This Hidden Gem is on the Cusp of a Major Tourist Boom
It's late afternoon in Virgin Gorda. The lazy sun is slowly setting in the west, and the temperature just is starting to dip below 80 degrees. From our relaxing vantage point from Savannah Bay Beach, the white sand stretches out in either direction… off into the distance.
It's a small island. Only about eight square miles. And yet, there is so much beauty to capture here.
The shallow water that is so clear you can see straight through to the bottom, making it seem like the boats in harbor are floating on air.
The sapphire blue sky.
The lush green of the island itself.
Yeah, life is pretty hard here. You could spend a week or a lifetime in Virgin Gorda, blissfully soaking up the sun.
But there's more to do on this relaxed island haven than simply absorb the atmosphere. Virgin Gorda is a Mecca for boat lovers and water sports enthusiasts. For hikers, for nature conservationists, and yes, there are still plenty of options for those who simply enjoy good food and some quality downtime on a sun-kissed beach.
People have been dropping anchor in Virgin Gorda for hundreds of years. Christopher Columbus sailed through these parts, as did Sir Francis Drake. Over the years, the island became home to an important port, and was the capital of the Virgin Islands from 1680 to 1741.
Between yacht harbor in Spanish Town, and the Bitter End Yacht Club to the east, Virgin Gorda has seen it all. Most of the world's largest personal yachts have passed through this exact spot at some point. Why? Because the island's unique geography and stunning scenery makes it a boater's paradise.
People who have passed through Virgin Gorda include John Wayne, Brigitte Bardot, and Norman Rockwell.
Bring your snorkel or scuba gear… if you're lucky, you could wind up making a dolphin friend or two.
A Quick Look Around
Virgin Gorda is located in the British Virgin Islands, in the Caribbean Sea.
Although Virgin Gorda the third largest island, it's second in terms of total population (the island of Tortola is first in both categories, as it can claim the British Virgin Islands' capital of Road Town.)
A large number of the people on Virgin Gorda at any given time are tourists, but the resident population is about 4,000. The islands are almost exclusively geared toward the tourism trade, and the local economy relies on people coming to visit.
But just because it's a “tourist destination” doesn't mean it's one of those places where enormous crowds are the norm.
Virgin Gorda is small enough that there is a relaxed atmosphere here. This is not a situation where you're elbowing throngs of people simply to get to the beach and lay claim to a cramped portion of the sand.
It's where you go to get away…
The Lay of the Land (or Sea)
The first thing to remember is that Virgin Gorda is not in the US Virgin Islands. It's in the British Virgin Islands (you'll often see the abbreviation BVI).
So if you're from another nation (including US and Canada) you'll need to bring a valid passport in order to gain entry.
On the other hand, if you're traveling from the United States, you won't have to find a currency exchange: the official coin of the realm here is US Dollars.
Partly due to the proximity to the US and also the US Virgin Islands, the US Dollar has been the official currency of the BVI since 1959. Even so, most places will take credit or debit cards, and there is an ATM in Spanish town.
The typical cost for visiting Virgin Gorda can be anywhere from $150 / day (if you're making sure to watch your spending) to over $300 depending on dining and hotel amenities.
Tipping for good service is expected, and usually comes to what you would usually spend in the US for the same help. Tip a good dive or tour guide 15%, servers and taxi drivers 15%-20%.
If someone carries your bag at the hotel, consider at least $1 or $2 per bag if they're heavy, and around $5 for cleaners.
There is very much a tourist vibe but there are some things to be aware of.
The island is very small, and relies heavily on the tourist industry. Because hotels and restaurants and sightseeing, it might be easy to forget that 4,000 people call this home.
But that doesn't mean that one should. Make sure to keep the island clean, and treat your hosts with respect.
In addition, there are some unique environmental treasures on Virgin Gorda. One of them is the dry forest on Gorda peak, which is one of the last remaining in this part of the Caribbean.
