SPANISH TOWN – Virgin Gorda
Gorgeous Virgin Gorda sits like a vibrant green jewel encircled by white sand beaches and secret coves. All of this floats amid aquamarine waters where rainbow-colored coral gardens are never far beneath the sparkling surface. Although the third-largest of the British Virgin Islands, Virgin Gorda is compact – just eight miles square – and home to only a few hundred people.
Everything about this island is a perfect embodiment of the idyllically Caribbean, from its gentle, slow pace of life to the aromas of tropical blooms and grilling lobster which fill the air everywhere you go. It’s breath-takingly beautiful beaches are considered some of the best in the whole of the Caribbean while the sailing here is also considered top-notch by those in the yachting fraternity.
While many who arrive on these paradise-like shores simply choose to cruise around its waters or laze on its palm-dotted beaches there are plenty of activities and sights for those who want to go exploring. Driving or hiking offer some sensational look-out stops where panoramas of blue seas and islands stretch as far as the eye can see while historic leftovers include atmosphere-infused ruins of an old copper mine and a sugar plantation.
The island’s most treasured jewel however is entirely nature-made and an essential stop for every Virgin Gorda visitor. The geological phenomenon known as the Baths with its giant coast-strewn stacked boulders, secret grottoes and pool-filled caverns has to be seen to be believed and is a regular inclusion on lists such as the most beautiful places in all the Caribbean.
Bars, cafes and restaurants are dotted all over the island but the main center is sleepy Spanish Town where you will also find shops, bakeries, hotels and operators offering everything from fishing tours to glass-bottom kayak rentals.
A Morning on Virgin Gorda
Begin your morning with some magnificent views atop the island’s highest peak followed by an adventure at Virgin Gorda’s most famous attraction – the incredible Baths.
Hike or Drive to Gorda Peak
If fresh Caribbean air, nature immersion and spectacular views sound appealing to you then a hike to Gorda Peak is a great way to kick-start your day while giving yourself an instant introduction to Virgin Gorda’s beauty. Soaring to more than 1300ft and cloaked in tropical greenery, Gorda Peak represents the island’s highest point and is part of the Gorda Peak National Park.
There are two trails you can take depending on how much time you have with the longer of the two beginning at a lower elevation and offering a 50-60 minute trek. This then joins another higher elevation trail and brings you to the peak after 20 minutes of walking, a better option if your schedule is tighter. Although the last stretch is quite steep the hike is not considered especially challenging and the whole point of taking this walk is to take your time to enjoy the array of orchids, jungle vines, cacti and other tropical blooms and plants both tiny and towering which will all be part of your hike.
The longer option, in particular, allows you to notice the changes in vegetation on the slopes which begin as dry forest and change to damper conditions where different plants and trees thrive. Gorgeous jewel-bright crested hummingbirds and butterflies are two of the natural inhabitants you may see along the way while the national park land here is also a favored habitat of the Virgin Gorda gecko. You will have to have keen eyesight if you want to spot this island native though; found only in the British Virgin Islands, this tiny lizard measures less than 1 inch in length and is one of the smallest on the planet.
While spotting the minute lizard might be only for the lucky and eagle-eyed the jaw-dropping 360 degree views from the summit are for everyone to marvel at as the island is laid out at your feet. Star of the show is the Caribbean Sea itself which from your high-elevation vantage point seemingly displays every shade of blue possible. From this altitude the island reefs beneath the crystal water surfaces are also visible along with beaches and other islands of the archipelago such as Tortola and St. John to the south-west and Anegada to the north.
For those who want the views but are less keen on spending any energy the beauty of Gorda Peak is also accessible by car or tour bus. A switchback road climbs this mountain to about three quarters of its height with a collection of breath-taking observation decks and look-out points strung along its length.
Morning Coffee on Virgin Gorda
After hiking the island’s highest peak you will have earned your coffee break and one lovely spot which you can head for in Spanish Town – the main settlement – is the Bath and Turtle, 100m inland from the ferry dock at St. Thomas Bay. Surrounded by tropical plants and blooms, this little gem’s outdoor courtyard terrace is dotted about with miniature fountains and bamboo screens and offers a truly tranquil and charming oasis.
In the mornings, locals, leisure sailors and visitors drop by for breakfast or morning pause refreshments, drawn in by the alluring aromas of fresh coffee which seem to perpetually waft from this lovely spot.
For those who like to have a selection of sweet and savory treats to accompany their morning coffee make your way to the LSL Bakery on the fringes of Spanish Town and on the road which leads to the Baths where you will be headed next. This local’s favorite has been part of the island scene now for almost 30 years and serves as both restaurant and bakery as well as acting as a base for the family-run cake-making business.
