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Tortola, British Virgin Islands Travel Guide
Last Updated: Jun-06-2012, Hits: 9,819, Rating: 0, Reviews: 0, Votes: 0 Bookmark and Share
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Tortola, British Virgin Islands Travel Guide Hotels and Lodging (31)
Restaurants (47)
Bars and Nightlife (20)
Attractions (29)
Services (25)
Maps (1)
Links (6)
Caribbean Travel Forum (25)
Location: Caribbean
Geography: Island, Beach
Vacation Type: Romantic, Relaxation
Popularity: Moderate Tourism
Costs: Moderate, Expensive
Attractions: Scenery, Boating, Scuba & Snorkeling, Spa & Wellness, Surfing

Facts and Stats:
Population: 23,908
Land Area: 21.5 square miles
Elevation: Sea level
Country Dialing Code: 284
Languages: English
Electricity: 110V
Currency: US Dollar
Time Zone: AST - UTC-4
Current Time:

The hub of the British Virgin Islands, Tortola is the gateway to the many land and sea adventures of the island chain. One of the world's premier yachting destinations, Tortola offers excellent snorkeling, scuba diving, and beautiful beaches.

Like most of the islands in the BVI, Tortola was built by volcanic activity and is 13.5 miles long by approximately 3 miles wide. The island is made up of steep hills with the highest point at Mt Sage at 1,750 feet and the site of a national park. Unlike many Caribbean Islands, Tortola is very dry and largely covered with cactus, scrub brush and dry forest rather than tropical rainforest. The arid climate also results in few streams emptying into the ocean. The lack of runoff and calm seas are largely responsible for the amazing water clarity at the beaches.

There are quite a few distinct areas on the island as follows:
  • Beef Island: This is the location of Tortola's airport. The island is separated from Tortola's east end by a narrow straight that is spanned by a small bridge. Next to the airport is the small beach community of Trellis Bay, and in the middle of the bay is Bellamy Cay which is home to a popular nightlife spot.

  • Fat Hogs Bay: This area is located on the southeast side of the island very near Beef Island. This is the 2nd largest community on Tortola and has several good restaurants, a couple of lodging options and a marina. There are no beaches here.

  • Hodges Creek: About half way between Road Town and the airport on the southern shore, this quiet, sheltered cove houses a marina, a couple of restaurants and a dive shop. There are no beaches here.

  • Road Town: Road Town is the capital of the BVI and the largest town in the islands with a population of about 9,400 people. The town is located on the south central coast of Tortola. Road Town is sort of horseshoe-shaped around Road Harbour which is home to several full-service marinas, several hotels, and many restaurants.

  • Nanny Cay: As we continue moving west along the southern coast, we hit Nanny Cay. This cay is connected to Tortola by a short bridge. The Cay has a resort, shops, marina, restaurants, bars and a beach. It also has the BVI's only driving range complete with a sports bar.

  • Soper's Hole: Called either Soper's Hole or West End, this part of the island is a popular anchorage for sailors. There is a marina, shops, bars, restaurants, markets, and a couple of lodging options here. To the south of Soper's Hole is Frenchman's Cay which is connected via a small bridge and has a resort. The resort has a small beach while Soper's Hole does not.

  • Long Bay: As we head to the north side of the island at the western end, we come across Long Bay. This is a beautiful white sand beach that is typically fairly quiet and good for swimming. There are several lodging options, restaurants, and bars to choose from.

  • Apple Bay: Just around the corner to the east of Long Bay is Apple Bay. Known by the locals as Capoons Bay, here you will find a small beach that is a popular surfing spot. Like Long Bay, there are plenty of nearby facilities.

  • Cane Garden Bay: A few miles to the northeast of Apple Bay, this is the most popular beach on the island and can get very crowded, particularly when the cruise ships dump their passengers. The waters are crystal blue and the white sand beach is lined with palm trees, restaurants and beach bars.

  • Brewers Bay: As we head northeast, we run into Brewers Bay. This off-the-beaten-path beach is a good snorkeling spot that also has a beach bar. Snorkelers sometimes hear humpback whales singing. This is a good spot to avoid the crowds.

  • Josiah's Bay: Further east, this beach is the best surfing spot on Tortola. There are a few accomodations in the area, but not on the beach.

  • Elizabeth Beach: Also known as Lambert Beach after the resort that is located here. This beautiful beach is rarely used by anyone other than the resort guests and is secluded. Just to the east is the little known Little Bay beach that is even more secluded and arguably more beautiful.
As you can see, generally speaking, the beaches are in the north and the marinas in the south. Check out the attractions section of this guide for more information about the island's beaches and natural attractions.

Brief History:
The Virgin Islands were inhabited as early as 300 BC by the Ciboney tribe from Venezuela. They were conquered by the Arawaks (Taino) around 200 AD. In the 1300's, the fierce Caribs invaded and enslaved the Arawaks.