So if you decide to do some hiking on Virgin Gorda, make sure to support the conservation of the area. Keep track of things like garbage and flammable material.
In fact, make sure not to litter any time… this is obvious but especially in a place this beautiful, it's such an eyesore. And when you see what good care they take of the area, you will really not want to mess that up.
What Does Virgin Gorda Mean?
The name “Virgin Gorda” is a bit unusual, to say the least. Translated from Spanish, it's… well, maybe not entirely complimentary slang for “fat virgin.”
Legend has it that this name was coined by none other than Christopher Columbus himself. Apparently when he sailed around this particular island for the first time, he thought that it looked like a large woman lying on her side.
So that's what he named it. And centuries later, that's still how people refer to it. First impressions really stick around for a while, don't they?
Although some might not be too enthusiastic about this particular bit of trivia, there are some on the island who have taken the moniker and run with it. The “Fat Virgin Cafe” is a local favorite, serving up a famously spicy hot sauce with their fare.
An Island of Luxury and Serenity
Virgin Gorda is dotted with quiet, luxury hotels, many of which are surprisingly affordable.
Some of the hotels are currently undergoing renovations as a result of damage sustained during Hurricane Irma, but many of these aim to reopen sometime in 2019.
One of the things you'll find with the hotels here is that, in addition to the usual amenities, most of them come with some sort of water sport service. They have all the usual spas and restaurants as well, but you can also learn to snorkel, scuba dive, kayak, or hone your kiteboarding skills.
Rosewood Little Dix Bay
Rosewood Little Dix Bay is one of the more highly regarded hotels on the island. It's on the North side of Virgin Gorda, sitting in the hills but close to the water. The hotel offers on-site snorkeling and tennis lessons, and visitors can also take advantage of the spa at Sense, a Rosewood Spa.
Right at the moment, Rosewood is under renovation following the hurricane, but it is expected to reopen later in 2019.
Located next to Gorda Peak, this hotel gets high marks for cleanliness, convenience, and affordability. They've also managed to stay open despite the storm (they did take some damage, but it wasn't so much that they're shut down.)
If you plan to see a lot of the island, and you don't want to spend much time on one end or the other, Gordian Terrace has the advantage of being centrally located. You can head east to the Bitter End, or head west to the Baths, and you'll still be close to home.
Currently, deals on rooms bring the price to around $240, although the pricing changes seasonally.
Accessible to the yacht harbor, local art, painting, jewelry, clothing and souvenirs
Leverick Bay Resort
Another central location, the resort is on the water need the moorings of Leverick Bay and the North Sound. The atmosphere is fun, with a bustling restaurant and live music.
The resort gets particular marks for its great view of the North Sound. Amenities include a spa, laundry service, and wi-fi.
Mango Bay Resort
Mango Bay Resort is another location that is currently under renovations, but we had to include it in our list, as it is well-regarded and will re-open later in 2019.
If you are planning your vacation further in advance, you will want to check out their beautiful rooms and accommodations.
If you're looking for something a little more high-end, the recently open Villa Aquamare is a breathtaking multi-level villa with three separate houses, each able to accommodate a large family or group of about a dozen people.
The location is next to the Mango Bay Resort, and presents itself as an option for a group vacation, or a destination wedding.
Batu Villa by the Baths
Finally, if you're looking for a view that will truly take your breath away, consider Batu Villa by the Baths. The villa features Balinese-inspired architecture and decor, as well as stunning glimpses of the westernmost part of Virgin Gorda (that means sunsets).
Among the amenities is an on-site gym, so if staying fit is something you look for in a hotel or villa, this might be the one for you.
Batu is conveniently located close to Spanish Town and the Baths, which are among the most popular destinations for tourists on Virgin Gorda or anywhere in the Virgin Islands.
Batu Villa by the Baths
And Just What Shall We Do Today?
