A view over North Sound from Virgin Gorda's Ridge

The Long Walk

“I wanted to experience Virgin Gorda at a slower pace. What better way than on my own two feet?”

When Christopher Columbus first laid eyes on Virgin Gorda during his second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, he thought the island looked like a pregnant woman lying on her back.

More than 500 years have passed since Columbus made this observation, and as I begin the trek up some of her steepest contours, I wonder what possessed me to try to climb to the top of the Fat Virgin’s swollen stomach.

A stream of traffic glides down the hill alongside me to Gun Creek, a small community perched on the hillsides around the dock linking Virgin Gorda to the outer islands that make up North Sound, the BVI’s famed nautical playground.

Just a few yards into my walk, a blue Suzuki making the journey up the hill stops next to me.

“Are you okay? Do you need a ride?” the driver, a kindly-looking older gentleman, asks.

I smile and shake my head because the early-morning exertion has already left me nearly breathless.

The Suzuki shoots on up the hill and I resume walking. Honestly, I wouldn’t have minded the lift. Even though the day is young, I already feel the sun boring into my back and the climb ahead is more difficult than the air-conditioned treadmill workouts I do several times a week at the gym.

But I could not so easily abandon the goal I had set for myself: to walk the length of Virgin Gorda. As a Tortola resident, my visits to Virgin Gorda have been restricted to a few quick trips to the island’s most well-known sights. I wanted to experience Virgin Gorda at a slower pace. What better way than on my own two feet?

As I climb the steep hillside out of Gun Creek, I pause frequently to catch my breath and admire the growing views behind me. I become familiar with the cadence of morning-time in North Sound. There are noises of roosters, advertising the coming of day a little too late. There are voices of mothers, fathers and grandparents sending young children off to school. And there are sounds of morning greetings, shouted over hedges and through windows by passersby and neighbors.

Some of North Sound’s residents still live in traditional West Indian homes, small, simple wooden constructions that dot the hillside. Many more of these old homes stand abandoned next to larger, concrete homes – a sign of the wealth that has come to Virgin Gorda in the four decades since Laurence Rockefeller built Little Dix hotel in the 1960s.

After 45 minutes, I finally reach the top of the hill where I run into Kelvin and Louie, two Public Works men who are waiting by the roadside for a truck to arrive with materials for road repairs.

I say good morning and ask Kelvin where I could find a new road I had heard about. He points to a dirt track just in front of us, and tells me that if I take it I should have a good walk.

“You’ll have some nice views of Mosquito and Necker,” he says.

Along the well-travelled, paved roads, the trip from Gun Creek to The Baths – my intended destination – is 6.5 miles and takes you along the south side of Virgin Gorda’s spine. The road Kelvin now pointed out to me cuts around the north side of the island and connects North Sound with Long Bay, Nail Bay, and a series of other spectacular bays on the island’s northeast coast. The road is now beautifully paved  but had been unpaved when I had made this walk, and recent heavy rains caused landslides that blocked the road to vehicular traffic. Examining the map, I determine it might add a little distance to my trip, but I quickly decide on this route anyway since I would be able to walk without worrying about fast-moving cars and trucks on the main road.
Kelvin was not mistaken about the views. Just a few hundred yards down the dirt road, I begin to enjoy some of the best views I have ever seen in the entire British Virgin Islands.
North Sound lies below me in all its glory, and in the distance, low lying Anegada appears as a strip of pale sand on top of the water. Large swaths of undisturbed forest surround me on Virgin Gorda.

north-soundThe views change gradually as I walk, and I enjoy taking breaks to examine each new perspective. The road begins a long, gentle descent toward Long Bay, and walking is easy. In the bushes along the road, thousands of butterflies flutter around flowering plants.

The first sign that I have passed back into the world of humans is the sound of construction equipment working. I have reached Nail Bay, an up-scale residential and rental development located on the site of what was once a major plantation. As I walk past Nail Bay’s restaurant, I notice several plantation-era ruins across the road. The ruins are remnants of the sugar factory that would have been the nerve centre of the plantation. During the early European settlement of the Virgin Islands, Virgin Gorda was the main economic powerhouse, prompting British colonial officials to locate the colony’s first capital there in 1724. In the shade next to the ruins, someone has thoughtfully built a stone bench so I decide to take a break and eat a mid-morning snack. From my perch, I eye the sun warily as it continues its climb through the sky. It is 10:45am and I know that the worst of the day’s heat is still ahead of me.

A few minutes later, I rise energised and continue walking. I pass Maho Bay and Pond Bay before running back into the main, road. I feel impatient. It is 11:30am and I expected to be waltzing down the path to The Baths just about now. I think about the extended breaks I took to enjoy the views I left behind, look up at the sun again, and speed up my pace.

Savannah Bay beckons to me as I pass. From my vantage point above the powder-white bay, I spot several people strolling along the mile-long beach, an activity that suddenly seems much more sensible than my present activity. I leave them behind, however, and climb the last hill before the Valley.

Directly ahead of me is the airport, and in the far distance, I glimpse the outline of the ruins at the Coppermine National Park. Most visible are the remnants of a chimney, but I know that there are also remains of a boiler house, cistern and mine shaft house. The site was first mined in the 16th century by Spanish settlers, but the structures that remain all date from the mid-19th century, when miners from Cornwall worked the site. Below the ruins, white-crested waves wash the rocky shoreline. It is now a national park.

I make rapid progress into the Valley, and turn onto Crab Hill Road, which takes me through Virgin Gorda’s newest business district. I pass concrete buildings that house the cellular phone company office, a hardware store, the electricity company, and a new police station before reaching several of the settlement’s older buildings, including the charming St. Mary’s Anglican Church, which is located atop what islanders call Church Hill. It is just past noon, and most people have wisely chosen to escape the midday sun indoors. I press on, however, determined to finish my walk.
In the Valley I admire the residents’ carefully tended yards and notice several sheep grazing in a nearby pasture. One freezes mid-chew when it sees me and pauses long enough for me to take its picture before bolting in the opposite direction. As I near the Bregado Flax Educational Centre, which houses a primary and secondary school for most of the island’s children, I draw on my reserves, knowing that my final destination is just a few more curves down the road.

It is hard to know exactly when my feet started to hurt, but by the time I come within sight of the Top of the Baths, they ache more with every step. It is 1 p.m. and I have stopped lingering to admire views and plants, which is a shame since the southern end of Virgin Gorda is home to some of its most unique sights. Between cacti and bougainvillea, huge boulders tower over the landscape. Creative architects have built homes and villas among and sometimes around these magnificent stones, which scientists believe were formed through volcanic activity some 70 million years ago. Over time, rainwater eroded small catchments and grottos in the stones, which provided a source of fresh water for the island’s early inhabitants.

I reach The Baths parking lot, where I am stayed by the smell of food coming from nearby restaurants. But I am more interested in plunging into the cool ocean, so I make my way down the short path to the beach. I am thankful for the shade along the path, and enjoy stepping in the soft sand and around the stones that mark the way to the sea.

Finally, I step into the restrooms at The Baths, where I must pause to change into my bathing suit. As I rip off my socks, I notice with dismay that I have developed an unattractive farmer’s tan. But I don’t hesitate to wonder what my fellow beach goers will think of their oddly-tanned bathing companion. I stuff my backpack closed and rush off to the sea.
As I dive under a wave, I feel layers of sweat, dust, and ache wash away. Under the water I stretch my tired but happy muscles and smile to myself. I did it.

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