Insights from cruising the BVIs
There are very few Caribbean getaways that capture the essence of the islands better than an experience boating in the British Virgin Islands. For some, this takes the form of a multi-week sailing trip traveling counter-clockwise from one beach, bar, and sun-laden snorkeling site to the next. For others, like in our case, it’s a shorter period renting a power boat with the ability to buzz from one highlight to the next more quickly. In either instance, there are plenty of questions for first-timers planning a trip to the BVIs: Chef or no chef? Captain or no captain? If I hire a captain, what’s involved? How do I develop an itinerary? How do I handle provisioning ahead of time to make things as smooth as possible? We encountered all of those questions (plus some) during our own planning process. With only four nights aboard NiKA, a slick 59′ power yacht based in Tortola, we wanted to maximize our time enjoying and remove as many obstacles as possible before arrival. Below, I’m sharing some takeaways from our experience planning our Caribbean vacay, plus tips for others planning on boating in the British Virgin Islands.
Hiring a Chef vs. Eating Out
To be totally honest, I expected somewhat mediocre food throughout the BVI, but that wasn’t a deal-breaker for us. We knew we wanted the experience of dining on shore during each of our four nights aboard NiKA. We were actually thrilled with the dining and found ourselves pleasantly surprised with the food throughout the region: excellent upscale fare at Corsair’s in Jost Van Dyke; fabulous happy hour specials and great fresh cuisine at Saba Rock ($5 painkiller, anyone?); impressive food and service at Cooper Island, to name a few. Eating out every night in the BVI is an option, and you’ll have good food options plus good happy hour selections in most places. It’s worth noting that you should have your captain make dinner reservations in advance where you can. We tried to get a last minute reservation at Cooper Island and ended up having to eat super late to even get in. Generally speaking, dining is at a premium since the islands are dealing with import logistics and duties which up the cost on their end, so expect to for a heftier spend than on some larger, more accessible islands.
By contrast, we also found that after a day of sun and sea, eating on board in the comfort of our floating home fit the bill. Other regions may call for a different mix (i.e. you may opt for more on-board dining in the Grenadines), but if you’re boating in the British Virgin Islands, plan on dining on shore most nights with a night or two on board for a typical one-week charter. If you plan it properly, you can have a dedicated night on board for grilling and enjoy a heady sunset while you’re at it. In four days, we ate on the boat one night (the night we were moored at Salt Island) and watched the day fade to night with absolutely nowhere to go. It was perfection.
To be completely honest in thinking about our time in the BVI, I can’t imagine ever wanting or needing a chef on board. If you’re not eating out, cooking on board can be a fun evening in, whether it’s whipping up sandwiches in the galley or grilling on board. Hiring a chef seems unnecessary to me in this particular region, unless you really want every single element taken care of without having to lift a finger and don’t plan on dining on land (nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t necessary for us).
For lunchtime, we chose to dine on board most days with snacks and simple sandwiches, though lunch options also abound within the region. I split most of my day between snorkeling, paddle boarding, swimming and sunning (tough week, right?), so I personally preferred easy snacks on board to lunch stops. For those that want drawn out lunches, Peter Island, Cooper Island, and Jost Van Dyke have wonderful lunch options on shore.
Provisioning – Food, Drinks + More
Building off of the previous point, if you’ve already decided how many days you’ll likely want to eat out vs. on board, you’ll have a pretty solid idea of how much you’ll want to stock in terms of food and drinks. For boats leaving from Tortola, we found Riteway and Caribbean Cellars wonderful for food and drinks, respectively.
You can place the order well in advance, and we opted to solidify these elements about two weeks prior to our trip. We knew we wanted to eat out for dinners and some lunches (part of the experience for us), but that we’d be eating in for breakfasts and would also want some snacks for daytime. We opted to stay away from real cookery, and instead chose items that we could easily put together for a quick bite. From Riteway, we stocked up on bagels, cream cheese, a range of crackers and cheeses, plus sandwich inputs. We also used Riteway for stocking our mixers since they have a great selection on offer that don’t need to be purchased in huge quantities.
