Saturday 18 November 2017

British Virgin Islands: Castaway

Virginia Macari on holiday in the British Virgin Islands
Virginia Macari on holiday in the British Virgin Islands

Virginia Macari

I slowly emerged from the water, just like Ursula Andress in Dr No. My hair all glossy, my skin glistening, wearing a sexy bikini and armed with a knife strapped to my thigh. It was just like the classic scene in that film, except I was Honey Ryder, one of my favourite Bond girls, and my boyfriend, Kaste, was James Bond. I walked towards him on the beach; he was waiting to rub suntan lotion all over my body and then, just as the dream was getting interesting, I woke to the sound of thunder and lightning. It was hurricane season, after all, on the Caribbean beach where I had fallen asleep. I awoke alone -- no Kaste -- and, as the heavens opened above me, I remembered exactly where I was. Kaste was back home in Dublin, but I was in tropical climes, and moored a slightly wet hop, skip and jump away was the beautiful boat on which I was sailing around the British Virgin Islands.

The chance to visit the British Virgin Islands was one I just couldn't pass up. I've wanted to go to the Caribbean since I was a little girl, but, all grown up, I was nervous about travelling without Kaste. In the three years we've been together, we have rarely been apart, and once I got to Dublin Airport, I felt a little fear and a small pang of regret, but told myself that a little solo adventure would be fun. And it was more than fun. It was eye-opening, amazing and out of this world, and I came home with a second love in my life.

The view from the plane as we landed gave me my first wave of wonder at the natural beauty of the Caribbean, with jewel-like atolls in dazzling colours stretching as far as the eye could see, like some sort of hallucination. Then, as the chauffeur whistled and sang all the way from the airport to Trellis Bay, I got my first sense of the friendliness of the people and the laid-back attitude that would characterise this holiday.

My home-from-home was a 46ft catamaran; a vessel kitted out for fun and relaxation, with spacious accommodation and coolers of beer and wine on deck, and windsurfers, a trampoline, kayaks and all sorts of diving equipment on hand to make sure you enjoy the sparkling sea. Let me tell you, you could be an avid sailor or a crewperson, an infrequent charterer, or someone who has always wanted to sail, but hasn't yet found the opportunity, but, no matter what your situation, sailing the British Virgin Islands on a crewed catamaran could just be the best holiday of your life.

As soon as I was on board, the sails went up and I enjoyed the short journey to my first stop with Andrew and Jennifer -- a lovely, fun-loving couple from Canada -- as my captain and skipper. In advance, my only expectations of the Caribbean had been of white-sand beaches and turquoise-blue seas, but these islands are far more culturally and geographically intriguing than I had realised. Within an hour of setting sail, I was entranced by the succession of colourful coastal villages we passed, hidden behind the mangroves that line the waters edge, the scent of frangipani filling the air. It was confirmed: I had landed in heaven.

The sailing schedule saw us moor at various islands along the way, all very different to each other, but all equally charming. Our first stop, Scrub Island, boasted a stunning, newly opened luxury resort -- a honeymooner's paradise, Kaste. I didn't want to leave, and after dinner and cocktails I took a detour on the walk back to the boat and enjoyed a midnight dip in the seductive infinity pool. The full moon lit the sky, the night was warm, and I felt a fabulous sense of liberation swimming there on my own.

Back on board the boat, the natural beauty of the location struck me again. You know, there really are many things we take for granted in our busy lives. Many of us have forgotten how much enjoyment we can get from the simple things in life. Staring out from the boat, looking at how wonderful nature is around us, brought a sense of excitement inside me. One morning, waking suddenly at 5am, I witnessed the most beautiful, vivid sunrise I have ever seen. The sky was painted with a palette of burnt oranges; an only occasional occurrence, caused by the atmospheric movement of particles of sand from the Sahara Desert, I later discovered. I was totally mesmerised, and felt privileged to have seen it.

