Our next ports of call following the Christmas sea days are two of our absolute favourites, Tortola and St Maarten both of which we’ve been lucky enough to visit a few times before.
We first called at Tortola in the British Virgin Islands in early 2010 on Ocean Village from where we took our first ever excursion to Virgin Gorda, a small nearby island with spectacular boulder strewn beaches. We love the place so much that the trip from Britannia would be our third visit and we’d highly recommend it to anyone if you get the chance.
Ships dock at Road Town in Tortola from where we boarded a large air conditioned catamaran for the 30 minute sailing which passes close by Richard Branson’s Necker Island along the route. On arrival at Virgin Gorda we took open sided safari style buses for a short drive through colourful streets filled with strolling chickens and cool little bars and restaurants.
Ten minutes later we arrived at The Baths, the first of the two beaches you can visit and after a short safety briefing we made our way down a path to the sea. It’s quite a tricky descent in parts so it’s not ideal for anyone with walking difficulties but our 8 yr old managed it with ease as did many of the older passengers from the ship. The path brings you to the most stunning beach of white sand surrounded by huge volcanic boulders. The sea is crystal clear turquoise and there’s also a bar selling reasonably priced drinks, restrooms and a t-shirt stall. We spent an hour enjoying the sunshine and paddling in the sea before it was time for the highlight of the trip, a climb through the ‘caves’ to reach Devil’s Bay, a wider, even more beautiful beach on the other side.
The Caves are actually a route through the boulders which require you to crouch down in places and squeeze through gaps in others as well as wade through knee deep water and climb occasional ladders and ropes to help you up the sloping rocks. It’s great fun and not at all scary or claustrophobic as the sunshine is always streaming in but you do need to be fairly fit to make the journey. We fondly remember carrying our son Finn through there when he was just two years old and receiving a round of applause from fellow guests we met along the way!
This trip he happily clambered through unaided and on the other side you reach Devil’s Bay, possibly the worlds most beautiful beach. On our last trip I told Andy it’s where I want my ashes scattered but he pointed out that The River Irwell which runs through our village was far more likely!
We spent a lovely few hours sunbathing, picnicking on cakes we baked in yesterday’s family Cookery Club class and drinking rum and cokes we’d pre-mixed and brought along. All too soon it was time for the walk up to the bus via a less strenuous route following signs for the car park spotting lizards and iguanas on the way and even small snakes on a previous visit. Keen to maximise our time here we were actually the last back to the catamaran and received a friendly round of applause from our fellow waiting passengers – oops!
Although we were on a P&O excursion we did meet a couple who’d done the trip independently. Personally I’d be a little nervous as it involves a boat and bus ride and there’s a possibility you could miss either and be stranded so if I’d definitely recommend an organised excursion here.
The next day was St Maarten, an island which is half Dutch and half French giving it a unique character. It’s possibly one of the easiest islands to travel independently and feels very safe and friendly. On previous visits we’ve just taken the water taxi from the port across the bay to Philipsburg for the beach and shopping which costs $7 per person for an all day wristband although you can walk around the bay into town in around 15 minutes. The beach is lovely with fine white sand and calm waters surrounded by waterfront bars offering great deals on sun beds, an umbrella and a bucket of beers from $15 – $25 dollars.
This time we decided to visit the famous Maho beach near the airport where you can watch planes take off from the runway behind you and land literally over your head. We took a taxi which should have been $9 each but we haggled a little and settled on a price of €25 in total for the three of us and enjoyed a 30 minute scenic drive across the island before arriving at Maho. The beach itself isn’t particularly spectacular as it’s just a small strip of sand with bars at each end but the wow factor is the planes. We must have seen around 20 or 30 in the hour or two we where there, everything from small prop driven island hoppers to larger passenger jets so it really is a plane spotters dream. The pilots clearly enjoy flying from the destination as they were waving to the crowds before take off and one particularly large jet blew a sandstorm across the beach as it throttled down as peoples hats and other belongings flew into the sea! We saw several people with suitcases obviously waiting to board flights and having a last minute beer before heading to the airport terminal. It really has to be the world’s best departure lounge!
The sea was quite rough at this end of the island and we saw several people knocked over in the surf so we decided to return to Philipsburg beach for a swim and a bucket of beers. Maho was full of Britannia passengers, easily identifiable by the blue beach towels and we were just about to take a taxi back when one of our fellow Brits helpfully told us we could get a public minibus for a flat fee of $2 each from the nearby roundabout. They all have a white sign in the window with the destination in red capital letters and we got straight into one heading for PHBURG making just two stops for other passengers along the way. It was a great tip and saved us enough to pay for our sun beds and beers! We enjoyed a lovely few hours swimming before picking up a litre of Appleton rum for just $9 from the duty free shop beside the water taxi pier and heading back to the ship.