The dreamy archipelago beloved by sailors of every stripe summons its trademark brand of optimism, welcome, and Painkillers.
There are two ways to understand the impact of Hurricane Irma on the British Virgin Islands. One is analytical: The category 5 storm was so violent it triggered seismometers calibrated for earthquakes.
The other is this: "It was like there were demons out in that storm," says Clayvorne Pope while manning the desk at Dive BVI on Scrub Island. She stills her otherwise beaming countenance as she recalls the terror. "If that hurricane had stayed a half hour more, we would not be here," she says. "And it felt like a nightmare afterward, for eight weeks straight."
Pope is not the only resident to put it that way.
For Fran and Andy Morrell, owners of the lifestyle apparel brand HIHO as well as a home and design shop on the island who live on the northern shore of Tortola, the storm practically reached into their beseiged home, and yanked their beloved dogs into its grip.
"We were making our way up to the safest room in our house—the pantry in the center of the kitchen," Andy recalls, "And we looked around and the dogs were gone. They'd been sucked out into the storm."
The Morrells endured the storm without their pets and began, in sorrow, to assess the damage to their home after it had passed. "One dog just showed back up," Fran says, "and then the next morning, the other." It's a story that contains both the threat and then the miracle of survival.
Although no longer a true monarchy (but still a British Overseas Territory), the British Virgin Islands have the feel of a kingdom set apart. Forming an oblong ring that blocks the oceanic swells of the Atlantic Ocean from the north but lets the tradewinds of the east blow across the Caribbean Sea in the center, the islands create a sailor's paradise, the ultimate spot for cruising. And those cruisers—well-heeled in boat shoes and stowing rum below decks—have always loved a party on shore, which has led to the BVIs being home to secluded resorts and epic beach bars (including the Willy T, a bar occupying a boat now moored off Peter Island).
Irma picked up shipping containers, boats, cars, and trucks and tossed them like plastic Monopoly pieces. The storm (and Hurricane Maria, just 10 days later) tore roofs from buildings, ripped up coral below the ocean's surface, and reduced acres of lush green foliage to dull gray.
But the achingly deep blue of that sheltered sea remains, as do beaches often made larger by torn-away trees and sand pushed back on shore. It's a paradise revised, and into it have stepped thousands of hearty islanders who say that the one thing they want the rest of the world to know is that they are there and they can't wait to see everyone come back.
That joie de survivre is poured into every Painkiller shaken into rummy sweetness by Leon Miller at the Soggy Dollar, a lime-green outpost of drinking, snacking, and hanging out on Jost Van Dyke. Miller, a videographer and photographer, has not only been welcoming day-trippers back to Soggy Dollar, but also working on a mangrove and palm replanting project on the island, a crucial part of habitat recovery and erosion protection.
In the next cove over, the redoubtable Foxy Callwood, of the renowned beach bar that bears his name, has rebuilt his collection of lean-tos and shady spots that epitomizes the BVI's rascally brand of tropical life. Even Foxy's famous Jenga game—an oversize stack of two-by-fours, scrawled with names and exhortations from the archipelago's travelers—has been carefully reassembled. It's a reminder of the resilience—and the fragility—of all things man-made, in a world so beautifully blue.
WATCH: How To Make a Caribbean Rum Swizzle
The Terrance B. Lettsome airport on Tortola is served from San Juan, Puerto Rico, by Cape Air, Liat, Seaborne, and InterCaribbean Airways.
Getting to Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina is about the easiest connection in the BVIs: It's a five-minute walk from the airport to Trellis Bay, where a private ferry picks you up and whisks you 1.5 miles to the palm-lined marina and resort. Another benefit of basing a BVI vacation at Scrub Island is that it's a home base for Dive BVI, a terrific charter service for day trips both above and beneath the water.
Ten beachfront guest rooms sustained by solar power are just one of many things to love at Cooper Island Beach Club, a low-key, fashionable boutique hotel on this island northeast of Tortola. An onsite (and solar-powered) brewery, excellent coffee bar and restaurant, beautifully curated boutique, and rum bar with more than 100 selections complete the castaway magic. Rates start at $235.
Because of its location at the northern rim of the BVIs, low-lying, beachy Anegada Island missed the central fury of Irma. This means the recently redone, luxury glamping resort Anegada Beach Club survived with its substantial barefoot charms—including beachfront palapas—intact. Rates start at $225.
On the island's eastern peninsula, the eco-minded and luxurious Oil Nut Bay community was one of the first properties in the BVIs to reopen, with 11 suites and villas available for rent (17 are expected by December). Rates start at $750. Beloved Biras Creek Resort, closed since 2015 because of legal issues, plans to reopen with 12 rooms in November.
On Apple Bay facing Jost Van Dyke, the Sugar Mill Hotel—a low-key, Old Caribbean–style hotel built amid the remains of a 400-year-old estate— returns in November. (The spa is already open.) Rates start at $295.
MORE PRIVATE ISLANDS
Off the northeast end of Tortola, the serene Guana Island resort has reopened its 15 rooms in posh stone cottages, adding three new greenhouses to its orchard and restoring the offshore coral reef. Rates start at $720 (all-inclusive).
Nearby, the small, very private, and solar-powered Eustatia Island reopens its full-island offering for up to 16 guests in November. Rates start at $35,000 per night (all-inclusive).
The luxurious Peter Island Resort & Spa is continuing to rebuild after devastating damage.
On Richard Branson's Necker Island, the Great House has been restored and reopened in October, with more accommodations to come in 2019. November Celebration Week rates start at $13,575 per couple for a three-night stay.
SPEND YOUR VACATION ON A BOAT
Chartering a live-aboard sail or motor yacht has always been a classic way to explore the BVIs. The Moorings offers a variety of boats and itineraries to suit any kind of group out of its base on Tortola, as well as packages custom designed for your needs and dreams. Rates start at $2,531 for two passengers for seven nights.
Help Right Now
Donations to Seeds of Love fund the purchase of seedlings and saplings, which are planted by BVI residents and guests, to restore vital vegetation destroyed by the storm.