The fabled British Virgin Islands are comfortably tucked between the languorous Caribbean Sea and the celerity of the Atlantic Ocean. If the U.S. Virgin Islands are the heartbeat of the Leeward Islands, then the British Virgin Islands are the lungs giving fresh breath to the rhythms of tropical sounds, powdery beaches and rugged verdant mountains. TortolaTortola is the largest of the Virgins and by far the busiest. Over the years, Tortola has become a bustling seaport for cruise ships whose passengers enjoy duty-free shopping along the narrow streets of Road Town. Its magnificent beaches are rimmed with fine hotels and condominiums. The BVI probably offer the greatest variety of undersea experiences with a good selection of wrecks, caves and tunnels, offshore pinnacles and shallow corals. In the winter months, migrating humpback whales also can be seen in the BVI. These islands are famous not only for the abundance of natural underwater sites, but for tragic shipwrecks too. Since the 18th century, Tortola has been a major shipping port, and traffic in these waters has been intense. As a result, the sea floor around the islands is littered with remains of perhaps hundreds of ships of all size and vintage including several sunk as artificial reefs. Of these, at least a half-dozen are dived regularly. Probably the best-known Caribbean shipwreck is the wreck of the Rhone. Today after more than 130 years on the sea floor, the Rhone is both a museum and a marine sanctuary. The best dive sites can be found in three geographical areas. Across the Sir Francis Drake Passage facing the Caribbean are a dozen islands and cays offering a variety of locations. On the north side, facing the Atlantic, are another dozen offshore islands that offer an entirely different type of bottom terrain and marine life. And off the west end facing St. Thomas is a third cluster of a half-dozen islands surrounded by some magnificent coral reefs. Virgin Gorda For seekers of solitude, a trip to Virgin Gorda is a must. While my time was running short and magazine deadlines were closing in on me, I could not possibly say I had been to the BVI without visiting Virgin Gorda. Ferry service between Road Town and Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda is an almost hourly event. Virgin Gorda is the BVI's second largest island and likewise second largest in population following Tortola. Columbus named the island because of its resemblance to a fat maiden - you should remind yourself how long he must have been at sea to make this correlation. If you take the time to drive from Spanish Town to the ferry crossing at the Bitter End, you could perhaps begin to reason the why of ol' Chris' appelational skills. The island is extremely mountainous on the northern side, while the southern half is mostly flat with giant granite boulders forming dimly lit ethereal sea caves. This area, known as The Baths, offer the visitor sensuous beaches with incredible pools of azure water. Not surprisingly, the verdant beauty of Virgin Gorda has helped preserve its finest feature - some of the loveliest shallow coral reefs and sea gardens anywhere in the Virgin Islands. In other words, it's the perfect place for snorkelers and beginning scuba divers to relax and simply enjoy their undersea adventure. For me, the special allure of the British Virgin Islands is the rugged beauty of the rolling green mountains and languid crystal-blue bays. Perhaps the most difficult decision to make was whether to push on to new locations or make a second dive at some delightful spot that can hardly be appreciated on a one-tank visit. For more information about diving the BVI, dive packages and dive operator e-mail addresses, click on the home page below. For information about diving the British Virgin Islands by live-aboard, click on the home page below.
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