A-list stays - exploring the British Virgin Islands' array of private isles

Joanna Booth finds private islands catering for elite travellers in the British Virgin Islands

"And over there is where they’re building a glass-bottomed pool jutting out from the cliff edge…” Taxi drivers are often the best sources of local gossip, and if my experience in the British Virgin Islands is anything to go by, this is just as true on the sea as on land.

For the duration of a sun-soaked, half-hour water taxi ride, we hung on our driver Mitchell’s every word, until they were whipped away by the breeze. After pointing out Necker Island he was now outlining what the local rumour mill was saying about new developments taking place at Richard Branson’s second private playground, Moskito.

Then it was on to who owned the neighbouring island of Eustatia – that’ll be Google founder Larry Page – and finally his verdict on the manners of the many A-listers who’d hopped aboard his boat (Beyoncé and Jay-Z are apparently charming. Kanye, not so much).

When this destination gets called a billionaire’s playground, it’s no exaggeration. The BVIs are used to hosting the mega-rich, whether they’re staying in superyachts or on sumptuous private islands.

Even the marginally less stratospheric stays are utterly luxurious, coming with standards and service levels to delight your most demanding clients. However, there’s no hint of snobbery. Clients here are more entrepreneurial than aristocratic, and the atmosphere is friendly and open – it’s the perfect place to rub shoulders with the jet set.

Private paradise

As Necker and Moskito disappeared in our wake, I experienced a moment of concern. The serious kerb appeal of these neighbouring properties had set the bar high – would our accommodation for the next few days live up to my expectations? When I stepped onto the jetty at Oil Nut Bay it quickly became clear I had nothing to worry about.

On either side the water glowed an almost supernatural cyan in front of a gently curving white sand beach, and the hill rising above it was dotted with sleek villas.

Our bags were immediately whisked from our hands and replaced with freshly opened coconuts, and then it was time to hop on a golf buggy and head off for our in-villa check-in.

We were staying in Cheemaun, a palatial three-bedroom villa just steps from the sand, making it a tough call to choose between a cooling dip in the bay or in the private pool, shaded by mature palms.

With a vast living room backed by a gourmet kitchen and multiple outdoor relaxation areas I could easily have passed an afternoon simply pottering around the villa, but there was much more of Oil Nut Bay to discover. The 400-acre site is home to a handful of one-bedroom suites with private pools, but the main focus is the villas.

These range from one-bed hideaways right up to six-bed palaces with chef’s kitchens and expansive entertaining spaces. All are privately owned and individually styled – some have sleek, minimalist lines, others showcase striking artworks, and some, like Cheemaun, have a laid-back but luxurious beach house vibe.

All have private pools, and many of the options with secluded, cliff-top locations feature some of the most jaw-dropping Caribbean views I’ve seen.

Elevated activities

While clients could happily hole up and enjoy uninterrupted privacy, booking private chefs and in-villa spa treatments, all the accommodation comes with a golf buggy, and there are a host of facilities to zoom off to when the mood takes you.

The Beach Club provides a low-key chance to socialise, with three cabana-lined pools, a cocktail bar and a relaxed restaurant serving crowd-pleasing dishes that range from burgers and surf and turf to blackened local mahi-mahi and whole lobster from sister island Anegada.

Behind this area are tennis and pickleball courts, a well-equipped gym, an adventure playground and the charming thatch-roofed kids’ club, complete with a hobbit-like round doorway and beams styled to look like tree trunks.

Kids will also love the Rescue Barn, which provides a home for an eclectic range of creatures including horses, tortoises, numerous cats and even a family of emus. Further around the peninsula, in a deep and sheltered bay, there’s a 93-slip marina, backed by stylish overwater restaurant Nova.

It’s a lively spot, noted for its cocktails and bottomless weekend brunches that are popular with the yachting crowd as well as guests. Recommend that clients try the hand-rolled sushi – we ordered a platter and it arrived theatrically presented on a carved wooden boat stretching the length of the table.

There’s a weekly activity programme, with group fitness classes, guided snorkelling and themed nights at the restaurants, but there’s an even wider choice of tailor-made adventures. Accompanied by watersports manager Tom we paddledboarded in the bay, watching sea turtles and eagle rays dart beneath us, and took a speedboat trip down to The Baths.

These huge, photogenic boulders at the tip of Virgin Gorda are a must-see – we swam ashore, clambered among the rocks and caves, then snorkelled our way back to the boat, spotting colourful reef fish at every turn.

Although Oil Nut Bay isn’t technically an island – a narrow strip of land joins the resort to the rest of Virgin Gorda – it’s accessible only by boat and helicopter, so feels completely private.

With the helipad now able to process international arrivals, clients can travel direct from Antigua, bypassing the need to take an additional commercial flight to Tortola and transfer from there.

