Sheltered, horseshoe-shaped Road Harbour on Tortola’s south coast lends its name to the capital of the island and the British Virgin Islands. Government offices and banks line the waterfront, looking over the cruise ship terminal and dozens of small yachts. Picturesque Main Street, one block inland, is a winding thoroughfare, home to many of Road Town’s remaining historic buildings, as well as the four-acre J.R. O’Neal Botanic Garden (above), a lush, peaceful refuge with an orchid house and outdoor pond. At the other end of Main Street, the BVI Folk Museum has a small but fascinating collection ranging from Amerindian artefacts to shipwreck relics, housed in a century-old wooden cottage.
Drink like a sailor
For centuries, men of the British Royal Navy were granted a daily rum ration, doled out by each vessel’s purser — or “pusser.” This tipsy tradition came to an end in 1970, but nine years later an enterprising entrepreneur purchased the rights to use the brand name Pusser’s Rum, and the recipe for the Royal Navy’s traditional blend.
Pusser’s Rum may be legally headquartered in the United States, but it has a longstanding link to Tortola — perhaps best explored at the Pusser’s Co. Store and Pub in Road Town, where the resident bartenders will mix you any number of rum cocktails, and bottles of the stout-hearted spirit are on sale alongside memorabilia of all kinds.
Several different ferry companies offer multiple daily crossings from Tortola to the BVI’s two other major islands, Virgin Gorda and Anegada. Head out early enough, and you can explore Tortola’s neighbours on a day-trip. The must-see destination in Virgin Gorda is The Baths, where huge granite boulders scattered and piled along the beach form caves, tunnels, and swimming holes. Low-lying Anegada, meanwhile, is famous for its seafood — its fringing reefs abound with lobster — and is also a snorkellers’ paradise, with underwater attractions including numerous wrecks.
First settled by indigenous Arawaks moving north up the Antillean chain, Tortola was spotted by Columbus in 1493. Long a pirates’ stronghold, the island was formally claimed by the British in 1672. The eighteenth century brought a small flood of settlers, running sugar plantations on the labour of enslaved Africans. Later, after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Africans liberated by illegal slave ships were settled in Tortola, establishing a free black community before Emancipation in 1834.
In 1853, rioters protesting a new tax set fire to Road Town, destroying almost all its buildings. The collapse of the sugar industry led to an economic slump, till the rise of tourism as the BVI’s main income-earner in the twentieth century — with a lucrative side in offshore banking as well.
2017’s Hurricane Irma passed directly over Tortola and devastated the island, wrecking homes, businesses, utilities, and much of the infrastructure of the tourism sector. Recovery efforts were slow in the immediate aftermath but eventually picked up pace, and by the 2018 tourist season the island was ready once more to receive visitors and their much-needed dollars and pounds.
To the heights
Mount Sage, Tortola’s highest peak at 1,716 feet, rises just west of Road Town, and its forested slopes (above) are protected by a 96-acre national park. Here you’ll find what’s probably the only original forest on the island, largely untouched since pre-Columbian times. There are trails for hikers, species like mountain doves and red-tailed hawks for birders, tiny hermit crabs underfoot, and amazing views across the island for those who simply enjoy a spot of landscape. The North Coast Overlook right beside the park entrance offers the most sweeping vista of all.
Poems for the island
With a population under 24,000, Tortola must be one of the smallest island communities ever to have one of its writers in the running for a major international award — which was the case in 2017, when poet Richard Georges was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Forward Prize for his debut book — appropriately titled Make Us All Islands. A follow-up, Giant, appeared not long after. In both his books, Georges explores the history and landscape of the BVI with quiet lyricism and a sharp eye.
Head to sea
Tortola is arguably the Caribbean’s sailing charter capital, with dozens of companies and hundreds of boats of all sizes and degrees of luxury available — whether you’re looking for a fortnight at sea exploring the turquoise waters and sandy islets of the Virgin Islands, or just a daylong excursion. “Bareboating” is the term for crewing your own chartered yacht, but if you’ve never unfurled a sail or put hand to rudder, fully crewed vessels are also in supply. With a boat at your command, you can explore every secluded bay and hidden cove, far from the madding crowd.
18.4º N 64.6º W
Caribbean Airlines operates daily flights to V.C. Bird International Airport in Antigua, with connections on other airlines to Tortola