By Mark Stevens
Special to The Washington Post
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.
Situated just east of St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgins is an archipelago of between 40 and 60 islands, depending on whom you ask or how much Pusser's Rum you've imbibed before you start counting.
Most are volcanic, mountainous and lush. But there all similarity ceases. Tortola is the capital, the highest and most populous. Mount Sage here rises more than 1,700 feet above sea level. Anegada, a coral atoll with more goats than people, is 30 feet above sea level at its highest point. Virgin Gorda is a popular getaway (Morgan Freeman keeps his sailboat here), while Jost Van Dyke boasts only about 200 residents. Many of the islands are uninhabited, frequented only by cruising boaters.
The properties of Jewels of the BVI are every bit as diverse as the island chain they populate.
"They have to be owned by 'belongers,' native British Virgin Islanders," says Dorothy DeNonno, vice president of sales. According to the association president, Julie Dawson, the group is "a great way to encourage the best level of product on the island. We can lobby for changes in hotel regulations, and we can ensure that visitors can stay in comfort while still experiencing the island up close and personal."
The result is a collection of accommodations that range from the modern convenience of Maria's by the Sea, a 40-room hotel in Road Town on Tortola, to single-room cottages.
"You can stay at one property that only has two suites," DeNonno says. "The owner arranges for a steel band to play for her guests -- all four of them."
At Cane Garden Bay, one of the island's most popular beaches, a gravel road approaches one of the Jewels: the Mongoose Apartments, a tangerine- and teal- and lime-painted clapboard building sporting balconies, jalousied doors and wooden storm shutters.
One family lazes on a balcony in the afternoon shade, the father reading a book. Another family strolls down this rudimentary road, carting beach towels and water toys and walking very slowly indeed.
On Anegada, newlyweds nestle in a hammock at another Jewel, Lo'Blolly Beach Cottages with only the sea, sun, sand and maybe an errant flamingo for company.
You could spend a week and barely see another visitor.
The BVI are the perfect destination for those who don't like tourists, just as the Jewels of the BVI properties are ideally suited for tourists who really don't like tourists.
For one thing, getting here is a challenge. You can't get a direct flight from the continental United States. You have to fly over from St. Thomas or San Juan or take the ferry from Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas.
For another thing, accommodations admittedly are modest. No Hawaiian-shirted waiter will march up to your cabana and offer you beachside piña coladas here; room service is but a wish upon a star. "But that's one appeal," DeNonno says. "We offer affordable accommodation."
Other differences between these properties and big box all-inclusives strike me over breakfast one morning.
The villa's co-owners, Vernon and Icis Malone (Malcolm's folks), invite us to join them. Vernon, who shares his toast with a yellow-breasted bananaquit bird, is a member of the legislature and was once the police chief. Icis works in a bank in Road Town, but her passion for this place is unmistakable.
"We love this spot," she says, indicating with a sweep of her arm the emerald valley, the gardens of oleander and hibiscus that thrive outside the open-air dining room. "And we love sharing it with others. That's why we run this place."
After breakfast, Malcolm stops me on my way to my room. "What would you like for dinner tonight?" he asks. "Jerk chicken? Pork? Catch of the day? And what time would you like it served?"
Try getting service like that in a Cancun all-inclusive.
Furthermore, just down an undulating road past the ruins of a colonial rum distillery, royal palms bow to the brown-sugar sand of Brewer's Bay. Pelicans bob lazily on the surf. Three locals take an early morning dip. There are only two other tourists on the mile-long beach.
They might not turn down your bed here and put a chocolate on your pillow, but in settings like these, it hardly matters.
Besides, you'll be too tired to notice after a day of sailing across the Drake Passage with your boat heeled hard over, spray crashing over the bow; hiking Mount Sage; exploring the surreal caves and climbing through granite cathedral-like boulders at the Baths on Virgin Gorda; shopping in the pastel-painted shops near the cruise docks; checking out the crafts at Trellis Bay; learning how to surf at Josiah's Bay; or diving at one of the top 10 wreck dive sites in the Caribbean. Or maybe you'd rather just watch the sunset at Cane Garden Bay, for the fun doesn't end when the sunlight does.
At Willy T's, a bar on Norman Island housed on an old anchored ship, women who jump off the deck topless are awarded a T-shirt; the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke serves up Painkillers, potent concoctions of rum and pineapple juice. At Bomba Shack on Tortola, where full-moon parties feature tea made from hallucinogenic mushrooms, women's undergarments are a crucial part of the decor. According to legend, if you remove said items from your body in view of the proprietor, you get free drinks all night.
Then, when the festivities at last wind down, you can return to a place like Icis Villas, listen to the call of the tree frogs, sleep the sleep of the just and rise early in the morning, roused by roosters.
At which point you can sit on the balcony of your Santorini-esque whitewashed villa, coffee mug in hand, watching the sun climb the ridge to the east as it dapples an emerald valley that wraps around you like a comfortable blanket. You see an old man in rubber boots chase four cows into a rolling pasture. One cow moos in complaint. A baa-ing goat answers from the shade of a banyan tree. A turtledove hops onto the balcony railing, staring into your face.
You're considering a jog along Brewer's Bay, but after one too many Painkillers at Bomba last night you opt instead for another coffee. You've adjusted your biological clock to island time.
Reclining on the balcony, inhaling the scent of poincianas and soothed by the whisper of wind in the nearby mahogany trees, you've gone native in the BVI.