Walk up the wooden steps to enter the lovely patio deck and settle down for a coffee break surrounded by plants and greenery. The diverse and mouth-watering array of fresh-baked goods includes such things as giant cookies, fruit tarts and specialty pastries so you are sure to find something to tempt you.
Collectively the British Virgin Islands are far from short on natural treasures but undoubtedly the most famous of them all is an incredible geological formation known as the Baths. Located at the island’s most southerly point the Baths – and its national park of the same name – are a collection of colossal and fantastically-shaped boulders strewn around the coast. Originally exposed by natural erosion, the wind and waves have also further sculpted these impressive rocks which have given rise to a series of magical grottoes, hidden caves and seawater pools of astonishing beauty.
The white-sand beach at the Baths with its turquoise waters is as idyllic and tropically perfect as it comes while those with a sense of adventure can head off on a 20 minute trail which leads to Devil’s Bay. This wonderful walking route leads you through some of the Bath’s most photogenic and enchanting scenery as you squeeze through gaps in the rocks and scramble over smooth boulders to arrive at hidden pools and rock passages of such loveliness they will leave you breathless. When you finally emerge at Devil’s Bay be prepared to be gaping in wonder yet again as this tiny greenery-backed crescent of bleached white sand is the stuff of which tropical dreams are made.
As the top tourist spot on the island and an absolute Virgin Gorda must-do the Baths are never free of people unless you arrive very early. A quieter Baths-like alternative can be found at Spring Bay which is just north of the Baths and a separate national park. Here you can see the same giant boulders scattered along powdery sands backed by palms and sea-grape trees along with a beautiful turquoise salt pool known as the Crawl. If you arrive with your snorkel gear this little bay is a wonderful place to head out and get up-close-and-personal with the marine life which teems around the reefs here.
Lunch on Virgin Gorda
While compact Virgin Gorda’s cafes and restaurants present a diversity of cuisine types and settings one thing which can be found practically everywhere is great seafood and fresh fish. Another often-found factor – although not quite as ubiquitous as the lobster, conch and shrimp – is that of great views so you don’t have to lose sight of your gorgeous tropical surroundings for one minute. One lunch option in this category is the Top of the Baths which, as the name suggests, sits perched on a hillside above the stunning geological boulders, pools and hidden caverns you will have just finished exploring.
So exceptional is this setting and its sweeping panoramic views that many who want to experience the natural splendor of the area without making any physical effort choose to come here simply to gaze upon the spectacular vistas. Its visitors can also drink, eat, enjoy the pool or browse the collection of shops to stock up on some island souvenirs.
The food is an eclectic mix of Caribbean fare and international dishes with appetizers such as crab or conch fritters and lunch mains which include grilled lobster, curry chicken, rotis and pasta. There is also a sushi menu and a wonderful choice of home-made desserts such as coconut rum cake.
If you prefer to head back to Spanish Town one of the settlement’s newest restaurant choices which offers some of the best lunch deals around is the Spanish Town Cafe. The color-splashed little wooden deck here is open-air so you can enjoy the breeze and although the venue might be one of the newer additions around it has wasted no time in earning itself a reputation for its super-friendly welcome and great service.
As an island with a firmly established Dominican community the Spanish-influenced food of this culture is found throughout the island. This family run cafe draws its inspiration from such cuisine but also combines elements of West Indian dishes and traditional cooking which together offers you something a little different. Describing itself as serving up ‘homie’ and authentic comfort food, the Spanish Cafe has daily specials displayed on a blackboard alongside its regular menu.
The two together give an extensive choice, especially considering the cafe’s small size and there are good options for those with lighter appetites such as pasta salads, soups, wraps and sandwiches. For a more hearty lunch choose from dishes such as stews, burgers, meatballs and fried chicken with sides of rice and beans.
An Afternoon on Virgin Gorda
Virgin Gorda may be small but that doesn’t mean it is short on activities and places to explore should you want to do something more than simply lounge around its lovely beaches. For those interested in island history or for anyone who enjoys discovering off-the-beaten-path sites where abandoned ruins allow you a glimpse of bygone times you can spend an afternoon touring Virgin Gorda to do just that.
Alternatively, if getting out on the water in some way is how you’d like to fill your time here there is also a wide choice of possibilities ranging from surfing to sailing.
Exploring Virgin Gorda’s Historical Relics
Despite its compact size Virgin Gorda has a few interesting historical leftovers which give you a window onto the island’s past. Although all are worth exploring none of them are extensive and because Virgin Gorda is just eight square miles all can easily be covered in one afternoon.
The simplest way to take in the main sites is to sign up to an island tour although if you prefer to do things independently you can hire taxis and cars to explore on your own schedule.
