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The Caribbean

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

The largest of the British Virgin Islands, Tortola is a sweet spot for surfers seeking winter waves and for travelers in search of a fun, safe getaway. But you didn't hear it from us.
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By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 2010

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.

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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.


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