Tortola Vacation - Travel Guide
Due to hurricane Irma that struck on September 6, 2017, information about this area may be subject to change, as we gather more data.
Plan your perfect Tortola vacations with this destination guide, offering the information about the island you may need. The biggest island of the British Virgin Islands, Tortola is a popular destination thanks to its laid back atmosphere, friendly locals, great sailing, diving and snorkeling. Tortola resorts experience less crowds than other Caribbean islands.
- Tortola Resorts
- Virgin Gorda
- Virgin Gorda Resorts
- Jost Van Dyke
Why choose Tortola vacation?
Here are the top reasons that attract tourists to Tortola:
British Virgin Islands are considered as the world's most popular sailing destination and many people choose Tortola vacation precisely for this reason. The waters are calm, the beaches are quiet and it's the perfect chance to relax on the beach or have a cocktail on your boat. Several charter companies with different sailing boats are available for your convenience, and you may rent them for as long as you would like. If you are a beginner, then we suggest renting one with a captain, if you are intermediate or an advanced professional, you may even rent your boat for the entire vacation. Renting privately (not splitting the charge with a large group of friends) might get a tad too hard on the wallet, but for those that are up to something special during Tortola vacation it's a great way to experience something out of ordinary and enjoy the island.
Since Tortola is a sailing point with more than 60 islands in the British Virgin Islands chain, sailors have the opportunity to drop their anchors almost anywhere and enjoy the beautiful beaches and the Tortola weather.
Tortola is more of a relaxed atmosphere island rather than very busy. It does not hold mass tourism as other Caribbean places and offers laid-back, but luxurious resorts, where tourists can unwind from their daily life routines and enjoy their Tortola vacations. However, if you move closer to the capital city Road Town, that's where all the movement begins.
Old government House Museum in Tortola's capital city Road Town is a must see historical venue on your Tortola vacation. It used to serve as official government building up until the year of 1997. You will discover vintage furniture, hand-painted china as well as books that were signed when Queen Elizabeth II visited the island in 1966 and 1977. Dive into the epoch of history and uncover the past of this magnificent island of Tortola.
Dolphin Discovery is a place where you get to know the dolphins by choosing one of the three programs that the center has to offer. You are welcome to pick a dive with the dolphins where they tow you around the pen that they swim in, or choose a less expensive activity where you can touch and feel the smartest mammals.
Tortola vacations are also popular thanks to the island's vast variety of snorkeling, paddleboarding, diving, fishing and water sports in general. Tortola's clear waters and mystical underwater world is calling for a fun exploration. The best dive sites are Alice in Wonderland, Blonde Rock, Brewers Bay Pinnacle, and Painted Walls, the most shallow dive site out of all. Depending on the site, the depth of the dive ranges from 15 feet to about 100 feet. Do not forget to check out the Chikuzen, the 246-feet vessel that sunk north-west of Brewers Bay back in 1981 and is home to thousands of fish, colorful corals and reefs.
Best time to go to Tortola
High season in Tortola usually approaches the island closer to Christmas and ends in the beginning of April. Rates in the off-season can become considerably less while the weather stays very pleasant and inviting, so book your Tortola vacation in advance as hotels get filled up fairly quickly. The most expensive time in Tortola is during Christmas and New Years time, when many tourists gather to party and celebrate.
March through May can be such a great time go on Tortola vacation. The islands experience the weather of 77°F (25°C) to about 90°F (32°C), and you can even get amazing deals on hotel and air packages. Spring Regatta begins in the last week of March up until first week of April, so the rates can become high during that time. The very best time to visit Tortola would be early March, late April or May, because not only you will omit the crowds but also save on deals. This is the perfect timing for divers as the water is clear and the visibility under the water is at its finest. For those that want very clear skies with no clouds or rain visit the island in June, you will be amazed by the colour of the water and the skies.
