This is why they come to the Virgin Islands, the boaters say: to once again experience the thrill of cruising through crystalline waters, to visit the more than 40 islands, to explore palm-brushed beaches and green craggy mountains. And it's true. Each day offers a new challenge and breathtaking vistas. But let's get serious for a moment. The real reason yachts are always nosing into the next cove or cay is that they're looking for the next bar-because the bars of the Virgin Islands form a unique collection of one-of-a-kind dispensers of liquid paradise.
Besides being a place where boaters can exchange tales and enjoy friendly hospitality, the bars of the Virgins have become so popular that they are considered destinations in their own right. Take Jost Van Dyke, the tiny rugged island located off the west coast of Tortola. It offers not one, but three of the best beach bars in the Virgins. Nestled in a grove of palm trees at the eastern end of picturesque Great Harbour is Foxy's Tamarind Bar and Grill. This establishment is by far the most popular drinking hole in the Islands. During the day, Foxy's looks more like a camp than a bar with its stone pit barbeque, gift shop and sprawling dining area. At night, the waterside bar comes alive when the music starts and Foxy Callwood, the owner and main attraction, sings his island songs and entertains guests with his subtle humor. Revelers rub elbows with boaters from around the world as they drink and dance to the beat of calypso. Many a cruiser gets through a cold winter's night on memories of trying to locate his boat in an overcrowded dinghy, while his inebriated crew bellows college-fight songs.
A word of warning: Foxy's has been discovered. Daytrippers arrive packed in speed boats and the simple life is now geared toward the tourists. If you wish to escape the crowds, try showing up for breakfast on the beach. The food is tasty, and you'll never find a more romantic location.
Just west of Great Harbour is White Bay, where the Sandcastle Hotel and the Soggy Dollar Bar are located. This simple resort offers the best combination of beach, bar and water in the Virgins. Unlike Great Harbour, the bay is shallow, offering limited anchoring, and the eight moorings fill up quickly. What brings boaters to this quiet cove is the Soggy Dollar. As its name implies, few arrive with dry cash but all find it well worth the dinghy ride ashore and return time after time. The Soggy Dollar welcomes locals and boaters alike with its homey style and friendly staff. Guests try their hand at darts or enjoy relaxing in the nearby hammock. One day a group of boaters was yelling encouragements, as one of their crew demonstrated how not so easy it was to fit a condom over his head. Mission accomplished, catcalls and clapping said it was time for another round of Soggy Dollar's famous Painkillers. With its picture-perfect setting, the Soggy Dollar is beginning to attract a crowd, especially now that small cruise ships have included it in their itineraries. Progress? We hope not.
East of Great Harbour is Little Harbour and Sidney's Peace and Love. There are no beaches, but you will find a few moorings and a well-maintained dock. Sidney's is what Foxy's used to be before it was discovered. The bar is housed in an unimposing white cement building with T-shirts hanging from the ceiling. There are a number of tables along the waterfront inviting you to sit and enjoy the simple pleasures of watching a neighbor on the hill hanging out her wash, or a herd of goats as they trot down the dirt road. Guests can enjoy live music most nights, and Sidney is always around to chat with his customers.
To the side of the bar is a small gift shop where I found the best selection of caps in the Virgins. The caps formed a rainbow of colors across the table, proclaiming in large bold letters the sorts of endearments that go down so well in a Virgin Island dive: "Dinghy Captain," "Mooring Hooker" and "Anchor Girl."
Parting from Jost Van Dyke is such sweet sorrow that it is good that Tortola is so near. East of Jost, Tortola is the largest of the British Virgin Islands, and the harbor of Cane Garden Bay is what you want. As you enter, look for sea turtles as they gracefully swim to the surface and skim the top for air. Cane Garden Bay has a large anchorage with many moorings, which have long heavy lines, often without floats, so be prepared to use your muscles (builds up a thirst, you know).
The anchorage is a popular destination for boaters. Beach bars, restaurants and shops stand shoulder to shoulder along a long, curving stretch of sand, creating a hodgepodge of colors and styles as each competes for attention. It is the island version of a retail strip minus the parking problem-and a whole lot easier on the eyes.
At one end, painted in bold Rastafarian colors, is Quito's Gazebo, a restaurant bar with a covered terrace. Scattered across the front of the terrace are tables where you can sit and enjoy the breeze and the ocean view. The rear area has a large dance floor where huge speakers create a backdrop for the band. Quito Rymer, the owner, is a well-respected reggae singer who performs four nights a week and plays with his band on Friday and Saturday nights. He gets the joint jumping, and then some.
Norman Island, particularly with its suitably mysterious caves, has always been associated with the classic novel Treasure Island and pirates. On the northwest side of Norman, next to the caves, is an anchorage known as the Bight. It isn't a pretty anchorage, with just a small beach and low scrubby foliage, but what impressed me was the number of moorings in this bay-and that they were all taken. The reason lies off to one side of the harbor in the form of William Thornton, a long black schooner.
