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The Virgin Islands
Dive travel in the Virgin Islands is different. Though not as popular here as on many other Caribbean islands, the dive travel difference lies in the diversity underwater and the vacation experience on land. The British and the United States Virgin Islands both offer history, beautiful scenery, fine dining, a wide variety of accommodations, entertainment and great diving, but the entire vacation experience is decidedly different in these two island groups.
Thanks to the British background and the ever-present sailing set, the BVI are tranquil and less harried than their US neighbors. If you want to get away from it all, above and below the surface, head for the BVI. This low-key lifestyle, however, comes at a higher price than a diving trip to St. John, St. Thomas, or St. Croix.
The USVI have grown into one of the world's top island destinations and, consequently, the locals here know how to cater to visitors. St. Thomas and, to a lesser degree, St. Croix have everything a traveler might want. St. John, however, is a BVI-style island in the USVI, with a more relaxed way of life. Competition has kept costs in the USVI fairly low.
You don't have to choose just one island or one group of islands. They are generally so close that you can "island-hop" from one to another as you mix and match to suit your tastes. The Virgin Islands have some of the highest return guest rates in the Caribbean and, once you discover a dive company or guest house you feel comfortable with, you'll go back time after time.
When planning a dive vacation, it's best to do business with a trusted travel agent or dive operator. If you have not used one before, take time toseek out someone you feel happy with. The best place to start is your local dive shop. They can often provide far more than flippers and many will be more than happy to help you plan a dive trip. Though each shop is different, you will find a common passion for underwater exploration. Make use of their expertise, contacts and competitive prices.
"Dive shops are a great resource for divers who want to travel," says Ralph Pearce, dive travel booking agent extraordinaire at Pan Aqua Diving in New York City. According to PADI International and the PADI Travel Network, Pan Aqua Diving books more trips than any other dive store in the world. "Dive shops can offer first-hand diving expertise, better service, low-price package deals, the best dive destinations, the right resorts, and dive operators they are familiar with," says Mr Pearce. In addition to regular equipment sales, Pan Aqua Diving averages three popular trips each month, providing packages that often include airfare, lodging, and diving. Dive shop personnel may even participate in the trip, offering training and certification.
You'll definitely receive invaluable advice at a dive shop, and you're likely to get a pretty good deal through them, too. Many stores and dive travel wholesalers make block bookings, which means a better price. This bulk discount is handed down to you, the customer. Try a few regular travel agents and compare the prices, but the chances are that you'll end up booking through a specialty dive store.
When To Go
Anytime is a great time for a dive trip to the Virgin Islands. The high season (meaning, generally, high prices) typically runs from mid-December to late-April. Other months are less crowded and certainly just as pretty. There is little change in water and air temperatures, although late summer and fall bring a higher chance of hurricanes and storms.
The islands enjoy wonderful weather year-round and average temperatures vary less than 5?F from winter to summer. The mean temperature in winter is 77?F; 82?F in summer, with cool trade winds. Summer also brings smaller crowds and good rates.
Water temperatures average a comfortable 80?F, but cooler winter waters may require some thermal protection for comfort.
As with most things in the Caribbean, clothing is casual. In certain places, you may want to pack a jacket (no tie) for dining in some of the more exclusive restaurants (such as Little Dix Bay or Caneel Bay). A lightweight cotton sweater will also be useful for the cool evenings. Other than that, you can wear what you want. Bear in mind, however, that Virgin Islanders tend to dress conservatively when they're not on the beach.
English is the official language. It is spoken with a beautiful West Indian and, in the BVI, British lilt. Once you get used to it, the language is easy to understand and a joy to hear.
The official currency is the U.S. dollar. Travelers checks may be exchanged at banks and most hotels, while credit cards are generally accepted in hotels, restaurants, and shops. Personal checks are rarely accepted.
The Virgin Islands use standard North American electrical service (120 volt/60 cycle).
The Virgin Islands are in the Atlantic Standard Time Zone, which is one hour earlier than Eastern Standard Time.
Open hours for commercial operations are 9am to 5pm, Monday through Saturday. However, this can vary greatly. Many stores stay open later every night, while some stay open later only on Fridays. Some stores close earlier on Saturday, while others open their doors on Sundays when an infrequent cruise ship is in port.
Healthy divers travelers are happy divers. Underwater exploration can mean travel to some of the most interesting places in the world. However, it can also mean accidents and disease. Preparation is the key to any enjoyable dive vacation. From asking your local dive shop for help to remembering sea sickness medicine, preparation allows you to go in the know.
A safe dive trip starts with good travel plans. A good doctor, travel agent, dive shop, tour operator, or resort can save you time, money, and headaches. Divers should also consider refresher courses or dives prior to any major trip.
Once you find a good doctor, immunizations should be carefully considered and planned. They can only work if they are given at the right time and are not allowed to lapse. Travelers should check which immunizations are required and recommended for their destination(s).
The World Health Organization recommends that a five-year booster schedule be followed for routine immunizations, rather than the 10-year schedule followed in the U.S. This includes tetanus, diptheria, measles, mumps, rubella, and polio.
Many destinations have lowered immunization requirements and tourism offices tend to downplay potential diseases for travelers. However, it is important for dive travelers to learn about all possibilities and obtain proper vaccinations. Everyone should be immunized against tetanus. Other immunizations to consider include the new hepatitis A, the hepatitis B vaccine, typhoid vaccines, and rabies immunization.