Rains in Tortola normally start in July and a hurricane season approaches around that time as well, so some of the hotels might be closed during that period of time. However, those hotels and resorts that do operate during the summer months might offer more reasonable prices.
September and November is one of the best times to go on Tortola vacation with the temperatures at around 29-30°C (84-85°F) with the hurricane season being over.
Where is Tortola on the map?
Tortola is the biggest island of British Virgin Islands. The islands are located on the north-west side of Antigua and Barbuda which is approximately 334.26 km (207.7 miles) apart and east of Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic, with its' distance at 207 km (128.6 miles) to Puerto Rico and 583 km (362.3 miles) to Dominican Republic.
Capital city of Tortola
Photo by Thomas Pavlick
Capital city of Tortola Road Town has a population of approximately 9,700. The oldest building in Road Town is Her Majesty Prison. This prison plays many important roles in the community such as serving as a young offenders institute, juvenile detention center, remand centre and immigration removal facility. This prison is a historical destination and a must-see on your Tortola vacation. It executed Auther W. Hodge for the murder of a slave on May 8th, 1811.
Back in 1983 there was a fire all over the Road Town that destroyed almost everything across the town. The government increased the cattle tax and angry rioters set most of the plantations on flames.
Slavery in Tortola was abolished back in 1807; however, the slaves did not gain their freedom until August 1, 1834, when the Emancipation Proclamation was read at Sunday Morning Well in Tortola's capital Road Town. This date is vert important to the residents of British Virgin Islands and is celebrated every year in a form of a Carnival.
Since British Virgin Islands is a center of sailing, Road Town provides a lot of water sport activities as well as sailing opportunities for those on Tortola vacation. Visit the Rhone National Marine Dive site that is located off the coast of Salt Island, which is about 11 km away from Road town and is accessible by a boat. You will discover wrecks of a RMS Rhone (a UK Mail Ship) that sunk on October 29, 1867 killing 123 people that were onboard. It is a very popular diving site among the tourists and people take this adventure to experience history, to look through the wrecks and explore the undersea world.
Most of Tortola's shops are in Road Town. There is quite a big selection of merchandise, imported or local, so a variety of gifts to take home are available for your shopping experience on your Tortola vacation. If you are renting a villa or a yacht in Road Town, or are stopping here and anchoring your sail boat nearby, visit the Ample Hamper shop. Its' vast selection of cheeses, wine, fruits and other goods from United Kingdom will amaze you. The staff from Ample Hamper will help you load your purchases and will stock your villa or yacht for you.
Everyone brings something special from their Tortola vacation as a memory of a good time spent or as gifts for friends and family. Look no further than the Sunny Caribbee. This brightly painted West Indian house packs its' own tea and coffee, spices and herbs, vinegars, hot sauces, soaps, suntan lotions, paintings and prints from many artists of the Caribbean. For one of a kind gift get Arawak Love Potion tea or Caribbee Bouquet Garni spice. You can also find a lot of souvenirs to please anyone's taste and budget, but we would suggest getting something that the island makes itself, such as tea, coffee, spices and herbs, lotions or soaps.
Population in Tortola
The population in British Virgin Islands is calculated to be at 30,546 as of May, 2016. The residents of the islands are descendants of African slaves, and these Afro-Caribbean people make up most of the population of all the islands. There are approximately 7% of the European population (mostly British), 9.5% of many mixes of nationalities such as Black-Carib, Carib-Amerindian, Indian and 4% of Hispanic people.
Tortola is the center of the tourist destination and the core of the best entertainment and fun things to do and to see in BVI. It is one of BVI's mostly populated and the biggest islands that has a population of 24,045 as of the year 2016. Tortola's capital city is called Road Town, where most residents from Tortola island reside. Tortola's land is rich of mountainous surfaces due to volcanic eruptions many years ago and it is the center of life that attracts most tourists for Tortola vacation thanks to its wide variety of shops, restaurants, activities and a lot of fascinating things to do. According to 2014 statistics, the median age for Tortola people is 35.5 years old for males, 35.7 years old for females, which calculates to be the total of 35.6 years.
