Tortola is the hub of the British Virgin Islands: home to its quaint capital, modern airport, magnificent beaches, and the most wide-ranging array of activities, accommodations, and restaurants in the territory. The island’s spine runs east to west, punctuated by ridges that descend to the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Caribbean Sea to the south. Between these ridges are bays, some edged by sandy beaches and seaside communities.
High hills and steep, winding roads make exploring exciting (or terrifying, depending on your perspective), and the views that greet you from the top will take your breath away. At its longest point, Tortola is 12 miles long; at its widest it is 3 miles across. Its southern shore, washed by the Caribbean Sea, is generally calm and home to marinas and the largest settlements. The north shore has the best beaches and, in season, the best waves.
Tortola is an island of contrasts—a place where stray chickens share the roadways with the latest model cars and trucks. Of all the British Virgin Islands it is the most developed—three-quarters of the territory’s 23,000 people live here—and as such it is the island most acquainted with the scourges of development: crime, traffic jams, and environmental damage. But despite the inroads of change, Tortola is still by and large a sleepy, green jewel willing to content itself with the daily rhythms of life.
Though it is touched in places by large-scale development, Tortola remains a rustic island. For visitors, it offers a comfortable balance between creature comforts (grocery stores, nice restaurants, a hospital, and shops) and the obscure (dirt roads, braying donkeys, quiet mountain peaks, and dusty mom-and-pop shops). Tortola has a more “regular-people” feel than Virgin Gorda and St. John—there are accommodations and attractions for nearly every budget—but it still maintains a level of refinement hard to find on St. Thomas.
Tortola is an island that caters to a wide range of tastes and interests. It is an ideal jumping off point for water-based pursuits: Sailing, diving, snorkeling, and windsurfing are the most popular. Its marinas are home to the Virgin Islands’ largest fleet of charter yachts. Landlubbers will find two excellent national parks (Sage Mountain National Park and Mount Healthy National Park), several historical attractions, and dozens of quiet, undisturbed beaches. Meals can be had from jerk chicken stands in the island capital or under the stars at a fine restaurant.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition