The wind was absolutely howling past us, but everyone was smiling. Hanging onto the rail of the "fast" ferry from Tortola to Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands, the passengers, screwed down tight against the wind, and chatted in English, French, and the island patois (common throughout the Caribbean) as the headwind blews our hair into tangles that would take serious conditioning to remove.
HOW TO GET THERE|
American Airlines offers regular daily service to adjacent Tortola, a charming example of the British Virgin Islands, with shops, pubs, and genuine draft beer and cider -- rarities on the other Virgins. Once in Tortola round-trip ferries run from multiple sites on Tortola including Road Town and the West End.
WHERE TO STAY (Prices subject to change)
Mango Bay Resort, $109/night, 12 rooms
Paradise Beach Resort, $267/night, 9 rooms
Little Dix Bay Hotel, $575/night, 98 rooms
Bitter End Yacht Club, $716/night, 89 rooms
WHERE TO EAT, DRINK, & BE MERRY
Mad Dog (highly recommended) tiny bar at the top of the Baths
When they say fast ferry, they're not kidding. The traditional ferry makes this trip at about seven knots, around 10 mph, but this twin-hulled ferry is screaming along at 30 mph. While I'd really prefer a ride on our own boat --40-foot Newporter Solace-- it's temporarily in dry dock on Tortola. We only have one day on Virgin Gorda so we want to make the most of it.
My partner in adventure, Keith, and I are heading to the island because we've heard about the world-famous Baths of Virgin Gorda: Unusual caves, boulder-surround pools of water, and unique rock formations you can climb, crawl through, and swim under. The British Virgin Islands National Parks Trust say the Baths are the most visited National Park in the Virgin Island chain, and we've heard descriptions ranging from "the highlight of our trip," to "a place to add to the seven wonders."
The Baths have a long history as a destination for invalids and other recovering patients for their rejuvenation, recuperation, and healing properties. Keith and I...well, we're just here for the adventure, but a little rejuvenation never hurt anyone.
The ferry drops us off and we're immediately offered a taxi.
"How far are the Baths?" we ask.
"Far, very far, you would not want to walk it," says the smiling driver.
"But how far?"
"Oh, at least a mile," he replies seriously.
Under the early morning sun, we decide one mile is is worth a stroll. It's a nice hike, although most of it is on "the main road" and on this island that means a few cars will zoom past, a few dry-dock boats dot the road, and a goats follow alongside eating brush and leaves. They stop to stare when I get out the camera.
We reach a fork in the road, and making a guess, turn right. It's turns out that's not the way to the Baths, but a few hundred yards further, we hit a great restaurant, right out over the water, on concrete piers running out into a deep lagoon. It's a beautiful spot. After one laughing glance at Keith, I spend the next hour running off the end of piers and jumping into the deep blue water, then racing back in to do it again. On one pause before diving in, I take a deep breath as Keith crashes full force into me from behind, sending me into the water in a tangle of arms, legs, and spray.
Eventually, wet yet cheerful, we head back along the other direction of the road. The taxi driver's powers of estimation were slightly off. The total hike is at least two miles, and the last stretch is a steady uphill. By this time, our pace is put to shame by some schoolchildren in plaid uniforms who run up past us easily, even carrying books and satchels.
We pass their school, a low modern building looking utterly out of place on this rough road with the occasional goat wandering past.
Rock formations create protected ocean pools.
Rounding a last curve, we spy a charming bar and restaurant called Mad Dog serving drinks outdoors in total pub fare with small tables surrounding the tiny indoor shack. Inside, there are stools along a bar and a friendly bartender, but we're dying for a view of the ocean again and continue to the Top of the Baths, to slake our thirst at a gorgeous open-air restaurant without walls. Only columns, open to the balmy breezes, frame fabulous views overlooking the blue water and surrounding islands. There's also a collection of cute gift shops and other tiny stores.
After an excellent lunch, we stuff a nominal fee into the park box (the Baths being a national park, there is a requested fee) and follow the winding dirt-and-root trail down between gnarled trees and rocky walls. Off to the left, we begin passing incredible rock formations, giant boulders balanced precariously atop smaller ones. It looks as if a giant prehistoric child played here, piling rocks haphazardly and leaving them that way…and there they stayed through the ages. Though we're looking forward to the water and caves below, we can't resist climbing up in among them.
We squeeze through narrow cracks, scale cliffs, explore caves, crawl on our stomachs into tiny crevices. In one cave we find a paperback book, travel coffee cup, and the remains of a fire. It looks like some fellow adventurer chose to spend a solitary night here. Lizards run over our feet and it feels like we're the only two people in this remote, otherworldly spot.
Clambering down again, we pick up the trail and follow it past a set of outdoor showers, a mild shock to see on this secluded trail, then around to the outdoor Poor Man's Bar (burgers and beers,) and finally, to the beach.
The first beach is small, but beautiful, fronted by cool coral and rock creations. Farther out, sailboats float at anchor in the gentle breeze. We sit in the natural pools, brace our feet against the coral, and enjoy nature's Jacuzzi as the waves rush in and retreat. After a seawater bubble bath, I swim out to the enormous flat rocks to lounge in the sun while Keith heads toward the cliffs to jump off into the foaming white water below. We both snorkel among the beautiful rocks and tropical fish, but beware of the strong undercurrent here -- it can send the unwary swimmer careening into those rocky pools. We end up swimming from the outside into the natural caves containing the Baths of legend and lore. (Most visitors enter by a footpath in through a crack in the cliff at the left-hand end of the beach, where there is a sign marking the narrow crack leading into the caverns.)
These caves are equally fascinating, and justly famous, living up to every bit of their reputation. We meet up in one with a pure white sand bottom, and swim through others filled with shallow, pale crystal blue pools of water, warm and delicious. Making our way along cracks between rocks leading to the outside, we have to climb up a crevice, where Keith hauls me up by main force where necessary.
If you follow the maze-like caves all the way through, you eventually reach Devil's Beach, a more remote beach with fewer people and more sea-bath pools.
There is no doubt that we'd like to have spent several days here among the rocks and caves, with quick refreshes at the restaurants in the more civilized part. We'd even have followed the example of the lone visitor who slept in the hidden cave, but all too soon it's time to catch the last ferry back to Tortola. But it's okay. We've already decided – we'll both be back.
Barbara Gail S. Warden is a former advertising executive turned freelance writer, editor, and photographer. She presently divides her time between New England and the Caribbean.
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