Enjoying the Sun, Sea on Idyllic Isles

Nottle is a free-lance writer living in Boston

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

The next morning all six of our crew decided to hike over the hill to neighboring White Bay. As I climbed the steep incline, which was unpaved and showed evidence that cattle had recently passed by, the burning sunshine made me pause under each shade tree and wish I had dunked my head in the ocean before setting out.

At the crest, jungle took over, and the path thinned to a questionable-looking dark line through the knee-high growth. But the sign on a wooden gate declared it was "only for cows" and invited humans to the beach below.

There we swam to cool off and inspected an isolated beach house (welcomed by its caretaker, who was glad of company and proud of his work) before snorkeling around another hilly point--well, it beats walking--toward the Soggy Dollar bar.

The Soggy Dollar, which takes its name from yachtsmen swimming ashore for a drink with bar money tucked in their trunks, specializes in a drink called the Painkiller, a concoction of orange juice, pineapple juice and rum topped with fragrant, freshly ground nutmeg.

It's perhaps the most widely known attraction at Sandcastle, a small cottage resort typical of the accommodations on the less-developed islands.

Loafing Comes First

Recently reopened after a devastating fire in 1986, Sandcastle is the land equivalent of a yacht (mostly nothing to do but loaf) and proprietors Frank Muller and Daphne Henderson intend to keep it that way. We took turns in the hammock until the friendly caretaker offered us a speedboat ride around Pull and Be Damned.

A few days later, after a trip to St. John and a land excursion for the hard-core shoppers (including me), we returned to Jost Van Dyke, one of the easier ports for clearing customs.

This time, when the group went ashore for a hike in the opposite direction I chose to stay home on La Bash and be lulled to sleep by the boat's gentle rocking. Terminal Tropical Torpor had set in, and I couldn't have been happier.

Although Jost was our hands-down favorite, other islands had their rewards.

Cooper Island had superb snorkeling in Manchioneel Bay and a climb along a rocky path, where we moved carefully to avoid stepping on land crabs and grabbing cacti for balance, to its crest with its fine view of the island's northeast shore.

Feeding the Fish

Tortola's Cane Garden Bay offered two beachfront bars, Rhymer's and Stanley's, serving rival pina coladas, grilled lobsters and reggae music at night. St. John gave us Maho Bay, where after dark we would feed fish (including three-foot sharks) that leaped from the water and bats that swooped from the sky.

By no means did we see everything in the islands. We missed Norman Island, said to be the original "Treasure Island"; the salt-harvesting ponds of Salt Island; the coral-encrusted wreck of the steamer Rhone, a British mail ship that sank in 1867, and The Baths, a dramatic rock formation on Virgin Gorda. No matter. The island pace teaches patience, and they could wait for another time.

As we were dropping off La Bash and taking long, luxurious showers, the Cunard Countess was steaming into Road Town for the day. The Countess seemed a lovely ship, graceful and pristine-white, but as I thought of those hundreds of passengers invading Tortola, I was just as glad we had seen the islands our way.

And as Air BVI carried me back to San Juan and civilization in 45 minutes, it seemed fitting that the last thing I saw, before the DC-3 climbed above a fluffy fair-weather cloud, was that desert island off Green Cay.

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Here are some companies that charter yachts in the British Virgin Islands. Rates are given for peak-season bareboat charters only; crew and provisioning cost extra.

Caribbean Sailing Yachts--Box 491, Tenafly, N.J. 07670. Boats from 42 to 50 feet, $2,443 to $3,395 a week, with a seven-day minimum.

Caribbean Yacht Charters Inc.--P.O. Box 583, Marblehead, Mass. 01945; phone (617) 599-7990 or (800) 225-2520. Fleet of 40 boats from 32 to 52 feet in various configurations, $1,695 to $3,795 a week. Free days given with one-week charters at various times of year.

North South Yacht Charters--P.O. Box 59, Buffalo, N.Y. 14205; phone (800) 387-4964. About 50 C&C; yachts from 36 to 43 feet, chartering from Leverick Bay on Virgin Gorda. $275 to $350 a day.

Steven Yachts--252 East Ave., Norwalk, Conn; phone (800) 638-7044. Charters out of Sopers Hole, western Tortola; fleet runs from 40 to 47 feet. $2,500 to $3,250 a week.

Tortola Yacht Charters--Nanny Cay, Tortola; phone (800) 243-9936. A selection of Endeavors and Beneteaus from 33 to 51 feet; adding 48-foot luxury motor yachts in late 1987. $1,695 to $3,850 a week.

Tropic Island Yacht Management Ltd.--P.O. Box 240, Road Town, Tortola, BVI; phone (800) 494-2450. Bareboat or crewed charters on yachts ranging from 30 to 48 feet. $1,496 to $2,468 a week. Crewed boats up to 115 feet ($30,000 a week).

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