'Now, this is exactly what I had mind, Gary said as we plopped on a white-sand beach in Anegada and unloaded our snorkel gear. Except for a few Germans trying to master the art of kite surfing, Gary De Sanctis, Yachting's publisher, his family and I had the entire beach to ourselves. Already, we had settled into the slower pace that overtakes you (if you're lucky) after you've cruised the islands for a few days. We spent the next couple of hours watching and dodging the poor saps with the kites, reading, and exploring the underwater scenery for which this area of Anegada is known. Yes, this was exactly what I had in mind, too.
Bareboat chartering in the Virgin Islands is nothing new. During the winter months, boating enthusiasts flock to the cruiser's paradise to cure their cabin fever and escape the biting cold. For many years, sailboat fleets have dominated the charter industry, and understandably so. Hey, it's tough to beat putting the rail down with the constant trade winds that rip through the island chain. Chartering a motoryacht, though, can provide an entirely different experience-one where the emphasis is on the destination rather than the mode of travel. The stable platform of a good motoryacht, along with its comfort and extra space, is perfect when you're vacationing with friends and family.
This past November, Gary; his wife, Susan; their kids, Louie and Julia; and I picked up the Grand Banks 42 Motoryacht Caribe from Trawlers in Paradise for a 10-day sojourn through the Virgins. Having chartered in the Virgins several times before, we looked to the TIP staff for guidance in creating an itinerary that would bring us to a few of the area's more out-of-the-way places, so we could escape the crowds.
During our briefing, Glenn Helton and Benjy Schwartz of Trawlers in Paradise offered a few tips, and more than once Benjy gave us the "just mention my name" advice.
Caribe was the ideal boat for the week. Her two forward staterooms became the De Sanctis family suite, while I settled into the spacious aft master stateroom. The warm interior teak was recently stripped and re-varnished, giving her the appearance of a nearly new boat. There was a vast amount of stowage-we needed every inch of it after raiding the Marina Market-and a good-size galley and saloon area. The boat was fully air-conditioned, as well. Best of all, her 135 hp Lehman diesels purred without missing a beat for the entire week. Gary, who is accustomed to larger engines and a lot more speed, was at first skeptical about these cute little diesels.
"You mean, this is it?" he asked. "We're at cruising speed? Eight knots?" Gary repeated this several times. Even the kids joined in harmony. Yes, it was 8 knots all the way. I loved it, and in the end, so did the De Sanctis clan.
Taking Benjy's advice, we spent the first night moored in St. John's Hawknest Bay, in the northwest corner of the island. Most of the bay is designated a swimming-and-snorkeling area by the National Park Service. Since we killed the day provisioning, this was an easy jump for a late-afternoon departure from TIP's base and provided a pleasant entry into paradise after the bustling streets of St. Thomas. (Next time, I will likely use TIP's provisioning service, so we can launch into vacation mode more quickly.) The entrance to the bay is straightforward, and the views make it a worthwhile overnight or lunch stop.
The next morning, we cleared customs for the British Virgin Islands in Soper's Hole, on the western end of Tortola. After completing the routine paperwork, we took the dinghy over to Soper's Hole Wharf and Marina for lunch and a little shopping. Though this area is beautiful, we wanted to spend the rest of the day in a spot a little less commercial.
Firing up the diesels, we dropped the mooring ball and cruised around the north side of Tortola. Again, we took Benjy's advice and pointed our bow toward Scrub Island, just past Marina Cay and off the eastern tip of Tortola. In years past, I've always liked to overnight at Marina Cay. The problem is, so does everybody else. It appeared the entire Virgin Island bareboat charter fleet descended onto this little hill of an island, stacking up boats up as though it were the morning rush hour on Interstate 95. Remarkably, just past this crowd stood a few lonely moorings maintained by Donovan's Reef, on Scrub Island.
