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VIRGIN GORDA

Why Did the Tourists Cross the Channel?

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By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008

The rich are different from you and me. They don't have chickens.

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This became apparent last week at Rosewood Little Dix Bay, an ultra-luxe resort on the island of Virgin Gorda. It's one of those places that leaves no blade of grass untrimmed, no stretch of sand unraked in its efforts to provide the best of Caribbean beach life to its discriminating clientele. The place was way beyond my budget, but a friend and I stopped by one afternoon to check out its perfect crescent of beach and have lunch at its popular buffet. Both were flawless. Still, as we headed back to our more modest digs, we couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing in paradise.

Then it hit us: There were no chickens wandering around. We, on the other hand, had quite a flock on the grounds of our beachfront cottage a couple of miles down the road -- a flock we had grown quite fond of. Roosters woke us up in the morning and serenaded us throughout the day. Free-range fowl wandered the streets, made themselves at home on the beach trails and roosted in trees outside restaurants. After sharing the island with them for a few days, you start to think of poultry in a whole new light.

Chickens are nothing new in the Caribbean, of course, but it seems as if you have to search harder these days for a low-key, untrammeled destination, as overdevelopment turns formerly charming island havens into slick tourist traps populated with jaded locals. Enter Virgin Gorda, an eccentric little island 60 miles east of Puerto Rico with no stoplights, no traffic jams, no casinos, no night life to speak of -- not even a town, really.

What it does have: a handful of hotels and houses, some of the best diving, snorkeling and sailing in the Caribbean, and stunningly beautiful beaches and coves. The second-most populated of the British Virgin Islands (Tortola's the largest, with 19,000 people), it's home to about 3,000 souls, most of whom seem to know one another. It's the kind of place where teenage boys greet you with "Good evening, ma'am" when you're out walking, and locals stop you in the street to make sure you know what side is safest to walk on.

In other words, Virgin Gorda is a find. Just make sure you like chickens -- or have enough money to stay at a place where you can avoid them.

* * *

For a remote island, Virgin Gorda is relatively easy to get to. No need for multiple plane rides or puddle jumpers: Just get yourself to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgins and hop a high-speed passenger ferry across Sir Francis Drake Channel to Tortola, then connect with another boat to Virgin Gorda. Sit on the top deck for the full effect. An hour and a half later, after two stops in Tortola (seven miles west), you're there.

Despite its name, which translates as "Fat Virgin," Virgin Gorda is a slender little island about 10 miles long. It's divided by a mountain at its waist into two distinct parts: the hilly, remote North Sound, where you travel mostly by water, and the southern half, called the Valley, which is flatter and studded with dramatic clusters of giant granite boulders. We'd reserved a cottage on the southwest coast, within walking distance of beaches and Spanish Town, the capital.

One look at our rustic little cottage, made of native stone and tucked into a tropical garden abloom with bougainvillea and oleander, and I was smitten. So what if the furniture at Fischer's Cove Beach Hotel was a bit worn and the bathroom could use an overhaul? We could basically swim from our front door. A semicircle of eight bright cottages faced the sea, and a dozen more rooms in an adjacent building had garden views. All are steps from the shell-strewn, palm-fringed beach. The water was so warm and clear we could snorkel right offshore, although we also had our pick of secluded beaches within walking distance.

The hotel regulars quickly welcomed us into their fold, passing along restaurant recommendations and survival tips. Rum and DEET seemed to be the two mainstays.

I asked David Woodward, 56, a video producer from Clear Lake, Iowa, who's been coming here for 15 years, how the group tolerated the disco music wafting over from the marina next door. It played while we were trying to sleep. It played in the morning. It played at lunchtime. We were getting used to it, but it was disconcerting. "What kind of place plays music 24/7?" my friend asked plaintively one morning. "Are they holding Iraqi prisoners?"

I thought earplugs might be the answer, but Woodward simply pointed to his baseball cap, which sported the legend "Time Flies When You're Having Rum." Point taken.

Woodward is part of a pack of repeat visitors who meet up here each winter, with nothing in common but their love for the island. Ask them why they keep coming back and they can't get the words out fast enough. Because you can walk anywhere, day or night, without worrying about safety. Because the hotel owners have become like family. Because the island residents are outgoing and wonderful.

"Haven't you figured it out yet?" Woodward said. "It's all about the people."

* * *

Virgin Gorda's most famous landmark is the collection of boulders known as the Baths, and with good reason: You feel like an extra in a Spielberg movie, surrounded by giant, menacing rock sculptures, twisted mangrove roots, mysterious saltwater grottoes and pools, all against the backdrop of crashing waves. Adding to the sense of foreboding are the danger signs warning of high surf, dangerous shorebreak, slippery rocks and strong current. We cautiously began to explore.

Climbing over boulders, into caves and sloshing through tidal pools, we stopped, riveted, at a hidden grotto. With a shaft of sunlight beaming down into the dark, soaring space, we felt as if we'd entered a cathedral -- which, come to think of it, we had. Everything we'd read had warned of crowds, but we were completely alone here. Bright yellow, electric blue, and black-and-white-striped fish darted about in the warm water; you could snorkel with your bare eyes.

We pushed on to the Devil's Bay Trail, a 20-minute hike over, under, around and between boulders that once had been embedded in volcanic lava. We got wet. We scraped our knees. We scrunched through tunnels and slipped on the rocks. But what a reward at the end, as we emerged onto a pristine, deserted beach. We stood there, transfixed, as the sunlight danced on the water and the waves crashed.

It just got better. We followed the trail to more huge rock formations, emerging onto one improbable, boulder-strewn beach after another. (Even here, there were chickens.)

Our adventure at the Baths whetted our appetite for more, and we tried to sign up for a sailing and snorkeling excursion, we really did. But one of the downsides of being on an untouristed island like Virgin Gorda is that sailing trips are canceled when not enough people sign up.

No worries. We spent that day on our hotel's sweet little beach, swimming, strolling and searching for shells. I found bits of coral shaped like letters of the alphabet and amused myself spelling out words in the sand. We had the catch of the day for lunch, lolled in the surf, read our books and swam some more. It was the best day of the trip.

The next morning it rained, so we didn't get up early and walk back to the Baths as planned. Instead, we pulled two orange and blue chairs to our veranda railing and rocked and talked, admiring the dark, scudding clouds and the . . . what's that? A rainbow? Suddenly it was sunny again. Another perfect day on Virgin Gorda.


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