In 1493, Christopher Columbus discovered the British Virgin Islands naming them "St Ursula and 11,000 Virgins". The found no gold here and moved on.

Dutchman Joost van Dyk organized the first permanent settlements in the Territory in Soper's Hole, on the west end of Tortola. It is not known exactly when he first arrived, but by 1615, van Dyk's settlement was recorded in Spanish records, noting its recent expansion. He farmed cotton and tobacco and traded with the Spaniards in Puerto Rico. In 1625, Van Dyk provided non-military support to the Dutch navy who attacked the Spanish in Puerto Rico. That same year, the Spanish retaliated by attacking Tortola and destroying the settlement. Van Dyk escaped to what is now known as Jost Van Dyke. The Spanish later ceded and withdrew to back to Puerto Rico.

In 1640, the Spanish again attacked Tortola. This attack was followed by attacks in 1646 and 1647, in which, the Spanish killed the Dutch settlers and destroyed the settlement at Road Town, although they did not settle the island.

In 1672, the Tortola came under British control, although ownership claims and disputes carried on for over 2 decades after. During this time, fears of Spanish attack and uncertainty of ownership caused the island to be all but abandoned. This made way for pirates during the early 1700's, when Bluebeard and other pirates made Soper's Hole their base of operations. In subsequent years, with the introduction of slavery and sugar plantations, most of the pirates were driven out, and the population grew.

Quakers settled some of the islands from 1727 to 1768 in what was dubbed "The Quaker Experiment". The Quakers were influential for their anti-slavery stance which contributed to the large number of free blacks in the territory. The Quakers' refusal to bear arms and fight, made this location impractical for them and they eventually left.

1774 is considered the official date of settlement of the British Virgin Islands, as the House of Assembly met for the first time in Road Town. Despite the new government, the island remained in a lawless, anarchistic state.

In 1834, slavery was abolished in the Virgin Islands freeing an estimated 5,792 slaves. As many as 2,000 slaves had already been freed before abolition. The slaves "freed" during abolition were not let go immediately. They had to endure 4 more years of indentured servitude. The reason for this was to phase out slavery rather than suffer the effects of ending it immediately.

Shortly after this, the entire territory suffered a severe economic decline. This was partially due to the ending of slavery, but also the result of a series of hurricanes. A particularly strong hurricane hit in 1837 which destroyed numerous sugar works and plantations. This was followed by destructive hurricanes in 1842 and 1852. In 1853, the islands were struck with a cholera outbreak which killed 15% of the population, and then 2 more major hurricanes in 1867. Most of the farmers left and the economy was in shambles for decades.

During the 1960's Laurence Rockefeller and Charlie Cary began to develop the islands. Rockefeller built Little Dix Resort on Virgin Gorda and Charlie Cary built a marina on Tortola. Tourism has steadily grown since.

People & Culture:
BVI's fungi, calypso, reggae and gospel festivals are distinctly Caribbean, but firmly rooted in Africa. At hotels, bars, and parks, the lively beat of fungi, steel pan and calypso celebrate their heritage. The Easter Festival and the Emancipation Festival are held every spring and summer. At these and other craft fairs held throughout the year, local artists and artisans display their work in rattan, terracotta, and wicker, as well as sculptures, watercolours, oil paintings, and photography. Education, religion (largely Methodist), and the arts are important facets of locals' lives.

The people are often described as friendly, but reserved as the result of British influence. This means that smart casual dress should be worn in upscale restaurants, and swimwear should be confined to the beach and pool areas.

Although the BVI rely heavily on tourism, the country has maintained a good balance between the development and preserving what makes the islands nice. This is evidenced by the lack of fast food restaurants and international chain hotels, and the abundance of undeveloped property in prime locations. However, many locals feel that the government spends too many resources attracting new tourism, and not enough fixing nagging problems such as sewage, garbage, and road maintenance.

Food & Nightlife:
Tortola has the most variety of food that you will find in the BVI, however, there still isn't a great breadth of cuisines available, and most restaurants are centered around Caribbean cuisine and seafood. Some of the more upscale restaurants offer a Caribbean/Continental fusion. There are a number of restaurants strung along Long Bay, Apple Bay, Carrot Bay, and Cane Garden Bay in the north. However, Road Town is packed full of restaurants worth visiting as well. Local fare includes: Anegada lobster, conch, whelks (like escargot), roti, fungi (cornmeal and okra side dish), Paté, and fish. Rotis are made of flatbread filled with curried potatoes, onions and choice of meat or vegetables. Generally speaking, food is on the expensive side.

There are several large grocery stores on Tortola that also offer provisioning services to villas, yachts, and even other islands. See the services section of this guide for more information about grocery stores.

