Where to stay
The Aquamare Estate A luxury beachfront villa experience offering a range of activities including swimming with dolphins and a full wellness programme. Renowned island cooks Chef Peters and Chef Mimi are behind the estate’s fine-dining offering. Villas from £6,445. Mahoe Bay, Virgin Gorda, 00 284 541 0928, villaaquamare.com
Cooper Island Beach Club Arrive on your own yacht or by ferry from
Tortola. Turtles, a rum bar, fan-cooled rooms and friendly staff make this
family-owned resort a true pleasure. Doubles from £224. Manchioneel
Bay, Cooper Island, 00 1 800 542 4624, cooperislandbeachclub.com
Guana Island A historic private island offering seven beaches, hiking trails, a country house-style hotel, incredible views, outstanding food and top eco-credentials. Villa from £1,975, including all meals and wine with lunch and dinner. Guana Island, 00 1 284 494 2354, guana.com
Oil Nut Bay Set on the eastern tip of Virgin Gorda, this lovely resort is accessible only by boat, sea plane or helicopter, meaning privacy is
assured. Hillside villas and suites offer the last word in luxury. Doubles
from £569. Oil Nut Bay, Virgin Gorda, 00 1 284 393 1000, oilnutbay.com
Red Rock Villa and Spa A beautiful private villa experience boasting
state-of-the-art spa facilities, your own private pool, a grocery shopping
on arrival service and a beautiful open-plan kitchen. Villa from £493.
Estates The Valley, Virgin Gorda, 00 1 284 340 3000, redrockvilla.com
The Sugar Mill Offering boutique accommodation and excellent dining, this all-inclusive five-star hotel boasts 24 rooms dotted around the 400-year-old stone-built mill, as well as an excellent spa. Doubles from £300. Apple Bay, Tortola, 00 1 284 495 4355, sugarmillhotel.com
The British Virgin Islands (BVI) are a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean, to the east of Puerto Rico. Flights from the UK take around 12 hours. Currency is the US dollar (USD) and time is 5 hours behind GMT. In November, the average high temperature is 29C; the average low, 23C.
British Airways flies from London Gatwick to Antigua’s V C Bird International Airport from where LIAT offers regular connecting flights to Tortola. Individual resorts will be able to advise on charter flights and ferry crossings between the islands. britishairways.com liat.com
Virgin Atlantic flies from London Heathrow to San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport via New York. Seaborne Airlines offers a service from there on to Tortola. virginatlantic.com seaborneairlines.com
BVI Tourism is the official tourist board and its website will provide you with all the latest information, guides and maps of the islands. bvitourism.com
An Embarrassment of Mangoes by Ann Vanderhoof (Bantam, £7.99) is the account of a Canadian couple who left their jobs, hired a yacht and sailed the Caribbean, visiting 16 countries and adapting to ‘island time’.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to the BVI, go to climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 1.9 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £14.31.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses, with a glass of beer or wine,
unless otherwise stated
Caravela Restaurant & Bar This popular spot boasts picture-perfect views overlooking the marina and neighbouring islands. Expect delicious seafood, steaks and sumptuous cocktails. From £60. Grand Pavilion, Scrub Island, 00 1 284 495 9084, scrubisland.com
CocoMaya Vibrant South American-Asian fusion food with the emphasis on ‘sharing’ is delivered with brio at this stylish restaurant on Virgin Gorda. Perfect for both large groups and couples, who can have a romantic moment by the beach fire pit. From £47. Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda, 00 1 284 495 6344, cocomayarestaurant.com
Cooper Island Beach Resort You can watch a live-action underwater screen in the restaurant but there’s even more interest on the plate thanks to the cooking of chef Charles Mather plus some unmissable homemade ice cream. From £60. Manchioneel Bay, Cooper Island, 00 1 284 345 6725, cooperislandbeachclub.com
