After a few days exploring St Thomas and St John, we were definitely ready to get on the boat and get some water time in.
Although we couldn’t get on the boat until 5pm, we planned to hit the ferry and head over to Tortola early to get settled in.
Once through British Immigration (not much more than a smiling face with a passport stamper) we caught a taxi to Nanny Cay to drop our luggage at Festiva’s base and poke around.
We ran into Kurt and Danielle, another couple who would be on the boat with us, and had lunch together at a small cafe in the marina. Small talk, a few Caribs, and great service from a waiter who must own a trademark on the phrase "best on the island, mon". Don’t forget to give a snack to the Nanny Cay Cat – you’ll find him behind Blue Water Divers by the bathrooms if he’s not wandering around between your legs while you eat.
An afternoon spent relaxing on the Hannah Bay beach with a couple more Caribs quickly passed into time to get back and board the boat. The rest of the passengers had congregated at the dock, and we met the honeymooners Brian & Jennifer, and Tom & Angelika – avid frugal travelers much like ourselves.
It turns out that our captain and first mate are a lovely husband/wife couple, Guy and Caz. Former farmers and national sailboat champion racers from Zimbabwe (yes, people do come from Zimbabwe), they have a million great stories to keep your attention. They truly make all the difference between a good time and a great time, as they know the area, have an abundant knowledge of sailing, and have warm and sharing personalities that make their guests feel right at home from the minute they step on board.
The first night was a quick run with the iron gennie (the engine) over to Great Harbour on Peter Island with cold drinks and a great tuna dinner as everyone settled and got to know the other passengers. There certainly has to be some personality compatibility when it’s 5 couples sharing very close quarters for a week, and luckily we all got along just fine.
Monday morning – oh what wonders doth breakfast behold. The lions, the tigers, the bears, oh my. Fruits and juices and things we’d never heard of. Youngberry, Litchi, Boboti, Roti, the entire trip was chock full of new culinary experiences, and we’re determined to get Caz to publish a "Caz’s Caribbean Cooking" cookbook before all is said and done. The food is downright FANTASTIC! One gotcha though – the woman has no concept of portion control. We ate. And ate. And ate. And then there was dessert, or ‘pudding’ in British speak, to top it all off. It’s a good thing that we were constantly active or none of us would have fit into our swimsuits by week’s end.
Speaking of active – it’s breakfast and then right into the water to snorkel. Colorful fish, coral, anemones, christmas tree worms, clear blue water, talk about starting the trip with a bang! There is also a kayak on the boat, and we spent a bit of time kayaking around to check out some of the outer edges of the harbor but it really pales compared to the snorkeling and nobody on the boat used it much after the first day as there was plenty else to occupy the time.
Chicken Tikka for lunch (the food doesn’t stop!), and then another motor ("sailing" with no sails up and the engines pushing the boat along) to The Baths on Virgin Gorda. The Baths are a geologic formation which was turned into a BVI National Park, and is one of the BVI’s major tourist attractions. These are certainly interesting to see and very photogenic, but not what I would consider one of the highlights of our trip. Sports Illustrated, Playboy, and Maxim have all done photo shoots here, and it’s great fun reproducing the shoots if you have the talent available.
Oh wait, did we mention the food? An artichoke/sundried tomato dip appetizer followed by bacon-wrapped filets for dinner and South African wine. Did we mention the food?
While we spent the night on the hook (anchored out) in Spring Bay, the wind shifted directions which meant a bit more boat movement but nothing unsettling. An early night, since we have an early morning to go diving tomorrow.
Tuesday morning bright and early. Motor into Spanish Town to board the dive boat – Wreck Alley and Coral Gardens today!
Colette was a bit nervous since she hadn’t dove since our trip to Cabo in April, but once we went through all the motions and signals and she was in the water, the rhythm and comfort level quickly came back.
