Road Town – Tortola, BVI
Once part of a long mountain chain, Tortola’s dramatic landscape today is made up of what remained above water when the oceans rose and all but drowned the area. Today this sleepy part of the Caribbean is filled with slopes and peaks draped in lush tropical greenery while the coastline is ringed about with sheltered bays and inlets which draw yachters and boaters from far and wide. These pleasure sailors anchor up to come ashore and enjoy the gorgeous white sand beaches fringed by coconut palms or while away some time in one of the many waterfront bars, cafes and restaurants.
Although Tortola is the largest of the British Virgin Islands it is still small –just 56km square. Thismeans nothing is out of reach no matter how restrictedyour time and despite its diminutive size this tropical gem has plenty to explore. Those who want to unearth something of the island’s history can head to such places as Old Government House or the highly atmospheric Callwood Rum Distillery; adventure seekers can take their pick from such things as an amazing zipline-like experience, island jeep safaris or snorkel tours to explore an underwater world teeming with turtles, fish and rays.
Road Town, the BVI capital, is a picturesque sweep of coastal loveliness set around the harbor and its sailboats which then stretches back into the valley that sits nestled between green hills. Here you can find shops, a couple of museums, any number of places to eat and drink and a laid-back island-living vibe. Outside of this center and elsewhere on the island you can easily find glorious nature or hidden beaches which you can have all to yourself.
Most who arrive here tend to embark on an instant love affair with this special place and whether your idea of tropical perfection is floating in crystal clear waters with the sun on your face or keeping yourself 100% active from dawn until dusk Tortola can deliver.
A Morning in Road Town
Begin your Tortola morning walking through history in the rooms of the Old Government House Museum, a former residence for officially-appointed governors and a manor much visited by the British royal family. After a pause for coffee you can continue your historic theme with a visit to the charmingly rustic Callwood Distillery where you can tour this centuries-old rum production plant and sample some of its small-batch rums.
The Old Government House Museum
On Anguilla the Queen is represented by an official governor and until 1997 the Old Government House had served as residence for every governor since it was first constructed in the late 1800s. Today this elegant white manor house with its sweeping arches and picturesque shutters has become a museum and is a great way for visitors to introduce themselves to the island.
Every room has beendecorated in period style with the lovely dining room of particular note with its stunning collection of murals covering each wall. Filling each room are displays of relevant-age furniture and artifacts so you can yourself experience what life was like for the string of governors who lived here. Much of what you see has actually been donated by those very residents themselves such as a full ceremonial uniform complete with plumed helmet which was worn during inspections of Her Majesty’s Royal Police Force,a hallway clock brought back from an oversea tour of another British Territory and an antique hand-painted china set.
In its role as official residence for overseas representatives of Queen Elizabeth II’s government, this grand house has played host to a number of royal visits. These include those by the Queen herself during royal yacht tours as well as state visits by her children, her sister Princess Margaret and her husband Prince Phillip. In the guest books displayed here you can see the royal signatures of each of these regal visitors.
Besides its significance as an historical building, its charming interior collection of exhibits and lovely waterfront views from the upper floors, the house itself actually has an interesting tale to tell. Old Government House was all but destroyed in 1924 by a severe hurricane which lay waste much of the island. One first floor interior part survived the devastation thanks to walls three feet thick and today in this room you can read details of the storm written by Agnes Hancock who was living in the house at the time with her husband, then serving as island Administrator.
Besides a pretty little gift shop, Old Government House also has a beautiful patio area at the rear from which you can take a wander through the original gardens.
Although you can make an independent exploration of this colonial leftover many choose to take advantage of a guided tour during which you will hear any number of interesting anecdotes that add significant depth to your visit.
Morning Coffee in Road Town
Once you have finished exploring the antiquities of the Old Government House you can stroll 500m north for a tucked-away morning coffee break surrounded by greenery at the Sweet N’ Savoury Bakery located on Waterfront Drive. This charming little garden oasis has a wooden deck with umbrella-shaded wooden tables around which are planted a plethora of tropical blooms whose fragrance fills the air as you relax with a coffee or cold drink.
As the name might suggest, this is also a wonderful choice for all those who need a sweet or savory treat to accompany their mid-morning pause, with a mouthwatering selection of fresh-baked goods to choose from.