The Dove Come here for a curated menu of high-reaching dishes using local seafood and produce. Highlights include sushi, grass-fed beef and black cod. From £20. Main Street, Road Town, Tortola, 00 1 284 494 0313, doverestaurant.com
Guana Island Xavier Gili decides his daily menus on the basis of that day’s catch and harvest. His cooking is skilful and impressive yet playful and shining with flavour. No outside diners are allowed, but well worth the boat ride and overnight stay. Meals here are included in the room rate. Guana Island, 00 1 284 494 2354, guana.com
Hog Heaven Heaven in both senses: pig out and feel the Virgin Gorda stars are within reach. There’s not a lot to the menu: barbecue ribs, pork and fried chicken as well as pulled pork and conch in butter, plus beer and cocktails. From £19. Fanny Hill Road, Virgin Gorda, 00 1 284 547 5964
Leticia Lennard’s Barbecue Stop The Friday night pop-up of traditional Caribbean fun run by Leticia Lennard attracts folk from all over Virgin Gorda. Find it on Leverick Bay corner: just follow the crowd. From £10. Leverick Bay, Virgin Gorda, 00 1 284 340 6678
The Lobster Trap One of the best beachfront places on Anegada for sampling lobster, grilled or blackened, served with beans and rice. From £47. Setting Point, Anegada, 00 1 284 346 5055
Midtown Go for typical local dishes like curried chicken and mutton, conch soup, stewed beef ribs and roti at this friendly little café with a 1950s vibe. Large portions and daily specials. Mains from £9. Main Street, Road Town, Tortola, 00 1 284 494 2764
Sugar Apple Typical West Indian home cooking at Cynthia George’s tiny, brightly painted and lively café. Breakfast on lightly fried mahi mahi and the local speciality, Johnny cakes. From £6. South Valley, South Sound, Virgin Gorda, 00 1 284 545 4841
- Achiote/annatto seeds
- Used for reddish-yellow colouring, especially lard
- Starchy fruit that is usually boiled or fried
- This fleshy root yields a nutritious starch often used in soups and flat cakes
- A kind of sea snail, rather like a large clam. Makes excellent fritters
- The famous Anegada lobster is a species of large Caribbean crayfish (so lacks the claws of cold-water lobsters)
- Tropical fruit with a bright yellow, juicy flesh
- Bark of the naked wood tree, used to prepare a fermented drink
- Variety of banana with a coarser texture that cannot be eaten raw
- Large fruit with a milky-white, aromatic flesh. Often squeezed and made into juice
- Thin, brown pods filled with a sweet-sour pulp
Food and Travel Review
At a remote spot where the gunmetal breakers of the Atlantic meet the peacock waters of the Caribbean, there is a tiny island called Norman. Norman? With a name like that it could only be English. Sadly there is no twin island called Ethel but if you want to keep up with the Bransons you can buy your own and call it whatever you wish. Costa Plenty, perhaps? With islands to spare in this paradisiacal archipelago scattered like jigsaw pieces on the outer rim of the West Indies, it is the essential accessory to a new superyacht. I write out of sheer jealousy, of course.
It is now, however, paradise regained. After Hurricane Irma brutally devastated the islands last year, named by Columbus in honour of Saint Ursula and her 11,000 maidens, the future for this discreetly deluxe though fragile mix of unspoilt beaches and secret coves swirling with velvety trade winds looked bleak. But the islanders are nothing but fiercely resilient, proud and determined, and their loyal British citizens are very much back in business. One can’t help but think Queen Victoria was poorly advised when told the BVI were the least significant part of her Empire. Everything, again, is looking rosy.
When Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 90th birthday, she received a gift of sea salt. Now, you would have thought the royal household would not be short of the stuff, but this was a rare BVI tribute that told a story old and new. There were once working saltpans at Salt Island, where the wreck of the RMS Rhone is visible through the clear water. The annual ‘Breaking the Salt’ day was recently revived, and although commercial production is still some way off, the idea is gaining traction: a potential way of bringing the essence of the islands to the international table.
