VIRGIN GORDA, BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS — For Bostonians who are suffering in the cold, and all those in the Northeast who can’t fathom the idea of another snowflake or chilling wind, I write this as an escapee.
Escape is what I did, hours before the Valentine’s Day blizzard hit Boston, and I hope if you read this you can imagine yourself here in sweet gentle temperatures of 80 degrees each day, with delicate trade winds to keep you just warm enough.
Remember running outside barefoot? Or stepping into the ocean without the shock of cold water? Green trees, fuchsia flowers, puffy white clouds and doors and windows that never shut against the bitter nights? That’s what awaits you if you’re lucky enough to get away. For us it was a flight from Boston to Philadelphia, then Philadelphia to San Juan, finally San Juan to Tortola, and then a 10-minute ferry ride to Scrub Island.
When I told a wisecracking friend I was going to visit the “virgins,” he answered “Are there any left?” and I’m sure many people down here prepare themselves for the usual humor. Humor, after all, resides in the names of the islands down here and it’s part of the fun. The 8-square-mile “Virgin Gorda” was named by Christopher Columbus “Fat Virgin” for the feminine curves of its topography and coastline, and in fact Virgin Islands were named in honor of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin handmaidens when Columbus sailed past them in 1493. All of the “dog” islands — West Dog, Great Dog, George Dog and the like, were named because the sailors who came close to them heard barking and, afraid that the islands might be inhabited by rabid dogs, forbade their crews to land. It was later discovered that the barking was coming from barking seals, but the “dog” name remained. Scrub Island was so named because when sea captains saw all of the detritus that gathered on the hull of their ships coming from Europe to the Caribbean, they ordered their crews to scrub the bottoms so as not to drag down the speed of the vessels.
Fallen Jerusalem Island was so named because the rocks on it have fallen over in a way that they look like an ancient city that has been destroyed. That island has become a nature and bird sanctuary and humans don’t live on it.
They do live on many of the 60 “virgins,” however, and they all seem to feel exceptionally lucky to be doing that. There is great beauty everywhere you look in the Virgin Islands, where the license plates read “Nature’s Little Secret.” Most people we have known who come here come down as sailors, chartering boats or bringing their own because it’s so pleasant to sail from one to the other never very far from either despite the fact that you are at sea. The sailboats, catamarans and mega yachts are everywhere in February when many sailors from the north come down to hang out for the comfortable temperatures here, until the weather warms up back home.
Sailors have their maps and GPS systems, but I found that the greatest challenge for our island-hopping trip to four different islands in seven days was figuring out the ferry schedules. Speedy’s Ferry runs from Trellis Bay to Road Town at 10 a.m., but only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Native Son Ferry runs from West End to Charlotte Amalie five times on the weekdays but only once on Sundays. Speedy’s goes out of CSY dock but you’re supposed to meet your taxi at Road Town. If you ask for a ferry schedule online, you will receive a piece of paper that can give you a migraine, especially when reading the little asterisk at the bottom that tells you “schedules subject to change without notice.” If you can’t get off an island you planned to leave, with the tourists flooding all of them this winter and filling up the relatively few hotel rooms, you may have to sleep under a tree. Granted, we are not complaining, when we remember our northern friends trying to keep warm in below-zero nights.
The funny thing about the ferries is that, while all the natives, and slowly the tourists, are on island time, and everyone moves more slowly than back at home, if you’re not on the 10 a.m. ferry by 10 a.m. sharp, they really do take off without you. “Sorry, mon, the next one’s coming in a few hours.” There’s a lot of island hopping by the natives as well as us, but the workers are doing it for the jobs. On Scrub Island we met many staff members who were from St. Vincent, Dominica, and Jamaica, as well as Great Britain, and on Virgin Gorda others were from the Dominican Republic and the U.S.
All of them that we have met so far, are polite and kind to visitors, and I think the copacetic weather contributes to the pleasant mood. They like to giggle about all the famous people they’ve served who have made their homes in these and on nearby islands: The weather is so perfect that many wealthy celebrities build unbelievably impressive mansions here. According to our sources, Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin companies, is friendly and philanthropic, everyone likes actor Morgan Freeman, but no one cares for Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stone who has a house on Mustique Island.
Shh; those are secrets that don’t go beyond these islands.
Meanwhile, from some of the prettiest islands in the Caribbean, I send you warm breezes and happy sunshine.