Discover the Virgin Islands

Washing up in the British Virgin Islands would make rescue a grim prospect.

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If ever a place was made for cruisers, it's the British Virgin Islands. Thirty-two miles long, 15 miles wide, with steady trade winds, sunny skies, and clear blue water, it's a place any vacationer would love. But if you're a yachtsman and the adventurous type, you may find exploring these islands-each with its own distinctive personality-alluring to the point of distraction.

I started my visit on Tortola in a villa called Frenchmans Lookout, which seemed to be within virtual spitting distance of St. Thomas. A huge wraparound porch with gorgeous views, wonderful Caribbean architecture, and top-of-the-line furnishings, were part of a true tropical escape and gave us a gourmet taste of villa living (www.frenchmanslookout.com, rates range from $12,500 to $42,500 per week). Road Town, which is the capital of Tortola, is the commercial center of the BVI, with chandleries, marinas, restaurants, boutiques, and bars. Dinner at the Sugar Mill Hotel (which bills itself as "a small hotel for special people") is not to be missed. Bon Appetit columnists Jeff and Jinx Morgan own the hotel and oversee the gourmet fare.

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One early afternoon, we threw out the anchor and splashed ashore in Jost Van Dyke's White Bay to join everybody else at the Soggy Dollar Bar, which somehow manages to be packed with tourists without feeling offensively touristy. The Soggy Dollar is the reputed birthplace of "the Painkiller," (see "The Infamous Painkiller" on page 34) a misleadingly named concoction of rums, coconut cream, and pineapple and orange juice, garnished with fresh nutmeg, that may temporarily assuage what ails you but is also liable to deliver a whole new world of illin' if you don't pace yourself. (I did. Others in my group? Not so much. But what happens on Jost Van Dyke, stays on Jost Van Dyke.) Generations of thirsty travelers have waded ashore only to find that their wampum beads are wet, so take a moment to enjoy the clothesline that's strung above the bar, an innovation born of necessity. It's ingenius because while your formerly filthy lucre dries out, you don't have to. We tried the equally famous Foxy's Taboo, which seemed to have evaded the touristy feeling less successfully, but is still worth a visit. Yet Jost Van Dyke is more than a series of beachfront watering holes. Make sure you tour the island-by horse, ATV, or Jeep-it's gorgeous with miles of beautiful beaches and very little going on, in a way that's liable to induce Robinson Crusoe fantasies.

We sailed by catamaran to Peter Island one day, for lunch at Deadman's Bay Beach Restaurant, then continued on to Virgin Gorda and the Bitter End Yacht Club (www.beyc.com). Ah, the Bitter End: It just might be my favorite resort. While it still attracts the loyal family vacationers it always has, and has maintained its salty tradition, it has also managed a subtle, almost sneaky kind of glamour in its recent renovations. The beachfront villas, for instance, are still reached by way of weathered wooden steps, but inside the modest-looking bungalows, the weary traveler is greeted by a look I'd call "Salty Zen" or "Minimalist Teak." Nothing is fancy, but everything is elegant. Plush towels are rolled and stacked, a bowl of Spa H20 products stands ready for service, and-what's that?-a bottle of rum. Pour yourself just one and sit on your deck overlooking North Sound.

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BEYC has an impressive array of waterfront activities and it's a perfect place for the kids to get their first taste of sailing. They also offer scuba and special excursions that can be tailored to suit your wildest dreams.

It's unlikely you'll run out of things to do at the Bitter End, but Virgin Gorda does offer other attractions, if you find yourself motivated to leave the property. Nearby Biras Creek Resort's Hilltop Restaurant offers creative Caribbean fare with breathtaking views. A hike to the Baths, over and around boulders and through stunning grottos, will be a BVI highlight.

The one major island I didn't make it to was Anegada, also known as "the drowned island." The only coral island in the BVI, it's just barely above sea level, sparsely populated, home to pink flamingos, rock iguanas, and legendarily delicious lobster dinners.

In fact, exploring Anegada is only the most obvious reason to go back. In a perfect world, who wouldn't want to spend at least a year aboard their own boat, wearing nothing more than shorts, a T-shirt, and flip flops, island hopping, enjoying the perfect weather, line of sight navigation, the friendly locals, and their piece of paradise?