Wreck Alley between Cooper Island and Salt Island is the first dive of the day, since it is deeper and gives us less bottom time due to the depths up to 70ft or so. Plenty of shipwrecks to explore, and we even saw a spotted eagle ray swimming by – nice!!! About an hour surface interval with a quick run over to "The Dogs" islands where Coral Gardens are located, and back underwater again. Much shallower depths this time (30-40 I think), and more colorful marine life. Even a sunken airplane that didn’t make it’s climb out of the Beef Island airport on Tortola and was towed here to be used as an artificial reef after it took a quick nosedive into the water at the end of the runway. The wreck makes for an easy swimthrough, with marine life living in the overhead luggage compartments and cockpit – not a very common dive opportunity!
Tom and Angelika dove with us, while Brian & Jennifer, Kurt & Danielle stayed aboard Abilexis and snorkeled at another of "The Dog" islands, George Dog. The divemaster dropped us right at the boat when we were done diving – talk about service! Hot cocoa and coconut rum with lunch, and wonder of wonders – more snorkeling!
Long Bay is a short motor away at the north end of Virgin Gorda, and is home to a spectacular array of reef life, including a friendly angel fish who hammed it up for the camera for a bit. It was while snorkeling here that we realized just how much Guy & Caz know about the area and marine life, Caz was pointing out fish that we would only see in this spot and telling us to keep an eye out for them. Talk about value add!
Guy also knows the secret safe routes through the area, and threaded the needle between Virgin Gorda and Mosquito Island to take us to Leverick Bay for the evening. A foot of clearance between the bottom of the keels, but he is indeed the man.
I had misgivings right up front about spending a night in a marina – eewwww. But the pluses quickly outweigh the cons – a real shower with lots of hot water, having A/C without having to run the generator, and a few small shoreside attractions.
The buildings painted in the Caribbean tradition of pinks, purples, and other pastel colors create a great backdrop for yet another outrageous dinner – seafood curry, couscous, julienne veggies, and of course – a nice South African shiraz. We could hear reggae music coming from Jumbie’s bar on the beach, and after dinner we made great use of our dancing lessons (thanks to Starlight Dance Studios in Dunedin FL!) and danced the night away. Neither would have guessed a few months ago that we’d be dancing, in public, on a Caribbean island, and thoroughly enjoying ourselves.
Another item of note, as frugal travelers – the main restaurant at Leverick Bay is divided into two restaurants; an upstairs "formal" restaurant with the $58 rack of lamb "formal" price, and the "affordable" restaurant below with the $17 pulled pork sandwich. We certainly understand the law of supply and demand, and that the cost of getting and maintaining food at a remote location certainly isn’t cheap, but we’re grateful for the plethora of food that Caz cooked that kept us out of these "affordable" establishments!
Wednesday morning, another quality breakfast and a motor over to Saba Rock. Very unique in that a restaurant/resort takes up all of the small island, and the restaurant has an AWESOME collection of outboard engines that make for some great gearhead photo opportunities. Hammocks with white sand and palm trees framing turquoise water – magnifique!
A quick run over to Bitter End left us both a little disappointed, a few good photo opportunities but really nothing that captured our interest and we were ready to head back to the boat pretty quickly and get onto the next adventure – snorkeling in Oil Nut Bay. Guy & Caz hadn’t tried this spot before, and the snorkeling wasn’t that great despite the gorgeous blue water and being one of the prettiest topside spots.
Finally a long haul to Trellis Bay and a chance to do some real sailing. Unfortunately the wind decided to take this time to lighten up, and the iron gennie went back into duty pushing us along with the sails up – "motor sailing". There was a healthy north swell, and the 7ft waves easily blanketed other sailboats that we passed, hiding everything including the mast and sails when we were both in a deep trough. Great relaxation, a great time to pick Guy’s brain about everything sailing, and a great time for Colette to kick back and work on finishing reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed. She LOVES her Kindle to death, and I’m sure I’ll be posting a Kindle vs Nook comparison since the time I’ve spent with her Kindle has proved that it’s a much nicer device than my Nook and I’ll be trading up soon.
Dinner at Last Resort in Trellis Bay, an unassuming entrance consisting of one small dinghy dock with a welcome sign. The prices were typical of a remote BVI location, and the service was unfortunately typical of a "service charge already added" environment, but it’s an interesting trip nonetheless. The upside was the former chef turned musician Al Broderick who absolutely tears down the house with his one-man band and free tequila shots. Fun to be had all around, and I think that we all got dragged onto stage at one point or another for shot consumption. Definitely makes up for the food and service!
