Tortola Without Stress
Rediscovering the Pleasures of Island Life
by Claudia Colli
The fun of having guests when you live on an island like Tortola is that you get to rediscover the pleasures of island life. "It must be so nice not to have stress," people from elsewhere remark, imagining my family and I spending our days lounging on the beach sipping piña coladas. Stress though, is not confined to northern latitudes. And oh . . . if only I had time to sit on the beach all day.
That's where the guests come in. They must be entertained and a tour of these beautiful islands is essential. Lynne and Todd, my cousins from New York, had never visited the Caribbean before and I was looking forward to showing them the sights – experiencing them again through fresh eyes.
Their first day here was spent on a familiarization tour. We left my home on Tortola's West End and drove through Carrot Bay, where I pointed out one of the islands' unique cultural phenomenons – Bomba's Shack. Made up of a precarious collection of driftwood, tin roofs and other flotsam, Bomba's is a popular hangout for island surfers in the winter and everyone else on the full moon. Party goers from throughout Tortola and the neighbouring U.S. Virgin Islands come to Bomba's on the full moon for the music, food and Bomba's midnight punch.
At the other end of Apple Bay I pointed out the Sugar Mill, a small hotel whose restaurant was built within the walls of an 18th century sugar works. It is a very charming spot, but we would have to wait for another day to explore it further. Next was Carrot Bay. This is one of my favourite villages on Tortola and because of several speed bumps we were obliged to enjoy the trip at a very slow pace. The road runs between the sea and a colourful collection of wood and concrete houses. The North Shore Shell Museum is here, a repository for cultural memorabilia as well as hundreds of conch shells. Further along next to the sea is a small park shaded by sea grapes where villagers hang out on weekends sharing gossip and chatting to drivers in passing cars.
My cousins' introduction to local geography was yet to come. I had already warned them that Tortola has two directions: up and down. And now we were on our way up. The road between Carrot Bay and Cane Garden Bay is comprised of a series of breathtaking and gravity defying switch backs. I heard Lynne take a quick breath as we rounded the first one, remarking nervously that this was better than a roller coaster. I could tell that the roller coaster was not her favorite ride. "Just wait until we go down," I answered. On the way up, we stopped the car for a postcard view of Tortola's north shore. Carrot Bay, Apple Bay, Long Bay's almost mile-long beach and Smuggler's Cove spread out in a dazzling line below us. In the distance we could see the islands of Jost Van Dyke, Tobago and St. Thomas, one of our US neighbors.
Cane Garden Bay is always fun. People who have lived on Tortola a long time are often dismayed by the many beach bars and restaurants on the water's edge, but the bay has retained a healthy vibrancy. The village, which sits along a beautiful curve of white sand, is more than just a stretch of placid beach, it's a living community – a place where people live, work, go to school and attend church on Sundays. We sat in front of Stanley's Welcome Bar, one of the Bay's original beach bars. Stanley, now retired from the restaurant, was the master of Caribbean time keeping – maintaining a slow and methodical pace, whether mixing up a piña colada or preparing a lobster dinner. Things move a bit faster in Cane Garden Bay now, but not a lot. As they sat on the beach sipping their frothy drinks, Lynne and Todd were learning to go with the flow – island style.
From Stanley's, we strolled down the road to the Callwood Rum Distillery for a taste of island history. The building, owned by the Callwood family, is over 300-years-old and looks it. Tortola's only working rum distillery has made no concession to modern technology. Rusting equipment is scattered throughout the yard and the inside is layered with ancient dust and rum fumes. A young man with skin the colour of an oak keg gave us a tour for a small fee. He pointed out the sugar cane growing in a field next to the distillery and then led us to the back of the building to show us the crusher, an antiquated device comprised of a series of cogs, wheels and cranks. After being crushed, the cane juice is boiled in large copper pots located inside the building, which we were not allowed to see, although we were shown the still on the opposite side where the juice is fermented. The fledgling rum is then poured into glass bottles for a year to make white rum, and in oak barrels for four years to make a golden rum. I gave a bottle of the dark rum to Lynne so she could make piña coladas back home.
Our tour continued up Joe's Hill to the Ridge Road, which runs along the island's mountainous spine. The views are breathtaking, and from the viewing platform at SkyWorld restaurant (now closed) one can get a panoramic view of much of the B.V.I. From this vantage point, the islands seem to float in the sea like large green ships, and when the sky is very clear, one can even see Anegada, 40 miles to the north.
"Do you like to walk?" I asked my guests, enticing them with a walk through Sage Mountain National Park, a rain forest along the Ridge Road and the B.V.I.'s highest point. Being city folks, where it's quicker to walk then take a bus, the answer was an unequivocal "yes." I didn't mention that walking on Tortola, like driving, is multi-dimensional.
As we walked along, Lynne commented on the sounds of birds chirping high up in the trees, but was frustrated when she couldn't spot any. Finally I saw one, a king bird. Lynne saw him too, but it was gone in a flash – less interested in us than we were in him.
After about 15 minutes, we reached the park gate where we had to make a decision. Do we take the path to the island's highest point – 1,718 feet – or follow one of the many meandering trails deeper into the forest? Lynne eyed me warily as if to say, "you do know where you're going, don't you?" "This way," I said, pointing towards a sign that said "North Trail." I hoped I was leading them into the center of the park where the vegetation is the lushest. To me one of the park's main appeals is its rain forest-like quality. Although Sage Mountain doesn't receive sufficient rainfall to be considered a true rain forest, it possesses many of the characteristics of one. It has a dense tree canopy, rich undergrowth, luxuriant fern life, and a rich mossy scent that permeates its inner pathways. When you walk slowly and look closely at the rocks and tree trunks a myriad of colourful mosses decorate the surface like a velveteen painting.
Every so often, the trail was punctuated with a bench. Most were placed where there was a snatch of view through the foliage, ideal for idle forest contemplation, or in our case, a quick rest and a drink. The north trail has signs identifying significant trees including the mahogany, white cedars (the B.V.I.'s national tree), the Puerto Rico Royal Palm and other tropical trees. One sign points out stone terracing dating back to the plantation era. Also on the trail is a charcoal pit, the traditional way of making charcoal here, along with a wooden box of charcoal. As one travels deeper into the forest, the plant life gets lusher, the elephant ears seem larger and the ground moister. Vines hang from the trees and one does have the sense of being in a tropical rain forest, no matter what the experts say.
Although there is a certain amount of climbing involved (some rocks and roots to negotiate and a couple of laddered steps that lead into the center of the forest) the walk is fairly easy. We managed not to get lost, although I decided that next time I would get a pamphlet and map at the National Parks Trust office in Road Town.
In the evening, it was back to Cane Garden Bay for some island music at Quito's Gazebo, a large structure on the beach edge. Quito Rymer is the quintessential island musician. A softspoken artist, Quito plays with his reggae band, The Edge, several nights a week, but on some nights he plays solo. I felt his mellow blend of Caribbean ballads and classic Bob Marley tunes would round out the day nicely.
When we arrived the restaurant was full of diners and the bar was filling up with regulars who had come to hear Quito play. Lynne ordered a piña colada and Todd a rum and coke, and as Lynne swayed to a Bob Marley number, I could tell that they were melding into the island lifestyle just fine. So was I. Stress was a thing of the past.