The Copper Mine
Sitting atop an exposed promontory and reached at the end of a winding road in the island’s far south, the Copper Mine’s isolated setting peppered about with the abandoned ruins of a 19th century mine is infused with atmosphere. Designated a national park due to its historical significance, this rocky outcrop was once the site of a copper mine, first established in 1838 and worked by a team of 140 islanders. This local workforce was overseen by engineers and experienced miners shipped in from Cornwall, a part of England which during this period had a thriving copper mining industry. Their expertise was needed to build steam engines and ore extraction equipment along with maintaining the pumps which kept the underground tunnels free of seawater.
The mine’s life was a relatively short one, abandoned completely in the 1860s, but for the years it operated it extracted thousands of tons of ore which were then shipped back to the British Isles.
Today you can wander amid the stone ruins which include a chimney, cistern, engine house and the building which stood above the far-extending main shaft. The overall look of the site (where copper veins are still visible) with its crumbling ruins perched above a rugged and rocky coastline continuously pounded by waves is incredibly similar in appearance to the old copper mining areas of the UK’s south-west. Here, however, the tropical vegetation which now creeps over the relics is a definite reminder that this is the Caribbean and not a corner of old world England.
Another Copper Mine relic can be found at Handsome Bay around two miles to the north. The beam engine which lies in pieces on this beach was originally brought from Cornwall in 1840 and is said to be the oldest of its kind in existence. And it isn’t only the scenery and old buildings which maintain a record of the island’s mining past but the local people themselves; there are still islanders who can trace their lineage to those Cornish miners who decided to remain on Virgin Gorda after the mine ceased its operations to raise families with the island’s women.
Little Fort Ruins
At the same southern end of the island as the Copper Mine can be found Little Fort National Park whose 36 acres comprise both wildlife sanctuary and the ruins of what was once a fort. Hidden away and requiring a hike to arrive here, this is perhaps one of the historic sites which is best included as part of a guided tour.
There is limited historical fact known regarding who built these crumbling structures and when and there is actually little identifiable here today beyond an ammunitions storage with its exceptionally thick walls. Like many tropically-located ruins which have been abandoned, the trees and vines of this area are working hard to reclaim the site, an element which considerably adds to its overlaid and evocative air of something lost to time and memory.
Nail Bay Sugar Mill Ruins
North from Spanish town and in the island’s central area nestled within lush green hills lie the crumbling ruins of an old sugar mill, surrounded by banana trees and palms. Rather more extensive than the fort site, the ruins here which are also atmospherically woven about with plants and greenery, are reached after following a mountainside track for a few hundred yards.
The principal attractions here are the overseer’s cottage, the horse-mill which worked to process the sugar cane and the main mill building itself.
An Alternative Afternoon on Virgin Gorda – Water Adventures
As with many of the British Virgin Islands much of Virgin Gorda’s real beauty can only be truly appreciated by spending some time out on its waters. This tiny island offers a wide variety of ways to do this ranging from an hour enjoying some water-sport to a whole day’s sailing adventure.
Although the menu of possibilities for water activities is extensive, snorkeling these crystal clear waters remains one of its most popular and accessible. It is possible to snorkel colorful coral reefs directly from shore but tours offer the opportunity of getting further afield and discovering some hidden gems and offshore islands while also providing all the gear you will need to really get up close and personal with Virgin Gorda’s diversity of marine creatures.
Power boat rentals, another water-themed option, are ideal for those who like to do things independently and also allow you to explore places such as the five islets known as The Dogs which lie less than three miles off the island’s north point. With your own watercraft you can of course also swim and snorkel wherever and whenever you choose or happen across the perfect spot.
For those who want to see what lies beneath the surface but don’t want to get their feet wet a trip by glass-bottom boat is the ideal solution. With great views of corals, sponges and brightly-hued fish, the options here range from short jaunts of an hour to full days out on the water to explore not just Virgin Gorda’s coast but that of nearby islands too.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner on Virgin Gorda
Despite its diminutive size Virgin Gorda isn’t short on watering holes and restaurants with the greatest number of choices clustered in and around Spanish Town. Spots which give you wonderful sunset views or beach-side settings for sundowners are in plentiful supply while, when it comes to dining, seafood lovers will be in heaven as succulent lobster and fresh fish are found almost everywhere. From feet-in-the-sand rum punches and pizza options at places where the vibe is super-casual to top-end elegant establishments where gourmet dining has been perfected to an art – Virgin Gorda has something for everyone.
Like much of the Caribbean, Virgin Gorda’s alcoholic drink of choice is rum and you could spend a year here without working your way through all the cocktail varieties based around this drink even if you tried a different one every night. The most famous of all is the Painkiller – a rum, pineapple, coconut and orange juice concoction which was invented in the BVI and is a must-try while you are here.