Of course, odds are you don't want to spend all your time at the hotel (even if you found the perfect one for you).
Fortunately, there's no shortage of things to do both on the island and in the water surrounding it. Let's take a quick glimpse around the island to see where the action is…
The snorkeling in Virgin Gorda is extremely popular activity. The clear water and the shallow depth of the sea along much of the coastline is a snorkeler's paradise.
Three locations stand out when it comes to Virgin Gorda. The area around the Baths are popular for a reason, but they're also crowded. If you can hit up the Baths when there aren't a lot of people in the area, great.
It's rare for anything on Virgin Gorda to get “crowded,” but if anything does, it's the Baths. So if it seems like they're busy and you may be seeing more humans in the water than fish, maybe check out a couple other spots.
Head up to Savannah Bay or Mahoe Bay for a more laid-back experience. Both are great for snorkelers and the water is not difficult to navigate.
For scuba diving in Virgin Gorda (or anywhere in the British Virgin Islands) you'll want to check out Dive BVI.
This group has been guiding people to the very best scuba experiences since 1975. They do everything from private lessons to larger expeditions.
Dive BVI is not limited to Virgin Gorda, but it does have a convenient location right on the Yacht Harbor in Spanish Town. Best of all, they routinely get great feedback and reviews from their customers.
That Beach Life
The Virgin Islands are legendary for their beaches. Travel magazines routinely rank them high in this category for a number of reasons. For one thing, the beaches here are rarely overwhelmingly crowded.
If you try hitting up a beach in Santa Monica or Miami during the summer, odds are you're going to have to fight for your spot on the sand. On Virgin Gorda, you can take your pick…
Devil's Bay Beach / Spring Bay Beach
The tourist draw known as the Baths sit next to two beaches: Spring Bay to the north, and Devil's Bay to the south. Both are prime locations for photos, snorkeling, and people-watching.
Most of the classic pictures taken on Virgin Gorda are snapped along these beaches. And with good reason; the sunsets are particularly awe-inspiring…
Spring Bay and Trunk Bay are both nearby, and the collection of these beaches so close together is what makes this part of the island a tourist favorite.
Savannah Bay Beach
Savannah Bay Beach sits on the west side of the island. It's a long, curving stretch of white sand, the perfect place to relax.
It's just to the North of Spanish Town, so if you've spent the morning exploring the town and want to get a little more beach action this is a good, low-key option.
It's less likely to have as many people as any of the beaches by the Baths, which makes it ideal for a picnic or lunch. (It's also a great spot for snorkeling.)
So roll out the beach towel, grab that novel you've been meaning to finish, and have a perfect, no-stress day.
Just remember to bring your sunscreen…
Gotta See Em All
Although you could easily spend your entire visit happy on a beach, we recommend you check out at least a couple of the sights that make Virgin Gorda unique.
Whether it's Gorda Peak (which is the prime hiking attraction) or Spanish Town, with some of the oldest parts of the island's history.
Or of course, the most well-known destination on the entire island…
Of all the places in Virgin Gorda, the Baths might be the most iconic (not to mention the most popular.)
The Baths are uniquely picturesque natural phenomenon. Enormous boulders sit jumbled up on the western end of the island, as if Stonehenge had gotten knocked over.
But the Baths are natural. They are granite boulder that are the result of many years of erosion. Because they sit right on the coastline, they form a network of tunnels and archways that make for entertaining exploration and intriguing photo opportunities.
When the sun is overhead, sunshine often spills through the cracks between boulders to form pools of light along the shallow water.
Private boats are not allowed to anchor near the baths, as a way to keep the area clean and avoid overcrowding.
Gorda Peak is the highest point on the island. Accessible with only a 10-minute hike, and in the middle of Virgin Gorda, so it's easy to reach no matter where you're staying.
From here you can get the best views of the entire island. The peak is environmentally interesting to conservationists, as well. It's one of the last dry forests in the Virgin Island, for one thing
For another: it also has world's tiniest lizard, the Virgin Gorda Gecko.