Despite taking all the recommended precautions, you still may get sick abroad and there may not always be medication immediately available. Dive travelers should pack a medical kit in their luggage. At the very least, it should include first aid materials, antimalarial medication, diarrheal medicine, cold preparations, sunscreen, insect repellent, condoms, water purification tablets, a spare pair of prescription eyeglasses, sea sickness medicine, and a complete supply of any prescription or unusual medicines you may require.
Once safely at your dreamed-of dive destination, make sure you stay safe. Dive travel is inherently more risky than many other forms of travel, so it's important to follow a few safe practices.
Because many great dive sites are located in sunny spots, the first problem you'll encounter is warm weather. To avoid heat stroke or heat exhaustion, stay well hydrated, lightly clothed, avoid heavy exertion, and don't forget your sunscreen.
Preventable accidents are by far the most common cause of death and injury for travelers. Many people on vacation tend to become less safety-conscious than they are at home and this escapist attitude can cause accidents.
Eating and drinking, while enjoyable, can cause health problems. Traveler's diarrhea is the most common health complaint of tourists and can happen anywhere in the world. The best defense is to develop safe eating and drinking habits in risky areas. When it comes to liquids, let the drinker beware. Untreated water is not safe, but bottled water and other drinks (sealed) and alcoholic beverages (in moderation) are, generally, okay.
If Montezuma does take his revenge, it's best to react as quickly as possible. If you have a watery stool, take your temperature. If you are feverish (100?F or 37.7?C) or have a bloody stool, take only the antibiotic. If you do not have a fever or bloody stool, take the antibiotic and the anti-diarrheal. This will usually have you back in action within 15 hours. If symptoms do not improve within 48 hours, you will need medical attention because of the possibility of parasitic infection.
At the dive shop, on the dive boat, and underwater, don't let your guard down just because the diving is great. Make sure you understand any special safety requirements or practices for the destination, specific dive sites, and the dive operator. The more you know about the diving, the safer it will be.
@4 HEAD = Health/Emergencies/Medical Insurance
While the best insurance is safe diving, all divers should closely consider their current coverage. Divers who have health insurance generally find that certain dive-related injuries are already covered. But that does not mean divers don't need additional coverage.
Insurance companies will usually cover chamber treatments and other dive injuries in the U.S., but statistics show that a majority of dive injuries occur outside the country. Thus, dive-specific insurance coverage can be beneficial to divers not already covered and to those traveling overseas.
Check with your insurance company to see what coverage you currently have and whether or not you can buy additional coverage. The best bet is to buy additional coverage specifically geared for diving.
There are currently four major organizations offering dive insurance policies: Divers Alert Network (DAN), Diver's Security Network (DSI), International Sport Diver's Association (ISDA), and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). To get proper coverage and additional benefits, contact all four and compare what each one offers. Each has unique cost structures and accompanying benefits.
DAN (Divers Alert Network)
DAN is based in Durham, North Carolina at the Duke University Medical Center. It was established in 1980 as an international non-profit organization dedicated to diver safety and supported by its members. Their research, worldwide network of diving medical experts, and chamber operators help thousands of injured divers each year. "When you join DAN, you support safety for everyone, but also for yourself," says Chris Wachholz, their director of development.
Currently, DAN membership provides a 24-hour Diving Emergency Hotline; a Diving Medicine & Safety Info Line; a Safe Diver Kit (DAN's Underwater Diving Accident Manual and tank decals); Alert Diver, DAN's bimonthly magazine; a personalized membership identification card; drawings for free equipment and dive trips; and an opportunity to promote and support safe diving worldwide. Membership currently costs $25 for individuals or $35 for families.
Additional DAN benefits include Assist America and a diving insurance program. Assist America, a global emergency evacuation service, means that any DAN member traveling more than 100 miles from home (whether insured or not) can be evacuated to an appropriate medical facility if the need arises. DAN members are covered--including medical and legal referrals, hospital fees, and other expenses--even if the problem is not dive-related. Once an injured diver is at an appropriate medical facility, it's up to the diver to pay for treatment. That's where additional coverage can help (through your current carrier, DAN, or another company).
* DAN's diving insurance program costs $25 per person each year and covers up to $40,000 (per calendar year) of treatment expenses worldwide for any in-water diving or snorkeling accident. This includes hyperbaric chamber treatment; physician and other fees for diagnostic and laboratory services and physiotherapy; and hospital care, services, and supplies for treatment of any in-water diving or snorkeling accident. After any other insurance you may have has paid its total of the bill, DAN pays 95% of all remaining eligible expenses.
Any recreational scuba diver or snorkeler (including instructors and divemasters supervising recreational diving activities) who is a resident of the U.S. or Canada is eligible for DAN diver insurance. If you don't already belong to DAN, you should definitely join.
Box 3823, Duke University Medical Center
Durham, NC 27710
(919) 684-2948 or (800) 446-2671 or (612) 588-2731 in MN
Emergencies: (919) 684-8111
Along with insurance coverage, DAN provides an incredible array of additional services.
DSI (Diver's Security Information Network)
Based in Boulder, Colorado, DSI was formed by a group of divers in 1987 and has insured tens of thousands of divers since then. Their policies are provided by Capital Investors Life Insurance Company, based in Tampa, Florida.
DSI's new accident insurance policy is now available for divers and snorkelers, but also pays for injuries sustained while participating in most other watersports and boating activities. Hal Segal, president of DSI, feels the new policy recognizes that most divers also participate in other water-related activities and that family members often need coverage as well. He says, "Now you can choose from five levels of coverage, so you can pick just the coverages that you need."
* Class A covers all decompression-related injuries up to $15,000 for $25 per year. Most group health insurance plans either have exclusions or low coverage.
