Itching to spend your days off sunning on white-sand beaches and snorkeling in pristine waters near colorful coral reefs? Then pack your bags for the BVI, a British overseas territory in the heart of the Caribbean famous as much for its jet-set yacht scene as it is for its natural beauty and serene outlying islands. From a floating dive bar on a so-called pirate ship to a billionaire’s private island paradise, here are the 9 best things to do in the British Virgin Islands.
Charter a yacht
Hiring a yacht for the week is more affordable than you think. If you split a five-night charter aboard a 48-foot, four-cabin catamaran from The Moorings among your eight closest friends, each person will end up paying around $150 per night—less than the cost of many hotels. For just $75 more per person, your boat comes fully crewed with a captain, chef, and host who’ll keep a drink in your hand at all times. Aside from the bragging rights you'll earn for cruising around in serious Jetsetter style, you'll get to see much more of the destination than you would by land. As you move around the archipelago, spend a night docked near the big island of Tortola, then set your sails for Virgin Gorda, Guana Island, and beyond.
Schedule spa time at Peter Island Resort
Whether or not you decide to stay at the luxurious Peter Island Resort, which occupies its own private island, you can—and should—pamper yourself at its spa. The 10,000-square-foot space is the only one in the Caribbean to offer a range of Ayurvedic treatments administered by doctors trained and certified in India. That's not to say you can't also indulge in standard massages, facials, body wraps, manicures, and pedicures, many of which incorporate local island ingredients like coconut, seaweed, and ginger. No matter what treatment you book, you'll get full access to the hotel’s pool, hot tub, and relaxation areas.
Party on Necker Island
Want to vacation like Barack Obama? Splurge on a stay on Necker Island, Richard Branson’s private island paradise just north of Virgin Gorda. Just picture it: eight guest rooms and eight outlying villas chock-full of Indonesian antiques, full use of the property's tennis courts and water sports (sailing; waterskiing; scuba diving), guest-chosen meals prepared by Michelin-trained chefs... During one of his high-profile post-presidential vacations, Obama was spotted kite surfing and hanging out with the Virgin Group founder. Though it’ll cost you a cool $80,000 per night to rent out the entire island, you don’t have to be on the Forbes 500 list to check it out during “celebration weeks,” when you can book an individual room and party like a rock star.
The British Virgin Islands is home to some of the best snorkeling spots in all of the Caribbean. Because the water is incredibly clear and calm, you can see all kinds of colorful fish—blue tangs, clownfish, sergeant majors—and coral below the surface. Take a dinghy to the Caves at Norman Island, whose tales of buried treasure inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island; the Indians, a jagged rock formation off the coast of Norman Island where species of marine life take refuge in its narrow underwater passageways; or Diamond Reef by Marina Cay—three of the best snorkeling spots.
Explore the Baths on Virgin Gorda
Volcanic activity is to blame for Virgin Gorda's famous Baths, one of the the islands' most visited natural sites. Millions of years ago, bubbling magma cooled after reaching the earth's surface, forming a maze-like pattern of gigantic granite boulders that, over time, formed dozens of grottoes, caves, and sheltered saltwater pools. Climb up and down wooden steps to reach the Instagram-worthy "cathedral room," where light peeks through a ceiling of boulders touching overhead. There’s nothing like having the Baths all to yourself, so go early (ideally just after sunrise) to beat the cruise ship crowds.
Hike up Norman Island
Rumor has it this uninhabited isle was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Today, it’s a protected natural reserve home to rock-and-forest-covered hills, water-level caves, and secluded bays perfect for scuba diving. Follow the trail that leads up from the beach for a short but steep hike to the top, where you'll find a helipad and panoramic views of the archipelago. After navigating your way back down, reward your effort with a piña colada at Pirate’s Bight, the island’s only restaurant and bar.
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Rent a private villa on Guana Island
This luxurious all-inclusive resort is as secluded and tranquil as they come. Just 18 hillside cottages and villas occupy the 850-acre private island nature preserve, where guests are dropped off by boat from a nearby island. The accommodations are simple, with rattan furniture and no TVs or phones so you can truly unplug, but it's the setting you're here for. Spend your days hiking the property’s miles of trails lined with frangipanis and jasmine, lounging on pristine beaches, or exploring the "club," the hotel's dining and cocktail hall whose 18th-century stone building dates back to when the island used to be a Quaker sugarcane settlement.
Knock back a drink at Willy T's Floating Bar
Willy T is infamous among island-hoppers. Anchored in The Bight, the BVI's most popular harbor, this floating bar claims to sit on a pirate ship and is only accessible by boat. Sure, it's a dive in every sense of the word—there are no qualms about day-drinking here, and the orders of choice are mostly beer or rum punches—but it's a local legend that deserves to be experienced at least once during your visit. Once aboard, you can watch revelers pull up to the dock in dinghies all afternoon, as well as sunburned and inebriated patrons diving off the upper deck into the sea below.
Dive down to the B.V.I. Art Reef
The Kodiak Queen, a ship originally wrecked at Pearl Harbor during WWII that's now sunk off the coast of Virgin Gorda, has gained new life as an art installation and the islands’ newest dive site. Before it was submerged, artists created a kraken sculpture (a sea monster with 80-foot tentacles) out of mesh and rebar and attached it to the ship’s deck. The project—a collaboration among Sir Richard Branson, nonprofits, and various groups of artists and entrepreneurs—is meant to rehabilitate marine life while acting as a lab for scientists to monitor the area’s fish population.