West Indian salt islands used to be valuable possessions. Preserving food such as fish or pork by salting, brining or pickling was part of an early struggle for survival: saltfish in particular has been prepared in much the same manner through the centuries. To European methods, Caribbean cooks added lime juice, tomatoes, peppers and coconut or palm oil. Often the fish was made into small fried cakes, and island cooks still invigorate the white fish with peppers, onions and garlic.
More important than salt was the wealth brought by sugar cane, molasses and rum. Associated with slavery and oppression, rum was used medicinally, ceremonially and in excess. Libations were poured on the ground ‘to absent friends’ in an African spirit tradition, and rum was blamed for everything from debauchery to prostitution.
The trade also left its mark in the kitchen: the use of caramelised sugar gives food character and adds a rich, smoky flavour to marinades. Sweets and cakes reflect an old tradition of sugar as gifts. At least that was the spirit in which I accepted a pot of tamarind ‘stew’ – more of a jam – that had a rich and sticky root-beer quality. The knowledge that it had taken Leticia Lennard on Virgin Gorda days to pick, peel and prepare the conserve made it even more special. Sugar is still ubiquitous: every cook adds a pinch to the pot. Cynthia George sprinkles it into the batter for fresh Johnny cakes served at her tiny café Sugar Apple on Virgin Gorda; Gloria Gumbs at Tortola’s Midtown restaurant adds a smidge of it to her famed oxtail soup; and even the islands’ fluttering little yellow bananaquits are called sugar birds because of their addiction.
The sugar trade, nonetheless, was never very extensive in the BVI: although the volcanic soil is fertile, the mountainsides are steep and difficult to cultivate. When sugar cane production moved elsewhere or was replaced by beet sugar, plantation owners soon abandoned the land. One of the few relics is the Callwood Rum Distillery, a corner of living history where the same family has been producing rum from sugar cane for over 200 years. They make several varieties including one called ‘Panty Remover’. No comment.
It comes as a surprise, however, to find that the great majority of food in the BVI is imported, even though subject to tax. Is it the result, perhaps, of a generation who have pursued professional careers and become lost to farming the steep hills or the consequence of global market forces? Answers can only be speculated upon with the help of a potent ‘painkiller’ rum punch.
The cooking of the islands has a traceable family tree from the first native inhabitants, who would still recognise the scent of roasting plantains and yams, staple ‘provisions’ that have fed islanders for centuries. In common with other West Indian islands, such basics were enriched by the culinary skills of the European colonialists as well the food traditions of African slaves, indentured Indians and Asian labourers, all given a sunny punch from Jamaican allspice and chillies from the Americas. Chinese workers in the 19th century introduced the combined use of sugar, salt, ginger and spring onion; rice was another successful transplant.
The fortunes of the islands were again transformed in the second half of the 20th century, when offshore banks and financial services brought a tsunami of paper money and a new population of expats with large disposable incomes and cosmopolitan expectations. The advent of cruise ships docking at Road Town, Tortola’s neat and orderly capital, is bound to have its halo effect, for better or worse, and the BVI have to resolve the tension created when demand depletes resources and eco-sensitivities are lost in the pull for profit.
Curiously, there is little obvious British feel about the islands, long loved by yachtsmen and divers. They drive on the left but in left-hand drive cars. The currency is US dollars. The cultural references are largely American and a young Tortolan is more likely to go to university in Florida than London. So a round of Rule, Britannia is in order for the folk on these islands: parched sailors can now drop anchor at their pretty beachfront resorts, play darts and sup on a locally brewed micro-beer. ‘Liming’, they call it, perhaps after the old naval tradition of lime rations.
Because of the good employment prospects, the BVI ‘belongers’ are outnumbered by immigrants from across the Caribbean, who bring their own twists to traditional dishes. In all kitchens, though, herbs and spices play a defining role, especially accents of lime, sour orange, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and garlic. Coriander, oregano, thyme and small, sweet peppers are widely used as flavourings, and achiote adds flavour and colour to stews traditionally made in an iron pot over charcoal. Plantains, green or ripe, are fried, roasted, boiled or baked, and the leaves still used to wrap up foods, but the pestle and mortar has been replaced by the blender.
