CAPITAL: Road TownPOPULATION: 17,000CURRENCY: U.S. DollarOFFICIAL LANGUAGE: EnglishPOLITICAL STATUS: British Dependent TerritoryHistory and the Flanagan Passage separate the British Virgin Islands. Comprised of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost van Dyke, Anegada, Peter and Norman, plus three dozen assorted cays and rocks, the BVIs are mountainous and lush. They relax in 59 square miles of warm Caribbean and Atlantic waters. All but Anegada started out as volcanoes. Tortola, it seems, has everything: Road Town, the capital; Sage Mountain, the highest point at nearly 1,800 feet; and most of the population. There's also a rainforest. All of the islands have beautiful strands of white sand beach, but Virgin Gorda has one of the most famous and picturesque, The Baths. Virgin Gorda also has stately mahogany trees. The sir Francis Drake Channel separates Tortola and Jost Van Dyke from the rest of the BVIs. Peter and Norman Island are private, the latter being owned by Richard Branson of Virgin Records fame.HISTORYThe peaceful Ciboney, then the Arawaks, inhabited the BVIs. The warlike Caribs forced them to flee and kept the islands for themselves until the early 1400s. In 1493, Columbus claimed the archipelago for the Spanish throne. He named it after St. Ursula and her 11,000 maidens who were martyred by the Huns. Pirates then discovered the multitude of secluded coves from which to prey upon Spanish galleons on their way to Spain, laden with precious cargo. Among them was Sir Francis Drake, namesake of the channel that divides the two main groups of islands. As early as 1621, the Dutch captured and fortified the islands. The ramparts didn't hold, however, and the British took over in 1672, establishing a sugar industry based on slave labor. A populace of Quakers joined the Brits on Tortola for much of the 18th century. The abolition of slavery in 1833 spelled the end of the plantation economy and the departure of most of the Europeans. In 1956, the chain became a British Dependent Territory. In 1990, Jost Van Dyke had its first telephone installed.HIGHLIGHTSThe BVIs are peaceful and harmonious. The people are reserved, the hotels refined, the beaches uncrowded and the sports noncompetitive. Development has been slow, helping to preserve the quintessential character of the islands. No building can rise higher than the palms-a limit of two stories. Hiking has been heightened to an art in the BVIs, and there are several national parks in which to indulge your passion. There's Sage Mountain, Devil's Bay National Park, Gorda Peak National Park and Little Fort National Park. There are also sundry trails such as Lime Tree Gulch Trail with its tyre palms. If hiking amid the BVIs' splendid flora doesn't satiate your thirst, stop by Tortola's botanical gardens. Or drink in the glorious hillside views on a driving tour of the island with its roller-coaster dips and turns. Diving in the BVIs is an easy as wading offshore. Many of the sites are at depths of just 30 to 50 feet. (Some are as shallow as 10.) The best visibility is between Ginger Island and Norman Island where a handful of caves is ready to be explored by snorkelers as well. Norman is considered the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. There are some 200 shipwrecks around Anegada, the lone coral island of the bunch. Some of the more noted BVI wrecks include the Rhone, a steamer that succumbed to an 1867 hurricane; the Fearless, a 97-foot mine sweeper; and the Chikuzen, a 246-foot refrigerated vessel. Almost anywhere in the BVIs is a prime diving spot, and with your own chartered sailboat, you may just find your own reef. By far the BVI chain is one of the most popular sailing spots in the world. As a matter of fact, most of the uninhabited islands can only be accessed by boat. (Sail by Dead Man's Chest, where Bluebeard is rumored to have stranded his mutinous crew with just one bottle of rum among them.) Virgin Gorda's North Sound, with its deep, protected harbor, is a favorite anchoring spot-look for the permanent moorings wherever the wind blows you. Hundreds of intimate coves also await discovery. If you don't know the bow from the stern, Tortola has an abundance of sailing aficionados waiting to instruct you. Tortola also has an abundance of charter companies that will arrange a crew for you so that you can kick back and enjoy the scenery floating by. You can also float by, metaphorically, at either of two outrageous watering holes-among the most notorious in the Caribbean. Bomba's Surfside Shack on Tortola has achieved fame far and wide as much for its collection of junk and detritus wired together in a heap as for its uninhibited beach parties. On Jost van Dyke, Foxy's serves up an equally rollicking time to yachties and day trippers. Along with your rum concoction, be prepared to be serenaded by owner, guitarist and singer Foxy Callwood, who spins out witty ditties about his guests. For those looking for more leisurely pursuits, the BVIs have some ruins to browse. Three forts on Tortola's southern shore-Recovery, Charlotte and Shirley-will inspire dreams of cannon fire and gallant defense. Look for the foundation of an old stone windmill on Mount Healthy in the north. The chimney, boiler house, miner' quarters and shafts of a 400-year-old Spanish copper mine can still be distinguished on Virgin Gorda's southern tip. No description of the BVIs is complete without a mention of The Baths on Virgin Gorda, where massive granite boulders are strewn about like confetti. The aquamarine sea pools among the boulders create intimate niches. Visit these monoliths during off times (like right before the sun rises) so that you can appreciate them in privacy. Privacy is what the BVIs are all about-they promote it. There are so many nooks and crannies to which you can escape. You can even rent your own fantasy island. But if you should choose one of the inhabited ones, you'll never be disturbed by late-night partiers-the trade winds lull everyone to sleep by 10.DON'T MISS:*The Baths, a jumbled series of grottoes, boulders and seawater pools perfect for soaking and splashing*The wreck of the R.M.S Rhone, site of the thriller The Deep*Limin' with the locals at Foxy's bar on Jost van Dyke*Sailing along the Sir Francis Drake Channel, one of the world's top water-ways*Pusser's Rum ... the only thing to drink in the BVIs For more information about visiting, cruising and diving the British Virgin Islands, click on the home page below.
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