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Although just one mile separates Tortola and St. Thomas, they feel as if they're light years away from each other. While St. Thomas attracts shoppers with duty-free stores, Tortola seduces sailing enthusiasts with bareboat and crewed charters.

The lure? Azure anchorages, secluded coves, and the unspoiled beaches of more than 50 islands and cays fringing Sir Francis Drake Channel, the British Virgin Islands' main drag. Caressed by consistent, gentle trade winds, the waterway is ideal for both amateur and experienced sailors.

Although Tortola is the largest island in the archipelago, it measures only 10 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, so you can easily tour it in a day.

Trail map for Sage Mountain National Park
Trail map for Sage Mountain National Park
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Breathtaking views

A trip along Ridge Road provides breathtaking views of both the Caribbean Sea, to the north, and the Sir Francis Drake Channel and its islands, to the south.

While jeeps can be rented, white-knuckle drivers may want to consider hiring a taxi or booking an excursion on a safari bus.

Tours begin in Road Town, the diminutive capital of Tortola, BVI, which hugs the harbor where the mountains meet the sea. Crowing roosters, yapping dogs and grazing goats have the right-of-way here, even along Main Street, with its red and yellow homes, restaurants, Quick Bargain Department Store, and After Dark Bar.

The road climbs steeply in hairpin turns along the mountain's verdant flanks, offering tantalizing glimpses of golden beaches, turquoise bays, and amethyst islands.

Highest point in the Virgin Islands

Examining elephant ear philodendron
Examining elephant ear philodendron
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The high point, in more ways than one, is the Sage Mountain National Park. At 1,716 feet, Sage Mountain is the loftiest peak in the Virgin Islands (US and British). Although it's not a true rain forest (since less than 100 inches of rain falls annually), it still shelters remnants of the primeval forest that once covered the island's ridges.

The park is open daily dawn to dusk. Admission is free.

There are two trails in the 100-acre park, both accessible to anyone who's reasonably fit. The first is a loop through giant bullet wood trees, which grow 80 feet high. Once logged commercially, the trees are now protected.

The trail is known for its enormous elephant ear (philodendron) vines, which trail over the ground until they find tree trunks to climb.

Stinking fish tree

A mossy stone path, along the second trail, leads to a mahogany plantation. Small signs, along its 1.5-mile-route, identify trees such as the white cedar (a very hard wood, once used for boat-building) and the stinking fish tree (which doesn't smell).

Perhaps the most interesting tree is the pitch apple. Years ago, people scratched messages on its leathery leaves, and even used them as playing cards. They also used pitch from the fruit to caulk boats.

There's little wildlife, except for small lizards. Birds are more obvious. Killi-killis (American kestrels) hover overhead. You may hear the gentle cooing of the turtle dove, the territory's official bird (the "tortola") or see a pearl-eyed thrasher lunching on some berries.

Hiking through Sage Mountain rainforest
Hiking through Sage Mountain rainforest
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Best views on Tortola

Unfortunately, the lookout on the summit is so overgrown with branches that you can see neither side of the island. Much better views can be found at the nearby Skyworld restaurant lookout, from where even Puerto Rico (50 miles away) can be seen on a clear day.

A parade of islands marches across the horizon like jade pieces of a puzzle: Norman Island, with caves that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island; Peter Island, a resort, now owned by Amway; Dead Chest, reputedly the barren island where Blackbeard marooned 15 mutiny-minded men with one bottle of rum; Salt Island, where salt is panned from evaporation ponds, just as it was 200 years ago; and Fallen Jerusalem, with bizarre rock formations that make it look like a destroyed city.

Botanical Gardens

Back in Road Town, the Botanical Gardens are a verdant oasis of lily ponds, waterfalls, tropical bird houses and exotic plants. Among them, you'll find vanilla orchids, broom palms (used to make brooms, hats and fishpots), breadfruit trees, red ginger, medicinal aloe vera, and lucky nut trees. (Their flat brown seeds are often worn as ornaments or carried in pockets to bring good luck.)

We met a Tortola resident who showed us some small, tart fruits that he called cocoplums.

Sip Pusser's painkillers at Pusser's Pub

After your tour, the place to go for a cool drink is Pusser's Pub, on Main Street. In spite of the chickens on the verandah, its memorabilia-filled interior is pure England.

Pusser's Store and Pub
Pusser's Store and Pub
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

When the British Navy gave up its tradition of having each ship's purser ("pusser" to the West Indians) dole out a daily ration of rum, an entrepreneur decided to open distilleries across the British Virgin Islands to make true navy rum. Only one remains today, and it supplies Pusser's.

The pub sells rum in a variety of disguises, but most notably as Pusser's Painkillers (sold in #2, #3 and #4 strengths, based on the rum content). Beware! When mixed with cream of coconut, orange and pineapple juices, the 18-ounce libations go down so smoothly, you don't feel their power until it's too late.

Behind the pub, a shop sells ship models, nautical antiques, travel clothing and luggage. If you decide to charter a boat to explore some of the outlying British Virgin Islands, you might be wise to pick up a Pusser's Survival Kit as well.

Its contents? Aspirin, salt tablets, a fishing lure, a small world map, a box of waterproof matches, a plastic drinking cup, and a bottle of Pusser's rum.


British Virgin Islands Tourist Board: www.bvitourism.com

More things to see and do in BVI:

British Virgin Islands Best Family Beach is the Baths in Virgin Gorda