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The Americas & Caribbean

About Tortola

Spread across miles of gleaming azure waters, the British Virgin Islands are the summits and peaks of a chain of dormant underwater volcanoes. Their lush beauty is unmatched, and Tortola is among the most stunning. At 12 miles long and three miles wide, it is the largest of the archipelago. Sailors have been skirting these shores for centuries. With the arrival of British colonists from England and, later, of defeated loyalists from the thirteen colonies of the newly founded United States of America, the island’s sugar industry boomed. Today, the island’s capital of Road Town rests on a picturesque horseshoe-shaped harbor where yachts mingle with simple fishing boats and rainforest-clad hills rise up to a blue sky.

Settled early on by the Arawaks, then by the Caribs, the British Virgin Islands were skipped by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. Later, the Spanish, British, Dutch, French and Danish all occupied the island group at various points, but ultimately, the British captured the Dutch settlement in 1672; today it remains under British rule. Road Town is the governmental and commercial center where the vast majority of residents reside.

Tortola Lifestyle and Culture

While culturally influenced by Britain, Tortola is an unspoiled paradise that maintains a laid-back lifestyle. Even in the capital city of Road Town, the pace is slow enough that locals never hesitate to stop for a beverage and catch up on the latest island gossip. Relaxation is central to life here, whether taking tea or lounging on the white sands of a secluded beach. Residents contribute to the tranquil vibe with their friendly nature and welcoming smiles.

Folktales contribute to the rich oral tradition of Tortola and the BVI, and they are still woven into everyday life in schools, churches and family gatherings. Caribbean dance troupes, steel drums and calypso performers add color and rhythm, particularly during celebrations and events. The British Virgin Islands Emancipation Festival, taking place in several locations every summer, commemorates their cultural history with music, parades, food, folklore presentations and more. The Spring Regatta is a huge party in Road Town with drinks, food, music and, of course, boats.

Tortola Sights and Landmarks

There are beautiful buildings, museums and landmarks here worthy of your time. Walking Main Street in Road Town only takes about an hour, making for an easy sightseeing journey. Start at the southern end with the whitewashed Government House, shining like a pearl in the sea. This British colonial manor used to house the appointed governor, but now invites visitors to walk through colonial times, admiring historic artifacts, period furniture and an impressive stamp collection. Further north is Her Majesty’s Prison, which closed its doors in 1995. Built in the 18th century, it is the oldest building in Road Town. For some island history, stop by the Folk Museum for old ship, pottery and stone tool relics.

Fort Burt, at the western edge of Road Town, was built in the early 17th century to protect the harbor. While now a hotel and restaurant, one of the original cannons still points out to sea. For a taste of the sweet life when sugarcane was king, tour the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works, just outside of Road Town. The red-roofed building is more than 300 years old. Inside, historic artifacts and machinery transport you back to colonial days.

Tortola Entertainment and Activities

Crystal-clear seas around Tortola are the result of a drier climate. With less rain, there is less water runoff into the ocean, making for calmer waters and excellent snorkeling and diving. Steady winds also provide ideal sailing conditions, so it is the ideal place to try your hand at sailing.

Gorgeous beaches abound. Cane Garden Bay on the north shore is one of the most popular and most stunning: fine white sands stretch around a curved bay, sheltering it from the wind. Swim, windsurf, sail or simply lounge. Island music from nearby bars and restaurants may tempt you away for a frozen drink. For something a little more remote, Smugglers Cove is tucked away on the western end of the island at the end of an unpaved road. Visitors are rewarded with palm-fringed sand and exceptionally warm, clear water.

A short sail takes visitors to Virgin Gorda, where beaches are even more tranquil and dramatic. At Spring Bay, giant boulders are scattered on the sands. The nearby Baths are the crown jewel of this small island. Giant volcanic rocks form grottoes in the sea, providing lots of nooks for swimming and snorkeling.

Tortola Restaurants and Shopping

For such a small island, Tortola has an impressive selection of restaurants serving both local and international dishes. Popular dishes include fungi. Unrelated to mushrooms, this staple is a cornmeal cooked with okra and eaten with fish. Roti, a flatbread filled with meat or vegetables, can be sampled at Roti Palace on Main Street. Seafood is also abundant; the Anegada lobster, caught off the shores of the nearby island of the same name, is one of the most prized in the Caribbean.

Eateries are found throughout the island, with many clustered around Road Town and Cane Garden Bay. In town, French-influenced Dove is set in a cozy house with a rotating menu and extensive wine list. Capriccio di Mare is a great al fresco option for casual Italian.

At Cane Garden Bay’s Sugar Mill, you can enjoy conch chowder, poached lobster and filet mignon while sitting in a candlelit 17th-century sugar mill. Reservations are a must.

Back on Main Street, a handful of small shops and boutiques sell local items, from spices and marinades at Sunny Caribbee Spice Shop to accessories from the Jewelry Box and original art at The Gallery. The store adjoining Pusser’s Pub across from the waterfront has a good selection of bottled rum and signature clothing.