British Virgin Islands have long attracted visitors seeking surf, sand and sun

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 2010; F01

Nobody goes on vacation to get beaten up by a fireman. So lissen up! If you're looking for a place to surf, forget Tortola. Too inconsistent. Too rocky. Nothing to see here, folks. Head to Barbados, or Puerto Rico.

Sure, people surf in Tortola, the largest and most populous of the British Virgin Islands. But they're just locals. And maybe a few tourists from other Caribbean islands. Oh, and the occasional fireman and lifeguard and 15 of their friends from Long Island, N.Y., who would really prefer if a certain travel writer refrained from showcasing their winter wave destination.

So while you might want to hear that Tortola picks up winter swell from the very same storms that have entombed the U.S. East Coast, and that the waves rise like sparkling gemstones on the BVI reefs before peeling down the line oh-so-uniformly, and that the 78-degree water agrees rather nicely with the 84-degree air, you won't hear those things from me. No sirree!

Instead, I'll pass the mike to Andy Morrell.

"The cover was blown on this place years ago," says Morrell, 46, who moved to Tortola with his family at age 5. "And it's gotten crazy with Internet surf forecasting. Guys from New York see the swell is up, and they can be here the next day."

Morrell used to surf and windsurf seriously and now runs an amateur BVI windsurf race called the HIHO, a yacht-supported week of racing, sailing and partying that hits 12 islands.

We are chatting in front of Sebastian's on the Beach, a cheery two-story hotel on Little Apple Bay, one of a string of daydreamy coves on Tortola's North Shore. A couple hundred yards away, past the open-air restaurant, the tile terrace and the narrow beach, surfers are carving into glassy blue walls. We watch a thunderous set in silence.

Morrell is right. Surfers sniff out waves. I saw them in the St. Thomas airport, boards under their arms, and met two more on the ferry ride over to Tortola.

Cane Garden Bay, the best known of the island's breaks, was legendary before the Internet made us all forecasters. Jane Bakewell, a local journalist I met in Tortola, confirms the islands' notoriety. "I was traveling around Israel and nobody knew the BVIs," she says. "Except the surfers. They were all like, 'Oh, yeah. Great waves there!' "

My friend Bill and I grab rental boards from the lobby of Sebastian's and paddle out. It's 9 a.m. on a mid-February Monday, and the crowd is thickening, heavy on Long Island accents but also smattered with French and British.

The group seems friendly -- they don't yet know that I'm a party-crashing travel writer -- and inspiration for goodwill abounds: steady offshore breeze; sun lifting over steep green hills; Jost Van Dyke, the famous party island and sailing anchorage, beckoning four miles offshore.

"Nice, huh?" says Tommy Staubister, a 50ish firefighter from Montauk, N.Y., straddling his board as he waits for a wave. He says he's been coming to Tortola for 25 years.

"I used to sail around the Caribbean when I was single," he tells me. "First year my wife and I had a kid, we went to Florida, and it was freezing. We spent the whole trip driving farther south. We were sitting in Key West in our jackets and I said, 'Next year, back to Tortola.' "

A set starts to build and Tommy strokes for the horizon. "Travel writer, huh? You're not gonna write about this place, are you?"

* * *

The instinct to protect a surf spot is understandable. Quality surfing relies on a combination of factors that can be vexingly elusive: swell, break, accessibility and safety. Rarer still is the warm-water break in a peaceful tropical location.

And the BVI, today, are peaceful. Their history is full of violent benchmarks familiar in the Caribbean -- piracy, colonialism, slavery, uprisings -- but the dominant vibe now is mellow. The roads aren't jammed, people aren't in a hurry (unfortunately, this includes too many restaurant staffers) and you'd be forgiven for assuming that this is another sleepy, second-rate Caribbean economy.

In fact, the BVI boast a per-capita GDP ($51,273 in 2007) that would rank among the top 20 in the world. Tourism accounts for 45 percent of annual national income, but the primary economic driver is the islands' status as a tax haven, which explains the hundreds of thousands of offshore companies registered there.

Stately villas dot the hills, cocooned in large, leafy lots. Many locals drive late-model cars and pickups. Stores are well stocked, and restaurants do steady business, most hosting a mix of residents and tourists.

I'm sure that the poor and the desperate linger in the mix. Guns and drugs transit here, as they do throughout the region, and isolated muggings of cruise ship passengers in the capital, Road Town, are not unheard of. But I encountered no threats or animosity during my five days on Tortola, a refreshing change from many of the 25 Caribbean islands I've visited over the years.

The locals we met were exceedingly nice, from the surfer Carolina, who approached me in the lineup as I waited for a wave to help me with my takeoff style, to the taxi driver who turned his cab around to follow us to ensure that we had properly understood his directions. (We hadn't.)

And for the record, the New Yorkers were nice, too, even after I revealed my journalistic intentions. Tommy and I chatted every day. Glenn Krug, a builder from Montauk, caught me one day as I was paddling back out after riding a wave.

