The British Virgin Islands, in the northeastern Caribbean, beckon cruise passengers with their unspoiled coves and hidden bays. Sparsely populated --the islands, with a land area of 59 square miles, are inhabited by some 22,700 people --they were discovered by Columbus in 1493 and annexed by the British in 1672. They remain a British colony with their own elected government.
Diving is a popular pastime in the islands, not only because of the clarity of the water surrounding the British Virgins, but because they are ringed with wrecks, notably the RMS Rhone (which sank in the 19th century), now a national park and great scuba diving point teeming with Technicolor fish and corals and featured in the 1977 film, "The Deep."
Most popular cruise ship stops in the British Virgins is Tortola, with Virgin Gorda coming in second and Jost Van Dyke third. Road Town in Tortola, the capital of the British Virgins, a favorite stop with cruise passengers is filled with markets, boutiques and restaurants. Ferry service to other islands is available from Tortola as well as shore excursions sold onboard ships to one of the top natural sights on the British Virgins, if not the entire Caribbean: the Baths at Virgin Gorda.
The Baths, sometimes referred to as a "natural Stonehenge by the sea," has giant granite boulders, believed to be the result of prehistoric volcanic activity. The spectacular boulders form pools and grottoes that are cool to swim in: the sand is dazzling white, the water aquamarine and turquoise, and the total effect, idyllic. Other top-notch beaches include Spring Bay in Virgin Gorda and Cane Garden Bay in Tortola.
Points of interest in Tortola include a visit to J.R. O'Neale Botanic Gardens with four acres of tropical plants and trees and a trip to Sage Mountain National Park with its forest and views of neighboring cays.
For tastes of the islands, try the pumpkin soup or seafood chowder and the grilled chicken with pineapple salsa or the curried shrimp over rice at Pusser's Landing at Soper's Hole on Tortola's West End. On Virgin Gorda, try the fresh fish and rum cake at Top of the Baths on Baths Hill.
To take home some local flavors, visit Sunny Caribee Herb and Spice Company, on 119 Main Street (Main Street is where most of Tortola's shops are located). You can pick up some Caribbean spices, seasonings, sauces and teas. The store also carries Caribbean art and fragrances that make good souvenirs.
Cruise lines that call at Tortola include Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Silversea and Windstar. Lines that visit Virgin Gorda include Azamara, Carnival, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea and Windstar/ Ships that call on Jost Van Dyke include those of Cunard, Seabourn and Windstar.
IF YOU GO -- For additional information on the British Virgin Islands, visit www.bvitourism.com.