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The Virgin Islands Are Back and a Yacht Charter is a Great Way to Explore Them

Written by  Doug Cooke

Caribbean USVI
September 2017 was not a kind month for much of the Caribbean, including the Virgin Islands. Both the USVIs and BVIs were pounded by not one, but two Category 5 hurricanes: Irma, and then two weeks later, Maria. Left in their wake was extensive damage to homes, hotels and island infrastructure. News media was filled with pictures of the aftermath, including piles of damaged yachts. Restoration seemed years off, and in fact, some well known resorts have yet to reopen. However, the Caribbean is nothing if not resilient, and a visitor today would be hard pressed to see obvious signs of the damage from a short 18 months ago.

In March, JAX FAX decided to travel to this region to see the status of the recovery for ourselves. What better way to explore the islands than by yacht charter? The Moorings, based in Tortola, served as our charter company. We have chartered with them before and knew they would be able to provide the yacht and services we needed to make this a seamless trip.

St. Thomas - Bolongo Bay Beach Resort
Our trip began with a flight into St. Thomas. While Beef Island airport in Tortola is a more convenient option for charters beginning on Tortola, it is also a significantly more expensive one. Being in St. Thomas also gave us the chance to visit our good friends at Bolongo Bay Beach Resort for an overnight stay. Airport transfer by taxi was easy (about $20 for two people) and within 20 minutes, we arrived at Bolongo Bay. I am happy to report that it was much as I remembered from previous trips. The building that houses the hotel was built to withstand hurricanes and aside from some flooding, sustained only minor damage. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the building that housed Iggies bar and restaurant. It sustained major damage, along with the beach area in front of it, but efforts have begun to rebuild this popular watering hole. Aside from this, the resort was in beautiful condition and the staff was attentive, as always. The two-story poolside restaurant at Bolongo Bay, most recently known as The Lobster Grille, has opened as “Iggies Oasis” - a sunny poolside “pop-up” and temporary home for Iggies Beach Bar & Grill.

Of the 74 rooms here, 25 are beachfront that walk out onto the sand, 39 are direct oceanview, and 10 are “value rooms.” The décor is simple Caribbean with wicker/bamboo furnishings and muted pastel colors. Every room is fully equipped with all the standard amenities. All guests receive complimentary use of water sports equipment. Rooms are available on an all-inclusive or room only basis with rates starting around $200/night. There is a reason this resort has a high repeat guest factor, and it is a great option for a pre- or post-yacht charter stay (or any other time for that matter). Visit: www.bolongobay.com

Yacht Charter in Tortola
Taking a ferry from St. Thomas to Road Town, Tortola is possible from either Red Hook, which is very close to Bolongo Bay Resort, or from the Charlotte Amalie Ferry Terminal which is closer to the airport. Your clients are advised to make reservations ahead of time and arrive an hour early. JAX FAX took the Roadtown Fast Ferry which costs about $62 round trip, per person, and takes about 50 minutes. Once in Roadtown it is a 5 minute taxi ride to the Moorings base.

The Moorings is a huge complex with hundreds of yachts, a hotel, pool and restaurant. We arrived on a Wednesday and the check in for our yacht went very quickly. Weekends can be much busier with lengthy lines to check in. Joining my wife and I for the 4 night charter was JAX FAX Caribbean correspondent, Bob Curley and his wife. Our yacht was a 42’ power cat. As such, it has a very wide beam which can be intimidating to a captain not used to a vessel this size. However, I found the boat to be surprisingly maneuverable and quickly gained confidence with its handling. It had 3 staterooms and two heads with sleeping for 6. There was a very spacious galley/dining area inside, with another large table on the aft deck. The fly bridge featured additional seating, along with a beverage refrigerator and gas grill. We opted to spend our first night onboard at the Moorings’ base, giving us ample time to go through the mandatory briefings and do some shopping at a local market. We did take advantage of the Moorings’ provisioning option for most of our food/drinks for the next few days.

