Blessed with steady trade winds, calm, aquamarine water and countless picturesque anchorages, the British Virgin Islands are among the world’s great sailing destinations. And of course, wherever there are thirsty sailors there are also beach bars – a concept the inhabitants of the BVI seem to have elevated to something approaching an art form. The historic Soggy Dollar bar on Jost Van Dyke – so called because the currency changing hands tends to be somewhat damp – can even lay claim to being the birthplace of the world-renowned Painkiller, an afternoon-enhancing concoction of dark rum, cream of coconut, pineapple juice and orange juice, topped off with grated nutmeg. There is, however, a lot more to the BVI than sun, sailing and cocktails on the beach, and one enterprising Scot has set out to prove it in a new book.
Edinburgh native Ron Beard first travelled to the BVI in 2011 to take up a position as the territory’s deputy chief planner. Keen to find something to do at the weekend beyond the more typical local pastimes, he looked for places to go hiking, but soon realised hiking wasn’t exactly a popular activity in this part of the world.
“There are several national parks in the BVI,” says Beard, “and Sage Mountain [on Tortola] is the largest of the lot. It attracts a few people, but not nearly as many as you would expect. I went up there one day in the off-season, went to the little restaurant at the top and asked them could I have a map of the park. They said there weren’t any. I said ‘Well, how do you get in there?’ ‘Oh, just follow that path and go into the trees and come back a few hours later and have a beer.’
“Anyway, I went in, had a wander and was mind-blown – gobsmacked – over that first three or four hour period, it was just incredible.”
Among the exotic flora and fauna to be found in the area are black and yellow bananaquits, pearly-eyed thrashers, bulletwood trees, philodendrons, lianas and epiphytes. The forest on Sage Mountain isn’t technically rainforest as it doesn’t quite get the 100 inches of rain a
year to merit the description, but Beard says it feels a lot like a rainforest when you’re in it; he calls
it “moist forest”.
Inspired by his first BVI hiking experience, Beard then began looking for other places to explore. “I started to visit some of the smaller islands,” he says. “I’d arrive there, have a look around, ask people about walks and they’d say ‘Walks? What do you mean walks?’ So I just went off into these places to explore them myself, and my notes on these walks slowly became a book.”
Trails & Tales – The British Virgin Islands Hiking Guide is published by BVI-based company aLookingGlass (not to be confused with the popular Edinburgh bookshop of the same name.) It gives maps and instructions for 26 different routes on seven different islands, supported by plentiful illustrations. More than merely telling you how to get from A to B, however, as its title suggests Trails & Tales also mixes in a few choice anecdotes, gives a sense of the islands’ colourful history and, of course, encourages an appreciation of the incredible biodiversity just waiting to be discovered beyond the rows of sun loungers on the beach.
The islands may be small (Tortola, the largest, is only 12 miles from end to end) and their hills may be modest (the summit of Mount Sage is just 523m above sea level) but hiking here can still be a hazardous business if you don’t keep your wits about you. Those attempting the Smugglers’ Trail on Tortola are advised to carry a comb to help remove “over-friendly” jumping cacti from their clothing, while anyone trying to go off-piste near the Bat Cave on the island’s north shore should beware of the resident Jack Spaniard wasps. After taking a tumble on a steep scree slope on a section of trail by the coast, Beard got a good close look at a few. “I was trying to get up when I saw this structure in front of me. I put my hand up to clear it and got these stings in my forearm. I took a picture and showed it to people afterwards – they said ‘those are Jack Spaniard wasps, you have to be very careful.’ I said ‘Yes, thanks, I know.’” These hazards are all carefully flagged up in the book, and Beard also offers sage advice on respecting private property – particularly relevant to any Scots used to exercising their Right to Roam. More importantly, there are also suggestions on where to find a rum-based beverage after almost every walk. n
For more on Trails & Tales, visit www.facebook.com/bvihiking or www.alookingglass.com