Local People in Tortola
Politeness is very important to locals in Tortola. People here are used to saying "Good Morning", "Good Afternoon" and "Good Evening" to each other before saying anything else upon meeting one another.
Many years ago, men and women were considered to be equally contributing to the their families where they shared the responsibilities of their households. Women were the homemakers, raising and educating the children, keeping the house tidy and clean, cooking, sewing and gardening, while the men were responsible for building houses, pasturing livestock, fishing and sailing. In other words, they were in charge of providing for their families.
Nowadays, the men and women in Tortola contribute as equally not only to their own homes and families but to the society in general. Men tend to be more in politics, and women try to get out there and influence others through their Churches by organizing community events, festivals and other celebrations. Both males and females of British Virgin Islands are eligible for voting at the age of 18. Residents of Tortola are happy, easy-going people that will be a pleasure to get to know during your Tortola vacation. They raise their children in the strict manner, teaching them respect and appreciation of others, to make good deeds and study hard in order to go far in life. That being said, swimsuits are not allowed outside of the beach area. If you are sun bathing on a public beach, away from the resort and have decided to head back home or to the resort you are staying in, please put a cover up on your swimsuit. It will show a sign of politeness, courtesy and respect towards the island.
Christianity is the primary religion in British Virgin Islands. However, the population is split into several directions of the religion, where 45% of the population is Methodist, 21% are Anglican, 18% of people are Baptist or Pentecostal and there are 6% of Roman Catholics.
Child rearing and education plays a very important role in the life of the residents of Tortola, and British Virgin Island as a whole. Both girls and boys are always dressed neatly and must be well-behaved. They are taught to be respectful of anyone who is older than them, and inquiring about someone's personal life is considered a lack of tact and manners.
When going on Tortola vacation you will discover a lot of modern superstores; however, many locals raise livestock, and grow their own fruits and vegetables which they later sell at the outdoor markets.
The official language in the British Virgin Islands and Tortola is English. Even though there is a local dialect called Virgin Islands Creole, it is a more formal rather than casual dialect and is mostly used by academics and scholars, every day speech is done in English. There are quite a few immigrants from Dominica and Puerto Rico, so you might hear some Spanish on the streets as well during your Tortola vacation.
Standard English and Virgin Islands' Creole differ in pronunciation, spelling and grammar. However, since all of the Caribbean islands hold the creole dialect, the creole accents are very similar from island to island.
How to get to Tortola
Terrance B. Lettsome Airport (a.k.a. Beef Island Airport) is the major airport in British Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, there are no direct flights from U.S.A., Canada, Europe or South America to Terrance B. Lettsome Airport. Travellers going on Tortola vacation must connect through other Caribbean airports such as Puerto Rico, Antigua, St.Maarten/St.Martin, St. Thomas or others. Check with your travel agent or the airline company to see where you will be departing from and arriving to depending on your home country.
Several airlines fly regularly to either Tortola or its' sister island Virgin Gorda, from either San Juan ( Puerto Rico) or St.Thomas (US Virgin Islands). If you are looking for a cheaper air deal try flying through Puerto Rico, which is the most direct way to travel to British Virgin Islands.
St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, offers better connections as well, but prices might be higher compared to Puerto Rico. In case you are going on Tortola vacation with group of friends, you can always charter a plane from either St. Thomas or San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital. Choosing your way to fly to the islands is solely based on your personal preference and budget.
Tortola vacation options
There are quite a few vacation options available for guests while staying in Tortola. Even though most of them are not large resorts, they still provide the amenities that you need and unforgettable Tortola vacation. Long Bay Resort is the only accommodation that actually classifies as a resort, but having said that the tourism industry is rapidly growing on the islands, so expect a progression and the selection of more resorts in the future.
