When sailing around the British Virgin Islands, a typical day goes something like this: breakfast, sail, snorkel, lunch, sunbathe, swim, cocktails, sunset, dinner, sleep. The next day: repeat. It never gets old.
The four main islands and numerous smaller isles and cayes of the BVI serve as a playground for sailboats, with turquoise-blue waters, powder-white beaches and short distances from one idyllic cove to the next. The archipelago "is perhaps the most popular sailing destination in the world because we have been blessed with steady trade winds, very protected sailing grounds and a beautiful and diverse chain of islands," said Liane Le Tendre, a broker whose Bareboats BVI (www.bareboatsbvi.com) offers tips for chartering catamarans (multi-hulls) and mono-hulls - with captain and crew or without. Estimating more than 100 boats each week are chartered from various fleets, another broker, Lisa Eberle of the Catamaran Company, said: the BVIs "were put on this earth for chartering".
This type of vacation is not just for members of a yacht club. A boat for four to six people for a week of island hopping can range from about $2,000 to more than $5,000, depending on the time of year and the amenities on board. Large catamarans, which offer a more stable ride, can hold groups of up to 12 people. Mono-hulls, on the other hand, heel in the wind, giving you the excitement of that classic sailing experience. Those who know how to sail can go off on their own (called a "bareboat charter") and novices can pay about $150 per day for a captain. If you want some pampering, your own personal cook will cost about another $150 per day (plus tip). But it is easy enough to provision the boat - local grocery stores will deliver to the dock - and you can cook in the galley or a topside grill.
Living on a boat for a week gives new meaning to "oceanfront". The back of the boat is your own mobile diving board, and snorkeling spots and beaches are just a few lazy, doggie-paddle strokes away. Beyond just relaxing - not that there is anything wrong with that - these islands offer adventurous and active pursuits. On the island Virgin Gorda, there is wind surfing, kite boarding, non-motorized sailboat rentals and even on-land hiking. Virgin Gorda also houses the Baths, a shoreline of cavernous walkways and hidden pools formed by giant boulders. Surfers can rent boards to catch waves on Tortola and have a drink at the legendary Bomba Shack - known for its raucous full-moon parties - afterward. Dive companies provide "rendezvous diving", where boats will come pick up scuba divers, wherever your boat may be. One must-see is the RMS Rhone, a 300-foot Royal Mail Steamship that sunk in a hurricane in 1867. The stern of the ship is shallow enough for snorkelers to get a great view of the propeller.
Boating around the BVI gives you the opportunity to set your own itinerary, and change it on a whim. If you are in the mood for tranquil coves and deserted beaches, or live music and jam-packed floating beach bars, they have that. Anchor at the laid-back island of Jost Van Dyke - population about 200 - for beautiful bays filled with surfacing turtles. It is also the birthplace of the BVI's signature drink, the Painkiller (dark rum, cream of coconut, pineapple juice, orange juice). If you are hunting for more of a high-seas adventure, and your charter company allows it, take the two- to three-hour sail to Anegada, a flat, sparse island with gorgeous, empty beaches, a flock of flamingos and a large supply of lobster, which dominates the restaurant menus.
Whether you choose to charter a boat through a broker, a charter company or an individual owner, ask plenty of questions about the condition of the sailboat and the experience of the captain. Ask for references and do a little Internet-snooping of your own to learn about the company's reputation. While you could throw caution to the wind, so to speak, and not come up with an itinerary, some pre-trip planning of where you want to sail can increase the relaxation factor. You can always change course later.