Fifteen men on the dead man's chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
So goes the famous sea shanty from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, referring to the British Virgin Islands' Dead Chest, where Blackbeard allegedly stranded 15 mutinous sailors with only a bottle of rum for company. From a distance, Dead Chest Island looks, appropriately, like a giant moss-bearded corpse, mountainous of belly and forever becoffined in foam-laced Caribbean waters.
Like many of the BVI's more than 50 islets, Dead Chest is uninhabited and is only accessible if not by pirate ship, then by boat. Which is how I came to visit the British Virgin Islands this past June, aboard a 39i monohull sailboat, the Second Wind, with Roy, a skipper and lifelong mariner, who moved about with the languor of passing clouds and spoke (rarely and with melting slowness) about windward tacks and luffing sails.
Before boarding the Second Wind (chartered by Sunsail), my experience of the open water extended mostly to viewings of Titanic and wearing nautical stripes. None of which proved terribly useful training for spending a week on the water. (Especially in midsummer, when the air was so dense you needed to untangle it before breathing.)
Sunsail's handsome wood-trimmed vessels, with self-furling jibs, claim four bedrooms - although "room" is a charitable term for the berths, which could make sleeping in a pencil case seem luxurious. And that is to say nothing of the absurdist terms "bathroom" and "shower." But, mercifully, you'll spend very little time below deck. (Be advised that time spent below deck, a place that could make hell seem balmy, should be spent in the delightful company of Dramamine.)
The sailing experience - camping on the high seas - often is as physically demanding as it can be decadent, pampering you with scenes of sunshine dressing turquoise waters in diamond tiaras, with only the sounds of ruffling waves and sails fighting the winds. One late afternoon, as I enjoyed gin and Ting on deck, Christopher Cross's Sailing playing in the background, our boat plying Tiffany-blue swells, I felt the need to spend the rest of my days asail, wearing breeze-wrinkled linens and a suntan.
But just as spectacular as floating upon the waters is swimming in them - the BVI, with their calm, hospitable waters, are as much a yachtie paradise as they are a snorkeller's playground. Among the islands' diving capitals is the Dogs, a collection of rock formations off the coast of Virgin Gorda Island (fat virgin island), so named because Christopher Columbus, upon first spying the land mass, thought it resembled a rotund and reclining woman. The Dogs, meanwhile, are named after the now-extinct monk seals that once lived there. Part of the Dogs' family is the Flintstones - boulders redolent of the kind of real-estate you would find in Bedrock. Snorkel around the Flintstones and the world undersea, with its Gorgonian sea fans as green as the Great Gazoo and tube sponges the shade of Wilma Flintstone's topknot.
Underwater, the fish are just as pretty - black-and-yellow striped Sergeant Majors, multicoloured Queen Angelfish, Midnight Parrotfish with fins of royal blue and swift, glinting storm clouds of minnows.
Back on land, the Baths of Virgin Gorda are a labyrinth of granite boulders, brought to the surface 20 million years ago by volcanic eruptions. Take in the complete spectacle by wending your way through a maze of grottos and vertiginous cacti-lined paths to Devil's Bay - a cinematic landscape that will more than repay the hike it takes to find.
If (part of) the charm of isle-hopping in the BVI is dropping anchor on shores better touristed by hawksbill turtles and warm breezes than by tourists, Jost Van Dyke Island's White Bay proved an exception. A postcard ribbon of sugary sand, coconut palms and electric-blue water is rendered considerably less utopian by sun-torched crowds of co-eds doing body shots at the beachside Soggy Dollar Bar - a watering hole claiming to be the birthplace of the BVI's signature cocktail, the Painkiller. The potion is a tasty mixture of dark rum, cream of coconut, orange and pineapple juice and freshly grated nutmeg. After just one glass, I needed a sobering dip in the sea, only to bump into a man wading by with both hands in the air: one holding a lit cigarette and the other a plastic beer cup. It was time to move on.
For a more peaceable experience, we moored at Tortola's Frenchman's Key and wandered about the marina, a strip of pastel-coloured boutiques and cafés. Glam-seekers can sleep at Richard Branson's private Necker Island for $35,000 a night. Oprah, Spielberg, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have all stayed here. However, after a week of touring these treasure isles, luxury for me finds different forms: showers, doors, terra firma. That being said, while this week may not have made a mariner of me, I'm on board for another chance to voyage at sea.
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