* Class B covers all injuries not related to decompression (e.g., cuts, bites, broken bones, and ear problems) up to $15,000 for $10 per year. Coverage starts when you break the water's surface and ends when you leave the water. This is especially important to divers who don't have a comprehensive health plan.
* Class C covers air ambulance and emergency evacuation expenses up to $15,000 for $5 a year. This is not covered by most health insurers.
* Class D covers other recreational watersports and boating injuries, including the time you are suiting up, removing gear, or handling equipment. Injuries sustained while skiing, sailing, fishing or recreational boating are included, while injuries during jetskiing, boat racing, and parasailing are excluded.
* Class E provides $40,000 of life insurance for death due to any covered injury for $20 per year.
A 5% deductible applies to all classes except E. According to DSI, the best combination for divers is A, B, C, and D, while the best combination for non-divers is C and D. Class E can be purchased with any other coverage. The minimum premium is $25 per year, regardless of the combination of coverages selected. Contact DSI at the following address:
4800 Riverbend Road
Boulder, CO 80301
(303) 443-3600 or (800) 288-4810
ISDA (International Sport Divers Association)
The ISDA was formed in 1991 to preserve and protect the marine environment, promote recreational sport diving, and provide valuable services to its members. The ISDA Foundation provides funding for research grants, conservation programs, projects, and scholarships involved in the protection and preservation of the marine environment.
ISDA membership includes BottomTime newsletter; DiveGuard dive insurance; DiveReport dive site evaluations; GearGuard dive equipment theft protection; special dive trips; worldwide car rental discounts; diver ID kit and membership card; a Scuba Tuba signaling device; a Divers Card Visa for qualified members; and special photo processing discounts.
DiveGuard dive insurance, provided by American International Group, covers all diving accidents, as well as injuries occurring during the boat trip to and from dive sites provided by commercial dive operators and tender boat or zodiac dive trips taken from live-aboards. ISDA membership currently costs $49 and includes this insurance.
* Highlights of DiveGuard include up to $70,000 in benefits per occurrence ($10,000 for accidental death, $20,000 for accidental dismemberment, $10,000 for catastrophe cash, $20,000 for emergency evacuation, $2,000 for repatriation of remains, and $20,000 for accident medical reimbursements); a $250 deductible per occurrence; worldwide coverage; coverage of all in-water diving accidents; coverage for certified divers and students enrolled in certification courses in all 50 states; no physical examination required; benefits paid regardless of fault or negligence; emergency air evacuation and ambulance; medical and hospital expenses; recompression related diving injuries (chamber costs).
"It's best to compare the policies for benefits and costs and then make a personal decision," says Richard Ewing.
Southport, CT 06490
(203) 254-1213 or (800) 766-4940
PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors)
For the first time, a certifying agency recently started offering dive accident insurance coverage for students and divers. PADI's Diver Accident Program offers insurance to students taking their PADI Open Water Diver course and coverage for upper-level training and non-training diving activities.
* The student coverage provides up to $25,000 in dive accident compensation related to medical treatment, emergency evacuation expenses, lost equipment, death, disability, and repatriation. This unique program also covers students as they are being transported to and from the open water training sites. The certified diver coverage is similar to the student coverage, but has a $40,000 limit. The policy is currently $29 annually, with no deductible.
* The PADI Diver Accident Program also benefits the Divers Alert Network (DAN) and Project AWARE (Aquatic World Awareness, Responsibility, and Education) Foundation. A portion of each program fee helps DAN operate its diver emergency service and helps fund environmental research grants available through the Project AWARE Foundation. Divers may also sign up for the PADI Diver Accident Program and join DAN at the same time, saving $5 off the program fee.
"DAN provides a very valuable service to the dive industry," says John Cronin, PADI's Chief Executive Officer. "As an industry leader in education and safety, it's appropriate for PADI to take the lead in supporting DAN's programs and studies." Contact Your Local PADI Dive Center or write:
1251 E. Dyer Road #100
Santa Ana, CA 92705-5605
The best insurance against injury is to be a safe diver. But accidents do happen and divers should make sure they have the right coverage.
@5 HEAD = Publications and Other Sources of Information
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Traveler's Information Hotline: (404) 332-4559
Health Information for International Travel
HHS Publication No. [CDC] 90-8280 ($5)
Supt. of Documents, Government Printing Office
Washington, DC 20402
International Association for Medical Assistance
to Travellers (IAMAT)
417 Center Street
Lewiston, NY 14092
British Virgin Islands
If you're looking for a quiet Caribbean destination, look no further than the British Virgin Islands. Yet to be discovered by the traveling masses, the BVI still live up to their name as virgin territory.
Long known as a sailor's paradise, the mainly volcanic, emerald-like islands are surrounded by sapphire-blue seas and offer incredible scenery above and below the water line. Gentle breezes keep temperatures at a steady 80-90?, making the diving and sailing comfortable year-round.
More than 60 islands make up the BVI, though only a handful are inhabited. Tortola is the largest and is home to the capital of Road Town. The island has more than 17,000 residents and boasts several marinas filled with the yachts that account for nearly half the tourist "beds" available in the BVI. Linked to Tortola by a toll bridge is Beef Island, which houses the International Airport. An efficient ferry service (including a short hop by light aircraft in some cases) takes visitors to the other main islands of Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, and magical Anegada. The other islands in this archipelago are Cooper Island, Ginger Island, The Dogs, Great Camanoe, Necker Island, Guana Island, Mosquito Island, and Eustatia Island.
