Ralph Gardner Jr: Thinking Of Tortola

Sep 16, 2017

Lambert Beach, Tortola
Credit Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

My wife visited the British Virgin Islands in the late 1970’s, part of a crew to sail a boat back to New York City. Their departure was delayed several weeks, giving them a chance to get to know Tortola, the largest of the islands.

Debbie returned with me the following winter and my first impression of Tortola was, well, equivocal.

I’d been to St. Bart’s, at the time basking in the glow of its “Cheeseburger in Paradise” reputation. It hadn’t yet become the full blown playground of the rich and famous that it would in more recent years. But even back then it had an air of French refinement. The landscape was beautiful and the food was excellent.

Tortola, by comparison, was scruffy. Traveling its steep mountain roads to get from beach to beach, or to the Riteway supermarket in Roadtown, was a hair-raising experience. And the food was nothing to write home about. Even though I appreciated the Cadbury chocolate, one of the benefits of being a British territory.

We’ve probably returned close to thirty times since then and hope to do so again this winter as the island recovers from Hurriance Irma.

The British Virgin Islands in 2014
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr.

Visiting “BVI Abroad – Hurricane Irma” has been a heartbreaking experience. That’s the public Facebook group created as a clearinghouse for information about the disaster, and for finding information about friends and loved ones on the island.

Heartbreaking both because your heart breaks for the survivors – it’s hard to overstate the extent of the damage – and also because of our own love for the island.

So what was it about Tortola that changed from my first, skeptical impression of the place all those years ago?

Part of it is that the island is easy to make your own. Unlike someplace like St. Bart’s where you felt you might not be cool enough to compete – sadly, St. Bart’s was also devastated by Irma – Tortola comes without pretensions.

The beaches are beautiful and the swimming and snorkeling excellent. But it offers an unusual kind of freedom from the typical resort vacation, though a car and a certain amount of courage to tackle its vertigo-inducing roads are required.

Tortola’s natives – known as belongers – are friendly but in a restrained way. Their refreshing attitude suggests that getting on with their own lives, rather than tourism, is their first priority.       

Of course, there are those who prefer a more pampered experience – whether it’s taking a cruise with a couple of thousand strangers or sitting by a hotel pool sipping marguerites. 

But Tortola provides just the right balance between adventure vacation and extreme relaxation.

We rent a home overlooking the Caribbean, have a swim before breakfast, make a picnic lunch and head off to one of our favorite seven or eight beaches scattered across the island – some of them remote and having taken us years to discover.

While we occasionally go out for dinner, we typically prefer to eat at home, watching the sunset over cocktails, grilling under the stars, and then reading in bed to a chorus of tree frogs and the sound of waves breaking in the distance.

Last night our younger daughter Gracie was saying how lucky she was that the apartment she shares with her roommates in Washington Heights, our apartment where she grew up, and our house in the Hudson Valley all feel like home to her.

Part of what a disaster like Irma underscores is that the definition of home needs to be expanded to the all places that draw you back again and again. I’m by no means suggesting that our loss approaches that of the people who live on the island and have lost everything.

But a piece of us remains on Tortola, awaiting our return.

In the meantime, I’ve been scanning Facebook and watching videos people have posted of the hurricane’s terrible aftermath, trying to find anything recognizable, anything that helps orient you and provides information about our favorite places on the island.  

But the scene is apocalyptic. Not just all the houses damaged and destroyed. The trees are also gone. Splintered. And the inviting turquoise water, where we swam and snorkeled every day, will no doubt feel like it’s making a mockery of people’s misery. At least in the short term.

By the way, if you want to contribute to the British Virgin Islands’ recovery, a good place to start might be Virgin Unite, a foundation run by billionaire Richard Branson to help assist the local community. Other initiatives can be found on the BVI Abroad Facebook page.

But I have no doubt the islands will recover. Nature is resilient. Tortolans, too.

But it will take time.

Until then the tragedy and the way people seem to be coming together to support the islands in its aftermath, have lessons to teach. And one of those is that love is an unlimited resource. It shines not just on the people but also the places in your heart.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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