Down Memory Lane
Story by Julian Putley
From its beginnings as a rustic port of call in the 1950s, the Bitter End Yacht Club is now one of the Caribbean's top water sports resorts.
As a long time sailing instructor and charter yacht captain the area of the North Sound in Virgin Gorda is always on my list of must visit locales. Here students and charter guests get into the Caribbean mood immediately. I try to fit in a visit on my first day out and then spend a complete second day here. From Tortola the destination provides an exciting windward sail, often rail down, spray flying and spectacular island scenery passing by in our wake. Having navigated the channel into the Sound the wind drops, the seas calm and the area's pristine resorts, communities and developments become an alluring fascination. Geology and nature coupled with clever development give a certain '"Wow" factor to the North Sound, particularly the Bitter End. Not only that but the Sound is often generously sprinkled with multi-million dollar yachts of all shapes and styles.
I usually do a slow drive by of the pretty Caribbean waterfront with Saba Rock, itself a little gem of Caribbean style, coming first into the picture. I drive by the Bitter End's waterfront cottages stretching to the east alongside beautiful Eustatia Sound. The rustic cottages with open air balcony and hammocks swinging on the decks imbue a feeling of relaxation while beachside lounges at the water's edge and waves lapping onto sandy stretches impart a sensation of quintessential Caribbean ambiance. Mayan style palapas provide shade with waiters offering cool tropical drinks to reclining guests. The patio restaurant culminates in a Southern style three storey reception building flamboyantly decorated with wrought iron railings and balustrades. The elegant Caribbean style continues on past the water sports center complete with colorful Hobie cat sails, a quaint marina building with docks and slips and finally a beach and swimming pool.
The Bitter End Yacht Club is widely seen as the finest water sports resort in the Caribbean and arguably the world. Its location on a protected shore of North Sound, Virgin Gorda, facing the setting sun is nothing less than perfect. Its close proximity to Eustatia Sound, an abundance of coves, sandy beaches and coral reefs attests to its magnificent setting.
It was Myron Hokin who was largely responsible for the Bitter End Yacht Club as we know it today. While vacationing in the BVI in the early 70s he saw and fell in love with the small pub and five cottage resort owned by Basil Symonette, the eccentric son of Sir Roland Theodore Symonette, the first Premier of the Bahamas.
Symonette had been a successful charter operator out of St Thomas in the 50s, in fact he has been labeled a pioneer in the early days of crewed yacht chartering. His yacht, Sea Saga carried him through the waters of the North Sound on several occasions and he became the first owner of the property that is now the Bitter End Yacht Club. Symonette's style was one of rustic simplicity; there was electricity at odd times only when the old diesel generator was running. Linens for the beds were paper and cold water was the extent of the washing and showering facilities. Transient dinner guests were few and far between and only allowed ashore after making their presence known by sounding an air horn. They were then told to leave rather abruptly when it was time for "lights out" and the generator was shut down.
During one of several meetings with the eccentric yachtsman Hokin expressed his desire to purchase a piece of land for a cottage for himself and his family. After some deliberation Symonette offered the entire property to the Hokins and a deal was sealed; the family, unable to resist such an attractive property, bought the whole place.
The Hokins owned a sailboat, the ketch Alianora, and their captain was Don Neal who would become the resort's first manager. Every year from 1973 The Bitter End added rooms, facilities, amenities and attractions. The Hokins' ambition was to turn the small yachtsmen's retreat into a full scale family destination for fun water sports vacations. Forty years later no one can deny that they succeeded.
The Bitter End has always had an affinity with sailors, even in the very early days. Record breaking teenage circumnavigator, Robin Lee Graham, of the tiny yacht Dove sailed into the North Sound in the 60s and found the fledgling Bitter End under construction. His stay turned from days to months as he helped with the construction. As a former captain, manager Don Neal found that yachtsmen and women made ideal employees in the sailing and water sports departments. Racing sailor Nick Trotter became the Quarterdeck marina manager in the early 80s. When I sailed into North Sound in 1987, after a world cruise, Don Neal hired me as a charter captain and general marina assistant. A string of sailors have found employment at the Bitter End including John Holmberg, Steve Surprise and Gordon Overing. Several charter catamarans have been affiliated with the Bitter End in "Stay and Sail" packages. Besides being a family oriented vacation destination the Bitter End has become an increasingly friendly yachtsmen's port of call and many flotillas, regattas and special events are organized. All the resort's amenities are open to itinerant sailors, charter guests and transient visitors.
Over the years the variety of water sports has increased to justify the accolade "greatest water sports resort in the world." Just off its eastern beach is an uninterrupted flow of steady trade wind making it perfect for windsurfing, kite boarding and Hobie sailing. On a windy day you'll see all three sports as aficionados skim across the water, doing tricks, carving jibes and practicing head-over-heels jumps.
Besides extreme sports the resort offers over a hundred water toys of various descriptions, from kayaks and windsurfers to Hobies and IC24s. Motor or sail excursions to spectacular beaches, the world famous Baths and the pirate island of Norman are also available to resort guests and transient visitors. There is no way anyone can get bored at the Bitter End.
One of the most endearing aspects of the Bitter End is that the staff is warm and friendly. Sandra Grisham, on her second stint as CEO, loves the Bitter End and now has the very personable Mo Sallah as General Manager. Many of the staff who were employed at the Bitter End during my first tenure are still there today. Mary Jo Ryan, Resort Manager, is never without a warm and friendly smile. After three decades of service to the resort Mary Jo can often be seen at the reception welcoming new arrivals and explaining details of the Bitter End facilities. Stalwart long time employees in the admin area include Human Resource Manager Delores Creque and John George who also leads the resort's talented band, the Latitude Stars. On the water you'll find Mikey and Terry running the fun excursion catamaran, Paranda. Close by Mike of Kilbride's Underwater Tours provides scuba diving adventures.
Norbert Wheatley is in charge of all the workboats and ferries on the property – and it's a demanding job. Don't forget that the only access to the resort is by boat. Winston Butler has been managing the Bitter End's bakery for close to three decades and his breads, cakes and pastries have hungry sailors heading to the commissary on a daily basis. At the front of the house in the popular restaurant you'll likely find Amanda, Rolita and Gunny there to look after your every need. These long time employees are often the reason many guests come back year after year; it's like returning to a second family.
The Bitter End continues to improve its facilities. The resort now boasts a waterfront pub with a view overlooking the marina. Serving fish and chips and pizzas, the pub is a sports bar on the water featuring several large TVs. In 2010, after sustaining hurricane damage, the marina was rebuilt with improved electrical hook ups, new showers and WiFi at the nearby pub. Always helpful and efficient, Marina Manager, Carine Locher makes a stay at the marina a pleasure. In 2011 new docks were constructed at the Quarterdeck Marina.
Throughout the grounds at the Bitter End there are delightful walks along manicured gardens and on through the natural flora of Virgin Gorda's east end. From the hills above the resort breathtaking panoramas can be seen of this millionaires' playground including Richard Branson's Necker Island, Larry Page's property on Eustatia and all the way to Anegada. There's an invigorating hike for every day of the week.
A fun resort with activities for the whole family, the Bitter End can pamper your desires, thrill your thirst for excitement and satiate your adventurous spirit.