"What do you think about those moorings?" Gary asked. "They're probably off-limits." We shook our heads and wondered why boats were jockeying for position, stacked two deep, around Marina Cay when there was some open space around Scrub. We decided it must be the herd mentality at work. It turned out to be their loss and our gain, giving us one of the most special parts of the trip.
Brothers Bob and Jim McManus opened the restaurant at Donovan's Reef in 2000, and plans for construction of a hotel are under way. I must say, though, that I reluctantly tell you about this sliver of tranquility, for fear it will be overrun. But starving you from this old Caribbean-style hangout would be cruel. Our dinner, enjoyed on the open porch, was excellent, and the hospitality was first-rate. And I've yet to find a short-rib recipe that beats the slab I had at Donovan's.
We were bitten by the peace of our private little slice of the harbor and spent the next day snorkeling around the great reefs, topping off our afternoon with one of Sue's gourmet meals. I believe in order to experience moments like these, you have to put away the schedule and just enjoy yourself. Several times, we experienced the self-imposed pressure of heading off and moving to the next place. We got better, but next time, I'd like to sit back and relish the scenery rather than try to cover the entire island chain in 10 days.
While we enjoyed the tranquility, we recognized the need for balance (especially with two young kids), so we steered for the Bitter End Yacht Club. The hospitality of the staff and the amenities of the resort are never a disappointment, and it makes a great spot to hose off the boat, pick up ice and grab any additional provisions. Plus, the pool and water sports are great for kids and adults alike. Be sure to take the dinghy over to Saba Rock for a meal and the view from the patio of nearby Biras Creek, not to mention the food, is spectacular.
The next day, it was time to seek out a little more seclusion. This meant we were headed toward the low-lying island of Anegada. For many charterers the reef-surrounded island is off-limits. Tommy McCoy, owner of TIP, gave us the nod since we had chartered with him several times before, and how thankful we were. As we gazed at the barren landscape of Anegada over the rusted roof of a Toyota pickup, it felt like we were on an outback safari, not in the middle of the Caribbean-and especially not in the Virgin Islands. The truck rattled in anguish, giving pitiful moans of disagreement while carrying us across the island to Loblolly Bay. We only had a few hours of sunlight left to enjoy Anegada's deserted beach before heading back to Caribe.
As we walked to our dinghy through the Anegada Reef Hotel, large bonfires blazed along the beach in half-barrel steel drums. Cooks stoked the fires, preparing to barbecue lobsters, the house specialty. The scene had the air of Herman Wouk's Don't Stop the Carnival (when things were going right for the hotelier), and was a highlight of the trip.
The fatal flaw of the charter, in my opinion, was our trip to The Baths, in Virgin Gorda. Yes, the rock formations and snorkeling are first-rate. The area is so crowded, though, that unless you arrive before 11 a.m., the moorings are gone (and anchoring in the offshore swell can be unpleasant). Trying to snorkel around this spot felt like waiting in line at Disneyland. No thanks. Attempting to land the De Sanctis crew back on the dinghy in the crashing surf brought quivers and winces from onlookers lining the beach. The blank stares on the faces of Louie and Julia made me realize they too had their fill of The Baths. Save yourself the aggravation and go into Spanish Town, to the north, and take a cab down to the Mad Dog for lunch and a swim. The view is fantastic.
After spending the last two days moored in Salt Pond Bay, on the southern coast of St. John, we agreed this might be one of the area's best spots. "Next year, we're just coming here for the entire week and never moving, a relaxed Sue said after a yoga session on the afterdeck. Except for the McCoys, who joined us for the weekend on their Grand Banks, we had the entire bay to ourselves. We did a little snorkeling and a little reading, took some libation, cooked and relaxed in paradise. Yes, Sue had a point.
After 10 glorious days, we realized it is still possible to find paradise in paradise. The key is asking the right people where to go, then having the willingness to leave the herd behind and venture off the beaten path. A well-found motoryacht certainly makes it an easy proposition.