VIRGIN GORDA, BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS - We’ve reached the Bitter End on a week-long voyage aboard the luxury yacht Seadream I – the Bitter End Yacht Club, that is.
We were supposed to be anchored off Spanish Town, this Caribbean outpost’s commercial centre and main tourist stop, but inclement weather on the island’s South Sound where Spanish Town is located prevents our captain from dropping anchor there.
So instead, we awake to find we’re in the island’s North Sound looking at the posh British Virgin Islands’ yacht club which welcomes sailors from around the world. Being good neighbours, the yacht club invites the Seadream castaways to enjoy their facilities for the day – the Bitter End club normally charges sailors $1,000 U.S. a night to stay in chic villas perched on hillsides overlooking a cove filled with sailing boats and lots of history.
Many of the passengers aboard Seadream 1 were hoping to visit Virgin Gorda’s world renowned Baths - gigantic boulders strewn along a South Sound shore near Spanish Town that were spit out of a volcano billions of years ago and have since been shaped by sea and surf into some wild forms.
As we pile into a tender for the short ride to the yacht club, passengers can’t hide their disappointment at not seeing the Baths.
“The Baths was going to be the highlight of this trip for me,” says a woman from Chicago.
The house-sized boulders that make up the Baths have given birth to a delicate tidal pool ecosystem that is interspersed among the rock formations. The Baths is Virgin Gorda’s most popular tourist attraction, where visitors can dive into secluded pools and grottoes formed by the great rocks and enjoy swimming and diving in seclusion.
As the tender gets closer to the Bitter End’s dock, the yacht club’s sandy beach comes into view. The mood aboard the tender suddenly picks up. The Seadream passengers rush to claim lounge chairs scattered along the shoreline and within minutes are frolicking in the gentle surf.
No one is talking about the Baths anymore.
Left: The Bitter End is just the start of a great vacation. Right: Luxury villas are a good place to stretch your sea legs.
An attendant who arrives to take drink orders tells us the North Sound is the most tranquil deep water anchorage in the Caribbean – the perfect place for a yacht club - and its history features romantic tales of pirates and great colonial sea battles.
“Out there,” says the man pointing to a spot on the blue horizon, “is where the pirate Sir John Hawkins was buried at sea. Other pirates like Blackbeard, Bluebeard and Sir Francis Drake hid in the coves around here and frequently attacked merchant ships headed back to Europe.
“I guess you could say Bitter End is where many people met their bitter ends,” smiles the attendant, who heads off to get us one of the yacht club’s signature cocktails.
The history of how the Bitter End Yacht Club got started is just as intriguing. A family named the Hokins sailed into the remote sound in the summer of 1964 when only a shore front pub called Bitter End and five cottages owned by an eccentric yachtsman named Basil Symonette stood here.
The Hokins fell madly in love with the idyllic sound that's guarded by lush mountains and was first sighted by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Columbus called the string of islands that now make up the Virgin Islands in honour of the 11,000 virgin followers of St. Ursula, who was martyred in the 4th century.
Left: Sailing a big part of a Bitter End vacation. Right: Virgin Gorda has a long history with lots of pirates.
A year after sailing into the sound, the Hokins purchased Bitter End as a family retreat and later transformed it into the luxury yacht club/resort it is today – featuring 85 deluxe accommodation, 21 slips, two restaurants, a club fleet of over 100 boats, the Caribbean’s best sailing school, and luxuries like a spa and shops.
From Bitter End, sailors can explore Virgin Gorda’s alluring shores, secluded coves and treasured mountains like Gorda Peak, the island’s highest point at 1,380 feet.
Besides the Baths, other natural treasures offered on Virgin Gorda are two interesting crags off the southern tip called Fallen Jerusalem and Broken Jerusalem.
The busiest time for Virgin Gorda was the 17th century when British colonists, as well as the Dutch and French, took an interest in the island. Reminders of that period include the ruins at Little Fort National Park which, along with Prickly Pear National Park on the North Sound have become important wildlife sanctuaries where eco-tourism abounds.
Above: Cruise ships fight for space with smaller vessels in the harbour.
The best swimming and snorkeling on Virgin Gorda can be found at the Baths, Spring Bay, Crawl National Park, the secluded Trunk Bay, and the inlets north of Little Dix Bay.
Swimmers are constantly being cautioned about going too far from shore – currents are swift in the middle of the channel and you can find yourself drifting towards neighbouring St. Thomas, or worse out to sea very quickly.
Most of the Seadream passengers hang around the yacht to the bitter end and on the last tender back to the luxury yacht, the woman from Chicago tells others: “Today has been the highlight of my trip so far.”