Our 45-foot catamaran sails through the glistening Caribbean Sea, gliding past jungly cliffs and rolling tree-lined hills speckled with red-roofed homes.
As six other sailors and I navigate the crystal-clear turquoise waters around the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, it feels tranquil and serene, as if we’ve drifted into a dream world.
A warm breeze pushes the sails as our ship glides along the azure waters. The delicious smell of spiced, grilled chicken tacos cooking in our onboard kitchen wafts in, fighting for prominence against the smell of the fresh ocean air. And the smooth voice of Leon Bridges provides a near perfect soundtrack to our sailing voyage.
“Yes, this is my life,” laughs our captain, Jamie Stills, when I look at him with what must have been disbelief.
Stills quit his corporate job a few years ago, bought this catamaran and is pretty much living his best sailing life. Nay, pretty much the best life. Which has, in turn, given me the opportunity to live 10 days of my best life sailing around the stunning Virgin Islands.
While such adventures may seem like a trip exclusive to the well-heeled, my fellow sailors and I are able to explore the islands thanks to Bolt. The community-based-membership travel organization uses collective purchasing power to facilitate otherwise unaffordable experiences for the rest of us, from excursions such as this sailing trip to a 1,000 kilometre self-guided safari across South Africa to a horseback expedition in northwest Iceland.
Bolt’s annual US$300 fee grants its global members the opportunity to join a different monthly trip at cost. Company founder Dan Pierson says this islands sailing trip, organized privately, would have cost an estimated US$3,000 a person with meals included. This trip cost Bolt members US$1,250 per person.
The destination is ideal: The British Virgin Islands, battered by hurricanes Maria and Irma last year, are recovering slowly and surely, greeting travellers and explorers with a zest likely not seen before. The yachting sector was the first part of the tourism market to bounce back, and now most charters are up and running. Still, there is a calm after the storm that makes the islands serene – less touristy than most of the Caribbean during snowbird season – and worth exploring to help revive the economy, along with your own spirits.
There are four main British Virgin islands. Tortola is the largest, liveliest and most developed. We decide to head to slower-paced Virgin Gorda. It feels like a deserted island with few inhabitants around – in fact almost all of the Virgin Islands feel like a sanctuary in this sense, with just a handful of scattered ships floating about.
As we pull in, we’re greeted by vast granite boulders interspersed by azure pools filled with tepid crystal clear water. We’ve reached the famous Baths, great for snorkelling and mud baths. We dig deep into the sand mining for black gold and plaster ourselves with the mineral-rich mud before exploring the world between the boulders.
After our natural spa treatment, we head to Jost Van Dyke, the party island, to drown our non-existent pain with a couple of “pain killers.” The strong rum-based drinks are a staple at the Soggy Dollar Bar, a watering hole dating back to the 1970s that was a favourite with sailors.
We set up a game of spike ball on the beach and play until almost sundown, when we hear a rallying call back to the ship in time for dinner, which is made by our group of sailors, a small but mighty crew whose members take turns cooking three meals a day. It’s a great bonding experience and way to feel as if you’re contributing to the adventure. After plates of belly-filling pasta, followed by a game of cards, we let the waves of the ocean rock us to sleep.
Up and at ‘em early the next day, we’re gearing up for low-lying, reef-surrounded Anegada, famed for its diving and snorkelling. We throw on our gear and jump right into the flat coral atoll, with more than 300 wrecks divers can explore The divers on board go deep into the ocean waters to check out the Kodiak Queen. Business magnate Richard Branson sunk the ship, one of the few to have survived the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, last year to create a reef. (The ship was heading to the scrap metal yard.)
All that swimming makes for necessary siesta time before we head to Anegada Reef to get our lobster feast on. Reputed to be the No. 1 dinner spot on the island, the venerable restaurant has fresh lobster and a picturesque setting on the water. It does not disappoint: Our lobsters come out larger than life, almost as big as 5-foot-2 me. We get our hands dirty devouring the massive plates of food before getting our feet sandy working off some of the calories as we boogie down to sweet reggae blasting from beachside speakers. We get down until the wee hours of the morning.
The next day we’re crossing “borders” to reach the U.S. Virgin Island’s St. John. Two thirds of the island is a U.S. national park and the beaches provide the perfect mix of sun and solitude.
As Bolt’s Pierson sips a Corona, the island rays beating down on him, he says visiting the region was an important trip for him.
“I wanted to inject money into these recovering economies and see the aftermath for myself,” Pierson says. “Travel can be much more than just a vacation, it can be transformative.”
This sailing voyage is just that: transformative. Literally and figuratively. We witness the effects of disaster Maria and Irma inflicted on the islands, but also how the hurricanes have transformed citizens, rallying them together to bring their homes and livelihoods back to life. It’s a commentary on resiliency. The omnipresent rainbow after the storm.
“A storm would never destroy us,” St. John resident Shirley Campbell says. “We’re stronger than that. And these hurricanes have shown us we can live through anything and persevere.”
The writer travelled as a guest of Bolt. It did not review or approve this article.