Virgin Gorda-Marine Playground

Oh, for the days of the age of exploration, when you could discover a new place and name  it  any  old  thing  that  popped  into your head. In 1493, on his second voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus was running out of names; the ocean was littered    with    dots    grandiosely    titled “Columbus.”   When   the   explorer   came upon  an  island  whose  mountain  looked like nothing so much as a reclining woman with  a  big  belly,  he  pronounced  it  Virgin Gorda, or “Fat Virgin,” and sailed on.

Tortola  may  be  the  biggest  and most  populous  island  in  the  British Virgin Islands,  but many  people  consider  Virgin  Gorda—in spite  of  its  inelegant  name—the  crown jewel  of  the  60-island  chain.  It  has  softly undulating volcanic hills with excellent hiking    trails,    azure    seas,    and    pristine, secluded  beaches.  At  its  center  is  the pregnant belly of Columbus’s imagination: Gorda  Peak,  at  408m  (1,360  ft.)  the island’s highest point and a great summit to climb. The most photographed beach in the  British Virgin Islands  is  The  Baths,  on  the  island’s southwest shore, where immense granite rocks are strewn along the powdery white-sand  beach,  forming  lovely  grottoes  and hidden   pools.   Most   scientists   believe these granite boulders exploded onto the scene eons ago by undersea volcanic fireworks.

Virgin  Gorda  is  the  third  largest  of  the British Virgin Islands, but at 22 sq. km (8 1 ⁄ 2  sq.  miles),  it’s  not  a  big  place  by  any means.  Even  so,  the  island  is  uncrowded and  unpretentious,  with  goats  and  cows scratching  in  the  dry  scrub  and  a  genuinely congenial populace. If you’re looking for   quiet,   pampered   seclusion,   Virgin Gorda  neatly  fits  the  bill—the  lodging model  here  is  one  of  boutique  resorts  of impeccable taste and understated  luxury. Laurance Rockefeller established the tone in the 1960s, when he built an ultraprivate “wilderness  beach”  resort  on  Little  Dix Bay.  Other  major  resorts  followed,  much in the same vein. You might even say the island  is  undercommercialized,  certainly when  it  comes  to  nightlife  and  shopping. And  that’s  just  fine  with  the  visitors  who keep coming back year after year.

Like  Tortola,  Virgin  Gorda  is  a  sailor’s paradise, with sublime anchorages in protected waters. A trip to Virgin Gorda is as much about getting out on the water as it is about pampered privacy. Boat and tour operators, too numerous to list here, offer crewed  or  bareboat  charters,  day  sails, and cruises; an extensive list of operators is  available  on  the  British Virgin Islands  official  tourism website  (see  below).  Spend  a  day  exploring  the  sparkling  coves  and  islets  of  the North  Sound  (also  called  Gorda  Sound), on  the  northeast  coast  of  the  island.  The North Sound is the largest noncommercial deep-water harbor in the Caribbean, with sheltered anchorages, gentle trade winds, and   excellent   snorkeling;   it’s   one   big marine  playground.  Some  of  Virgin  Gorda’s  best  beaches  are  found  on  the  surrounding small islands. Unspoiled Prickly Pear  Island  is  a  98-hectare  (242-acre) national  park;  head  to  Vixen  Point  for  a memorable  swim  and  snorkel.  Plan  your visit around lunchtime, when you can join the peripatetic sailors and yachties at the supremely  casual  Sand  Box  Bar  and Restaurant,  at  Vixen Point,  for  conch  fritters  and  fresh  lobster salad.