Two devastating hurricanes and the pandemic left tourism in the British Virgin Islands in tatters. But resorts are now welcoming back visitors to pristine beaches and lush rainforests
The British Virgin Islands are a tranquil alternative to tourist-heavy Antigua, which is an hour's flight away
Here we round up the best new and refurbished hotels that make the islands a dream getaway
The list includes Rosewood Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda and an eco-wellness retreat on private Buck Island
With icing-sugar sand, crystal-clear water and jungle-wrapped mountains, it’s hard to believe how different the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) looked just four years ago. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma – the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, with wind gusts reaching 215mph – ripped through this chain of lush islands, leaving them scorched and bare.
Just two weeks later, Maria followed – another Category 5 hurricane.
When the winds died down, more than 80 per cent of buildings on the BVIs’ main island of Tortola were found to have been destroyed or seriously damaged, and its vital tourist industry was decimated.
Paradise restored: The tiny yachting hot-spot Saba Rock, above, was rebuilt after being flattened by Hurricane Irma
The immediate aftermath that agriculturalist Vernon Daniel describes is apocalyptic, but it also explains how the BVIs soon bounced back from such devastation. He says: ‘Salt from the ocean came in with the wind and burnt everything. All the trees were like bonsais, cut to half their size. But a lot of the soil was saturated with salt and that helped with the absorption of rain, so it was actually all green again within three months, completely naturally.’
A massive clean-up operation was launched to tackle the £2.7 billion of damage, with extensive rebuilding and the establishment of new farms to ensure the self-reliance of this British Overseas Territory just to the east of Puerto Rico.
Hotels were finally poised to reopen in 2020, and then Covid struck…
Now, the much needed and long-awaited tourists are back and finding an even warmer welcome. Regular visitors will see big changes across the islands – even though they appear just as green as before, carpeted in cactus-studded rainforest and exotic flowers, the beaches seem to sparkle more than ever.
‘When a hurricane comes through, the beaches change and are refreshed,’ says Keith Dawson of the BVI Tourist Board. ‘Everything gets a clean-up. There weren’t as many boats around so fish are in abundance and people are farming more in their gardens. It’s a very hopeful time.’
The British Virgin Islands are a tranquil alternative to tourist-heavy Antigua, an hour’s flight away. Pictured is the Antiguan capital of Saint John's
With calm currents, reliable trade winds and countless deserted coves, the BVIs have long attracted keen sailors and celebrities who hop between the 60 islands, islets and cays.
But the new and refurbished hotels also make the islands a dream getaway for those who prefer to stay on dry land – and a tranquil alternative to tourist-heavy Antigua, an hour’s flight away.
Visit between December and April and you will steer clear of the Caribbean’s hurricane season, though stricter new building regulations should mean the islands remain better protected in future.
An idyllic beach on Virgin Gorda where the blue waters of the Caribbean stretch out as far as the eye can see
New businesses are flourishing too, such as two-room floating Ocean Spa built out of timber salvaged from Irma’s wreckage and now anchored in postcard-perfect White Bay (theoceanspabvi.com). For one-stop souvenir shopping in Road Town, Tortola’s capital, the charming gift shop and gallery Nutmeg sells the creations of local artists and craftspeople who lost everything in the hurricanes (nutmegandcobvi.com).
Even old favourites have had a complete makeover. The tiny yachting hot-spot island resort Saba Rock clings to a one-acre rocky outcrop and was flattened by Irma. It finally reopened in October 2020 with seven stylish rooms and two suites, two bars and an open-air restaurant that has already welcomed Sir Richard Branson from his home on neighbouring Necker Island (sabarock.com).
Elsewhere, eco-wellness retreat The Aerial has thrown open its doors for the first time on unspoilt private Buck Island. Teetering on a cliff in Sir Francis Drake Channel, it overlooks 14 surrounding islands including Dead Chest Island, said to be the spot where notorious pirate Blackbeard marooned 15 of his mutinous crew with just a bottle of rum each.
Visitors to The Aerial fare considerably better, with a maximum of 28 guests free to explore 48 acres of forested hiking trails, a private beach, an infinity pool and a recording studio. There are also yoga sessions, healthy, communal meals and guided group sessions in everything from meditation to financial management. Those yearning for all-out luxury can even hire the island in its entirety for the ultimate getaway at £30,500 per night with a minimum three-night stay (aerialbvi.com).
PUBLISHED: 06:04 EDT, 10 January 2022 | UPDATED: 07:30 EDT, 10 January 2022