From Caribbean Cellars, we stocked spirits and wine. Knowing we’d spend most of our days on islands sipping the cocktail du jour, we tried to find a balance; not overdoing it but also ensuring that we had enough for fun days at sea. We stuck to a range of rums plus vodka to keep things simple, and chose mixers that would work well with each. For wines, we opted for affordable rosés, plus a handful of light reds. For beer, we factored in about 6 beers per person per day, knowing that this was a supplement to wine and spirits and to the cocktails we’d be buying on island. At the time that we placed the order we thought it seemed generous but reasonable; in hindsight, we over ordered by quite a lot. We ended up with lots of beer leftover, and rarely tapped into the wine we bought. It’s worth knowing that leftovers are given to the captain or distributed amongst staff at the charter company, so they won’t go to waste!
For water sports needs, we used Island Surf and Sail and ordered noodles, lazy buns, and masks and snorkels in advance to be on board for our arrival. When we docked back at Nanny Cay following our charter, we were able to leave everything on board for them to pick up. Easy, professional, and very reasonably priced.
‘Captain Only’ Charters – How do they work?
We connected with our captain about two weeks before our arrival, and found ourselves much more comfortable once we had a direct line to him. After a few exchanges about itinerary and general thoughts on timing, I was able to email him and ask about his preference for meals, though he had none and made it easy for us. In advance of our trip, I wondered if it would be awkward for him to join us on our nights out so we provisioned thinking that he’d be eating in most nights when we went out to dinner. In actuality, our captain joined us every night for dinner which was fun and easy for everyone involved (no awkward moments, just fun conversations and lots of inside knowledge on the area). Some restaurants do take care of the captain’s meal, but generally speaking, your group will absorb the cost of his or her meals and drinks.
In terms of hiring a captain, you must hire a captain unless you have sailing experience (for sailboats) or a captain’s license or resumé to prove experience with these vessels. We clearly had to hire a captain – not a question in the slightest for us – but seeing what our captain did during our trip, I would argue that everyone should hire a captain on a power boat. The captain is ultimately responsible for the vessel (you’ll sign insurance documentation attesting to this prior to your charter), and from my perspective that responsibility takes a bit of the fun out of the process. Part of the BVI experience is beach and bar hopping – can you do that comfortably if you know you need to captain a vessel? I wouldn’t have a drink and drive, and I certainly can’t imagine having a few drinks and captaining a yacht. I know there are boatsmen that live for this stuff, in which case I suppose it adds to the fun of the experience. For the average person wanting an experience boating in the British Virgin Islands, hire the captain. Besides the whole responsibility component, your captain will likely know the waters and the region’s offerings very well, which brings a great amount of insight into where to go and what to do at different points in the day. We relied on Malcolm for secret snorkeling spots, where to dine, and for providing history and background on what we were seeing.
Now, I know the follow-up to this. You’re spending upwards of $200 a day for a captain at sea. What about the tip? You’ll definitely want to factor that in to your budget because tipping isn’t negligible; in fact, it’s more than the captain fee in most cases. Charter companies advise that you tip between 10% and 15% of the charter rate, generally speaking. On a $10,000 charter, you’re looking at $1000 – $1500 for a tip, which ups your cost a fair bit (bring cash, naturally). As with any tipping, your experience with your captain will help dictate what your tip looks like, but it’s always valuable to have a rough estimate of what you should set aside for an expense like this.
Crafting an Itinerary
I’ll be sharing more on our itinerary coming up – with exact stops, timing, etc. – but one of the beauties of a charter is that you get to craft your own itinerary. You’ll be dealing with different time frames on a sailboat vs. a power boat so you’ll want to bear that in mind, but you’ll have the option of staying at one island for many days, skipping islands altogether, or venturing as far out as Anegada if you’re so inclined.
We had a rough idea of our itinerary going in insofar that we knew which islands we really did want to see during our time in the BVI. We knew we wanted a couple of prime snorkeling opportunities, and I was keen on SUP where calm waters permitted. We didn’t dive at all during our trip, but if you’re a diver, you’ll want to allocate time to that, and will probably prioritize stops like the Wreck of the Rhone and the Indians. We had crafted a rough itinerary in our heads but during our actual excursion, we ended up making some changes on the fly as need be. Our captain was integral in this, and I imagine most captains are generous with their knowledge of the region. There are plenty of itinerary suggestions online, but it’s worth knowing which islands pique your interest most (which you’ll prioritize), and understanding that the islands are super close together. Getting from Salt to Cooper for example, can be done quickly even by dinghy!