For those who put great store by the quality of their coffee, just a stone’s throw from the Sweet N’ Savoury Bakery can be found Island Roots which serves as both bustling cafe and gift gallery. Everything about this spot is charming –from its laid-back BVI vibe to its Old Custom House location which dates from the 1700s. The interior area surrounds you with locally made handicrafts such as carvings, artwork and jewelry while for those who prefer their coffee break alfresco there is a cute little outside terrace.
Coffee quality is high here, served to you by skilled baristas, while the great range of pastries and sweet treats will help to boost your energy so you’ll feel ready to head off exploring again.
The Callwood Rum Distillery
Suitably refreshed after your morning pause you can head 7km west from Road Town to the beautiful Cane Garden Bay. Here, nestled amid verdant greenery, can be found the historic Callwood Distillery which isn’t just a must-do for rum fans but also for all those who want to get a little further acquainted with Tortola’s past and cultural heritage.
Oozing Old World charm and full of atmosphere, this rustic stone-built distillery has been producing rum from its own plantation-grown sugar cane for several centuries making it the oldest distillery in the Eastern Caribbean. Although no-one is quite sure whenit all started, the current owners –the Callwood family –can trace their history here back to the 1700s and today they continue to produce their small-batch rum varieties, much as their ancestors did 300 years ago.The equipment used and methods employed have also changed little despite the passing of the years. The Callwood Distillery still fires up its original coal-heated boiler to produce its rums while the dusty wooden casks within which their dark rum sits to age and which line the stairs and wallsare also some of the originals.
For small change you can sample each of the Callwood’s four rums which are a basic white, both a 4-year and10-year blend and a spiced dark rum. All are for sale here too and well-priced should you find you want to take a bottle home with you.
Short tours of the distillery are also possible during which you will learn about the processes you can see at work and find yourself plunged into the past as you hear the fascinating Callwood plantation and distillery story.
There is also a small art gallery and gift shop attached housed within a building which was once the plantation’s guardhouse.
Lunch in Road Town and Tortola
Tortola’s cuisine tends to get little mention but this is rather more due to the fact that all the limelight goes to the idyllic boating scene and the Caribbean-perfect beaches than anything else. In reality foodies will be far from disappointed on this small island when it comes time to eat with incredible views to gaze upon typically a standard inclusion in the experience.
While internationally-influenced cuisine is offered everywhere there are also spots ideal for those who want a more authentic meal with Road Town’s Midtown Restaurantone such choice in this category. This no-frills place won’t suit those looking for a refined lunch but if traditional and typical dishes, great prices, generous portions and rubbing shoulders with the islandersare what you are looking for this is an ideal option.
Super popular here are the roti and conch dishes along with their seafood soup while other options include salt fish, chicken and stews. Besides the permanent menu there are also daily specials chalked up on a board and while you’re here be sure to try Midtown’s johnnycakes, said to be among the best to be found anywhere on the island.
Variety of cuisine types aside, Tortola’s dining scene also covers thefull spectrum with regard to its atmosphere and formality diversity. Everything from casual fare to gourmet dining is on offer and occasionally you can find these two extreme ends in the same establishment. The Sugar Mill Hotel and Restaurant is a case inpoint although the fine dining option here is only open for dinner. Across the road from its restored sugar mill premises and principal restaurant can be found the lovely Tramonti however, which does offer lunch and serves Italian and other Mediterranean cuisine in a setting which is both casual and stylish.
Right on the sands of the gorgeous little Apple Bay, this open-sided terrace offers all the benefit of the breeze along with stunning views of Caribbean Sea and another of the British Virgin Islands -Jost Van Dyke –on the horizon. Before hurricane Irma arrived Tramonti looked a little different but was both expanded and improved during rebuilding with beautiful results. The stone columns which support the wooden roof are inlaid with shells and coral fragments which Irma tossed onto the sands while wooden furniture and tablecloths have replaced plastic chairs and bench seats.
Expect menu choices such as moules mariniere, oyster and salmon pasta dishes, pizzas, chicken parmagiana and some creative salads.