There are no casinos or high-rise hotels and apartments in the BVI, just a few nightclubs and discos. Walking or hiking in the fresh air and watersports are the main activities, so early to bed and early to rise is more common than dancing the night away. This leaves plenty of time to discover some of "Nature's Little Secrets" above and below the surface.
The BVI have always remained in the background as a diving destination and, consequently, the underwater world has not been so exploited here as on other Caribbean islands. That is not to say that there is less to see here. To the contrary, the BVI offer a wide variety of diving experiences as well as incredible peace and quiet on land.
Since Columbus first spotted the British Virgin Islands in 1493, adventurers have been held spellbound by their unspoiled beauty. Likening them to the legendary St. Ursula surrounded by her 11,000 Virgins, Christopher Columbus supposedly anchored off Virgin Gorda (the fat virgin) and so named the whole group.
Many famous seafarers later passed through the islands, including Sir Francis Drake. The channel that cuts through the center of the islands now bears Drake's name. Dutch buccaneers settled the islands in the 17th century, followed by the English, and the group was later raided by the Spanish. It was not until the 18th century that the British gained a firm hold on the islands.
Local folklore maintains that infamous pirates rampaged the waters, largely unaffected by developments on land. Norman Island is reputed to be the setting for Robert Louis Stevenson's fictional Treasure Island, where the real pirate, Blackbeard, supposedly anchored off Deadman's Bay. After one particularly successful raid, while he and his men split the "booty," an argument arose and he marooned 15 men on the nearby island of Dead Chest with just a bottle of rum and their sea chests for company. Hence the mariner's song, "Fifteen men on dead man's chest, Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!" Some locals believe there is still treasure to be found here, either buried on land or in the many wrecks that line the seabed.
In 1872, the islands were admitted as a separate colony under the Leeward Islands Administration and, by the turn of the century, were developing their own banks, hospitals, and schools. The island's residents are fiercely proud of their British heritage. One of the most politically stable territories in the Caribbean and still a colony of the United Kingdom, the BVI have their own elected Chief Minister, government, and a resident British Governor appointed by the Queen.
Tourism did not touch the islands until the mid-1960s, when Laurence Rockefeller developed Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda. This was followed by the opening of The Moorings in 1969, a company that heralded the start of the now-booming charter yacht business. Of course, dive operators were close behind.
The BVI remain remarkably undeveloped in comparison to neighboring Puerto Rico and the USVI, although plans are underway to increase tourism through carefully controlled development and improvements in transportation facilities. With industry and commerce on the islands now split almost equally between tourism and the flourishing offshore financial sector, BVI residents are keen to see their islands develop as a destination for discerning dive travelers.
The BVI's tourism slogan is "Nature's Little Secrets" and it's easy to see why. Pride runs deep in the fact that these unspoiled islands offer a wonderful opportunity to discover hidden natural splendors. Much of what the region has to offer is preserved for today's visitors and for future generations in 11 areas managed by the BVI National Parks Trust. The Trust's goal of establishing 12 or more sections in the next few decades is a dream every BVI islander shares with enthusiasm.
The National Parks of the British Virgin Islands began in the 1960s, when the Rockefellers made a gift of three sites to the BVI government: Sage Mountain on Tortola and Devil's Bay and Spring Bay on Virgin Gorda. Reforestation has been continuing in the 92-acre Sage Mountain National Park since that time. The reintroduction of vegetation that had disappeared from the island has returned the landscape to what Tortola may have looked like when Columbus first saw it in 1493.
At 1,780 feet, Sage Mountain is the highest point in both the BVI and the USVI and views from its hiking trails are breathtaking. (Check the "Reading" section for an excellent resource guide to hiking in the Caribbean.) Just as rewarding is the vegetation of huge broadleafed elephant ear philodendrons and lacy ferns growing in the shade of mahogany, manilkara, and white cedar trees. Color is added to the scene by exquisite red flowers and yellow stalks of palicourea and the rose-like blossoms of cocoplum. Hummingbirds flit among the trees and mockingbirds remind visitors that they are not alone, although solitude is one of the pleasures of Sage Mountain (and the rest of the BVI).
Rhone National Marine Park is centered around the Wreck of the RMS Rhone (see "Dive Sites"), creating one of the best and most well-preserved dive sites in the Caribbean. When divers come to the surface, they can explore Dead Chest Island, which is also part of the park. The island's cliffs, covered by cactus, sage, and frangipani, are favorite nesting sites for terns, noddies, and other sea birds. Its salt ponds are rimmed by the black mangrove. Colorful Blonde Rock (see "Dive Sites") is also within Rhone National Maritime Park.
J.R. O'Neal Botanic Gardens in the center of Road Town on Tortola highlight the brilliant color to be found on dry land here. The gardens, which cover three-acres, were created by the BVI National Parks Trust and developed by an enthusiastic group of local volunteers. Plants are arranged according to habitat, in sections accessed by landscaped paths radiating from a three-tiered fountain. The orchid house and a small rainforest are reached by crossing a charming lily pond. Other paths lead to a cactus garden and a palm grove. The gardens are filled with such flowering plants and shrubs as hibiscus, bougainvillea, and the vibrant scarlet flowers of the aptly-named flamboyant tree.