It doesn't take long to realize that the fondly called "Willie T" is party central for the Virgins. Named after architect William Thornton, who was born on Jost Van Dyke and who designed the U.S. Capitol building, the eponymous 93-foot topsail lumber schooner is now a bar par excellence. The day I arrived, the upper and lower decks were packed with boaters. Dinghies were rafted four deep, and it was still early afternoon. Music blasted from speakers on the deck, and a group around the bar was cheering for two couples trying a "Ski Shot." The couples held a small water ski in which four holes had been drilled to hold four full shot glasses; on signal, the couples lifted the ski in unison and drank the shots. Mission accomplished, the applauding crowd encouraged another round. On the top deck I found a group taking the "Adventure Plunge," which involved jumping naked into the water accompanied by more screaming and clapping. Both men and women get into this "adventure" but-sorry, guys-only the women get the "Willie T" T-shirt. The memories you make here may be R-rated, but this place is simply wild, loud and lots of fun.
Cooper Island has no roads and only a coarse sandy beach where a small resort is sheltered beneath a grove of palms. Cooper Island Beach Club has 12 efficiency units and a patio restaurant and bar that prides itself on offering one of the best sunset views in the Islands. This is a great destination if you want a break from a busy cruising schedule and have the urge to plop into a comfortable lounge chair and read a good book. You might expect the moorings to be taken by retired cruisers exchanging tales from past adventures, so it was a surprise to find so many young couples and families enjoying the water and the evening view. Maybe they were in recovery from Willie T's.
Virgin Gorda, the easternmost island in the Virgins, has two bars frequented by boaters. Prickly Pear, a tiny island at the entrance to North Sound, has a wide sandy spit overlooked by the Sand Box, a rough wooden open-air bar and restaurant with a few souvenirs hanging from the ceiling. Thatched umbrellas cover tables spread across the beach and a volleyball net is available for a leisurely game. Seagrape hedges offer a quiet cove for relaxing and the overall feeling is one of informal fun. It's a good place to enjoy the beach as you watch the megayachts glide in and out of the sound. The only caveat: Sand Box caters to certain cruise ships and the restaurant is closed to the public when these ships are in port.
Saba Rock, another tiny island in the North Sound of Virgin Gorda, is home to a small seven-unit hotel, with a gift shop, restaurant and bar, which doesn't leave much room for open space. In fact, Saba Rock hugs the water's edge with a wide, open-air dining area and a long mahogany bar. This is a place for those looking for Stateside ambiance. Slick and new, it looks to be more comfortable in South Beach than an outpost in the Caribbean. For those who feel a need to dress up, wear shoes and speak in hushed tones about the scene in Monaco, this may be the place.
Skinny Legs, on the forgotten side of St. John, isn't on the beach, or on the water-proof that location isn't everything as long as you're somewhere in the Virgin Islands. It is within walking distance of Coral Bay's dock and is supported by the boating community and the locals from the east end of the island. Its charm is created by an open, picnic-style eating area and bar with a roof of old sails that leak in spots when it rains. The menu is handwritten on a dilapidated, Styrofoam surfboard next to a mobile of discarded flip-flops aptly named "Lost Souls." Nearby there may be a group of over-the-hill hippies playing horseshoes or the Rocky Mountain Boys may be rocking the night with their music as they visit their favorite Caribbean bar. Skinny's even welcomes celebrities like Senator Edward Kennedy and Walter Cronkite.
Skinny Legs is a home away from home for most everyone. "Locals" befriend each other and have been going there for years. And St. John itself is a big draw: Who can resist an island that is two-thirds national park and offers some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean? Doug Seca and Moe Chabuz, Skinny's owners, greet guests and oversee a unique establishment that happens to make the best rum punches in the Caribbean. If you are arriving in Coral Bay from the BVI and need to clear customs, there is a bus that runs between Coral Bay and Cruz Bay for a charge of $1 each way. It is the best bargain in the Islands and a great way to get an island tour. The only cloud on the horizon, just a puff, is talk of a marina being built down the road; because St. John is seeing a surge in building and tourists, you might want to visit soon.
Overlooked by most tourists is a small island in the harbor of St. Thomas just a short ferry ride from the main drag, but miles away in ambiance. Water Island, 11/2 miles long and a half-mile wide, has a number of small beaches but the crescent, palm-framed Honeymoon Beach is what attracts the locals. Here is where you'll also find Heidi's Honeymoon Grill, a new establishment among Virgin Island bars. For two and a half years, Heidi has been serving customers on weekends from a small, randomly decorated food truck. Most of her clients are locals or liveaboard cruisers. On weekends, the beach comes alive with backgammon and dominoes being played on weathered picnic tables under the gently swaying palms. Farther along, a game of horseshoes or volleyball is in session. Children splash along the beach and middle-aged women chat as they bob in the quiet azure waters. The common thread among this group is that before the day is over most everyone will step up to Heidi's bar for a drink or two and one of her charcoal-grilled burgers. This is a family affair, a place to relax and enjoy the beauty of the scene.
On Saturday nights, Heidi also serves dinner at the water's edge. Do this when there is a full moon. Everyone deserves the experience-just as everyone should visit each of these bars at least once in their life.