Travel the Ridge Road where history and nature come to life
For some people Tortola evokes the image of sandy palm-fringed beaches. But for others, what comes to mind is their splendid backdrop, the soft green mountains that run upwards from the island’s shore. The mountains of Tortola are not the world’s highest – the BVI’s tallest is a mere 1,716 feet – nor the most dramatic. But they are user-friendly, easy to hike up, warm at the bottom and cool at the top. Some of the hillsides are covered in a tangle of thorny green foliage, while others are carpeted in tall waving grass and speckled with grazing cattle.
On the lush north shore, terraced farms, planted with cassavas, pumpkins and yams, defy gravity as they cling to amazingly steep hillsides. And along the ridge one can find groves of tropical splendor – bananas, avocados, mangoes and breadfruit. Interspersed along the Ridge Road are small communities of colorful West Indian homes of wood and concrete with hipped tin roofs and cool verandahs; adjoining gardens are splashed with brightly colored hibiscus, bougainvillea and fragrant frangipani.
Hiking through this verdant area is one of my favorite things to do. Add a picnic to the trip and you’ve created a special outing with culinary flair. But with or without a picnic, exploring the upper reaches of Tortola is not difficult.
The best way to get a feel of Tortola is to drive along the Ridge Road – although the more athletically minded can walk it. The road acts as the island’s spine, running from Sage Mountain on the western end to just above Josiah’s Bay on the east. Because Tortola is steep and very narrow, in some places just a few miles wide, the views from up top can be breathtaking and there are several places along the Ridge Road where one can glimpse a double view of both the north and south shores.
If you are visiting the islands for August Festival, or live here and just want something different to do over the three-day holiday, take a drive along Tortola’s Ridge Road.
Being a West Ender, I usually access the Ridge Road from the scenic north shore fishing village of Carrot Bay. At Carrot Bay’s eastern end follow the road upwards, negotiating several hair pin bends until you reach Stoutt’s Lookout. This aptly named bar affords a sweeping view of Cane Garden Bay and surrounding hillsides, and if the hair raising switchbacks took their toll, a cool rum and coke may be in order. The low stone walls adjacent to Stoutt’s Lookout are the remains of the 18th century St. Michael’s Church. Although little of the church remains, its history is colorful. In 1745, the church’s rector was a reputed “pirate priest” who was said to have “combined duties ecclesiastical and piratical.” It seems the area’s lofty view of the north shore allowed the priest to spy a passing merchantmen, swoop down from his mountainside perch and capture it. Today from your own towering vantage point, you are more likely to spy charter yachts then privateers.
At Stoutt’s Lookout continue upwards along the aptly named Windy Hill Road. In the plantation era, the area was known as Arundel, and was a major sugar producing region. The crumbling remains of sugar mills and plantation homes are scattered throughout Tortola’s hillsides.
At the crest of the Windy Hill Road, I turn right at the junction and make my way to Sage Mountain, the island’s highest point and the BVI’s first national park. Follow the road upwards to a parking lot and a large sign with a map of the park. Here you will find one of my favorite vistas, a panorama that sweeps across the north shore with Jost Van Dyke, Sandy Cay, the Tobagoes and St. Thomas in the distance. On a clear day you might be able to make out the mountainous outline of Puerto Rico on the northern horizon. The Sir Francis Drake Channel, named after the cunning adventurer who discovered this sheltered waterway in 1595 can be seen to the south. This was the route the navigator chose for his small fleet as it headed westward from Virgin Gorda for the rich Spanish port of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The attack was unsuccessful, but Drake’s mark was indelibly left on the British Virgin islands.
From the car park, follow the neatly laid out gravel path until you reach the park entrance. The beginning of the walk is past private land, and along the way you can glimpse small terraced farms planted with bananas and a variety of root crops. For the most part, the path is shady, occasionally interrupted by sun-soaked views of the north shore.
The park’s entrance is marked by two gates and here you will have to make a decision. Should you go to the mahogany forest with its grove of mahoganies reforested 50 years ago and leads up to the mountain’s highest point (1,716 feet), or continue on to the banyan tree? If you have the time, I recommend going on both routes. The first though is shorter so you might want to try it first. When you reach the highest point at the top of the easy-to-ascend trail, there is a narrow view out to the south shore.
The second trail includes a loop which leads into the densest part of the forest. It is a beautiful trail, dark and moist with rain forest type foliage that includes majestic trees, a variety of bromeliads, enormous elephant ears, hanging vines, and a soft carpet of damp smelling moss. The loop takes explorers down a narrow wooden staircase, past large boulders, and then up and out onto the sunny main trail. Follow this trail past wild guavas and white cedars (the BVI’s national tree) until you once again enter the forest. At the end of the trail is an enormous banyan or wild ficus tree, whose hefty gnarled trunk appears as an intricate piece of sculpture.
Your Sage Mountain walk is now complete, but your Ridge Road adventure has only just begun. Follow the road back down until you are back on the Ridge Road. Keep going until you reach the junction at Rudy’s Outside Bar, a rough and ready structure where you can grab a cold one and a view of the north shore. From Rudy’s head east a few hundred yards to the junction at Meyers where you will turn left to continue along the Ridge Road, past the Enis Adams Primary School, the entrance to Sky World and eastward towards East End. Go slow. Although a main thoroughfare, the road is narrow and winding with loose, and in some places, crumbly tarmac, so a leisurely pace that permits you to take in the breathtaking views is no problem. After a mile or so, you will pass a junction to the left. This is the road to Brewers Bay, and if you want to take a break from your drive for a swim, follow the road to the bottom where you will find a small community along the beach with a campground nestled into lush tropical foliage.
After your swim, it’s back up to the ridge where you may meet a vendor selling fresh produce from a roadside stand. Continue eastward, and after a mile or so you will come to another junction. The road to the right (the Great Mountain Road) will take you to Road Town. But bear left instead. There are several places of interest in the area. The Jenesis Studios, an art gallery and museum of local culture, is across from a small park and features paintings and life-size dioramas of traditional Virgin Island life, along with an herb and tropical fruit garden.
A little further down the road you will come to a surprising art project: a series of murals painted on a large retaining wall depicting historical and cultural scenes from the BVI’s past. There’s a fungi (local scratch) band, donkeys, farmers, sugar cane fields and domestic scenes, a nostalgic testament to a bygone era.
A bit further along you will come to a wooden lookout perched on the cliff edge. Make a quick pit stop here for a stunning view of Road Town, Road Harbour and the Sir Francis Drake Channel. As you look at the islands in the distance, stretch your imagination – as Columbus must have, when he first named the area. According to popular belief, the explorer dubbed these islands Islas Virgenes because their profusion and untouched beauty brought to mind the legend of St. Ursula and the 11,000 martyred virgins. In all there are over 40 islands, islets and cays in the BVI and quite a number of them can be seen from the ridge.
Nearby, the Original Virgin Canopy Tours is a zipline outfit offering an alternative and eye-popping tour of the ridge with spectacular views of Road Town and surrounding islands.
It’s now time to get back on the road, following the ridge’s undulations eastward. But instead of driving to the eastern-most tip of Tortola, I suggest that you instead go left at the junction that leads to Josiah’s Bay, a beautiful swathe of white sand that attracts an international coterie of surfers when the winter swell rolls in. Here you can lounge in the sun or take a swim; a beach bar at the beach’s entrance will provide a cool drink, and a well-deserved end to your scenic tour of Tortola’s Ridge Road.