The one secret Mother Nature is keeping to herself is the origin of the giant boulders that make The Baths and Devil's Bay National Park one of the BVI's most popular destinations. The huge rocks that are strewn along the beach on Virgin Gorda's southwest shore are granite, a stone not usually found south of the Carolinas. Whether they were placed there by some race of giants, moved south by an ancient glacier, or spewed up by the volcanoes that created the islands eons ago is an unsolved mystery. Regardless of the rocks' origin, the cave-like passages and hiddence but is quite harmless, grows to a length of five feet and can weigh up to 20 pounds. The BVI National Parks Trust is planning to create a sanctuary for the Anegada iguanas and has already established a colony of flamingos in a 1,100-acre bird sanctuary on one of Anegada's salt ponds. The sanctuary is also a protected nesting ground for several varieties of heron, as well as ospreys and a species of tern that has been spending the summer in the BVI for centuries.
From the depths of the Caribbean to the shores of Anegada, the BVI are waiting to be discovered by dive travelers.
For basic information and informative brochures, call (800) 835-8530 (New York) or (800) 232-7770. For more detailed information and advice, contact the office of the British Virgin Islands Tourist Board nearest you:
370 Lexington Ave.
New York, NY 10017
1686 Union St., Ste. 305
San Francisco, CA 94123
PO Box 134
The BVI aren't among the easiest islands in the Caribbean to reach, but that has kept tourism development and encroachment to a minimum. Many of the airlines (and other tour operators) offer a variety of money-saving packages, which include airfare, accommodations, and much more. Airlines change their service often, so it's best to check all options.
Connections are generally made through San Juan, Puerto Rico or St. Thomas, USVI. These stopovers give you the opportunity to extend your vacation and explore these U.S. islands easily.
Service to San Juan and St. Thomas is provided by American Airlines, (800) 433-7300; Continental Airlines, (800) 231-0856; Delta Airlines, (800) 221-1212; and USAir, (800) 428-4322.
From San Juan, American Eagle, (800) 327-8376, flies to Tortola and Sunaire Express, 495-2480 or (800) 524-2094, flies to Tortola and Virgin Gorda. From St. Thomas, Sunaire Express, 495-2480 or (800) 524-2094, flies to Tortola. LIAT, 462-0701, and Gorda Aero Service, 495-2271, also provide service to and from other Caribbean islands.
Because the BVI offer some of the finest sailing waters in the world, they are easy to reach by boat. Ships of all sizes call and sail in the BVI, including a number of ferries that connect St. Thomas with the BVI. Native Son, 495-4617, and Smiths Ferry Services, 494-4430, offer service between St. Thomas, Tortola, and Virgin Gorda. In addition, Inter-Island Boat Services, 776-6597, runs ferries between St. John and Tortola.
It's usually easy to enter and leave the BVI. Though it's not required, a U.S. passport is always the best form of identification for U.S. citizens. Other forms of identification are accepted, such as a driver's license, voter's card, or birth certificate. If you plan to travel outside the BVI, you must have a birth certificate or passport. Citizens of other countries should follow whatever the BVI require for their country. There are no special health restrictions for those entering from the mainland U.S. or Puerto Rico.
Though not nearly the shopping hotspot that the USVI have become, the BVI still provide a wide array of interesting (and relatively inexpensive) shopping possibilities.
@4 HEAD = Duty-free Allowances
U.S. residents are allowed a duty-free shopping quota of $600. A flat rate of 10% is charged on any purchases over this limit, up to a maximum of $1,000 more. U.S. citizens can also take back up to 200 cigarettes, 100 (non-Cuban) cigars, and those 21 years or older can take one liter of liquor. U.S. residents can also mail an unlimited number of gifts to friends (other than perfume, liquor, and tobacco), each worth $50 or less.
There's really not much reason to travel by air between islands in the BVI. Everything is close and easily reached by boat. However, Sunaire Express, 495-2480, offers service between Tortola and Virgin Gorda. Gorda Aero Service, 495-2271, offers flights between Tortola and Anegada, as well a charter service.
Travel between (and even on) islands is often easiest by boat. Frequent regular service and a number of unscheduled boat rides are available. Between Tortola and Virgin Gorda, contact North Sound Express, 494-2746, or Speedy's Fantasy, 495-5240. To get to Jost Van Dyke, contact Jost Van Dyke Ferry Service at 494-2997. Many resorts on the other remote islands provide boat transportation for arriving passengers or arrange for ferry service.
Boats are a great way to get around, but rental cars are highly recommended as they often lead to more interesting excursions, even if just for a day or two. They also offer the most flexible means of transportation. Just remember that, as a remnant of British rule, traffic keeps to the left. You'll need a valid driver's license to rent a car.
Recommended car rental agencies on Tortola include: Budget, 494-2639; Hertz, 495-4405; and National, 494-3197. On Virgin Gorda, several taxi companies also rent jeeps (ideal for the island): Andy's Taxi Service and Jeep Rental, 495-5252; Mahogany Rentals and Taxi Service, 495-5469; and Speedy's Taxi Service, 495-5234.
For a great BVI experience, take the bus on Tortola. You'll meet locals and see the island at their pace. Contact Scato's Bus Service at 494-2364.
Friendly taxi drivers offer a great way to get around the islands if you're not on a tight budget. Fares are government-regulated and are based on the destination, rather than the number of passengers (drivers often try to get additional passengers for airport pickups). Expect to pay about $15 for a shorter trip and $30 for a longer one.
On Tortola, contact the BVI Taxi Association at 495-2378. On Virgin Gorda, contact Mahogany Taxi Service at 495-5469. On other islands, it's best by boat.
There are post offices only in Road Town and Spanish Town and mail service to and from the U.S. is not quick. If you're in a hurry, contact Rush It In Road Town at 494-4421 or Rush It In Spanish Town at 495-5821.
There is excellent service between the BVI (area code 809) and the rest of the world. While in the islands, you only need to dial the last five numerals of a local phone number.