You will find an abundance of villas and condos for rent in Tortola, as well as resorts that are not all-inclusive. Villas and condos are becoming more and more popular and are a perfect idea for a family with kids or a group of friends as they are more private. The non all-inclusive resorts provide restaurant options that will not be included in the price of the hotel/resort, where you will responsible for paying every time you dine.
For your convenience shops are also available on the resort properties to stock up on groceries and other things that you might need in your room. There are smaller inns, bigger resorts/hotels and apartments for rent for those that would like to stay longer on Tortola vacation, so it's a matter of personal preference and budgeting.
Tortola is a tropical island and the weather is fairly consistent throughout the year. From June to November, there is a chance, that the hurricane season will approach the island. Nonetheless it is always hard to foresee when exactly the hurricane will hit. It has to be fully formed and needs to be about 2 days away from the islands. Tortola also lies fairly close to the earthquake area so very rare but extremely light earthquakes occur on this island.
Temperatures range from the 77°F (25°C) to about 90°F (32°C). Although there are no real winter months in BVI, the temperatures get slightly cooler towards Christmas and New Years' time, so choose your Tortola vacation time wisely. The waters are rougher and the visibility into the distance of the ocean is not as clear.
Average yearly Weather for Tortola, British Virgin Islands, by Wikpedia
There are a lot of activities available and much of a celebration is going on in Tortola in the months of December and January while celebrating the 2 most popular holidays Christmas and New Year's. If you want to check out the hottest spots on your Tortola vacation where many people gather, try Foxxy's Bar that is located on Jost Van Dyke island that has many themed events and festivals in BVI, or simply explore Quito's Gazebo restaurant and lounge bar on Cane Garden Bay, where you can enjoy the most delicious Caribbean cuisine and some of the island's finest cocktails, while listening to live music.
British Virgin Islands traditionally hold 2 of their most famous celebrations. BVI Emancipation Festival occurs from July to August and is one of those celebrations that marks the anniversary of the 1834 Emancipation Act to terminate the slavery on the islands. Emancipation Festival includes donkey rides, live music, food and drinks, a pageant, a variety of competitions and a lot of fun for the entire family. Another fun celebration in Tortola that many people in the world are waiting and preparing for is called Spring Regatta. Spring Regatta is a sailing competition, where a lot of sailing enthusiasts get their boats ready to race through the waters of Nanny Cay Marina. This sailing festival occurs yearly from March-April and runs for 7 days, but for those that would like a shorter period of time, can sign up to participate in the 3-day competition. Even though generally the Spring Regatta occurs in the spring, dates for this event vary. Please check the dates prior to coming or booking your Tortola vacation. The Spring Regatta has a carnival-like atmosphere where guests can enjoy a variety of foods and drinks, games, dancing and a whole lot of fun./
Public Transportation in Tortola
There are no buses in Tortola; however, taxi van service is widely popular there. If you plan to travel by a taxi, it is always cheaper to travel in groups as taxi rates might get expensive. Taxi fares are already fixed, so prior to boarding the car, double check the price and enjoy your trip.
There are also open-air safari buses available for those that are taking tours, and if the buses are not occupied by the tour guests, they line up in the roundabout in Road Town to take people home from work at 4:00 p.m. Safari buses are a little cheaper than taxi vans, and when there are no tours, they serve as taxis and buses.
Renting a car is another option to choose to see the beautiful island of Tortola. If you would like to see some of the parts of the island that are located further away from the center, then rent a 4-wheel drive. It will give you the opportunity to get to know the island, get you many places and you will be able to enjoy the scenery Tortola has to offer.
Main roads in Tortola are smoothly paved and do not have a lot of potholes or bumps; however, in some areas roads are not well taken care of, so pay extra attention while driving. Roads in Tortola during rush time, which happens in the morning and afternoon hours can be quite busy, so if you would like to avoid a stream of cars and a serious traffic jam, omit the Waterfront Drive and go through the hills above Road Town. Especially during the winter months, parking can be a headache to find, as the roads get more congested than usual, but the best and less busy parking spots would be along the waterfront and the east-end of the downtown.
