A guide to Tortola, British Virgin Islands

Translated as Land of the Turtle Dove, Tortola is the largest of the British Virgin Islands, which were first discovered by Christopher Columbus.

Following a brief period of Dutch rule, the island was taken over by the British and has remained an overseas colony ever since, despite other Caribbean islands voting for independence.

This fusion of British and West Indian cultures has led to a compelling mix of Caribbean and English values, with good manners, politeness and decorum commonplace. Despite its proximity to the US, more traditional British customs have persisted such as saying "Good morning" at the start of a conversation rather than just launching into it, as is common in American English.

These values earn Tortola, like many other places in the British Virgin Islands, a reputation of being a destination which is high class, offering real luxury.

A typical view of Tortola, British Virgin Islands

The geography
The largest of the British Virgin Islands, Tortola is 30 square miles in size, with a population of approximately 24,000.

Made from volcanic rock, Tortola's topography is wide and varied with a distinct split in the island's surface.

The entire southern part of the island is smothered in hills and low mountains, and also covered in frangipani and sage. The opposite end of Tortola couldn't be more different with soft sandy beaches, banana and mango groves plus fringes of swaying palm trees.

The island is also home to the tallest peak in the whole of the British Virgin Islands, Mount Sage. This mountain was formed by volcanic activity, now no longer active, and reaches a height of 530 metres.

The northern side of the island offers the best beaches for swimmers, water sports enthusiasts and sun worshippers and there's a great selection to choose from.

Brewer's Bay is the only beach in the region which has sand which isn't pure white, instead glowing a deep gold.

The spot is great for snorkelers as you can plunge right into the waters right from the beach, and into the midst of shoals of tiny fish. These fish will happily let you snorkel amongst them, allowing you a privileged glimpse at marine life. For those that are startled easily, don't take all your attention off the land because huge pelicans often swoop into the water right alongside to take advantage of the fish that are surrounding you!

If you want to snorkel, it's best to avoid Brewer's Bay immediately after rainfall as run-off from the mountain regions can cloud the water temporarily.

Smuggler's Cove isn't an easy beach to get to but if you make the effort you'll be glad you did. Lying in the uppermost western tip of Tortola, the road to reach it isn't paved but can be navigated by car if you take it slowly.

Once you reach the cove, you'll understand why it's recommended despite the difficult journey as a sheltered oasis with calm, turquoise waters and secluded alcoves along the beach awaits you.

It is possible to buy food and drinks at Smugglers Cove from a handful of beach vendors. The chairs are offered for free providing that customers purchase food and drink.
Apple Bay may sound like the idyllic spot to spend some time on the beach but in reality, there are little or no opportunities to go swimming here. This location is instead the venue for some serious partying, with both locals and tourists attending the famous full moon parties.

Although there are no swimming facilities on offer at Apple Bay, it is popular with surfers and there are a number of top restaurants in the area, including some which offer fine dining.

If you don't mind the crowds then Cane Garden Bay is without doubt the beach to try, being the most popular one on the island. There are beach vendors, restaurants and bars with live music and performers for all to enjoy. When cruise ships dock at the island, this beach and the surrounding area will be deluged with visitors so you'll need to get to this beautiful spot early to claim the best place.

Other activities
Away from the stunning beaches, there's plenty to see and do with activities for both adults and children.

The Callwood Rum Distillery is a place most definitely for grown-ups with the chance to see how rum is aged, blended and refined, as well as the opportunity to taste a dram or two!

The Callwood Rum Distillery, British Virgin Islands

The chance to swim with dolphins is something that your children will remember forever and they can do just that on Tortola. Slip into the water with these incredibly intelligent marine mammals and see for yourself just how friendly they really are.

Tortola is also the hub of all sailing activity in the Caribbean and even if you don't sail yourself, getting out on the ocean is not something to be missed. Enjoy a day trip to go snorkelling on a catamaran, or go on a lunchtime excursion under the blue skies and visit one of the smaller islands or inaccessible bays.