It was like something out of an action movie. Silently and with a sense of urgency I didn’t yet understand, I jumped off a dinghy and swam through cold waves up to the beach, squeezed through narrow openings between granite boulders, waded across shallow pools, ducked into caves and gingerly descended a series of makeshift ladders, many of the driftwood steps lost to the surrounding sea a long time ago.
There, as the early morning sun streamed through openings in the cave, I listened to the rarest sound on the island of Virgin Gorda: silence. My two friends and I, along with our captain-turned-tour-guide, had achieved the impossible. We had “the Baths” all to ourselves.
The Baths are the geological wonder of the British Virgin Islands. Towering granite boulders join together to form a cavelike network, allowing sunbeams to illuminate the crystal-clear swimming pools below in an ethereal, time-suspending way.
The serenity didn’t last long, as strangers’ voices off in the distance started to echo through the chambers.
“We have to go — now,” urged Martin Street, our captain. “They’re coming.”
Centuries ago, the British Virgin Islands were a pirate haven. British and Spanish ships full of supplies and treasures followed the tradewinds that blew over from Europe. The islands’ sheltered bays served as hiding spots, making them ideal for ambushing unsuspecting ships and squirreling away treasure.
These days, simply looking at a map of the area sparks memories of childhood games, rhymes and folklore. All of the legendary antiheroes came through these islands — many named after pirates who died here. Blackbeard, Captain Norman and Captain Kidd regularly attacked cargo ships traveling through Sir Francis Drake Channel in the 18th century. Blackbeard famously abandoned 15 of his men on a small island near Deadman’s Bay, stranding each with only a bottle of rum for sustenance.
It wasn’t pirates Captain Street was afraid to confront along the Baths, but rather another wave of invading outsiders: tour groups. As these tourists advanced, we made our way back to the deck of the catamaran my friends and I had rented from the yacht charter company the Moorings.
From our vessel anchored off the beach, I watched giant tour groups spill onto the sand, killing time while they waited patiently to squeeze in one by one as other tours simultaneously tried to exit. I sat at the boat’s outdoor dining table, drinking coffee and drying off as the smell of caramelized French toast wafted from the kitchen. It was one of many moments over a long weekend when I felt especially lucky to be exploring the Caribbean from my secluded perch.
We sailed around the BVIs, setting our own schedule, eating and drinking well, and getting away from the crowds. We’d discovered one of the Caribbean’s best-kept secrets: You can charter an all-inclusive, five-star, privately crewed boat for roughly the same cost per person as a midrange cruise (where additional tours, special dining fees and drink packages can easily add up).
Since the Moorings’ sailing itineraries are customizable, prices vary. Trips can be tailored based on budget. (You can play with dates and options on moorings.com, or call a vacation planner at 1-800-416-0820.) The average cost for a six-person crewed yacht in the BVIs last summer was $2,300 a person, including all meals, drinks and activities, but excluding tips. In December, a similar trip for four people starts at $2,900 a person.
Besides the obvious draw of luxury and relaxation, the real advantage to chartering a high-end catamaran was the access it allowed to the BVIs’ hidden gems. All of the elements necessary for unforgettable vacation memories seemed to be built right in — adventure, pleasant surprises, lack of crowds, good food and drinks, fun, flexibility — with minimal effort, thanks to our knowledgeable crew. (We visited before the islands took a beating last fall from hurricanes Irma and Maria, but tourism officials estimate 70 percent of the territory’s accommodations are back in business, and well-known properties such as Rosewood Little Dix Bay, Bitter End and Biras Creek are on track to reopen in 2019.)
While the screensaver-worthy scenery and beautiful weather are enough of a draw, the islands offered a chance to get in touch with our adventurous sides, which felt like an appropriate nod to the islands’ pirate past.
While moored at the restaurant and bar Pirates Bight, I took a dinghy to Norman Island, said to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” A short hike in sandals brought me to the top of a hill, with 360-degree views of azure waters and isolated reefs.
Every day a surprise
Back near the catamaran, my friend and I jumped off the boat with snorkel masks in hand, on a mission to find out what treasures those reefs held. We were the only two people in a sea full of creatures. We spent the afternoon floating aimlessly, surrounded by angelfish, rainbow parrotfish, damselfish and tangs.
Later that night, after an impressive dinner by our chef, Katie Garrison, we opted for a different type of adventure and boarded the infamous Willy T, a schooner-turned-bar in the middle of the bay. This local dive bar at sea is notorious for egging on its patrons’ drunken antics, a favorite being diving off the top deck — with or without clothes.
Every day was a surprise of sorts, since the captain could go along with our whims and allow us to live in the moment. If I asked what kind of sea creatures were in the water, the answer was inevitably: “Jump in and find out!” When I wanted to explore an island, I was dropped off on one end and picked up on the other. Each day could be packed full of activities or be a study in relaxation — or both.
One morning, after breakfast in Soldier Bay, we sailed out to moor near a small archipelago of towering pinnacles called the Indians, where I dove into a world full of colorful, inquisitive fish that swarmed around me. I spent the afternoon at Deadman’s Bay, a stretch of perfect white sand on Peter Island, relaxing with a book on shore.
My last adventure was getting to the airport, typically my least favorite part of any trip. At Marina Cay (basically the nautical equivalent of an airport parking lot), sculptures, bonfire pits and artwork popped up through the sand and into the surf. After arriving at a dock on a luggage-packed dinghy, I walked along the beach past the remnants of the recent Full Moon Party, a raucous beach bash celebrating this periodic lunar event.
Luggage in tow, I strolled the short distance toward the terminal, making sure to take it all in one last time — the barefooted beach bums at the bar, the island dogs, the yachts and sailboats — before arriving at the departures area with salt on my skin, sand on my feet and memories of a great few days spent at sea.