Sociable scrub

Just a short boat transfer from the airport in Tortola, Scrub Island Resort has a livelier, more communal feel. Alongside 11 villas of different sizes, there’s a hotel with rooms and suites and an expansive pool deck where guests can sunbathe, chatting at the swim-up bar and ordering Caribbean favourites from Donovan’s Reef grill.

Boats and catamarans are constantly coming and going from the busy marina, and there’s a host of watersports on offer, from snorkelling and scuba to stand-up paddleboarding and a wide range of sailing courses.

Yet it’s easy to find tranquillity too. A short walk or buggy ride around the headland is the secluded North Bay beach, where you can laze under a palm and order cocktails from the One Shoe Beach Bar.

All villas have private pools, but book clients into the two-bed Beach House and they’ll find a winding pathway leading to a secluded sun deck and down to the untouched sands of Honeymoon Beach.

We experienced the ultimate desert island dining, with a toes-in-the-surf lobster lunch at the neighbouring speck of sand Marina Cay.

Island hopping

The resort, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, is situated on Little Scrub, joined by a narrow isthmus to undeveloped Big Scrub. At a mile and a half long it makes for a lovely sunrise hike, with 360-degree views from the top stretching away to many of the other islands in the group.

This is one of the world’s top sailing destinations, and if clients come here without spending a little time at sea they will feel cheated. You can charter them a liveaboard (Box, page 43) or, if they’re more like day trippers, book a crewed motorboat or power catamaran so that they can hop between a handful of highlights.

The quintessential BVI bar is the Soggy Dollar, an open-air affair set on the picture-perfect sands of White Bay on Jost Van Dyke. We moor up, and, as is traditional, swim ashore for a powerful ‘painkiller’ punch.

After a round or three of these rum-laced cocktails, the thought of swimming back is less appealing. Not to worry, there’s a tender waiting for us. Little wonder – this is a destination where clairvoyant levels of service make every aspect of a trip plain sailing.

Stay at sea

With consistent winds and islands in close proximity, the BVIs could have been designed to suit sailors. In fact, much of its infrastructure is, with plentiful marinas set up to welcome everything from celebrity superyachts to sport fishing boats.

Dream Yacht Charter offers both catamarans and monohulls, bookable by the cabin or as a whole craft, and bareboat, with a skipper, or full crew. We set sail in a 40ft catamaran under the calm captaincy of Erwin de Wijs, mooring up to snorkel in deserted bays and dine at signature restaurants.

My favourite was Saba Rock, a tiny acre-wide island with a sleek restaurant that served elevated versions of Caribbean classics, from conch fritters and grouper burgers to jerk chicken Caesar salad.

After the sprawling villas at Scrub Island and Oil Nut Bay the cabins did feel snug, but I was surprised how comfortable the queen-sized beds were and how much storage space there was.

It’s a little rough and ready compared with the all-out luxury of the BVIs’ land stays, but wannabe salty seadogs won’t find a more stylish spot to sail.

Book it: Elegant Resorts offers seven nights at Oil Nut Bay in a Bay Suite from £5,529 per person based on two sharing or in Cheemaun Villa from £7,589 per person based on six sharing, including flights from Gatwick.

A cabin on a crewed, full-board seven-night charter on a six-cabin catamaran with Dream Yacht Charter starts from £2,035 per person based on two sharing a cabin, flights not included.

elegantresorts.co.ukStay at sea

With consistent winds and islands in close proximity, the BVIs could have been designed to suit sailors. In fact, much of its infrastructure is, with plentiful marinas set up to welcome everything from celebrity superyachts to sport fishing boats.

Dream Yacht Charter offers both catamarans and monohulls, bookable by the cabin or as a whole craft, and bareboat, with a skipper, or full crew. We set sail in a 40ft catamaran under the calm captaincy of Erwin de Wijs, mooring up to snorkel in deserted bays and dine at signature restaurants.

My favourite was Saba Rock, a tiny acre-wide island with a sleek restaurant that served elevated versions of Caribbean classics, from conch fritters and grouper burgers to jerk chicken Caesar salad.

After the sprawling villas at Scrub Island and Oil Nut Bay the cabins did feel snug, but I was surprised how comfortable the queen-sized beds were and how much storage space there was.

It’s a little rough and ready compared with the all-out luxury of the BVIs’ land stays, but wannabe salty seadogs won’t find a more stylish spot to sail.

Book it: Elegant Resorts offers seven nights at Oil Nut Bay in a Bay Suite from £5,529 per person based on two sharing or in Cheemaun Villa from £7,589 per person based on six sharing, including flights from Gatwick.

A cabin on a crewed, full-board seven-night charter on a six-cabin catamaran with Dream Yacht Charter starts from £2,035 per person based on two sharing a cabin, flights not included. elegantresorts.co.uk

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