The British Virgin Islands, for Tourists Who Don't Like Tourists
Sunday, March 1, 2009
We barrel around a hairpin turn nearly 2,000 feet above the Caribbean Sea, and I look out the taxi window at a cactus-studded slope that makes a swan dive for the water below. I swallow nervously.
The gears grind and the driver smiles into the rear-view mirror. "Transmissions don't last very long here," he says. He turns up the radio. A preacher lambastes faithful and backsliders alike, then launches into an out-of-tune rendition of "Rock of Ages."
I'd been skippering a sailboat here in the British Virgin Islands for the past week, and I hadn't experienced fear until I stepped off the boat and into this taxi.
But the view is worth the risk. From this perch atop the island of Tortola, we see emerald islands scattered across the water like a pirate's ransom, an apt simile if ever there was one. The passage behind us is named for Francis Drake, England's most famous pirate. Jost Van Dyke, the island off to the west, pays tribute to a Dutch privateer. Norman Island to the south was the reputed model for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island." Some say Dead Chest Island, where Blackbeard marooned a mutinous crew with naught but a bottle of rum, inspired a sea chantey called "Dead Man's Chest."
Our driver hits the brakes. They squeal in dismay as he spins the steering wheel.
At the bottom of a hill that would be a black diamond if it had snow on it lies an amber crescent of sand.
We make for this beach down a roller-coaster road that twists and turns like a riled rattlesnake, pulling off at last onto a shady lane past a white picket fence into a valley fringed by bamboo and eucalyptus trees. We stop before a collection of whitewashed villas hunkered down beside a small but sparkling pool.
The omnipresent trade winds rattle the palm fronds, a stream meandering seaward gurgles in contentment, a stand of bamboo groans and creaks. We see 20 or 30 chickens, 4 cows, 5 or 6 goats. And one man.
We've gone native in the BVI.
The man, who looks like a cross between the Hulk and Mike Tyson, marches up to the cab and extends a hand that looks as if it could crush walnuts, attached to an arm as big around as my thigh. "Welcome to Icis Villas," says Malcolm Malone in a booming voice. Then he smiles warmly. "Welcome to our home."
He's correct, strictly speaking. Over in the shade of a eucalyptus tree we can see a ramshackle cabin. "That was my grandfather's homestead," Malone says. The Malone family lives in a house beside the cabin.
But Icis Villas isn't just an ancestral home; it's a member of the Jewels of the BVI, an association of small and unique inns and guesthouses that are nearly as numerous as the islands themselves.