Thursday morning came with a big surprise – a shiny new ring on Danielle’s hand! Kurt did a bit of planning and picked up an inexpensive ring with the intention of making the trip something special, then doing the real shopping together once they return to the States. Very nice – mimosas and congratulations all around! Caz suggested that the boat be renamed from Abilexis to The Love Boat, as this is their 3rd engagement on board.
Since the epic north swell kills visibility at Monkey Point, skip the snorkeling and head to one of the other huge tourist draws – the Bubbly Pool, also known as the Washing Machine. A quick hike from a small bay up over a small hill through some mangroves and you arrive at the pool. A narrow inlet from the sea force-feeds massive quantities of water into a small pool resulting in a rush of water that picks you up and throws you around like a washing machine doing a fresh load of laundry.
This crazy north swell turned the Bubbly Pool into the Mega-Bubbly Pool, and both Guy and Caz were amazed by the turbidity of the water as they’ve never seen it like this before. We both did our turns in the pool along with the others and we were all appropriately abused for our efforts!
When we returned to the boat, Caz pulled out "Bucking Blue" – a large boat fender that you have to wrap your legs around and sit upright with no hands. I was able to pull it off, while Guy provided plenty of quality photo ops by getting repeatedly tossed into the water before packing it up and calling it a day. Great fun! A quick motor to Soggy Dollar where we had planned to overnight, but the rough seas also affected the bay there and forced a change of plans. We ended up spending the night on a mooring ball in Soper’s Hole where a taxi would take us back to Nanny Cay for our morning dive. Another outlandish dinner – pork roast with a crazy dessert of bananas with chocolate wrapped in a tortilla-style wrap and "squirty cream" – our whipped cream in a spray can. Someone please discuss portion control and caloric intake with Caz.
Friday morning – hey – it’s Christmas Eve! Up early, early, early, we’re going diving today kids! Guy’s planning skills are amazing, he set up our diving, arranged the taxi, and coordinated everything from pickup to dropoff. So very nice, and so well executed.
Today is one of the most famous BVI dive sites, the wreck of the RMS Rhone near Salt Island. The rough seas stirred up the water, causing some reduced visibility (40-50ft) and a lot of silt in the water affecting my photos, and worse – a STRONG current. Swimming against a strong current with my awesome Mares AvantiQuattro fins is one thing, but with rental split fins is something entirely different, and rather frustrating at times. If you can imagine a car fishtailing around a corner on icy roads, that’s pretty much what turning a corner or changing course looked and felt like with the current pushing you around.
The wreck is interesting due to the history and it has a couple good swim-throughs as well, but not much marine life for us to see. We both definitely prefer the shallower depths, amazing marine life, vibrant colors and extended bottom time of reef diving to the deeper wreck dives. Abilexis was waiting for us when we surfaced, and Guy transferred us quickly on the dinghy – talk about door-to-door service!
Tacos for lunch, and a motor to The Bight on Norman Island for more snorkeling. Abundant marine life, some rays, blennies, my favorite little christmas tree worms, some tarpon, and meeeiiillions of baitfish. Dinner at the only building on the entire island – Pirates restaurant, followed by reggae music, more dancing, and Jenga played with 2×4’s.
Such a clear beautiful night, every star in the sky clearly visible, the Milky Way, falling stars, and Guy’s signature Nutty Irishman while laying on the trampolines at the bow of the boat. Priceless.
Christmas! Yes I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. I see plenty of white right over there. Fine, powdery sand. Those of you in the Great White North, well, you enjoy your version of a white Christmas and I’ll enjoy mine.
Cheese omelettes, sweet corn fritters, thick bacon and youngberry juice. I’m pretty sure that this is a traditional Christmas breakfast, right? Caz & Guy even had a little Christmas gift pack for each of us filled with local treats. I sincerely doubt that this is a Festiva touch, but rather a very thoughtful personal touch from the two of them. Guy even ended up with his own gift – a Father Christmas hat that Caz had skillfully hidden away onboard.
Snorkeling at The Indians, some of the best yet. Huge walls, fish, coral, and several eel. After lunch we moved to The Caves for more snorkeling – blennies, purple coral, and lots of other great memories.
