Tortola – British Virgin Islands

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Tortola is the largest island among the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Although there are 50 islands in the chain, there are only 15 that are inhabited.  Tortola (Spanish for Turtle Dove) is part of the Lesser Antilles chain which separates the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Tortola is the commercial and governmental capital of the British Virgin Islands, and about 80% of the BVI population lives on Tortola. That being said, the island still has a relatively small population of about 30,000 people. 

The majority of the British Virgin Islands are mountainous, and the climate and vegetation are drier than other Caribbean isles. Streams and waterfalls are practically nonexistent in Tortola and, except in the mountains, there are cactus and succulents rather than some of the more lush environments of other islands. 

Because of so little runoff from streams, the water clarity around the island is much better than other places in the Caribbean. The islands around Tortola create a type of natural sea barrier, making the water calm most of the time. This water clarity, steady winds and calm seas make Tortola an ideal destination for divers, snorkelers and yachting. 

East of Tortola is Beef Island, and the two islands are connected by the Queen Elizabeth Bridge. Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport (EIS) is the main commercial airport that serves Tortola and the other British Virgin Islands. 

Map of the British Virgin Islands with Tortola in the middle of the map.

Credit: WorldAtlas.com

The other inhabited islands in the BVI are close enough for a day trip from Tortola. Norman Island, Jost Van Dyke, Marina Cay, Peter Island and Virgin Gorda are all within reach if you have a full day in port. 

Sage Mountain National Park in Tortola is the tallest peak at 1,716 feet and this part of the island has some of the characteristics of a rainforest. 

Road Town is Tortola's only urban center. In the 1960s, the island became an offshore financial center. This completely reversed Tortola's fortunes. It became quite prosperous and now has one of the highest per capita incomes in the Caribbean. 

Check out these excursions in Tortola.

Good To Know

While Tortola does not have some of the scary animal populations like bears or lions, they do have some plants that you need to stay away from. 

Most visitors will not go around plucking leaves off trees to consume them, but it is still good to know that Oleander and Elephant Ears on Tortola can be dangerous if you were to eat them. 

It is also imperative that you heed the warnings for the Manchineel, or poison apple tree. All parts of the tree, leaves, bark, and fruit are toxic. Sap from the tree is caustic and will burn through your skin. 

If it happens to be raining, do not stand under one of these trees either.  Even if you don’t touch the tree itself, sap is washed off the leaves by rainwater and will cause blisters if drops hit your bare skin. 

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon died after being struck by an arrow that had been poisoned with manchineel sap.

Sign that states: Warning! Manchineel Tree The leaves, bark, and fruits of these trees contain a caustic sap which may be injurious if touched. Columbus described the small green fruits as "death apples." The trees are common along Caribbean shores. Avoid contact with any part of this tree!
Credit: express.co.uk article 'The World's Most Dangerous Tree Can Kill You'

With as toxic as the Manchineel is, you might wonder why they are allowed to flourish in the Caribbean. The tree provides excellent natural windbreaks and the roots of the tree stabilize the sand to help prevent beach erosion.

Row of manchineel trees along the shore line being used as a wind break. The side closest to the water is bare of leaves so the twisted branches are visible.

So although there can be some very unpleasant repercussions from contact with the manchineel tree, your best defense on the island is awareness. Trees might be marked with a sign, a red X or a red band around the tree about three feet from the ground. The best rule of thumb is that if you don’t know for sure, don’t touch it!

Weather:

The climate on Tortola is tropical and hot throughout the year. May to October are the hotter months with an average of 82°F.  From December to March, the temperatures range from 75°F to 77°F and tend to be more pleasant. January to April are relatively dry and May to December sees the most precipitation. The sea is warm enough to swim all year round and the sun shines pretty much every day.

Currency:

U.S. currency is used in the British Virgin Islands. There are ATMs in Tortola Pier Park. 

Wireless Internet:

There is WiFi at most of the venues at the Tortola Pier Park.

Languages:

The language is British English, and there is also a local dialect. Spanish is also spoken by some of the islanders.

Where You Dock in Tortola – British Virgin Islands

Aerial view of Tortola Pier Park, the cruise terminal in Tortola. Pier buildings are in the foreground with a docked cruise ship and town in background Credit: Tortolapier.com

Cruise ships dock at the Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park in Road Town. The pier can handle two ships at a time. Built in a colonial style, the cruise and shopping center is located in Road Town.

This outdoor shopping mall has over 70 retail outlets, restaurants, and service centers, with shops open from 9am-6pm and restaurants open from 7am to midnight. 

Wi-Fi, ATMs and washrooms are available here as well as car rentals.

Tortola Pier Park is quite wheelchair accessible with flat sidewalks and curb cut-outs, but sidewalks made up of interlocking brick or stone could make for a bumpier ride. 

Check out all that Tortola Pier Park has to offer:

Getting Around Tortola – British Virgin Islands

Walking

You will be able to walk from the pier to the cruise facility in Road Town. If you just want to shop or browse, then Tortola Pier Park will have shops, restrooms, and eateries.

