INTO THE BLUE
From volcanic coastlines to parrot fish, Virgin Islands offer prime snorkelling sights in the sparkling Caribbean Sea
IT’S no coincidence snorkel guide Branson Read is named after Virgin Airlines and Virgin Mobile billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson.
After all, my wife and I are in the Caribbean’s British Virgin Islands and Sir Richard owns several private islands here, presumably liking all the Virgin tie-ins.
When Read first introduces himself on the British Virgin Islands Adventure boat on our way to snorkel around the famous Baths rock formations in Virgin Gorda, we just think his parents must have been Sir Richard fans.
But upon further questioning, he reveals he earned his famous name by being born on Sir Richard’s Necker Island in 1986 while his parents were working there as interim caretakers.
“And I’ve met him, twice,” said Read of his namesake.
“Both times at bars around the BVIs. When I told him I was born on Necker, he bought me a drink. He’s a cool guy and will talk with you as long as you aren’t paparazzi.”
The younger Branson is also cool, with his Caribbean accent, partial beard, little ponytail and laid-back vibe.
With the star discussion over, we arrive at The Baths, a unique formation of granite boulders thrust up to the surface of a volcanic coastline by long-ago earthquakes.
“Usually volcanic and granite never mix, but they do to spectacular results here,” said Read. They certainly do. The shiny-wet black granite is striking amid the turquoise Caribbean Sea, backed by a small white-sand beach in Devil’s Bay.
We don our masks and fins and hop in to snorkel around the boulders and spot colourful parrot fish, blue tangs, sea fans and sea urchins in the coral.
On shore, we take off our fins to wander through the shallows, crevices, caves and lookouts the boulders have created.
It’s captivating and the reason many a swimsuit-model photo shoot has been held here.
My wife and I pose for pictures in our swimsuits, not quite reaching highfashion results.
Back on the boat, we head over to Mountain Point for more snorkelling, this time through narrow channels and through arches to spy the sea life.
My wife and I sailed into Virgin Gorda on Windstar Cruises’ Wind Surf.
With only a 312-passenger capacity, the Wind Surf is not a big cruise ship — it’s a sailing yacht that can navigate the British Virgin Islands’ closer quarters and small ports.
“Windstar passengers pick this line because of the small luxury ships and the sailing component,” said Captain Stephan Freidrich, when I bumped into him on board.
“I’m a traditional sailor at heart, so it appeals to me to have the sails up and use wind energy and save fuel.” It also looks fabulous. When the 187-metre-long Wind Surf unfurls her seven triangular sails on five 67-metre-high masts, the vessel is magnificent cutting across the sea at 12 knots. But it’s not all about aesthetics. The Wind Surf’s staterooms are spacious and well-appointed and the service is impeccable at the four a la carte restaurants and three bars.
When at anchor, the back of the boat opens into a sports deck. From there, we swam to the water trampoline, lounged on sunning mats and were even able to stand up on a paddle board, take out a Hobie Cat and go waterskiing on the glittering Caribbean Sea.
The same sports, as well as a full-on beach party, were also offered when we went ashore for the Wind Surf special event on private Prickly Pear Beach on Virgin Gorda.
The Wind Surf’s Yachtsman Caribbean seven-day itinerary also stops at the BVI’s tiny Jost van Dyke for beach-bar hopping and Tortola for beach time, as well as Antigua and St. Barthelemy.
The cruise is round-trip out of St. Maarten, so it’s worth taking an extra day to stay on the Dutch-influenced island and overnight at the all-inclusive Sonesta Great Bay Resort, which is walking distance to capital of Philipsburg and its swanky shopping street and atmospheric beachfront.
Air Canada, WestJet and Air Transat fly from Toronto and Montreal nonstop to St. Maarten.
Prices for a seven-day Windstar cruise are around $2,500 per person, based on double occupancy.
Check out WindstarCruises.com.
Above, guide Branson Read, named after billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, leads snorkelling trips to the famous Baths rock formations in the British Virgin Islands. At left, reporter Steve MacNaull and his wife, Kerry, pose among the granite boulders at The Baths. Bottom, Windstar Cruises’ 312-passenger luxury yacht, Wind Surf.
Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson at Necker Island, his private island
in the British Virgin Islands.