A descendent of the old West Indian pepperpot meat stew is BVI pea soup, made with small red beans, salted pigs’ tails, coconut milk, spices, pumpkin and cassava, with cornmeal dumplings added to the sweet, syrupy mix. Other BVI specialities include fungi (a kind of polenta) mixed with okra, mayo butter sauce (a gift from the Brits), and conch and lobsters (actually giant crayfish without claws) caught off the dream island of Anegada that is ringed by electric blue waters and as startlingly flat as an Indian roti pancake.
The shellfish, along with whelks and turtles (in season), are not unique to the BVI but are a major culinary selling point. The secret is tenderising, an island skill epitomised in the roast ’n’ smoke art of barbecue. Dale Wheatley, aka Blondie (after a penchant for ‘de blondie laydeez’), keeps his famous barbecue sauce recipe strictly secret. There’s a touch of ginger, a balance of sweet and spicy – and that’s all he’s giving away. He goes through buckets each day on the freshly grilled ribs, pork and chicken served at his modest café perched on one of the highest points of Virgin Gorda.
The panorama is sensational; not only can you see across to Branson’s Necker and Mosquito Islands and the other boho chic resorts of North Sound yachting heaven, but you can sip Blondie’s rum and mango juice or mojitos made with mint growing outside the door. Even Mr B and other local zillionaires pop in for a modestly priced plate at Hog Heaven, courtesy of Dale’s own pig farm.
Just down the road, Leticia Lennard runs a pop-up food stall every Friday night. There’s a lengthy queue of regulars who drive in from around the island for her astonishing range of home-cooked dishes: stewed pork or curried goat, steamed local fish, her mum’s Johnny cakes, mac ‘n’ cheese, potato stuffing, homemade passion fruit juice, coconut tart and carrot cake, succulent barbecue and her family’s secret-recipe ‘BBQ pig tails’.
The food potential of the islands is increasingly realised by farmers and producers. On idyllic private Guana Island, chef Xavier Gili and gardener Vernon Daniel combine their exceptional talents and mutual sense of fun to provide intensely flavoured organic produce from the edible jungle of the orchard and kitchen garden. A dazzling array of tropical and heritage varieties of fruit, vegetables and greens might appear on the plate as vibrant ceviche with herbs and fruit; aubergine marinaded in jerk spicing; freshly caught lobster and just-picked broccoli; local suckling pig with crispy kale and beetroot; or mango jelly and soursop ice cream. Start with conch fritters under the shooting stars and end with the sound of the sea as you sleep.
Renowned for his ‘fireball’ full-moon beach parties, an early pioneer of organic and biodynamic is sculptor Aragorn Dick-Read. He and his wife Federica are also at the forefront of the islands’ burgeoning vegan movement. At their Good Moon Farm on Tortola, terraces of lush produce, from guava berries to cinnamint, tumble down a precipitous mountainside: the rare red bananas stand out.
Throughout the islands a clutch of chefs are incorporating local ingredients in a new ‘island-to-table’ movement, rejecting the imported and pre-prepared. In parallel, there is an embryonic network of artisan producers: a chocolatier, a Jamaican pastry shop, a breeder of organic chickens, a grower of edible flowers and more.
Food is once more a cultural bridge that connects the disparate traditions. Each of the main islands has its own character: Tortola, the largest, is welcoming and relatively unspoilt; Virgin Gorda is sleepy with a mix of laid-back local and haute hobo and the immense boulders of the Baths; Jost Van Dyke is little but with a pristine beach and exceptional rum cocktails at Foxy’s famous bar; Anegada is coral sand, rock iguanas and flamingo colonies.
The islands also have a beguiling, contradictory charm: whether you’re early or late, you’re always on time. Island time. Even when it rains, the sun shines. New Year’s Eve is Old Year’s Night. Good night means hello. Life is good in the British Virgin Islands. As one local told me – let’s call him Mr Nice Guy – ‘dere’s a bitt ever ting nice here’. And what more could any traveller want?
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