 Water Ferries

Going between islands is done by water ferries. They operate on a schedule, and information can be found in the Pier Park. You can catch a ferry at Road Town, Soper’s Hole and Beef Island. To get to Soper’s Hole or Beef Island, you will need a cab.

Taxis

There are taxi stands at the Pier Park, Soper’s Hole or Wickham’s Cay. Safari cabs and mini vans are the typical mode of taxis. Avoid a safari cab if you are nervous on steep, winding roads, as there are so many of them on Tortola.

 Rental Cars

If you choose to rent a car in Tortola, you will need to purchase a British Virgin Islands temporary license. You will need a vaild driver’s license to do so, and the BVI license is about $10. It is good for no more than three months. You do not have to take a written or road skills test but do remember that driving is on the left side of the road in BVI.

The roads on Tortola can be bumpy, and a bit treacherous. There are steep roads into the mountains and blind turns, along with the usual potholes. The occasional cow, goat or chicken will also share the roadway with you.

If you choose to rent a car, here are a few sites that offer rentals:

Avis Car Rental

ITGO Car Rental

Car Rental Tortola BVI

Shopping In Tortola – British Virgin Islands

When in Tortola, there are a few things that you might want to look for:

 Spices: Tortola is known for the wonderful spices that it produces. Because of the climate, growing spices has been a major source of trade for the island.

Local Rum: Most islands in the Caribbean make their own rum and Tortola is no exception.

Pottery: Local artists create one-of-a-kind pottery in Tortola. It is nice to know that the pottery here is made on the Island, not imported for tourists.

Jams and Jellies: These condiments are made from the fruits grown on the island and are something you won’t find in the grocery store at home.

Clothing: The island flair is recreated in Batik-designed dresses and shirts. If you are wanting just the regular vacation t-shirt, you can get one customized in some of the shops in Tortola.

Shops

Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park, where cruise ships dock, is an outdoor mall which has shopping, dining and entertainment, for locals and vistors alike.

The 80,000 square foot sprawling complex is framed by the picturesque harbor, where luxury yachts and cruise ships frequently dock. This enhanced cruise pier features 11 buildings, 18 kiosks and is home to over 70 retail outlets, restaurants, and service centers.

Just a few among the retail shops you will find at the Tortola Pier Park are:

  • Imperial Shellcrafters
  • Kenny Tee’s Outlet
  • Tortola Pier Park Giftshop
  • JBY Fashions
  • Urban VI
  • Tanio Boutique

Other shopping opportunities are available at:

Aragorn’s Studio 

Located in Trellis Bay on Beef Island, beside the airport, this studio showcases some of the most talented artisans on the island. They have copper sculptures, island prints, pottery and jewelry.

Sunny Caribee Spice Co

Sunny Caribee Spice company exterior - colorful square building with light orange painted bottom half,  around the entrance, upper is sided turquoise with large windows with bright pink shutters

In Road Town on Main Street, the building that Sunny’s occupies was once the first hotel on Tortola. Here you will find Caribbean spices, teas, condiments, and handicrafts. They also have a selection of cosmetics, bath gels, perfumes, and sunscreens.

Pusser’s Company Store

Located a 10 minute walk from the dock,  Pusser’s Company Store offers gourmet food items like meat, spices and fish along with Pusser’s Rum, one of their best selling items. A must try at their onsite restaurant is the “Painkiller” – a drink made with their own rum, pineapple juice, cream of coconut and orange juice. Sounds like the tropics in a glass! In addition to  they offer nautical and tropical clothing, mugs and bags.

British Virgin Islands Post Office

If you, or someone you know, is into collecting stamps, philatelists from all over the world value the stamps from the BVI. The British Virgin Island post office on Main Street in Road Town sees many international visitors come to purchase the stamps with unusual and beautiful designs. While most philatelists don’t use the stamps they collect on pieces of mail, know that although the stamps carry U.S. monetary designations, they can only be used in the BVI.

 

Dining In Tortola – British Virgin Islands

One of the favorite dishes in Tortola is fungi. Similar to polenta, fungi is made with cornmeal and okra. Another favorite is roti, which is a flatbread that is deep fried. It can also be stuffed with lentils, curry or vegetables.

If you are looking to grab a bite to eat near the dock, you will have about 16 different choices in the Tortola Pier Park.

Just a few of those offerings are:

  • Delhi Corner: Indian and grilled cuisine.
  • Mac’s Restaurant: Fusion of Caribbean, American and Italian.
  • Locally Yours: Organic local fruit juices
  • Seven at the Pier Restaurant: They have a curated menu of Caribbean and Asian dishes.
  • Swirlzz Frozen Yogurt and Treats: Just what the name implies.
  • The Original NY Pizza (really? In the Caribbean?)
  • Aromas Cigar and Martini Bar: Enjoy a hand-rolled cigar and a drink here. 
  • Coconut Lounge: Beverages and bar snacks.