Thinking About Water Usage
Oh, the irony of being surrounded by water and yet not having a ton of water to actually use. If you’ve never done a trip like this before, you’re probably curious about water usage and how it all works. Here’s the gist: you have a limited amount of water on board to do basic things like brush your teeth, wash dishes, shower, and flush toilets. As a point of reference, on our four days on board with six total people (including the captain), we used 100 gallons. We were extremely conservative with our water usage; we shut water off in the shower while we lathered, and only flushed toilets when necessary. Since it was our first trip, we were probably overly cautious about usage if anything. Our yacht had somewhere between 200 – 250 gallons on board to begin with so we went through about half of it during the course of our time at sea. We never refilled our water tank except for at the end of our charter but there are opportunities to refill water on Tortola and Virgin Gorda. At smaller islands you’re limited to what you have in your tank.
I actually thought the tank of water was included in our charter price, but you’ll pay to fill the water tank upon completion of your charter, which is how I know exactly how much we used. Water filling was at 15 cents per gallon at the end of our charter (our bill was $15), so the point about water conservation is more about not being wasteful and not running out of water rather than being worried about the expense. Don’t let water run when you’re not using it, and don’t take unnecessarily long showers and you’re probably fine. The water is something to keep in mind, but from our experience not something to stress about.
What About Seasickness?
Does this seem like a dumb question? I mean, why would you go on a boating trip if you get seasick? My mom gets seasick. I know she does, and I knew it before we went on this trip, but she was so pumped about this Caribbean adventure that there was no way we weren’t going to do it. I didn’t bring up the whole seasickness thing to her prior to departure in case it was more psychological than physical, but we did preemptively buy her wristbands to try to keep the sickness at bay. She boarded the boat with Dramamine as well (allegedly non-drowsy), but was immediately hit with seasickness when we got on board the yacht. With the way our first 24 hours went, I was almost positive that our trip was doomed. She was in the bathroom downstairs for the first few hours, and then curled into a miserable little ball upstairs for a couple of hours in the early evening. She didn’t eat for at least 48 hours, and the Dramamine made her wonky, not better. The wristbands seemed to help slightly, but only a bit.
So, here’s the thing: when the generator is off and the A/C isn’t cranking in the boat, it get seriously stuffy downstairs and you can feel the boat movement. A LOT. I don’t get seasick but even I experienced some moments of queasiness in the steamy boat at times. That was her first brush with the yacht: boarding, unpacking, and feeling a punch of heat and swaying immediately wash over her. Instead of getting fresh air, she holed up downstairs for a bit thinking it wiser to be close to a bathroom on board which only made things worse. We also were facing a really rough first day at sea that didn’t help; by contrast, our last three days were much calmer and she was much better.
The best way to get away from the sick vibes? To get fresh air and get off the boat when it’s rocking. Seems basic, but when you’re with someone who’s suffering from seasickness it can be hard to get them away from the bathroom and into the world. To get back up and running, it meant getting her to the flybridge for a strong breeze when we were moving, and to allow her to see the horizon line. When we were in calm bays she had no issue (she used the wristbands at all times), and if we were moored somewhere wavy, she opted to get into the water and float around instead of sitting on a swaying boat. By day two she was much better, though she kept her eating to a minimum. Folks on a catamaran may find the boat more stable than what we were on and may not face quite the seasick issues that we did, though I can’t be sure as I don’t have a point of comparison. Point being: if you have someone on board that suffers from seasickness – even slightly – be prepared with bands, medication, and patience, and do remember that fresh air and water does help!
Our yacht charter, intended to be one week initially ended up being cut to four-days after some coordination issues with our dates but we had a perfect four days aboard our power boat. If we were sailing, our experience may have been a bit different as we couldn’t have zipped around as quickly with our relatively limited time. Even with our little seasickness battle, our trip was incredible and even my mom who had a dicey couple of days said it was one of the best trips of her life. For those debating doing a trip like this with family or with friends, do it! It’s incredibly memorable and such an amazing way of seeing a group of islands. A big thank you to Virgin Motor Yachts for the wonderful coordination on this and for connecting us with Captain Malcolm who ended up being an integral part of our experience on board!
Have you been boating in the British Virgin Islands before? What are your tips or takeaways for first timers?