Virgin Gorda By Sail - My Family Travels

A seven day sail to Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands, proves to be the perfect ticket for one couple on leave from their teens.

I approached Virgin Gorda as Columbus did…. by sail. Anegada is the first landfall from the north, a barely perceptible island hardly higher than sea level, visible only because of the few palm trees that appear incongruously on the horizon. Some intrepid vacationers make their way to this isolated outpost, but our destination still lay ahead. For me, Virgin Gorda — the “Fat Virgin” so named by Columbus himself — came into view after a seven-day sail from Chesapeake Bay.

Virgin Gorda lays just beyond the Great Dog, one of a series of small uninhabited islands signaling the approaches to it and the larger and better known Tortola, the most popular destination for visitors to the British Virgin Islands.

Stretching between the two, Sir Francis Drake Channel is a sailor’s dream— predictable fair seas and winds never out of sight of a welcoming anchorage. The flourish of sails belonging to the motley fleet of the bareboat charter trade offers proof of the area’s legendary attraction for generations of sailors.

I had had enough of life on the sea, and was anxious to meet up with my wife for a long postponed vacation à deux. Only a few hours after my arrival, I greeted the ferry coming from the airport on Beef Island. However improbably, I recognized the only passenger on board. Our plan was actually working, an auspicious beginning to what we hoped would be five days of R’n’ R in the Caribbean sun.

We weren’t disappointed.

Exploring Virgin Gorda’s Impressive Terrain

I admit to a heathy skepticism about island vacationing. Something about flying half way around the world just to sit on a beach has never thrilled me.

The closest I had come to the Caribbean in my many years of traveling and writing was a short visit to Bermuda, and I stayed only long enough to locate the sailboat that would spirit me back to Annapolis.

Virgin Gorda however could not fail to impress. The island snakes in an east-northeast direction, served by a single main road that runs along its axis from the yacht harbor in the south, passes the main inhabited area of stucco homes, and climbs spectacularly to Gorda Peak before descending along harrowing switchbacks to the North Sound and the modest town of Gun Creek.

The 1,359-foot Gorda Peak is the capstone of the national park by the same name that dominates the island’s interior. Hardscrabble vegetation and hordes of hermit crabs, which find their way into the most unlikely places, overrun the landscape.


Real Life in Virgin Gorda

A perennial lack of fresh water has restrained the island’s development for centuries. The few thousands of islanders — “Belongers” in the local parlance — were, and largely remain, poor.

Where they once depended upon subsistence agriculture and goat herding, the locals today serve a small tourist trade and a tiny commercial sector. The ubiquitous goats, hardy animals that they are, along with the cute hermit crabs, appear to be most successful in accommodating to the island’s topography.

The lack of water and the peculiarities of land ownership have kept most of Virgin Gorda in the protective hands of the British government.

Thankfully, this has retarded development of the tourist industry and the subsequent transformation of Virgin Gorda into a cookie-cutter island retreat. Yet it remains a perfect spot to moor your boat and just explore.

The lack of a modern tourist infrastructure is evident in Spanish Town, the main and only retail district. Here a visitor can do laundry, buy some unremarkable gifts, get something simple to eat, catch a ferry to Tortola and points beyond, but not much more.

If You Go…

A rental car is a must, if only to see The Bath at Devils Bay at the south end of the island, which boasts some extraordinary rock formations that eons ago tumbled into the sea. The site is a favorite of boaters, who vie for coveted anchorages off the beach. Kids and adults alike can spend hours following a watery path through the maze of boulders.

Parents of toddlers should note that the beach at Devils Bay with its calm, shallow water is more sedate than the one where The Baths begin at Spring Bay.

For us, our teens tucked in safely back home, it was time to get back to the boat.

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