"Hey, John," he called. "When you stand up, man, stand up! You're staying in a crouch, in this panic stance. When you stand up, you're lighter, you go faster. Relax. There's nothing to fear." He smiled. "Just look at the scars." His forehead was a passport of dings -- reef, rock, board -- but all had healed and, at a spry 60, he was still surfing strong.

* * *

Part of surfing is the apr├Ęs scene, the bars where surfers and that special breed, wannabe surfers, hang out.

Our prime suspect is the Bomba Shack, a haphazard assemblage of wood, tin and nails literally overhanging the reef in Little Apple Bay. (As Morrell notes on his HIHO Web site, "With offshore wind you can sit in the lineup listening to reggae music waft across from the bar.")

The Bomba Shack looks like how a rebellious teenager, absent parental supervision, might decorate his room: abundant graffiti praising booze, drugs and sex (Coldest beer! Most shrooms!); photos of topless women; year-round Christmas lights; random license plates; and an unobstructed view of the surf break.

The bar hosts locally famous full-moon parties, complete with tea made from hallucinogenic mushrooms (legal in the BVI), and reportedly, things can get wild there at other times, notably spring break.

I walk in at sunset expecting the bar to be thumping with the hyperbolic retellings of the day's waves and find one young man exchanging amorous whispers with the bartender. Two days later, early afternoon: six tourists -- neither surfers nor wannabes -- brought here by the open-air taxis that serve the cruise ships in Road Town. The next day I pick up three hitchhiking American college kids who have come over from St. John to buy mushrooms. I drop them at the empty Bomba Shack. The surf scene, like the sport, appears to require timing.

One afternoon, with the swell dropping at Little Apple Bay, we load up the car and head for Josiah's Bay, which allegedly tenders a big rolling wave even after other spots have faded.

Tortola is 12 miles long by three miles wide, yet rises to an altitude of 1,750 feet, which translates to "steep." On some of the ascending turns you really aren't sure whether your car will hold the road -- or whether Bill has a firm enough grip on the surfboards sticking out the back -- and you learn to drop down to low gear to try to prevent the inevitable tire screeching.

But once you reach the Ridge Road, which runs most of the length of the island, the payoff comes in a blitz of arresting views featuring idyllic Caribbean coves, distant islands and one expansive mansion after another.

We wend our way down Josiah's Bay Road, the rare descent that does not inspire fantasies of parachuting, and park beneath a large shade tree.

Josiah's is a beautiful beach, an ample width of sand maybe a third of a mile long, pinched between hilly points. Two beach bars, a string of thatch palapas and clean restrooms with an outdoor shower complete the scene.

There are people on the beach. Two of them some distance away. Three locals fish from a rock outcropping 20 feet above the water, where a few surfers enjoy a steady parade of waves.

We paddle out and are surprised at the heft of the rollers. A burly wave sets up perfectly in front of me and I go. I am awaiting the free fall, but it doesn't come: Josiah's has a gentler drop-in -- more blue square than black diamond -- and I glide down eight feet of liquid turquoise in an unfamiliar moment of total control.

After a few more sets, the lineup thins out and it's just Bill and me, indulging in an open bar at the wave cafe. Our last wave of the day is memorable, not for size or form but for the fact that we both catch it and both ride it all the way into shore, mere feet from each other the entire way, before stepping off onto the sand and up to the beach bar.

There is no surf scene here, either, just a couple of Dutch guys settling up for the 10 beers they've had today, and a family lunching in the shade.

But that's okay. We have heard where we might find action.

The Last Resort is a mix of classic Caribbean, un-Caribbean and fantastical personal history.

The Caribbean part: Occupying the one-acre island Bellamy Cay in Trellis Bay, a few hundred yards off Tortola's east end, the Last Resort is reachable only by boat, a distinct advantage for the dozens of sailors anchored in the harbor. Landlubbing patrons (present!) must call from a dedicated phone on the dock and wait for a shuttle boat.

And the un-Caribbean? "We really try to stay away from the Jimmy Buffet and Bob Marley people hear all over the islands," says Tony Snell, the 87-year-old former charter captain who bought the property in the early 1970s.

So what will we hear?

First, Snell, strumming his Ovation guitar on the patio in front of the bar and singing cabaret-style tunes as people arrive for dinner. Then more Snell, at the piano on the big stage, competently tickling the keys and wheeling out portions of comedy and musical acts that he took on tour -- worldwide -- in the 1950s. He also wrote a concerto that served as the centerpiece of a successful West End play in London in the same era.

Oh, is that all?

"I was also in the British Royal Air Force in World War II," he tells me over whiskey and cold Carib beers. "Flew Spitfires. Shot down over Italy, and they caught me and dragged me before a firing squad. They told me to kneel, and I ran. Took five bullets and spent a night nearly bleeding to death hiding in the rocks, but I survived."

A four-piece rock band has taken the stage, and the place is starting to jump. Snell heads to the bar for another round, leaving me to ponder why "travel writer" no longer seems like such an exciting vocation.

Our last day in Little Apple Bay is flat. A lone surfer paddles around the reef, hoping something will happen. And sometimes it just doesn't here. Did I mention that?

Briley is a freelance writer in Takoma Park.

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