An Afternoon in Road Town and the Surrounds of Tortola
Two of Tortola’s most magnificent natural tropical charms are its lush rainforest interior andits gorgeous crystal waters full of marine life and coral gardens. For your afternoon hours you can decide which of these you would like to concentrate on with either a tour to the top snorkel site in the BVI with its legends of pirate treasures or a thrilling ride through the jungle canopy with the extra reward of the most spectacular views on the island.
Snorkeling and Snorkel Tours
Idyllic crystal clear warm waters, coral gardens and an incredible variety of marine life ensure snorkeling is a highly popular way to spend some time on Tortola.
The island has several sites which can be accessed directly from the beach and allow snorkelers to enjoy the underwater wonders independently. There are also several choices too for snorkel tours and these typically involve a boat journey which whisks their clients off to some of the island’s most spectacular and otherwise inaccessible sites. Options here include Smuggler’s Cove and Brewer’s Bay, both known for their turtles and vast shoals of tiny rainbow-colored fish.
However, the sites generally accepted to be king of them all are found at the breath-takingly lovely Norman Island which is reached after a highly scenic half hour boat ride from Road Town. Believed by many to be the inspiration behind Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate adventure story Treasure Island, Norman Island’s lushly cloaked hills rise dramatically from its surrounding turquoise waters and its only inhabitants are goats and various other animal species. This is a true desert island-like destination which never fails to leave its visitors speechless at the incredible beauty of it all.
The first of the two iconic snorkel and dive sites here is the Indians whose four rocky outcrops sit just offshore of the tiny Pelican Island just north of Norman Island. The submerged parts of the rocks have been colonized by corals and sponges and make up a habitat for all kinds of marine life which seek shelter and food. Popular with divers because of its underwater tunnel, this site is also ideal for snorkelers who can explore the super shallow ‘fish bowl’ –a scooped out reef area which is teeming with fish in vibrantly electrifying hues.
The second multi-level site is known as the Caves which sit at the foot of a cliff on the island’s western end and represents for many the jewel in the crown of all BVI snorkel sites. Enshrouded in legend surrounding real-life buried pirate treasure, the Caves site is lauded for its incredible beauty, its abundance of birds such as pelicans and a seething marine life living beneath the surface. With several areas to explore, none of which exceed more than 1.2m in depth once beyond the cave entrances, the cave walls are encrusted with corals and sponges in a magnificent range of colors and formations. The highlight of this incredible site is the northern-most cave which extends far back into the cliff face and plunges you into darkness. Here, with a flash-light, the snorkeling experience is truly magical as you swim amid the shimmering of brilliant purple and terracotta corals above the water line while beneath the surface you are surrounded by fish in shades of neon blue, red and yellow.
The Original Virgin Canopy Tour
Just a 10 minute drive from Road Town will bring you to the top of Johnsons Ghut where the enterprising outfitknown as the Original Virgin Canopy Tour offers the adventurous a way to have the most spectacular views of the island possible.
Billing themselves as an experience similar to a zipline but safer and quieter, the cables here stretched between soaring platforms take you on a thrilling ride through and above the jungle canopy. Surrounding you with exotic birds and blooms, the canopy tour also rewards you with far-reaching vistas of the island interior, the ocean and the entire harbor area.
Once you have finished flying through the air take in some more of those glorious views with your feet planted back on solid ground from the tropical paradise-surrounded patio. You can buy refreshments and snacks here too and while you are taking a well-earned pause you can soak up the sweeping panoramas and try and make out the island of St. Croix which lies about 70km to the south, visible from this elevated perch when the weather is at its clearest.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Road Town and Tortola
From beach-living casual to elegantly chic and from small-batch rum cocktails and traditional West Indian plates to internationally influenced food and drink Tortola truly has somethingfor every taste and palate.
The most bar and restaurant options center around either Road Town or a few kilometers west at Cane Garden Bay but short taxi rides make every other destination on this tiny island reachable with minimal effort.
Tortola has some truly memorable venues for you to enjoy sundowners ranging from tucked-away terraces surrounded by tropical blooms to elevated perches which give you commanding views of the island and the Caribbean Sea. For those who don’t consideranywhere ideal unless they can watch the sunset with their favorite drink to hand there is plenty of choice but one spot which is often described as having the best sunset view on the island is the Bananakeet Cafe at the Heritage Inn.