Any vacation experience can be enhanced by further background reading before and during a trip. For a humorous look at Caribbean life, there's nothing better than Herman Wouk's Don't Stop the Carnival. For BVI background, find a copy of Concise History of the British Virgin Islands, by Vernon Pickering. Harry Pariser's Adventure Guide to the Virgin Islands gives excellent overall coverage, including history and politics. Avid hikers should pick up a copy of The Caribbean: A Walking & Hiking Guide, by Leonard M. Adkins. The local newspaper in the BVI is the Island Sun.
For health emergencies, call 999 or contact individual hospitals on the two major islands. On Tortola, call the hospital at 494-3497. On Virgin Gorda, call the Spanish Town Clinic at 495-5337 or the North Sound Clinic at 495-7310. See the "Travel Insurance" section in the Introduction for companies specializing in dive travel insurance.
Diving in the BVI is special. Though not as well known as other Caribbean or worldwide diving destinations, the diving can be as good and as interesting as anywhere in the world. Diverse diving and many topside attractions make the BVI one of the best spots for smart dive travelers.
Diving conditions are typically ideal for all experience levels, with warm water, calm seas, and excellent visibility. Many of the reefs and wrecks of the BVI are in relatively shallow water.
All operators will require presentation of your C-card, while some may request a review of your logbook or check-out dive. As with most destinations, a PADI C-card is the most-recognized certification of your abilities, but many other forms are accepted. The BVI also offer a great place to complete your certification process, including entire courses or check-out dives.
The nearest recompression chamber is on St. Thomas in the USVI.
Like the USVI, BVI dive operators love exposing dive travelers to the diving off their islands. They are all friendly and generally more relaxed and less busy than many operators on more dive-intensive islands in the Caribbean.
With so many excellent operators, it's easy to choose one or more companies for their convenience, offerings, and style. A wide array of packages that include diving, accommodations, dining, and more can make per-dive costs much lower. You may want to try dives with a few operators and then purchase a package with your favorite one.
Baskin in the Sun
Prospect Reef Resort, Roadtown
Tortola, British Virgin Islands
494-3858 or (800) 233-7938
Baskin in the Sun
Soper's Hole West End
Tortola, British Virgin Islands
495-4582 or (800) 233-7938
Baskin in the Sun
Village Cay Inner Harbor, Road Town
Tortola, British Virgin Islands
494-4956 or (800) 233-7938
Comments: Masterfully run by Alan Jardine, Baskin in the Sun is one of the top operators in the BVI. With more than 20 years of BVI excellence, repeat divers are the norm and it's easy to see why, with three Tortola locations, people choose this excellent company. They have enough boats, locations, and dives to provide a good range of diving experiences to anyone staying on Tortola or outlying islands. They offer a wide variety of hotel/dive packages, great service, and superior diving.
Blue Water Divers
PO Box 846, Road Town
Tortola, British Virgin Islands
494-2847 or (800) 233-7938
Comments: This personalized operation is run by Keith and Mike Royle. It is conveniently located at Nanny Cay Marina and divers love the small, intimate dive trips. They offer a selection of hotel and diving packages, with flexible schedules and dive sites.
Wickham's Cay II, Road Town
Tortola, British Virgin Islands
494-3235 or (800) 537-7032
Comments: Conveniently located at The Moorings--Mariner Inn and at Cooper Island Beach Club--this large operator runs a number of boats and offers packages with or without accommodations.
Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour
Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
495-5513 or (800) 848-7078
Comments: This large and friendly company is a Virgin Gorda diving favorite. With three locations and a selection of packages with or without hotel accommodations included, BVI dive travelers can't go wrong.
Kilbride's Underwater Tours
Bitter End Yacht Club & Resort
PO Box 46, North Sound
Virgin Gorda, BVI
495-9638 or (800) 932-4286
Comments: Founded long ago by Caribbean diving pioneer Bert Kilbride, this legendary BVI dive operation is now owned and run by his Floridian partner, Mike Van Blaricum. It's still a perfect diving choice, serving Bitter End and many other Virgin Gorda hotel guests. Mike has perfected the service and diving at Kilbride's Underwater Tours, making it an ideal diving base.
The closeness of the BVI, as well as St. John and St. Thomas, make the Virgin Islands ideal for live-aboard dive vacations. Though many boats and operators offer diving, living aboard a boat to dive is a unique experience.
Club Med 1
7975 N. Hayden Rd.
Scottsdale, AZ 85258
Comments: This 191-cabin sailing cruise ship is a wonderful way to tour the Caribbean, with as much diving as you want thrown in for good measure. Three days out of this wonderful seven-day cruise are spent in the waters of the Virgin Islands (both BVI and USVI). The ship sails out of Martinique and offers a unique scuba diving adventure, with lots of extras.
Box 4065, Road Town
648-3393 or (800) 648-3393
Comments: This 105-foot trimaran is targeted at scuba divers, but a wide variety of watersports and other activities is available. It's based in Road Town, Tortola, but heads throughout the BVI for some spectacular diving at the sites mentioned below and many more. Ten spacious cabins and all possible boating and diving amenities make this a special BVI dive travel option.
The owners, Duncan and Annie Muirhead, have made the Cuan Law one of the best live-aboard possibilities in the entire Caribbean. The friendly staff, great food, fun atmosphere, and the flexible diving ensure a great experience for first-time or repeat BVI divers.