Bring a snack, and if you're lucky, you might picnic with zebra butterflies and Antillean crested hummingbirds while you're at it…
The Copper Mine
On the southern tip of the island, not far from Spanish Town, sits a copper mine that hails back to the early 19th Century. For those interested in history, it was originally constructed in 1837 by Cornish miners.
Although much of the mine is now in ruins, they are quite impressive nonetheless, and a chimney still remains as a reminder of the island's past.
The North Sound is considered a boating Mecca; a famous locale that has enticed sailors from all over the world.
The protected harbor, surrounded by smaller islands, made it an ideal place to enjoy scenic views. Plenty of restaurants, as well as the historic Bitter End Yacht Club (currently also undergoing repairs from the hurricane, but still very present.)
For those looking for a little more to do in the evening, the North Sound is a good bet for when it's too dark for the beach.
Spanish Town is the second largest town in BVI, after the capital of Road Town (on the island of Tortola). It's an excellent place to explore, with a few bars, and the Yacht Harbor marina.
Sitting just to the north of Virgin Gorda, Mosquito Island is famous for two things: water sports, and Richard Branson.
The billionaire owner of Virgin bought the entire island in 2007 for 10 million GBP. The island's name has historically been spelled “moskito,” possibly a simple misspelling.
Although this was once a major playground for scuba divers, Branson has converted it into a private estate, at which he has hosted numerous guests and events to discuss the topic of clean energy.
Visiting it directly may not be possible if you're not on the guest list, but curious boaters can get a pretty good look at Branson's digs from the water.
When Do We Eat?
Tourists have high expectations when it comes to food, and that's certainly no different on Virgin Gorda. The restaurants here come in many shapes and sizes.
Whether you're looking for an authentic experience of Caribbean roti, or you want a sushi fusion dinner. Classic fare, seafood, or tapas, the food on Virgin Gorda will have something for anyone in your family.
You could make the case that Coco Maya is currently the premier fine dining experience on the island. You can watch a sunset, wine or cocktail in hand. Diners have praised the restaurant's presentation, service, and of course, the food.
Its Latin-Asian fusion menu features a long list of mouth-watering sushi, tapas, and ceviche. While Latin-Asian fusion may not be as novel as it once was, Coco Maya doesn't sell the novelty, but the execution. Who are we to complain when it's done this well?
The Pavilion at Little Dix Bay
Like the Rosewood Little Dix Bay, due to renovations, the Pavilion is currently closed… but keep an eye on this one. Before the hurricane, the Pavilion had high marks for its authentic and delicious Caribbean cuisine.
Hog Heaven sits partway up Gorda Peak, overlooking Leverick Bay and boasting a delicious spread of pig and BBQ-related meals. The pulled pork sandwich gets raves from diners.
Outdoor seating is particularly encouraged, as you can take advantage of this spectacular view.
The Restaurant at Leverick Bay
Speaking of Leverick Bay, the resort's on-site restaurant is one of the more popular destinations on the island. With live music and a wide range of craft cocktails, the restaurant provides some of the best nightlife on the island.
That's not to say it isn't family friendly. High-chairs are available for those traveling with wee ones, and the menu serves gluten-free and vegetarian options for anyone who needs a little flexibility in their eating choices.
You may want to make a reservation here, if you plan on staying for dinner. There's a lot to choose from here. Smoked salmon and shrimp curry are not really surprising… this is an island after all, so you expect good seafood!
But it's not just a seafood joint: the rack of lamb is one particular standout on the menu here.
The Fat Virgin Cafe
The Fat Virgin Cafe is indeed a nod to the translation of the island's name. The restaurant was originally established in 1996, and was best known for two things: its authentic Caribbean Roti, and a hot sauce that could knock the socks off even the most heat-prone traveller.
