The bar is on the best beach inside the sound, and you can walk from there through the wilds of the park to an even better strand, North Beach.
A finger of mangrove-lined water in the southeast corner of North Sound leads to Biras Creek Resort (800-223-1108; biras.com), a sophisticated, luxurious retreat reachable only by boat. Sprawling from its dock on the sound across a narrow isthmus, Biras features 32 cottages on Bercher's Bay, a windward beach good for walking and watching but not for swimming. Fortunately, the resort also offers a lee beach, Deep Bay, with soft sand, placid waters, a row of inviting palapas, water sports and a beach bar/barbecue hut for guests.
COOPER ISLAND/SALT ISLAND
The most famous spot near these small islands on Sir Francis Drake Channel is actually beneath the sea: the wreck of the RMS Rhone. But both islands offer nice beaches; one has a small resort and the other is uninhabited.
Cooper Island Beach Club (800-542-4624; cooper-island.com) on Machioneel Bay offers basic accommodations on the site of a former coconut plantation, which bequeathed the hotel a grove of tall palms. A friendly, family-run feel pervades the operation, and it's another favorite anchorage for yachties who come to sun on the copper-colored sand, snorkel with turtles and rays over the sea grass and with tropical fish along the rocks and reef at Cistern Point, and then scarf down conch fritters and chocolate brownies at the beach-front restaurant.
- Hot stuff: Cooper is the closest spot to rent equipment and get air fills to dive the Rhone, which lies in 20 to 80 feet of water just off the southwestern shore of Salt.
To find a list of BVI dive shops and liveaboard dive boats, go to http://www.bviscuba.org/.
The BVI's largest private island has several noteworthy beaches. Deadman's Bay (it faces the island known as Deadman's Chest of "Yo Ho Ho" fame) is a mile-long sweep of silky sand backed by rustling palms, with complete water sports for guests and a good shot at spotting sea turtles over the nearshore grass beds; fish-watching is better around the edges of the bay. A rocky outcrop separates the main beach from Little Deadman's, the equally nice though smaller strand that the resort prefers visiting yachties to use. Deadman's Beach Bar & Grill welcomes guests and island-hopping visitors for lunch and dinner. White Bay, inside Peter's elbow facing Norman Island, lives up to its fair name and offers excellent snorkeling on patch and fringing reef.
- Where to stay: Peter Island Resort (800-346-4451; peterisland.com) has beachy suites in four-unit buildings at the west end of Deadman's Beach, each with an oceanfront balcony or patio. The resort's lavish new spa overlooks Big Reef Bay, where waves break on a reef that protects a long arcing beach theatrically backed by green hills. The snorkeling here is very good when it's calm enough.
Fewer than 200 people live on what translates from Spanish as "Flooded" or "Drowned" Island -- so called because compared to all the hilly BVI, this 11-mile-long flat chunk of coral appears to be slipping underwater. If you're a beach-loving, snorkel-happy escapist looking for mind-expanding vistas of nothing but sand, sea and sky, Anegada is your island. There's very little else here other than some lobster-dishing beach bar/restaurants, casual lodgings, gatherings of bonefish and flamingoes and miles of dusty, enthusiastically cow-pattied roads.
Loblolly Bay/Flash of Beauty
The entire north shore of Anegada is basically one long, undulating beach with mile after mile of very white sand tinged pink in places where enough forams have washed ashore from Horseshoe Reef. The eastern section of beach is best known as Loblolly, with the eastern part of that stretch called Flash of Beauty. Drive to the end of the wavy roads (you'll see signposts) to either, and you'll find a beach bar, hammocks, more beach than you can walk and good-to-superb snorkeling. Inside the main part of the reef are large coral bommies -- outposts that concentrate marine life -- surrounded by sand. When it's calm enough to snorkel over the actual fringing reef, you'll find the full range of tropical fish and other creatures.
- Where to play: Big Bamboo beach bar/restaurant (284-499-1680), Anegada's most popular spot for day-trippers, is on Loblolly proper. Flash of Beauty (284-495-8014) is to the east. Both spots specialize in locally caught lobster, which, despite the casual atmosphere, is pricey -- but it's worth the splurge when it's fresh. Conch fritters and anything recently yanked out of the nearby waters are also recommended.
West End/Cow Wreck
On the west, sunset-y end of Anegada is Cow Wreck Beach and, naturally, an uber-friendly beach bar/restaurant (284-495-9461) of the same name. It's extremely hard to recommend one spot over another on this island of world-class beaches, but some notable things about Cow Wreck are that the bar and hammocks here have a view of the beach and water, while on Loblolly they're behind a copse of sea grapes.
- Where to stay: Scattered along a secluded West End beach, Anegada Seaside Villas (anegadavillas.com; 284-495-9466) are brightly colored one-bedroom cottages featuring complete kitchens and covered patios. On the south side of the island, near the anchorage, is Neptune's Treasure (neptunestreasure.com; 284-495-9439), a family-run hotel, bar and restaurant just behind the beach. The clean, simple rooms have air conditioning and porches; hammocks are strung from a line of palms at the edge of the beach.
CTL Beach Report
- Barefoot Factor: The sand in the BVI ranges from the powdery, ivory-colored coating of the assorted White Bays to the pink-hued, foraminifera-speckled crushed coral and coralline algae on Anegada to the finely ground gold-and-gray stone of Cooper Island.
- Access: All beaches in the BVI are public to just above the high-water line. Private resorts, however, request that day visitors use certain beaches or sections.
- Getting Around: If you're not touring by boat, you'll need a rental car to beach-hop Tortola and a rental or taxis on Anegada and Virgin Gorda. Ten Toe Turbo with an occasional taxi ride will be good enough for Jost Van Dyke if you don't mind hills.
- Undress Code: Public nudity is a no-no in the BVI -- though a segment of the yachting crowd makes it their mission to seek out secluded spots to strip down.
- Best Snorkeling Beaches: Sandy Spit; Loblolly, Anegada; Smuggler's Cove, Tortola; White Bay, Guana; The Baths/Devil's Bay, Virgin Gorda.
- Best Sandy Sunsets: Cane Garden Bay, Tortola; Savannah Bay, Virgin Gorda; West End, Anegada.
- Best People-Watching: Cane Garden Bay, Tortola.
- Best Beachy Day Trips: Sandy Spit; Sandy Cay; Anegada; The Baths, Virgin Gorda.
- Best Beach Bars: Soggy Dollar, One Love, Sidney's Peace & Love, Foxy's -- all Jost Van Dyke; Cow Wreck, Anegada; Stanley's Welcome Bar, Tortola.
- Best Beach Parties: Foxy's Old Year's Eve; Cane Garden Bay Music Festival (May 26-28); Full Moon Party at Bomba Shack; Full Moon Party at Trellis Bay.
Caribbean Travel & Life is the magazine for anyone in search of the perfect tropical getaway. Each issue presents expert insider’s advice on where to find the Caribbean’s best beaches and attractions, its finest resorts and spas, liveliest beach bars and activities, and its friendliest people.