Rent a car in Tortola
Car rental is available in Tortola and offers a variety of vehicles for customers to choose from. Tourists can rent their cars on the 2 most popular islands Tortola and Virgin Gorda. If you are visiting other islands, a car is not necessary to have, as a lot of trails and paths are available to walk by foot, since those islands are significantly small. The minimum age for renting a car in Tortola is 25 years old, and not until recently tourists do not need to purchase a driver's permit in Tortola. If you have a valid Driver's License from your home country you should be fine to rent a car as long as your age permits you to do so in the law of Tortola.
If you are planning on staying in Tortola longer than 30 days, a temporary license is required for a small fee of $10.00. That license lets you drive for up to three months. If you are planning on permanently residing in Tortola, then there is a procedure of obtaining Virgin Island's Driver's License. If you already possess a foreign license then you only need to complete a written test. If you do not hold a Driver's License and are a new driver then you would have to take both the written and driving tests in order to obtain a regular license. A Learner’s Permit from the DMV for $20.00 would also be required to complete the procedure.
Driving is on the left-hand side like in United Kingdom, and the steering wheel is on the left-hand side like in United States. Drive very carefully and if you go up the hill, then be kind, blow your horn so the driver on the other side of the hill will know to proceed with caution.
It is very common for locals to get picked up by cars if they are travelling in the same direction. Do not be alarmed if someone flags you down, if you feel safe, there is no harm in giving a ride to the person.
It is typical to stop for pedestrians while they are crossing the road in Tortola even if the area is not designated for crossing. Parking is free, tourists may park on any spot that they can find and feel it's not in the way of traffic. Gas prices vary but are very similar to the United States gas fees. Tortola island is only 19 km (11.8 miles) so the consumption of fuel is tolerable and should not get expensive. Some of the gas stations operate on a non self-service manner, making it easy and convenient for tourists to stay in their cars while the gas is being pumped by the employee.
Tipping in Tortola
Tipping in Tortola is common just like at any other vacation place. Most hotels add a service charge ranging from 5% to 18% and include that in your bill. There is a charge of 10% if you decide to use your credit card at one of the shops or restaurants in Tortola. However, if you use cash, you can avoid being billed extra. British Virgin Islands does not impose a sale tax on its' residents/tourists, but when you book your Tortola vacation, a 7% government tax is added to the hotel bills.
Anyone who helps you and is making your Tortola vacation enjoyable should be rewarded and in most cases a 15%-20% tip is appreciated. A 15% is a great tip, but if you believe that the service staff provided phenomenal assistance, then you may give a 20% tip. The service staff in Tortola never expect to receive a tip, but if you acknowledge their great service and positive attitude towards you they will be more than happy.
It is not obligatory to tip the taxi drivers, but you may wish to give them a 15% tip if they provided an exceptional service. Maids and housekeepers would receive approximately $2.50-$4.00 per day, depending on your preference and satisfaction of the service provided.
Solicitation in Tortola
Harassment in Tortola is extremely rare, almost non-existent. Though you might find locals selling things on the beach, they never approach you in an aggressive manner or pester for money. They are very nice and friendly people that like to chat. So if you are not interested in buying anything off them, exchange a word or two, they will be happy.
Safety In Tortola
Tortola is such a safe place to be on vacation, you can walk outside of your resort even at night (in the well-lit areas) and nobody will bother you. There is a story that goes around on the island. Many years ago a person broke into someone's home. After he got caught he is not allowed on the island anymore. People of Tortola take pride in their island, their homes, traditions and their culture. In case someone breaks the law, they get punished for it, no questions asked. That is why tourists and locals feel extremely safe during Tortola vacation.