The rest of the passengers headed over to the Willy T, a floating bar in The Bight for happy hour. We stayed aboard and pre-packed in our usual OCD fashion and grabbed a quick shower before dinner. Peel’n’eat shrimp, greek salad, and "the best chocolate in the islands" with squirty cream of course. And no exercise tomorrow other than hauling luggage through the airports to work it off.
Sunday morning. It’s sad to say goodbye to Guy and Caz, but we have many other journeys ahead of us. We’re the first off the boat as we have an early ferry to St Thomas to catch our flight, so we holler goodbyes at the others and make a beeline for the airport. We got to the St Thomas airport 5 hours ahead of our flight – a record even for me! It is a bit disconcerting sitting there watching all of the flight boards go red from cancelled flights across the US due to the big storm, but we got very lucky and crawled into a nice fluffy bed at the Tampa Crowne Plaza around 10:30pm to start our vacation recovery process.
Some random thoughts and notes from the trip
- This is NOT a sailing trip. It’s on a sailboat, but it’s more about the different destinations and activities than the actual sailing. Guy summed it up very well by pointing out that people want to cram as many activities into their week as possible, and time spent under sail with light winds doesn’t help that timeline. A quick expectation reset, and enjoy the rest of the trip.
- St Thomas – rent a car and get out and about. See the island and get away from the tourist spots. Bring your GPS!
- Sprint has EXCELLENT coverage on St Thomas, but none on St John or on Tortola.
- Despite all of the excellent food, the constant activity keeps the weight away.
- Some people head to water for a vacation. Others head to water for work. It’s a testament to Guy and Caz’s easy temperament that we sometimes forgot that they are working. The first couple days we felt as if we should offer to pitch in to help with the dishes, etc – almost as if we were guests in their home. Guy’s laughter comes easily, often, and from the gut, he truly loves his work. They are a great set of role models to watch, adoring and respectful of each other, and it’s nice to see Guy praise Caz’s cooking, commenting that she started as a cook and now she’s a chef. We couldn’t agree more.
- We are not cruise ship people by any means, i.e. eat now, shop here, board tonight. This is not like that though, they are guiding us from site to site, and you quickly get the sense that they truly love the area and are helping us maximize our time here by seeing what we can given weather conditions and time constraints. We normally choreograph and seriously overplan our own trips and there is something nice about not having to decide where we should snorkel this afternoon or what to have for dinner, it just appears from Caz’s magic kitchen. Guy also does a wonderful job of laying out the options (and the nautical chart) each morning, explaining what’s available and possible for the entire day, and getting a group consensus for the itinerary.
- Bubbly Pool – DO IT!
- Willy T’s – we skipped it, but if you like the bar scene or you want to make sure that you checked off every single option on the list, check it off. There was nudity there during our trip though, so if you’re easily offended then you should stay on board and sip a Nutty Irishman instead.
- Cameras – yes please. Bring every camera you have, including one that’s waterproof as a good chunk of your time will be spent in the water. If you don’t own one and want to get great quality, buy one like the Canon SD1400IS and Ikelite housing. If you have small drybags, bring them too, as you get shuttled from place to place in the dinghy and don’t want to chance some dead electronics.
- The 2 dinners ashore are not cheap, so budget them into your overall planning. And also budget a good tip for your crew, they really do work tremendously hard even though you might not take notice of it.
- If you have a dive license, do the dives. Why not?
- The boat layout is incredibly well thought out. We were pleasantly surprised with the roominess of the cabin and storage compartments. The bed is a double+, hanging closet, bedside shelf, reading lamps, and ample room for toiletries in bathroom.
- When they say "no hard-sided luggage", they mean it though, as there is no storage room for large rigid items. Plan accordingly.
- Evaluate your own comfort level with spending a week in close quarters with 3-4 other couples that you don’t know.
- And if you book with Festiva, specify that you want to travel with Guy and Caz, and tell them that we sent you along. We thoroughly enjoyed our time with them, and we’re betting that you will as well.
Clicking this photo map will take you to a searchable Bing Map collection. Not only can you see the photos, but you can see where they were taken!