Located 4km from Road Town and sitting perched on the elevated Windy Hill backing Carrot Bay, this exceptional place was not so long ago yet one more victim of the devastating hurricane Irma of 2017. Dusting itself down and rebuilding itself to its former glory, Bananakeet tells its customers that ‘the higher you go, the better the view’ and it is a theory hard to argue with as you sit gazing out over the ocean here. Order your cocktail, wine, beer or other preferred drink, settle down at one of the alfresco terrace’s tables which surround the pool and then sit back for a front row view of a multi-colored Caribbean sunset with other islands forming the horizon backdrop across the water. If you are here on a Wednesday or Friday you will also be serenaded by local 12-string guitarist Rubin Chinnery as you feel the breeze on your face at this wonderful top-of-the-world feel spot.
Wine lovers looking for a pre-dinner drink option don’t even have to stray out of town as the Dove Restaurant and Wine Bar is as centrally located as it comes. With the most extensive and top-notch wine cellar of the entire British Virgin Islands, this venue also happens to be outstanding when it comes to helpings of charm too, located as it is inside an old traditional cottage. The beautiful outside deck here allows you to enjoy your cocktail or wine beneath the spread of a fruit tree as atmospheric lights cloak everything in a romantic glow. Alternativelyyou can head to the Old World-look upper-level Dragonfly Lounge where its 4-7pm happy hour means you can sample a range of their cocktails expertly blended from home-grown herbs and premises-specific syrups without breaking the bank.
So ultimately perfect are Tortola’s glorious beaches and so ideal are its geographical and climatic make-up for the boating and yachting fraternity that these two elements always seem to grab all the limelight leaving little room for any mention of the cuisine. However, the island has a magnificent range of choice and those who put great emphasis on quality dining experiences are not going to be disappointed.
Both of the drinking venues above –the Bananakeet and the Dove -allow you to transition to dining and both have solid reputations for the world-class quality of their fine-dining restaurants.
For those who would like something of an authentic Caribbean dining experience there are several options one of which is Carrot Bay’s D’Coal Pot.This casual restaurant with its warm island ambiance places you right on the beach so whether you opt for dining inside or out your views are gorgeous.
The whole menu here is based principally around Caribbean spices and flavorings with some incredible sauces created by the restaurant’s chefs. Appetizer options include such delights as conch fritters and coconut shrimp while main plates are wonderfully diverse with choices including roti, ginger wine chicken, grilled lobster, steaks, ribs and daily fish specials such as snapper and mahi-mahi.
For a special occasion dinner for two the refined Brandywine Estate Restaurant offers the best inboth magnificent views and the sophisticated creations of a French chef. The interior space at this south coast spot is Mediterranean bistro style by candlelight, surrounded by colorful artwork, while the gorgeous alfresco rooftop deck offers views of ocean and islands in its sweeping 160 degree vista.
The owner couple have worked hard here to create a magical ambiance, paying attention to all the details which are needed to make a dining experience out-of-the-ordinary; at the Brandywine music, lighting, plants, color, service, food presentation and of course the wonderful food itself all play their part.
The menu is French-inspired with a great seafood selection and a good wine menu surprisingly well-priced which includes champagnes if you really want tocelebrate. The food choices change frequently but there are always some true favorites which keep their place on the menu such as the lobster bisque, the moules mariniere, lamb shank and oysters.
To round off your evening you can take coffee in the garden or head to the petanque court above it for an after-dinner game of boules.
An Evening in Road Town and Tortola
Caribbean nights on Tortola typically involve finding your ideal spot at a beach bar to enjoy a few drinks before bed time. Entertainment tends to come in the form of listening to the sounds of the sea, watching the canopy of stars above you and enjoying the company of friends and family. Live music is fairly easy to find if you’d like to inject a little of that into your after-dark hours on the island with everything possible from soft jazz to steel bands.
Cane Garden Bay and Road Town have the highest concentration of entertainment offerings with various different establishments regularly hosting live musicians depending on the day of the week. Head to the Gazebo at Quito’s for a spot of reggae and calypso or the Village Cay Resort and Marina where a few island artists perform, most often on the weekends.