At Moskito Island, one of my favourite stops, we kayaked to shore, where there were flocks of diving pelicans, gulls, sea anemones and cute little crabs. Later that day, we sailed past Necker Island, Richard Branson's private island and home. It is spread over 74 acres, and sits in emerald waters surrounded by coral reefs and is fringed by white, sandy beaches. I spotted over a dozen flamingos on one of his beaches. Apparently, Mr Branson re-introduced them to Necker, as the locals had eaten all the indigenous ones. He had them flown over for his island. I found that quite hilarious. On Necker, they don't clip the flamingos' wings, so the first flock he ordered flew away, only to return after he had ordered a second batch of birds.

The beauty of this sailing trip was the opportunity to see lots of different places -- places you just don't see on a holiday where you're based in one location. Andrew and Jennifer steered us one day to a magical place called The Baths. The shoreline of The Baths is filled with a maze of giant, spectacular boulders of granite, interspersed with pools, formed more than 70 million years ago by an underwater volcano. The secluded beach nearby is probably the most postcard-perfect specimen in the world. I swam to it from the boat and considered staying and living the life of a castaway.

We also took in Virgin Gorda, which had a lovely, family-holiday vibe and no racket from cars or telephones, just the sound of birds, crickets and tree frogs. At White Bay, I swam to shore to check out the famous Soggy Dollar Bar and sample their Painkiller cocktail -- ordering two, before I realised it is a powerful rum concoction. The barman reassured me that the coconut-water content acts as a natural isotonic and helps with hangovers, so happy days.

Further along, we discovered Norman Island, which inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island and which has, down the years, attracted all sorts of colourful characters, such as pirates Henry Morgan, Sir John Hawkins, and Blackbeard, who used the uncharted reefs and secluded bays of the Virgin Islands for hiding treasure and launching attacks. On hearing this, I quickly put on my fins and snorkel and leapt into the water in search of gold, only to find what was probably the most amazing experience I have ever had in my life.

In the turquoise waters I spotted eagle rays, blue tangs, sea urchins, barracudas, angel fish and the most beautiful fish I have ever seen: the parrot fish and the sergeant majors. I felt like Jacques Cousteau as I went into the deep, exploring the caves of the Norman Islands; what a paradise for snorkellers and scuba divers. I found no gold, but I discovered countless displays of exotic fish and a fascinating array of light-sensitive corals. It was breathtaking.

To my surprise, after a few days, I realised I had slipped unawares into the slow, laid-back Caribbean attitude. I was blissed out and operating at a much slower speed than at home, savouring every experience and every encounter. This was due in part to the people I met at every stop. The islanders are probably some of the friendliest and happiest people on this earth and their pace of life is slow -- something we are not used to anymore. Can you believe it? I brought six pairs of shoes and barely wore a single pair, instead spending most of my time barefoot.

And the relaxed pace was not just on land, but on board the boat, too. The meals, prepared by Jennifer, were lazy, relaxed affairs, enjoyed on deck with Bloody Marys and chilled wine -- and rum, I can't forget about the rum! -- and surrounded by a steady stream of beautiful sights, which somehow enhanced the delicious food. I was amazed to find so much pleasure in the views, the glittering sea, the smells, the necklaces of little lights along the shore by night. Several times I found myself just sitting there, silently smiling, utterly content. But many times, too, I found myself thinking how much Kaste would love it, and how much I'd have loved him there with me.

I smiled at the sights, the sounds, the almost sickly-sweet smell of the jasmine trees and, I have to say, few experiences can compare to the exhilaration of sailing through turquoise waters between tropical islands, on your own yacht with your own personal captain and chef. The only problem for me was that I was missing someone to share it. Will I be back? Oh, you bet! But next time with the man in my life.

Virginia Macari travelled to the British Virgin Islands with Sunway Holidays and the Moorings. The Moorings offer five-star crewed private yachts that operate in over 29 destinations worldwide. Yachts are chartered either on a bareboat basis or luxury all-inclusive, offering the highest level of service and cuisine. Experience the ultimate family holiday with smaller boats that take 6-8 people (46ft cats). The larger boats can take 8-10 people (65ft cats) with five en-suite cabins. Prices start at £1,545 per person, ex UK. For more details contact Sunway on (01) 231-1800, or see for details of all their sailing and cruising holidays

Sunday Independent

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