|A goliath grouper greets divers at the bow of the Chikuzen.|
|Sunk by a hurricane in 1867, the steamship RMS Rhone holds a special place in the history of the BVIs and in the hearts of divers. The ship snapped as she sank, her bow coming to rest in 80 feet of water and her stern in just 30 feet.|
Legend has it that Robert Louis Stevenson used the idyllic British Virgin Islands as the setting for his classic seafaring novel Treasure Island. It seems likely, given that many real pirates, including the infamous Blackbeard himself, used the 50 islands, rocks and cays that make up the BVIs as a hideout. After a successful voyage, a crew of buccaneers could follow the trade winds, find a calm anchorage and slip away into the lush hillsides.
Times have changed, but the islands are still a great retreat. Today's trade winds bring in an armada of sailboats and powerboats to calm coves and picturesque beaches. A few may fly the Jolly Roger as a tribute to the past, but their mission is pleasure, not plunder. The hills where pirates kept watch are now topped with restaurants, resorts and bars.
World-renowned as the best sailing and boating destination in the Caribbean, the BVIs are also an ideal destination for divers. Underwater explorers may not find Blackbeard's gold, but they will find a treasure trove of dive sites, from pinnacles to shallow reefs to wrecks. Ask any diver why they come to the BVIs and they'll probably tell you it's the variety of dive sites. Pinnacles, canyons, shallow coral gardens and wrecks are scattered throughout the islands, and no matter where you are in the BVIs, you're never more than a short boat ride from any of 40 moored dive sites. As an added bonus, most dives are found on a shallow shelf that rings the islands, so maximum depths rarely exceed 80 feet. This wide range of habitats attracts all kinds of marine life, including whale sharks, yellowhead jawfish and everything in between.
For wrecks, you will, of course, dive the Rhone--probably more than once. It takes at least two dives just to get an overview. And if the weather is right, don't miss the Chikuzen, a refrigeration ship that sank 12 miles northeast of Virgin Gorda in 75 feet of water. Chikuzen is an oasis for marine life on an otherwise barren underwater plain, but so far from shore, she can only be explored in the best of conditions.
|Join the never-ending cat-and-mouse game between tarpon and a school of silversides at Seal Dog Rock.|
|Calm seas and blue skies mark another beautiful day on Virgin Gorda's North Sound.|
The compact cluster of islands makes for a great sailing destination, and most of the boats you see anchored in the calm bays are for hire. You can become the captain of your own live-aboard, island-hopping to sample the diversity of dive sites, beach bars and restaurants. If you'd rather not have the responsibility of command, there are traditional live-aboards to choose from, too.
Land-based accommodations are equally diverse. Tortola and Virgin Gorda offer the most choices, ranging from amenity-rich resorts to intimate bed-and-breakfasts. Most of the resorts and inns are tucked into their own little bays and perched on the hillsides with great views in every direction. The larger islands are also home to stand-alone dive operations offering two-tank morning dives with afternoon and night dives when enough divers are interested. Pack light for your trip to the British Virgin Islands because you'll spend most of the daylight hours in swimwear. Even the topside activities somehow involve the water. Windsurfing and sailing lessons are a fun way to pass the surface intervals, and they might whet your appetite for a future "bareboat" sailboat charter. A day at the Baths is a must. The idyllic beach offers hours of snorkeling in the tunnels and grottoes formed by massive granite boulders. The dry hikes, past scenic beaches and flowering gardens, aren't too shabby, either.
After a busy day of swimming through, sailing on or just lounging around the water, the best thing to do is find yourself a hammock with a good view of the ocean. Turn on the Buffett tunes, and enjoy a cold drink as the sun goes down. Gently rocked by the trade winds, you'll have found treasure for the soul.
|Rush hour at Virgin Gorda: An armada of pleasure boats rides at anchor within swimming distance of the boulder-strewn beach known as The Baths.|
Getting Around > You'll definitely want a rental car on Tortola, though you can get by with cabs on Virgin Gorda. Exercise caution on hilly Virgin Gorda, where a normal set of brakes lasts about six months. Don't forget when driving in these British isles that left is right.
Documents > U.S. and Canadian citizens need at least a birth certificate and photo ID to enter, though a passport is best.
Currency > U.S. dollars are the official currency. Credit cards and traveler's checks are widely accepted.
Weather> Winter highs average in the high 70s, with summer highs in the mid-80s.
Water Conditions: Decent visibility; expect 50 to 100 feet. Water temps are in the low 80s year-round.
Just In Case> The closest recompression chamber is on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands (809-776-2686).
Dive Operators> For information on British Virgin Islands dive operators, comprehensive travel guides, special dive deals and recent trip reports submitted by users, go to www.scubadiving.com/tripfinder. For more information: www.britishvirginislands.com.