Exercising regular safety measures is important when travelling aboard. Tortola is known as a very safe island and other than taking into account regular security measures, tourists should feel secure. Do not walk alone at night or in poorly lit areas, and do not leave your belongings unattended. If you are leaving your hotel and are planning on being outside of the resort for some time, just leave all your valuables in a hotel safe.
Driving is on the left-hand side, and the position of the steering wheel is on the left side of the vehicle. Roads are not even, rather steep and curvy, due to being hilly and volcanic from the volcanic explosions that occurred about 25 million year ago from the subsoils of the sea, so pay extra attention on the road.
There are no public nudist beaches in Tortola, because tanning topless is illegal. Also, Tortola's sun can be brutal especially before 11:00 a.m., so consider wearing a sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses to escape sunburns.
There are no dangerous land animals in the British Virgin Islands; however, stay away from Oleander and Elephant Ear plants and the Manchineel Tree. Oleander is a plant that looks like a pretty flower, but all parts of Oleander are poisonous. Burning the Oleander shrubs and inhalation of the smoke can cause severe skin irritation and any contact with this plant altogether can cause allergic reactions or can even become fatal.
Elephant Ear plant has a rather unique story. It is eaten by many people in many parts of the world, yet it carries calcium oxalate, or oxalic acid, the toxins that if consumed in large amounts can cause serious illness or even death. People who use elephant ear plant in preparing their meals, eat it cooked, not raw. This plant forms the basis for poi, a Hawaiian dish that is served at the traditional Hawaiian feast called luaus.
Manchineel Tree is another extremely poisonous tree you should avoid on your Tortola vacation. It is found almost everywhere on the Caribbean beaches, and in Tortola. It has a wide treetop that provides a shade. Its' leaves have a milky substance and if contacted with the skin it causes severe skin dermatitis or even death. Eating the fruit from this tree that look like apples is extremely dangerous and causes instant death. The Manchineel Tree is so big it can provide shade or even shelter during sun or rain, but even if one drop of the milky substance is mixed with the rain and touches the skin, it will cause severe blisters and is very painful. In case you need to hide from the sun or escape from the rain, seek shelter somewhere else, do not come near this dangerous tree.
There are water dangers in Tortola as well. Fire coral and sea urchins cause the most problems. A lot of the reef fish carry a serious disease called ciguatera. Just to be on the safe side, never eat the fish that you catch. It's best to go fishing with an experienced guide on your Tortola vacation, that way he will know what fish is safe to consume and what is not.
It is illegal to do spear fishing in British Virgin Islands, and the use of Scuba gear to catch any marine animal or even a coral is against the law.
Drinkable Water in Tortola
While drinking tap water on some of the other Caribbean islands might not be a good idea, Tortola's water is very safe to drink, and there is no reason to stay away from it during your Tortola vacation. Most of the tap water is a desalinated salt water; however, some areas use cisterns. In case you don't like the taste of Tortola's tap water or are taking extra precautions and would like to purchase bottled water, then big jugs of same is available to you in stores.
Electricity in Tortola
The voltage in Tortola is 110-120 volts and the frequency is 60 Hz. If the voltage in your country is different from the one in Tortola, it is advised to bring your own plug adapter or a converter. If the frequency in your country is more or less 60 Hz, use your appliances that you are bringing with you at your own risk. To escape the stress of trying to find the appropriate plug adapters, cables and charges during your Tortola vacation, get them ready and put them in a suitcase in advance. That way all of your electronic devices will always be charged and ready to go.
Tortola lives on the Atlantic Standard Time Zone, but it does not operate the daylight-saving time.
Sources: travel.usnews.com, wikipedia.org, citypopulation.de, sunnycaribbee.com, worldpopulationreview.com, bvi.gov.vg, indexmundi.com, everyculture.com, iexplore.com, bestofbvi.com, bvitourism.com, , bvispringregatta.org, triptutor.com, bvinewbie.com, wikitravel.org