Another thing which this small island seems to have in plentiful supply is drinking and dining venues with a view although Hog Heaven proves most definitely that not all are created equal. This humble establishment which perches on an inland hill is famous on Virgin Gorda for two things – its barbecues and a view so spectacular and far-reaching it is considered by all to be unbeatable in the BVI.
There is a large indoor dining area but most people prefer to be on the lovely deck where all you can see stretching off for miles and miles into the distance is a sensational panorama of the sparkling Caribbean Sea dotted about with green-clad islands and yachts at anchor. Despite its on-top-of-the-world feel million-dollar view the beers and cocktails at this spot are reasonably priced so you can indulge to your heart’s content and then just sit back to take it all in.
If the whole point of being in the Caribbean for you is to be right next to the ocean the entire time Virgin Gorda has several beach-front choices when it comes to sundowners. One of these is the popular and vibrant Jumbies Beach Bar which makes up part of the Leverick Bay Resort and Marina. Its collection of wooden benches which litter the sand quickly fill during late afternoon and early evening with locals and visitors who have come to enjoy the beautiful view over the North Sound. Besides the beach-side setting the draws here are a daily happy hour, frequent live music and the establishment’s version of the Painkiller cocktail which is a must-try.
Form casual barbecues at the beach to fine dining by candlelight – Virgin Gorda has something for every budget and taste. Restaurants both tiny and spacious are here, some easily found in plain sight while others are of the hidden gem kind, tucked away and off-the-beaten-path.
Beach-side dining is not hard to find on this Caribbean island but arguably the pick of the bunch in this category, especially for those romantically inclined or who have something special to celebrate, is the gorgeous CocoMaya. Located just 1 mile south of the yacht harbor and Spanish Town, CocoMaya has a Balinese-like appearance and an overall open-air design which manages to achieve both the best of rustic charm and refined elegance at the same time.
If you dine early enough you will be able to catch one of those magnificent Virgin Gorda sunsets as you feast on cuisine which offers a Latin/Asian fusion. For those who want to try a bit of everything there is a great range of small or large sharing plates with such offerings as sweet chili ribs, beer battered snapper sliders, jerk chicken wantons and tempura shrimp. There is also a sushi, sashami and ceviche menu featuring some highly creative seafood choices.
After dinner you can order a perfectly blended cocktail and head to the bonfire on the beach where you’ll find spacious sofas or tuck yourself away relaxing on a cushioned cane chair at a more intimate table with your feet in the sand.
If you chose to take your sundowners at Jumbies Beach Bar you will find yourself with a choice of dining spaces and atmospheres once you decide it is time to eat. The Restaurant at Leverick Bay offers three different options within its marina complex. The Upstairs is a sophisticated gourmet dining choice for those who enjoy the finer things in life while should you prefer to keep things more casual there is the Cove or the Beach Bar.
The Upstairs open-sided terrace with its breezes, sea views and excellent wine list offers plentiful lobster and seafood choices with other inclusions such as steaks and lamb. The Cove and Beach Bar have more pub-like fare choices with a range of pizzas, burgers and fish and chips with all-you-can-eat beach barbecue nights.
For those who made the effort to get to Hog Heaven for drinks you may choose to stay right where you are to dine. Once here here it is highly likely you will find it hard to resist the aromas of roasting and barbecuing treats which this venue is famous for and dragging yourself away from the best views on the island might also prove difficult.
An Evening on Virgin Gorda
This beautiful little Caribbean jewel has a plentiful supply of after-dark venues lit by candles, lanterns and moonlight to enjoy some idyllic drinks and relaxation time before bedtime.
There are also all kinds of live music and entertainment choices for those who want something a little more animated.
Some of the venues have a specific night of the week set aside for music such as the lovely Chez Bamboo which hosts local bands on Friday nights or the Top of the Baths which offers the same on Sundays. Other bars and restaurants lay on something almost every night of the week with the main hot-spots here the charming courtyard of the Bath and Turtle right in Spanish Town, Jumbies Beach Bar at Leverick Bay and the Bitter End Yacht Club.
If you want something to entertain you as you sip nightcap cocktails head to the Top of the Baths on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday to be dazzled by the fire dancers or watch the Moko Jumbie Dancers right on the beach at Jumbies on a Friday. If you prefer to be doing the dancing yourself check out the open-air deck of the Rendezvous on a Wednesday or again try Jumbies where practically any night of the week has something going on.
Should tranquility and a date with nature be more your idea of the perfect evening sign up for a glass-bottom boat tour after dark. This one hour jaunt takes you over and around some of the island’s coral reefs where powerful underwater lights illuminate the multi-colored world beneath the surface in which tropical fish, turtles and a host of other marine creatures go about their life.
Alternatively you can head out beneath a cloak of stars in a glass-bottom kayak or atop a stand up paddle board, both of which are fitted with underwater LED lights to give you an experience akin to a night dive.
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