Irie Dive & Sail Charters
5100 Long Bay Road, Flagship
St. Thomas, USVI 00802
Divers looking for a great way to explore the Virgin Islands will love Irie. Based in St. Thomas, this 46-foot sailing vessel provides a unique diving and sailing vacation in the crystal-clear waters of the USVI and the BVI.
Irie's crew are both dive instructors and know the best dive sites on every island. The sailing and diving make for a great combination.
Regency Yacht Vacations
5200 Long Bay Road
St. Thomas, USVI 00802
776-5950 or (800) 524-7676
Comments: Based in St. Thomas, Regency Yacht Vacations represents hundreds of yachts in the Virgin Islands, many of which offer dive charters. Charter consultant Michon Willman is experienced at working with divers and can help them choose the right boat. The choices include Irie (see above), Whisper (a 44' sailing ship owned and captained by Gwen Hamlin), and many others. Diving takes place throughout the Virgin Islands.
Most operators still photography and video options. It's best to call ahead to check on programs, instruction, rentals, and development. If you're serious about underwater photography and video, be sure to contact:
Box 680, Road Town
Comments: The Rainbow Visions Photo Center and Gallery was started in 1986 by Jim and Idile Scheiner. Their store and gallery is adjacent to the Baskin in the Sun at Prospect Reef Resort. They also have a studio and office next to Treasure Isle Resort. In addition to serving the clients of Baskin in the Sun, they provide photography and video services for Underwater Safaris, Blue Water Divers, Dive BVI, and Cuan Law. Their work has been widely purchased and published.
The BVI lie at the edge of a huge underwater shelf that extends some 85 miles from Puerto Rico before dropping off in the Atlantic to the north and the Caribbean to the south. Most of the sport diving in the BVI is on that shelf, where many fascinating wrecks and spectacular underwater formations are at a reasonable depth for divers.
The compactness of the BVI is a big advantage. The entire chain extends for 35 miles along Sir Francis Drake Channel and even dive sites considered remote are within a half-hour of the islands of Tortola or Virgin Gorda. The sheltering effect of the islands cuts the wind speed at most sites. Summer and winter temperatures in the BVI are relatively the same above and below the surface.
The following review of potential dive sites in the BVI should serve only as a guide to which dives might interest certain divers. Keep in mind that conditions change. The descriptions, depths, and levels of expertise needed are given only as guidelines. A local dive operator should always be consulted for up-to-date information about dive sites and current conditions.
Preparation is the key to safe and enjoyable diving. Be sure your equipment has been properly serviced and set up. If you haven't been diving recently, you may want to consider a refresher course or dive, as well as any additional training while you're in the BVI.
Conservation is the key to the future enjoyment of diving in the BVI and elsewhere. Divers should adhere to all accepted and local rules and etiquette for preserving the reef. Take only pictures and leave only bubbles.
1. Wreck of the Rocus, Anegada (20'-40'; novice to expert): Unlike the rest of the tropical and mountainous BVI, Anegada is a flat and rather barren island. The great diving is just being explored and the wreck of the Rocus provides a perfect introduction to the wide variety of wrecks and reef formations off Anegada's coast. This freighter sank in 1929 and has thus broken apart in some places. However, it has also had time to mature, with lots of colorful coral and a wide variety of passing fish. Unless you're staying on the Anegada, this is a special trip for most BVI dive operators.
2. The Invisibles, Virgin Gorda (10'-60'; intermediate to expert): These stunning pinnacles off Virgin Gorda offer one of the best dives in the BVI. Though the boat ride out can be rough, it's well worth it whenever a dive operator makes a trip to The Invisibles. The pinnacles rise from the bottom to within a few feet of the surface and attract an incredible variety and quantity of fish. Every dive here is different, thanks to the many encounters with passing fish.
3. Wreck of the Chikuzen, Virgin Gorda (35'-75'; intermediate to expert): This large ship, lying about nine miles off the coast of Virgin Gorda, is a special wreck dive. The Chikuzen was sunk intentionally in 1981 and is now packed with coral life. The full 246-foot length of this vessel is teeming with fish of every description. Divers may see big rays, horse-eye jacks, barracudas, and much more. Its sheer size in open sea also serves to attract a large number of fish. From seemingly thousands of barracuda to many other schools of fish, the Chikuzen is well worth the boat ride.
4. The Dogs, between Tortola and Virgin Gorda (20'-60'; novice to expert): These rocky islands are a popular and convenient destination for many BVI operators. There are several excellent dive sites, including Joe's Cave and The Chimneys (named after a colorful soft coral reef formation located at the end of a pretty tunnel). The southern side of Great Dog is a good spot for beginners, where divers swim along the parallel reef.
5. The Aquarium, Virgin Gorda (15'-35'; novice to expert): As you can guess, this convenient and easy dive is usually packed with fish. Located just off Virgin Gorda's Spanish Town, it's a great first dive.
6. The Baths, Virgin Gorda (0'-35'; novice to expert): Though these stunning rock formations are better known as a great snorkeling and land exploration site, the diving here can be quite interesting. Boat traffic can get quite heavy, so special attention is required. The area around Devil's Bay can be exciting and The Baths is simply one of the best snorkeling sites in the Caribbean.
7. Alice in Wonderland, Ginger Island (15'-100'; intermediate to expert): This pretty dive off Ginger Island can be beautiful on a calm day. The site is known for its giant star corals and other colorful coral scenery. Huge mushroom-shaped corals give the site its name.
8. Vanishing Rocks, Salt Island (20'-50'; intermediate to expert): Just off Salt Island, this site is also called Dry Rocks West (though they're not always dry). The heavy current can make it a difficult or impossible dive, but that same current provides lots of coral and fish life all around the rocks.
