The Caribbean island of Tortola is the largest of the over 50 British Virgin Islands, only 15 of which are inhabited. Tortola is a British Overseas Territory, which means U.S. citizens need a valid passport as well as proof of a return ticket. The currency, however, is the U.S. dollar. Driving is done on the left side of the road.
Tortola is a mountainous island formed by volcanic activity. Mount Sage has the highest elevation on the island at over 1,700 feet. The best beaches are to be found on the northern shore. Rich marine life will delight snorkelers and divers, hikers find their fun in national parks and a botanical garden, and art lovers will marvel at the colorful street art and the ateliers of local painters.
Tortola is a popular cruise-ship stop. Ships dock in Road Town, the capital, on the southern coast. You’ll find a huge new complex at the end of the pier with plenty of shops. Road Town is best explored on foot. The streets are incredibly steep and narrow with hairpin bends best negotiated by locals if driving.
Tortola is an island full of color. That doesn’t only refer to the evergreen forest that covers higher altitudes, but also to the houses, the flowers, the food, and even the clothing.
The international airport is located on Beef Island, a small key, and linked to Tortola by a bridge.
1. Explore Road Town
Located on the south shore around a horseshoe-shaped port and bay, Road Town is a delightful town full of history and color.
Start your tour with a visit to the splendid former official residence of appointed governors, Old Government House Museum. The lovely white building facing the waterfront is full of period furniture, paintings, and exhibits and has seen its fair share of royal visits over the years. Each room is decorated differently. The museum was badly damaged in Hurricane Irma in 2017, but thanks to a lot of British financial help, much restoration has been achieved.
Just a few miles west of Road Town, you can’t miss a visit to the historical Callwood Rum Distillery. Producing the best rum since the 1700s, you can learn all about the process from the olden times to today. Of course, you can buy samples to take home, too.
The oldest building in Road Town houses the old prison with 11 cells and a museum that documents the history of the island’s penal system. To understand a location’s culture, one should consider every aspect, even if it’s daunting.
As we said, Tortola is colorful, and that extends to spices. One of the best shops, Sunny Caribbee, is closed right now, but they are rebuilding. However, there are more all along Main Street where you’ll also find what appears to be the world’s smallest bookshop.
2. Meet Painter Joseph Hodge
Walk into his tiny workshop and atelier in Crafts Alive Village and meet Joseph Hodge, a Tortola-born artist with a gigantic talent for catching scenes of island life in the most vibrant colors. Hodge is also a founding member of the BVI Art Foundation and is famous all over the Caribbean. It’s a delight to chat with him and to listen to the explications of his visions. His art also adorns several houses, and his paintings are very affordable. They will make an excellent souvenir or gift.
3. Feel The Plantation Spirit At Brewer’s Bay
The best beaches are found in the north of the island. Brewer’s Bay Beach is one of them, with excellent snorkeling, a reef with colorful fish, and very clear water. What makes this beach different, though, are the impressive ruins of several sugar cane plantations and distilleries. The beach is a journey back in time combined with relaxing sand and sun moments.
4. Marvel At The J.R. O’Neal Botanical Garden
This cool and peaceful botanical garden is a true jewel of flora and fauna. Surrounded by a wall, you enter through wrought iron gates and stroll along an alley of huge royal palms, aptly called Walk of Palms. It leads you to a small fountain from which several paths spread out. Don’t forget to sign the visitors’ book in the smallest wooden shed you’ll ever see in a botanical garden.
There are a lot of small but pretty features to be found in this botanical garden. Opened in 1979, it started life in the 19th century as a British agricultural experiment station. See Fishlock Hall, a wooden Caribbean bungalow now used for staff. The Great Lawn is bordered by all species of palms, cacti, and exotic flowers. There is a gazebo with orchids, tropical birds in cages, and much more. Cross the wooden Chinese Bridge with a lily pond on one side and goldfish swimming underneath. A small admission donation is asked for, but it’s voluntary.
5. Hike The Mount Sage National Park
Mount Sage has the highest elevation in all of the BVI, although it’s not all that high at a little over 1,700 feet tall. The surrounding area was originally farmland, 86 acres of which were purchased from the farmers and transformed into a national park in 1964. This marked the beginning of a conservation program. The purchased land was planted with white cedars and Honduran mahogany, both of which thrive in the climate. There is an interesting difference in the vegetation of the north and the south side of the ridge. Rain falls in the north, where you’ll find boulders and typical Caribbean rainforest. The much dryer south side features old pastures and dry forests.
Twelve trails lead through the park in loops, so you can easily walk in a circle. An entire mahogany trail is named after the founder of the National Parks Trust -- J.R. O’Neal, who also gave his name to the botanical garden. Due to some rain, the leaf-covered trails can be slippery, and roots can stick out, so invest in good hiking shoes and proceed with caution.
6. Sail And Snorkel At Cane Garden Bay
A long, curved beach on the north of Tortola, Cane Garden Bay is sheltered from the wind and is a favorite anchor place for boats. Swimming and snorkeling are other activities enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. You can easily spend a day and enjoy one of several great bars and restaurants that line the beach. A favorite is Quito’s Gazebo, where you can enjoy Caribbean cuisine and cocktails as well as live music day and night. Lounge on the beach on the deck chairs they provide and enjoy Tortola’s laid-back lifestyle.
7. Glide Over Virgin Forest Canopies
If you are a bit apprehensive about zip lining, the Original Virgin Canopy Tour is a much safer and quieter option. It is a nature adventure for all ages, with several stops along the flight over the treetops. The tour starts at Johnsons Ghut. The friendly staff provides you with equipment and safety instructions. Wear comfortable clothes and definitely no flip flops. Then you are ready to fly through and over the canopies of the rainforest with unbelievable views over Tortola and other islands. On a clear day, you might be able to see as far as Saint Croix.
The trip takes between one and one and a half hours, and you can enjoy drinks or snacks afterward at the platform (price not included). Beware, though, it’s not suitable for pregnant women, people who suffer from vertigo, or those with neck or back injuries.
8. Hide Away At Smuggler’s Cove
If you really, really want a secret and totally secluded beach, make your way to Smuggler’s Cove on the extreme west of the island. It’s difficult to reach via a winding and sandy path, but the reward is swimming and snorkeling at its best, plus a chance to see sea turtles.
9. Party At Jost Van Dyke
Named after an early Dutch settler and former pirate, Jost Van Dyke is the smallest of the BVI islands, and it’s very close to Tortola. Small it may be, but the tiny island has a lot to offer, starting with several vegetation-covered sugar mill ruins and old trails crisscrossing the island. There’s also a natural, sea-formed “jacuzzi” at the eastern end.
What it’s really famous for, though, is the food and drink. Sample all kinds of seafood and Caribbean cuisine, most notably the flying fish sandwich. Try Corsairs Beach Bar and Restaurant in Great Harbor. The owner wears a monocle, keeping with the pirate theme.
Great Harbor is also popular with yachts, and that’s where the partying comes in. Notorious are those bashes thrown at Halloween and New Year’s Eve.
Tortola is famous for the laid-back lifestyle and for being far less pretentious than some other Caribbean islands. You can have simple fun just about anywhere, and one nice adventure of that kind is a ride on a bus in Road Town. These buses are called “safari,” and they really are no more than converted pickup trucks with benches and a canvas top. The experience is simple and bumpy, but it’s great fun to mingle with the locals at a price of just a few cents.