Cruising the BVIs
The following morning we left Tortola and cruised southeast across Sir Francis Drake Channel to our first stop, Cooper Island, home to the Cooper Island Beach Club. After grabbing a mooring we took our dinghy to the island for lunch and a site inspection. Despite having sustained major damage during the hurricanes, the resort looked to be in pristine condition. The resort is open from late October to mid-August and features 10 guest rooms, a beachfront bar and restaurant, and the Coffee Box, serving organic espresso, ice cream and smoothies. For those with a taste for stronger libations, there is a micro brewery serving unfiltered craft beer and also a rum bar featuring over 250 rums, the most in the BVIs. Visit www.cooperislandbeachclub.com
After leaving Cooper Island we headed southwest about 40 minutes to Norman Island where we moored for the night. With daylight starting to fade, we jumped in the dinghy and motored around the point to snorkel at the Caves and then ventured a bit farther out to another snorkeling opportunity at the Indians. While the Caves provide a unique opportunity to snorkel into several caves, the Indians are a spectacular snorkeling spot with a wide variety of fish and corals. We began the following day by cruising back out to this site where we moored and had breakfast, followed by another round of snorkeling.

Virgin Gorda
While Virgin Gorda was our next destination, no visit to the BVIs would be complete without a trip to the infamous Willie T, a floating bar which has moved from Norman Island to Great Harbour at Peter Island. The Peter Island Resort has yet to reopen but there is no shortage of moorings surrounding the Willie T. Sadly, we arrived too early in the day to partake in Willie T antics but I suspect we will be back another time. After about a 1-1/2 hour cruise we arrived at the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour in Spanish Town, which would be our home for the next two nights.

We spent the day touring Virgin Gorda and learned that several of the bigger resorts here have yet to reopen, including the Bitter End Yacht Club and Saba Rock, both of which were sadly destroyed. Little Dix Bay expects to reopen again in fall of 2019. There are a few resorts that are open including the Leverick Bay Resort and Scrub Island Resort in North Sound, and Guavaberry at Spring Bay near the Baths. There are also a wide selection of vacation home rentals available. Many of these are in the area of Savannah Bay and Mahoe Bay, an area of pristine, undeveloped beaches as well as in the area of Spring Bay and The Baths. While on Virgin Gorda we had the chance to try some of the local cuisine. Not to be missed is a roadside BBQ stand run by a local woman, only open on Friday nights as long as the BBQ lasts. The price of $10 garnered a mixed selection of meats, steamed veggies and festival bread. It is the best deal on the island, located a short ride from the Leverick Bay area. Another notable restaurant was Chez Bamboo, an indoor/outdoor eatery/bar located a short walk from the Yacht Harbor. The tapas bar and menu feature the flair of Mediterranean cuisine, spicy favorites from New Orleans, exotic Asian flavors, and of course, Caribbean specials. Be sure to try the Chez Bamboo cocktail, a local version of a Long Island Iced Tea.

Anegada
Though I have been to the BVIs several times, I have never been to Anegada. It lies 12 miles outside of the Sir Frances Drake Channel and is known for its perimeter of reefs and narrow channel. We decided to take the 45-minute ferry right from the yacht harbor.
Anegada is the place to go when you are looking to get away from it all. A low-lying coral island, it’s known for secluded beaches like Loblolly Bay and Cow Wreck Beach. Waterside restaurants feature Anegada lobster. The island is home to flamingos, rock iguanas and rare plant species like sea lavender. Offshore, Horseshoe Reef is rich with marine life and dotted with shipwrecks. It is an 18-mile long barrier reef, the longest in the Caribbean, and fourth longest in the world. While renting a mini-moke and sampling the many beaches and beach bars is a popular option here, I recommend a half-day boat excursion with Capt. Kelly to see pink flamingos, visit the conch shell mounds and snorkel for lobster which you will have for dinner later that night.

The Virgin Islands Are Back in Business
During the 5 days I spent in the Virgin Islands I saw very little evidence of the devastation that took place just 18 months ago. It’s true that many of the larger resorts have not re-opened yet, but there are still plenty of lodging options throughout the USVIs and BVIs. The yacht harbor at Spanish Town is still rebuilding some of their infrastructure but all of the essential yachting services are available. The yacht charter companies are fully back in business with hundreds of yachts waiting to be rented. This is an untapped market for travel advisors, as companies like The Moorings, Marine Max and Dreams Yacht Charters do pay commission. The average cost of a five star, all inclusive, crewed private charter runs about $2,300 pp not including tips. Book this amazing vacation option for your clients, and I guarantee they will thank you for it.
For more information visit www.bvitourism.com or call  the BVI Tourist Board at (800) 835-8530.