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.