As with many businesses on this part of the island, the Fat Virgin got hit hard by Hurricane Irma. But a newer, better version is in the works, and the owners are hoping to open the doors before the end of 2019. When that happens, you want to be here.
Top of the Baths
Location, location, location.
The Top of the Baths has the best on the island. Overlooking the most popular tourist destination is almost never a bad move for a restaurant.
The Top of the Baths gets much of its business from people on tours, who have worked up a mighty hunger after a day of snorkeling and instagramming near the granite boulders on the south end of the island.
This particular restaurant gets high praise for its salad, its vegetarian options, and the overall ambiance. The view is a particularly strong selling point, as much of the seating is outdoor, and one can catch a fantastic view of the sunset at the end of the day.
A Warm Reception
Typically, the Caribbean Sea tends to keep the weather in Virgin Gorda fairly consistently warm. There are rarely wild temperature swings in one direction or the other. This means you'll often find it in the 80s (Fahrenheit) and sunny for much of the year.
The winter months will make it rain, though. November through February often have the most rainfall. Because of this, March is a popular month to visit, as you're more likely to have good weather.
June through August will get hotter… so although there isn't a single “best time” to visit, the spring months are often desirable.
Your Virgin Gorda Packing List
You're on your way? We're so glad!
Just remember to bring a few things…
These are your Absolute Essentials:
Sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher!)
People forget how strong the sun can be when it isn't 90 or 100 degrees. Because there's a nice breeze and temps are often in the 80s, it sometimes feels just a little warmer than what you're normally used to.
Then you get back to your hotel and your nose and shoulders are a deep shade of red because guess what? Virgin Gorda is close to the Equator and you just got a massive dose of sunshine. Use your sunscreen and reapply after snorkeling, swimming, splashing around in the hotel pool, etc.
Again, an essential. Doesn't hurt to bring a backup pair just in case.
Wide-Brimmed Hat or Baseball Cap
Are we seeing a theme here? This is especially good if you plan on hiking, or being out on a yacht fishing, or sitting on a beach reading… anywhere you're not in the water, but still out in the sun for a while. That shade is a good idea.
Any Prescription Meds
Important! Super important. There are medical facilities on the island but they only serve a small population. As such, resources are limited, and getting a refill for your prescription medications will almost certainly not be possible if you leave yours at home.
Make sure to fill your prescription before you go, and save yourself that particular headache.
Speaking of headaches. You can find aspirin, Tylenol, and Tums on the island but it's easier and cheaper to just have them on hand.
Your Passport or Visa
If you're traveling from the US, you will need a passport! Some countries will need a visa.
As of the time of this article (March 2019) things are very much in flux in this department. Both US policies and Brexit have made it difficult to know exactly how this will change over the coming years, but read up on it before you go.
Most places will take card, but a little cash is handy for tipping bellhops and making small purchases.
And it's probably good to bring some of these along, too…
Shaving / Bathroom Kit
Backup Hat and Sunglasses
Plenty of Swim Trunks / Swimsuits
Books, if you're the type that likes to sit on the beach and read…
Scuba / Snorkel Gear
Laundry Bag… even if you don't need it for laundry, it can be a great way to lug your snorkeling gear from place to place
Snacks (not all beaches sell them)
Long-Sleeved Swim Shirt
Light Poncho or Rain Jacket
One nicer outfit (slacks/collared shirt for men, dress or top/pants for women). Things are generally pretty casual here, but some restaurants have a no-shorts policy for dinner
A Favorite Destination
One of the things that makes Virgin Gorda so special is the degree to which people will keep coming back. Granted, part of that is because it's been a “best kept secret” since the 1970's, but the island has something for everyone.
Sightseeing, water sports, dining, spas… you can take it slow or get into the action with some of the best scuba diving there is.
Maybe the question shouldn't be when are you going to visit? Perhaps the question should be when are you coming back?
(And how many times?)