David Dawkins finds the British Virgin Islands are bouncing back with a vengeance after Hurricane Irma
In summer 2017 the British Virgin Islands were perhaps at their lowest point. Hurricane Irma had hit harder than expected, killing four people and doing $3.6 billion-worth of damage – more than three times the territory’s GDP. And locals knew it was coming.
Michael, 24, a driver at one of the new luxury residences on Virgin Gorda island, recalls the pressure of the storm smashing his house, squeezing his brain – the roof not peeled but plucked from the four walls, shooting up and out to sea. I ask what it felt like to open the front door of his roofless home the morning after the night before. But he’s reluctant to dwell on the negatives. ‘It was chaos,’ he says cheerily, ‘but everyone knew how to get it done.’
Now the territory is well on its way to a full recovery. Some of the rot has blasted away, and the bars, businesses and people are back with a bang.
To really appreciate the British Virgin Islands, you must have a boat. The islands are tiny, but you must see them all, and a day or so at each is plenty. We took a four-double-bed catamaran from the Moorings, with a curmudgeonly captain who slowly warmed up. He was a great help, assuming the role of a guide, and even swam off to get a fresh snapper and vegetables for a BBQ dinner when we wanted to stay in and watch the sunset.
The journey starts from the Moorings’ Tortola base and heads out to dock at Jost Van Dyke. We cook in the sun as the boat motors past a few roofless homes and tree-less hillsides and long-beaked birds dive-bomb the shallow water. We lunch at Soggy Dollar, an outdoor bar that claims to be the inventor of the ‘Painkiller’ – a coconut and rum cocktail with hair-of-the-dog-like properties.
But the day belongs to Foxy, the owner of a bar at the other end of the waterfront, who we meet sitting in a hammock, singing rude songs about Prince Philip and drinking a Guinness. Foxy is the life and soul of the island. He’ll often play the village idiot, but deep down he’s a genuine entrepreneur and businessman, who works hard and wants to see more jobs and better jobs for the next generation. And Richard Branson knows Foxy’s value. Before we head off for the night, Foxy shows us a video of himself singing one of his rude songs to the billionaire on his nearby private island. ‘I like Sir Richard,’ he says. ‘Maybe we’ll do business.’
We come back to Foxy’s that night for more Guinness and dancing with rowdy American boating crews enthusiastically telling us all about the massive fish they didn’t catch, and the turtle that bit their precocious child’s midriff.
Storm or no storm, the BVI are nicely put together. The roads work, and most of the colonial-style architecture stood up to the storm. But some locals aren’t keen on Americans coming over and telling them there was nothing here until they arrived, such as the property developer who, at lunch, describes homes as being ‘made of two-by-fours and sheet steel’. It’s funny how a bad attitude can be so much more demoralising than bad weather.
In the pink
After a day in the blazing sun, I awake the same colour as my lobster dinner, and we power across to eat more lobster and visit the Cooper Island Beach Club Brewing Company, which is solar-powered. Doing our bit for the environment, we taste all the beers, hit the rum bar and crash like never before. ‘Too much sun?’ one of the locals asks as I board the boat, struggling for balance. Beer brewed by solar power – so in a way, yes.
Having been rudely awoken by a cockerel, we head out to the Baths, a national park that offers a great day out, if not for health and safety enthusiasts. The huge volcanic beach boulders are diving boards, snorkelling pools and cave dens for the curious.
Back on the boat, we drop the sail for the first time en route to Guana Island. It’s so peaceful that even flamingos visit. The seven white powder-sand beaches and 850 acres of tropical forest, mountains, hills and valleys make the experience more like living in your own intimate nature reserve. We swim and scuba off the shoreline, and a half-hour kayak takes us to Monkey Island for our own private island experience, coming back to feed two enormous tortoises before a beacon-light dinner on the roof.
There’s a peacefulness here. But beneath the calm, the BVI are fighting to win back what bad weather and bad luck took from them. It’s the people, not just the place, that binds the islands together, and the community remains determined to come back better than ever. Mother nature may have broken their hotels and homes, but it didn’t break their spirit.
Photo credit: Luke Holloway (featured image)