Family Vacations to British Virgin Islands

Family Overview - British Virgin Islands
The Baths at Virgin Gorda: One of the most popular sites in the British Virgin Islands (Digital Vision)

British Virgin Islands Highlights

  • Day sails to secluded, sandy coves.
  • Dive the Rhone, one of the Caribbean's most famous shipwrecks.
  • Stroll the sands of postcard-pretty Long Bay Beach.
  • Hike to the peak of Sage Mountain for spectacular views.
  • Scramble over rocks at The Baths.
  • Snorkel at Devil's Bay or other reefs abundant with coral and fish.
  • Hike to the summit of Gorda Peak for panoramic views.
  • Splash and sun on Jost Van Dyke's White Bay Beach.

Sailing tops the charts as the prime pastime in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Within a radius of 50 nautical miles the nation's more than 60 islands, counting the small, uninhabited cays, offer safe anchorage in hundreds of coves, making the area ideal for sailers.

Pirates once sailed to these secluded inlets to evade capture and to bury their booty ashore. According to legend, Blackbeard marooned 15 of his fellow swashbucklers with one sword and a single bottle of rum on a BVI islet. Norman Island, seven miles south of Tortola, reputedly inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.

Tortola, Virgin Gorda, and Jost Van Dyke receive most BVI vacationers. Despite the fact that big cruise ships dock at Tortola and smaller ones anchor off shore at Virgin Gorda, the British Virgin Islands still retain their laid-back style. Popular with boaters and day trippers from Tortola and other places nearby, Virgin Gorda lies northeast of Tortola, and Jost Van Dyke west of Tortola. Most visitors take the ferry from Tortola to travel to either island, both of which offer relaxed getaways.

For old salts wanting to sail their own vessels, Tortola has more than 700 bareboats, the Caribbean's largest fleet. Families less sure of their nautical skills or those who crave convenience and security, should consider a multi-day charter yacht that includes a cook and a captain who take you to the best, off-the-beaten-path sandy beaches and snorkeling spots. Outfitters also offer day sails to Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda, and Norman Island.

Postcard-perfect Long Bay, with its white sands, is often the signature shot of the BVI. The beach, great for strolling and sandcastle building, may have strong currents. It's best to swim off the far end of the beach where a big boulder breaks the waves, creating a relatively calm pool. Cane Garden Bay, popular with boaters and beachgoers, has vendors who rent kayaks, windsurfing equipment, and other water toys, making this a good spot for families with 'tweens and teens.

Diving and snorkeling also rate high. The Rhone, one of the most famous shipwrecks in the Caribbean, lies off the coast of Salt Island, just a 20-minute boat trip from Tortola. Although broken, the ship's hull retains much of its original shape. Divers can see sponges, corals, and schools of snapper and other fish. For good snorkeling, explore Brewers Bay East and West on Tortola, the Caves at Norman Island, and the Indians, a series of rock pinnacles near Pelican Island. At Prospect Reef's Dolphin Discovery, you can swim with and encounter dolphins.

Not all the island's attractions are water-oriented. Sage Mountain National Park's trails hike past mahogany, white cedar, and guava trees. The three-quarter-mile rainforest trail is an easy walk while the uphill Mahogany Forest Trail takes you to the park's highest point.

The Bomba Shack, a waterside bar built of driftwood that serves as the local party spot, lures all the college students on spring break. Your teens may plead to check it out, but keep in mind that it can get rather wild.

Virgin Gorda
Columbus named Virgin Gorda ("Fat Virgin") because the mostly flat eight-and-a-half-square-mile long land mass has a hilly mid-section that reminded him of a woman's bulging belly. The island contains one of the most famous sites in the British Virgin Islands, The Baths—a series of giant boulders adjacent to the shore that form a labyrinth. Scramble over the big rocks, squeeze through the slim spaces between two leaning slabs, and splash in the grottoes formed by two giant monoliths leaning against each other. After following the path for about 15 minutes, you reach a small beach with tranquil water for swimming and snorkeling. Try to time your visit to miss the cruise ship crowds. Nearby, Devil's Bay also offers a rewarding snorkeling spot.

Other sands to explore include Spanish Bay and Savannah Bay Beach near where the island narrows. From the hilltop road above Savannah Bay Beach you can see the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance and the turquoise Caribbean Sea on the other side. For more panoramic views hike to the 1,370-foot Gorda Peak, part of Gorda Peak National Park, a dry forest and home to three species of tree frogs and the world's smallest lizard—the Virgin Gorda gecko. From the summit, enjoy stunning views of the BVI's necklace of islands.

Virgin Gorda, population about 1400, offers some family-friendly resorts, including Little Dix Bay and the Bitter End Yacht Club.

Jost Van Dyke
Tiny Jost Van Dyke features an attractive beach skirting a mountainous island. During the day, the island's White Bay Beach can get crowded with "yachties," their boats bobbing up and down offshore, and day visitors hanging out at the beach, home to the Soggy Dollar Bar—the name derives from the fact that because there's no dock, sailors must wade ashore, getting their money wet. When the bar first opened, the bartender would hang the dripping bills up on a string near the cash register to dry out. They serve conch fritters, salads, grilled cheese, and other light fare.

Kids will like playing on the soft sands, watching the boats, and swimming. Inviting hammocks line the beach, set in the shade of palm trees. For more action, outfitters offer all-terrain vehicle tours—best for teenagers—as the trails are steep. Other companies offer scuba and snorkeling tours. If interested, best to book these in advance through your hotel to assure availability.

Jost Van Dyke, only four miles long with a population less than 200, offers just a few places to stay.

Tip: The BVI's annual Spring Regatta and Sailing Festival takes place late-March to early-April.'s resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 26 Nov 2007 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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