The tap water is desalinated sea water and is considered safe to drink, however, bottled water is available. Most likely, you will be drinking booze which is plentiful. Rum drinks are very popular and the most common beers are Carib and Red Stripe, although Miller, Budweiser, Corona, Guinness, Heineken, Beck's, and other brands can be found.

Although Tortola is the population center of the BVI, the nightlife is still relatively subdued. Cane Garden Bay is a great place for bar hopping as there are several beach bars fringing the beach. Odds are good that you will get a chance to listen to some local Fungi music. The legal drinking age is in the BVI is 21. Drinking and driving is not illegal in the BVI, however, if you were to crash, you would be prosecuted for careless driving. If you kill or injure someone, you could face a lengthy jail sentence. Many of the roads here are hard enough to navigate sober, so it isn't a good idea.

Money & Costs:
The British Virgin Islands use the US dollar and most places accept credit cards. Road Town has several banks including Banco Popular, First Bank Virgin Islands, First Caribbean International Bank, Scotiabank, and VP Bank. ATMs can be found in Road Town, Cane Garden Bay, Nanny Cay, Soper's Hole, and the airport.

The BVI are fairly expensive. Most of the lodging options on Tortola are over $200 per night during high season, and at the time of this writing, there is a hotel tax of 7%. Some of the accomodations add a 15% service charge as well. If no service charge is added, it is recommended that you leave 10% of the bill for the staff. There are some less expensive options if you are willing to give up amenities, and there is a hostel on the island. Most of the restaurants are above average in price with average entree prices around $25.

Tipping in restaurants is 15%, however, some restaurants may include a 15% service fee in the bill. There is no sales tax in the BVI.

Entry Requirements:
For an explanation of entry requirements, please visit the Deputy Governor's Office.

Getting There & Around:
On Beef Island is the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport which receives commercial and charter flights from Puerto Rico and St Thomas, US Virgin Islands. Some travelers choose to fly into St Thomas and then catch a ferry to Tortola which is typically less expensive. See the services section of this guide for more information about ferries including schedules. Another option is to take a water taxi from St Thomas, however, this tends to be very expensive.

Of course, many of the visitors to the BVI arrive by boat and the island is equipped with plenty of full service marinas.

Once on the island, you can get around by taxi or rent a car. If you want to see some of the more remote portions of the island, you will need a 4 wheel drive. Driving is on the left side of the road. In order to drive, you must obtain a BVI driver's license which you can get from the car rental agency or the government office.

Tortola enjoys a tropical climate tempered by trade winds. Temperatures vary little throughout the year or from day to night. Rainfall can be erratic on the island, but generally September to December are the wettest months. Hurricane season is from June through November. High season is December through April and is typically very dry.

Below are the current conditions and weather forecast for Tortola.

The table below shows the weather averages.

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Avg High 82 82 82 84 84 86 86 88 88 86 84 82
Avg Low 70 70 70 72 73 75 75 75 75 75 73 72
Water Temp 79 79 79 79 81 82 82 82 84 84 82 81
Precipitation 2.68" 2.13" 2.20" 3.46" 5.08" 2.87" 3.35" 4.88" 5.63" 6.34" 6.34" 4.69"
Days of Rainfall 4 4 3 3 4 3 4 5 5 5 6 5

  • Emergency: 999, 911 or VHF 16
  • Search & Rescue: 494-4357 or 494-3473
  • Police: 284-494-2945
  • Operator: 0
  • International directory assistance: 110
  • Local directory assistance: 119
Tips & Additional Information:
  • While Tortola is fairly safe, crime does exist and has been rising in recent years. And yes, some of these crimes are against tourists. To avoid being a target, do not project wealth. In other words leave valuables like jewelry at home. Travel in groups, particularly at night.
  • There are no dangerous or poisonous land animals in the British Virgin Islands. Oleander, Elephant Ears, and the Manchioneel Tree have poisonous leaves or fruit and should be avoided. In the water, fire coral and sea urchins cause the most problems.
  • There is no hyperbaric chamber in BVI. The closest one is in the US Virgin Islands.
  • Public nudity is illegal, hence, there are no nude beaches.
  • The only hospital in the BVI is in Road Town on Tortola.
  • Cell phone service is available for most major carriers, although international roaming fees can add up quickly. Another option is to rent a cell phone.
  • Spear fishing is not permitted in the BVI.
  • It is against the law to use SCUBA gear to capture or remove any marine animal or coral.
  • Many of the reef fish in the BVI carry a dangerous disease called ciguatera. It is recommended that you do not keep any caught fish unless you are with an experienced guide who knows which fish are safe to eat.
  • Yachters and sailors must pay for a cruising permit while in the BVI.
  • There are no golf courses in the BVI due to the hilly nature of the islands.

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