If  you explore further than the Tortola Pier Park, you will find other restaurants, including:

Quito’s Gazebo Restaurant  

A beach bar and restaurant that is right on the edge of the beach. Open air dining  will offer up ribs, lobster, burgers, cracked conch, or a pizza with your favorite toppings. 

Check out their webcam to see what is happening at the moment in Cane Garden Bay (7 kms from cruise terminal) where Quito’s is located: Webcam – Quito’s BVI.

Dove Restaurant
 
 
 
 
 
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Located about a 10 minute walk from the cruise pier, this will be your spot for fine dining on Tortola. They serve contemporary international haute cuisine, craft cocktails and fine wines. Upstairs at The Dove is the Dragonfly Lounge where you can enjoy a cocktail in a stylish old-world environment.

Brandywine Estate Restaurant

Enjoy superb Mediterranean cuisine while enjoying beautiful beach views of Brandywine Bay. Located off the beaten path, 7.5 kms east of the cruise port, you will find tapas and bistro options for a leisurely lunch, or mains such as filet mignon or seafood for dinner. Menus change often, with daily specials, and is open Wednesday through Sunday.

D’CoalPot BVI Restaurant Bar & Grill

Located about a 20 minute drive from the cruise port, on the north-west shore of the island, fresh fish, lobster and conch along with Caribbean spiced dishes will give you plenty to choose from. You will find the popular roti and jerk pork along with key lime pie for dessert. It’s best to call ahead to make sure they’re open as their hours can vary. 

Things To Do in Tortola – British Virgin Islands

JR O’Neal Botanic Gardens | National Parks Trust

In the center of Road Town, this botanical garden has collections from the different habitats on the British Virgin Islands. There are exotic species from the rainforest type environments on the mountains, coastal environments, the dry forest and an extensive collection of palms.  A gazebo of orchids and a nursery for endangered species of flora are within this three acre park.

Sage Mountain National Park

The highest point on Tortola, Sage Mountain stands at 1,716 feet. While a trip here is probably not on anyone’s bucket list, it is a good way to spend a pleasant afternoon. There are about 12 looped, winding trails and excellent views of some of the other islands. Plan on spending about two hours and wear sturdy shoes along with sunscreen.

Beaches

While many people associate B.V.I with beaches, there aren’t any within walking distance of the cruise terminal. Most are located along the north shore and are about a 20 minute drive from the cruise terminal. 

Cane Garden Bay Beach is on Tortola’s north shore, and it is about 20 minutes from the pier in Road Town. This is a popular beach for families because of the clear and calm waters. There are areas where you can rent chairs, umbrellas, stand up paddleboards, kayaks and jet skis. The sands are pure white and beautiful. There are also spots for food and beverage at this beach. 

Credit: caribjournal.com – Cane Garden Bay Beach

Apple Bay is a favorite for surfers, especially in January and February. This small beach can get crowded if the surf is good. 

If this is the destination for you, there are surfboard rentals available at:

Surfboard Rentals & Accessories, Tortola BVI

Smuggler’s Cove, minus the smugglers, is at the western end of the island. This is a favorite spot with the locals because the clear, calm waters are perfect for snorkeling. There is an opportunity to see parrotfish, sea fans, elkhorns and coral.

Top Tours & Excursions In Tortola – British Virgin Islands

The Baths Discovery - Tortola Catch a ferry to Virgin Gorda to gaze on a natural architectural wonder of The Baths and more on this exciting tour near Romney-Pier Park. Your excursion includes a convenient round-trip ferry ride to Virgin Gorda, where you get to witness the geological wonder of oversized granite boulders and cave surroundings known as The Baths. You'll also get an expert tour guide to accompany you as you take a winding trail through The Baths to the white san...

Duration: 4 Hours Activity Level: Moderate Wheelchair Accessibility: No

Jost Van Dyke Escape - Tortola Head to the British Virgin Island's (BVI) smallest island of Jost Van Dyke and relax on the beach, sip on refreshments at one of its famed beach bars, and more on this exciting beach excursion near Romney-Pier Park. Your tour includes four hours of fun and covers your round-trip ferry ride fee from your ship to explore the grand island of Jost Van Dyke (JVD), where you'll get a chance to catch scenic bay views, relax at famed beach bars like Rudy...

Duration: 4 Hours Activity Level: Easy Wheelchair Accessibility: Folding wheelchairs

Tortola Beach Day Enjoy beach time swimming in crystalline bay waters, seeing panoramic city views atop a hillside and mountain on this half-day beach excursion near Romney-Pier Park. Your tour includes a comfortable ride to and from your pier destination to explore Tortola's north side. Cane Garden Bay Beach is also a haven for water sports, so you'll have plenty of activities to do like windsurfing or just swimming in the bay's turquoise blue waters. If you're ...

Duration: 3 Hours Activity Level: Easy Wheelchair Accessibility: Folding wheelchairs