Beach goers or history seekers, locals or non, if you’ve yet to experience one of Tortola’s most spectacular beaches, well, it’s time you made your way down to one of our best north-facing beaches. Smuggler’s Cove is not just another pretty face – its natural beauty also carries a lively past. Don’t let any of the roads to get down there daunt your mission. Though the approaches are all pretty pocked and bumpy – as well as dusty in the dry season – they are all accessible in a “regular” two-wheel drive car. Four-wheel would be recommended nonetheless, but isn’t a necessity – the roads are all traversable and the excursion is well worth the trek.
Natural Beauty, with a Colorful Past
At the end of the road, exquisite white sand greets you after you pass through swaying coconut palms. The beach is crescent moon-shaped and is loaded with shady palms. There is snorkeling off to the left, while the eastern side, too, has a reef to explore. And the approaches to the snorkel sites are easy, with access right from the beach. And – if you’re into this kind of thing – there is a sea grape tree on the far western end of the beach entirely adorned with an array of washed-up coral hunks. Some artistically inclined folks took it upon themselves to strategically place them over the branches and the surrounding area. The best part? Come add your own creativity to the endeavor. I have, as have many others. The tree sculpture is subject to change, depending on weather conditions and “in-the-moment” artistic expression.
The entire bay is known as Little Belmont Bay. The western side of the bay, the end containing the buildings, beach bar, historic ruins, swimming and snorkeling reef, has been known as “Smuggler’s Cove” but now the entire bay is locally called that name. The division dates back a couple of centuries.
In the plantation era, a sugar works, now concealed by copious bush, was located at Smuggler’s. The Romney family had also owned the beach and surrounding land for many generations. The Clerk family joined them in ownership in 1961 and later sold their interest to Bob and Nell Denniston in 1968. “Auntie Nell” and “Uncle Bob” as they became known, cut the road from West End up and over to Smuggler’s during this time. The Dennistons first visited the BVI in the 1950s, fell in love with the island and left their stateside existence for greener pastures – or, whiter, as it were – and started investing in property. Bob was not retired at that time, but that point in their lives wasn’t far away.
After Bob retired, the couple ran the beach bar themselves, along with four beach rooms and several houses that were available for rental. The rooms were rustic, but the atmosphere welcoming, and the majority of part-timers came back year after year. The beach bar became very popular, serving up cold drinks, lunch, laughter and old stories. If Bob wasn’t around people went around the back of the bar to help themselves to a cold one stuffing a couple of dollars in the can or under a rock on the bar top. There was even a Smuggler’s Cove steel pan band back in that day, led by island icon Clem Smith.
Bob Denniston, a classic car enthusiast, kept his vintage 1966 Lincoln Continental convertible, parked inside the beach bar. The vehicle wasn’t the newest on the island at that time, but was undoubtedly the jazziest, with clean lines and red leather seats. It was chosen to transport Queen Elizabeth in her open motorcade when she visited Tortola in 1977 on her second visit to the territory. A reception in her honor was held aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, and Bob and Nell had a chat with her at the time. The Queen acknowledged that she was aware that their car was transporting her about the island. Nell – this from a qualified source – mentioned to the Queen, that they “had spent all of last night cleaning out the empty beer cans left in the back seat by our kids.” According to local lore, the Queen shared a smile with her, stating “my children do the same thing!”
The vintage Lincoln was removed some years back, but pictures of The Queen and her entourage being sported about in Bob’s Lincoln remain and can be seen on walls of different island establishments. Right up until its removal, the car’s license plate remained intact: “VI 2.”
Bob was also renowned for skills as an amateur ham radio operator and established the first ham radio operator’s club in the BVI. He provided the island with a much needed service, to not only locals in need of making contact with family etc. abroad, but also did communication work along these lines for the BVI government.
One of Smuggler’s best known stories, and one which movie buffs are probably already aware, was that a portion of the remake of Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” were filmed there. This was in 1989, though the movie’s time frame was 1930 Cuba. But due to politics, logistics, and finances, filming the movie in Cuba wasn’t feasible. So the search went out, to find the exact-right backdrop, to capture all of what Hemmingway and the movie people were seeking. And voila, Smuggler’s Cove came up as the top choice for several of the movie’s scenes.
The beach bar was transformed into a Cuba cantina and as part of the set, a bedroom was built above the bar. After the filming Uncle Bob and Nell decided to keep the set. But as island people everywhere know, when hurricanes approach, damage will be done, and the structure was mostly destroyed when Hurricane Hugo swept through the islands in the summer of ‘89.
Another favorite story from back in the day, was that of the missing French toilets, brought in for Bob’s newly proposed hotel. When a summer storm blew through and badly damaged the original structures, looters came in and did what they do, and stole anything that wasn’t nailed down. This included the fancy French toilets purchased by the Dennistons. Years later, a friend of the family while hiking around through the bush in the area, stumbled upon them, not knowing where on earth they may have come from or what they may be doing there. The friend, over drinks at the bar with Bob, later told him the story; that he had by chance come across two fancy French toilets, whilst hiking around in the bush. Astonished, Bob exclaimed “They’re MINE!”
Today, the beach at Smuggler’s remains as beautiful as ever. The former “honor bar” and attached building still stand, while most definitely showing their many years. Though the old Lincoln is now long gone, the bush around the structures has been cleared and there are lumber and some building supplies stacked inside one of the buildings.
Historical and cultural preservation of Smugglers is important to local residents and to government officials, who last year proposed that the beach and surrounding land become the territory’s next National Park. Under that proposal, the reef would become the BVI’s second marine park (the first is the famous dive site the Wreck of the Rhone).
Despite the somewhat daunting drive, a trip to Smuggler’s is well worth the trip. Boating, though, isn’t recommended because of coral heads hiding just below the sea’s surface and the (mostly wintertime) north swells.
While you’re there, make sure you:
♦ Get in a good snorkel.
♦ Hang out in the shade. Or the sun.
♦ Walk on down to the western end and add some coral to the sculpture.
♦ Do a mini-hike through and around the grounds. You never know what you may stumble upon. Probably not any fancy French toilets, but you just never know!