9. Wreck of the RMS Rhone, Salt Island (15'-80'; intermediate to expert): Every diver in the Virgin Islands should visit the wreck of the Rhone at least once. Once you dive it, you'll want to return often.
Made famous by the feature film, The Deep, this dive is even better than its reputation. The 310-foot steel-hulled ship sunk in a storm and split it two, with only a few survivors.
RMS Rhone has had plenty of time to develop into a mature artificial reef, with lots of colorful coral and fish. Because it's in two distinct parts, it's a popular two-tank dive for both BVI and USVI operators.
The deeper bow section provides lots of places to explore inside and outside the ship. Divers will enjoy the coral-encrusted cargo hold and other interior chambers. Outside, a careful survey of the wreckage reveals the ship's foremast, complete with crow's nest, and its bowsprit lying in the sand. The shallower stern section includes a giant ship's propeller, the once-powerful engine, her prop shaft, and several boilers.
The Rhone plays host to dozens of divers and snorkelers daily. It has been a National Park since 1980 and deserves its status as one of the premier dives in the world.
10. Blonde Rock, Dead Chest Island* (5'-60'; intermediate to expert): This pinnacle dive draws its name from the yellow fire coral at its peak. The large rock features many caves and undercuts, with lots of hiding places for a wide variety of marine life, including moray eels, crabs, beautiful fan corals, hordes of reef fish, and lobster.
11. Dead Chest West, Dead Chest Island (20'-60'; novice to expert): This interesting and easy dive is located between Dead Chest Island and Peter Island. There is a good selection of formations and fish.
12. Painted Walls, Norman Island (20'-50'; intermediate to expert): The vertical portions of this dive are a colorful cornucopia and that's how the site got its name. Divers will delight at the kaleidoscope of colors created by encrusting corals and sponges on the walls of four long gullies. With typically excellent visibility, this is a diver and operator favorite in the BVI.
13. Carrot Shoal, Norman Island (10'-60'; intermediate to expert): This large ridge dive is filled with hiding places. There are generally lots of colorful fish swimming around.
14. The Indians, Norman Island (10'-50'; novice to expert): These pinnacles off Norman Island are easy to find and offer many excellent dives (as well as good snorkeling). The four tooth-like formations yield a series of canyons and grottoes, which feature both soft and hard corals. The rocks also serve as beacons for many passing fish. The pinnacles usually offer an easy dive and a fun round-the-rock exploration.
15. Rainbow Canyon, Norman Island (15'-50'; novice to expert): This popular and colorful dive is ideal for all levels. Large coral heads are interspersed throughout the site, creating busy areas for marine life (and exploring divers). This is a colorful and easy introductory BVI dive.
16. Ringdove Rock, Norman Island (10'-60'; novice to expert): Another easy introductory BVI dive, Ringdove Rock is a great pinnacle to explore. The rock face features lots of nooks and crannies for eels and lobster, as well as stunning coral formations. Busy Ringdove Rock is also a draw to many passing fish.
17. The Caves, Norman Island (0'-60'; beginner to expert): Though this Norman Island site is known for its great snorkeling, it also offers an unusual dive. There are three shallow caves divers and snorkelers can explore, featuring lots of coral that can (and should) be illuminated by lights. The reef sloping offshore is an added bonus.
18. Angelfish Reef, Norman Island (20'-90'; intermediate): Divers will soon discover that this pretty reef off Norman Island is a heavenly mix of angelfish and other colorful marine life. The reef features several ridges and floors with a lively array of coral formations.
19. Santa Monica Rock, Norman Island (10'-100'; intermediate to expert): Yet another pretty pinnacle dive site, Santa Monica Rock is one of the larger pinnacle dives in the BVI and deserves several visits for dedicated divers. As with similar sites in the area, Santa Monica Rock features lots of coral and passing fish. Because it is on the outer edge of the island chain, this is a great place to see larger open ocean (pelagic) fish, like spotted eagle rays and nurse sharks. The visibility and amount of exploration and viewing opportunities make this a BVI favorite.
One of the beauties about vacationing in the BVI is the variety of experiences above and below the surface. This especially applies to accommodations options. Though certain resorts do cater to divers and many of these are highlighted below, it's easy to stay at a hotel that doesn't specialize, while still enjoying the great diving.
It's difficult to categorize pricing for BVI accommodations and it becomes an even greater task when diving and diving packages are involved. The following accommodation options provide a general cost idea. They are rated as follows:
Inexpensive: less than $100
Moderate: $100 to $200
Expensive: more than $200
These prices relate to an average in-season standard double room for two and do not include any diving, dining, or other package options. Remember that prices can drop dramatically with package deals and during the off-season (May to November). Use the rates listed here as a very general guideline. It's best to check with several places to get the best possible price and experience. Always call ahead to check current rates and to see if any special deals are being offered.
Brewers Bay Campground
Box 185, Road Town
Comments: This is one of few pure budget choices in the BVI. Bare and prepared sites are available for a minimal charge. Basic campground amenities and friendly people make this a perfect cheap choice. Inexpensive.
Hotel Castle Maria
PO Box 206, Road Town
494-2553 or 494-4255
Comments: Ideally situated right in Road Town, this is a nice lower-budget choice. There is a selection of accommodations options, as well as simple amenities and good service. Inexpensive.
Fort Recovery Villas
Comments: This well-run enclave of one-, two-, three-, and four-bedroom villas overlooks the Sir Francis Drake Channel. These perfect getaway villas all have great views, living rooms, and kitchens. Moderate to Expensive.