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Double Life of Virgin Gorda

A travel feature for the LA Times.

How about some fresh-brewed espresso and warm, flaky croissants – in bed?” I murmured to my husband shortly after sunrise one morning in Virgin Gorda.

“Wrong island,” he said, thinking back to the excellent French food we enjoyed several years earlier during our honeymoon in Martinique. Then he looked over the side of the bed and saw two pairs of eyes staring up at us – our two-year-old twin daughters who had just padded out of our cottage’s other room. “No,” he shook his head, “wrong life.”

OK, so we weren’t eating and drinking our way through a pampered week at a posh resort. While we love the romance of a peaceful tropical island as much as the next couple, this time we were traveling with our toddler twins, who are definite inhibitors of both romance and peace. And unlike most visitors to the British Virgin Islands, we don’t even sail. Then what were we doing on Virgin Gorda?

While this tranquil corner of the Caribbean has a well-deserved reputation as an idyllic playground for the yachting set, we found that it is also a comfortable, manageable place for a quiet family holiday at the beach. And with off-season rates in effect from April 15 – December 15 (we visited in late April), we found it to be surprisingly affordable.

The kinds of activities that our children enjoy – building sand castles on the beach, exploring hidden caves, chasing lizards and chickens, and splashing around in warm, tranquil water – are all abundant and free on Virgin Gorda. One of our favorite sandy spots was the beach at Spring Bay, on the island’s southwestern shore. The beach is scattered with the enormous boulders that distinguish several of Virgin Gorda’s beaches, as if the Jolly Green Giant had brought his toddler twins to pile up rocks on the water’s edge.

To get to Spring Bay beach, we hiked down the short but steep-for-toddlers path from the main road. First, you reach a small cove sheltered by several towering boulders, with a single picnic table nestled under swaying palms. We continued walking across the sand to the next cove, where the nearly deserted beach was longer and the surf gentler. This is the beach for the Guavaberry Spring Bay Homes, a collection of cottages that perch like tree houses on stilts up the hill back toward the road.

Another good spot for kids is The Baths, one of Virgin Gorda’s best-known attractions, where pools of water formed between the huge boulders. The Baths were the only place where we saw more than a handful of other people. In spite of the beach’s popularity with humans, a surprisingly large array of brilliantly colored tropical fish dart between the boulders, making this one of the best snorkeling spots on Virgin Gorda.

What made The Baths great for the kids, though, was what our family called “The Cave.” We started walking toward Devil’s Bay National Park, where the boulder/pool/beach combination is reportedly most dramatic. Although the trail over the rocks and through the tide pools turned out to be too challenging for our girls, we were able to enjoy a cave-like “room” – which a tour guide dubbed the “Cathedral Room” – near the start of the path. The rocks arched above, shielding us from the sun, while below, a shallow pool provided the perfect toddler wading area.

Our other favorite beach was right at our hotel. We stayed at the Fischer’s Cove Beach Hotel, a handful of cottages and hotel rooms on a sheltered cove. The Fischer’s Cove staff was extremely helpful to our family and welcoming even to our sometimes-rambunctious twins. The cottages – either spacious studios or the “family-sized” one-bedroom units which slept our family of four comfortably – are painted a brilliant, shocking pink that almost glows in the heightened island light. The cottages are decidedly basic, furnished in a hodgepodge of yard sale finds and hand-me-downs and without telephones or TVs, but all are within a few steps of a lovely strip of sandy beach.

The hotel’s veranda is a picturesque spot to have a cocktail and watch the sun set like a spectacular flame across the water and then down into the green hills of neighboring Tortola. Or it is if you’ve left the kids at home. Our girls headed instinctively for the railing overlooking the beach below, squeezing under it to see how far they could hang their heads out over the sand, while my husband and I shouted, “No! No! No!” So much for romantic sunsets.

Fischer’s Cove is about a 10-minute walk south of the Yacht Harbor, where a miniature mini-mall serves as the island’s main shopping area. We helped keep our costs down by walking into town most days to buy bread, fruit, and cheeses for breakfasts and lunches, which we ate on the patio outside our cottage, accompanied by a family of chickens and numerous little lizards. My daughters were fascinated by the wildlife, especially the quick-as-lightning lizards, which they repeatedly tried to lure into their hands with scraps of peanut butter sandwiches.

At the Yacht Harbor, we purchased most of our groceries at tiny Buck’s Market, where in the course of the week we bought out their complete stock of toddler-size diapers. The Yacht Harbor also is home to a bakery/deli selling tasty soft rolls that resemble Portuguese sweet bread, a Laundromat, a dive shop, a couple of upscale T-shirt stores, and the Bath and Turtle restaurant, which serves standard burgers, salads, and pastas in a pretty garden in the center of the complex.

Most evenings, we sought out restaurants for dinner, but unfortunately, some of the more typical tourist places, including the restaurant at Fischer’s Cove, were expensive and undistinguished. We had better luck when we ventured off the regular tourist track, although we often had trouble tracking down these local alternatives.

In fact, if Leon hadn’t sent us, we would never have found Thelma’s Hideout, let alone ventured inside. Leon, the “L” of the island’s L&S Car Rental, recommended Thelma’s, instructing us to go by in the afternoon to arrange for that evening’s dinner. Thelma’s Hideout is just minutes from the Yacht Harbor, but after we turned down the restaurant’s short dirt road, all we could see was an apparently abandoned shack next to an old boat graveyard. As we were about to turn around, we glimpsed the lopsided “Thelma’s” sign scrawled in red on the front wall.

Fortunately, we didn’t turn back, because if we had, we would have missed some of the best local food on Virgin Gorda. Just inside the doorway is a pleasant garden restaurant and pub, its walls papered with posters proclaiming the superiority of the Hideout’s darts team. When we poked our heads in, Thelma, who was sitting behind a counter overlooking the pool table, offered us a choice of barbecued chicken or grilled fish. We chose the fish and returned at 7:30 p.m. to find that Thelma was our private chef, since we were the only dinner patrons that evening.

A whole fish, smoky outside, moist and tender inside, covered each oval plate from end to end. Accompanying the fish were large, tasty dollops of red beans and rice and deliciously sweet plantain slices. Plenty for us to eat and the kids to share – all for $30, plus a couple of dollars for an icy cold Caribe or Red Stripe beer.

We also enjoyed the food at the Crab Hole – another of Leon’s recommendations – about a five-minute’s walk from Fischer’s Cove. My favorite dish there was the roti, the Caribbean equivalent of a burrito, with mildly spiced curried chicken and vegetables rolled inside, while the girls devoured the tangy barbecued pork chops. Dinners were $10 to $15 each.

We had an easier time finding Dixie’s Kitchen, a tiny diner-like spot on the main road across from the Yacht Harbor. The crab salad (about $6) was fresh and the French fries crispy and hot. Our lunchtime companions were a boisterous group of telephone employees trading jokes over cocktails at the counter.

One day we drove the narrow, twisty road up over Virgin Gorda Peak (the 1370-foot mountain in the center of Virgin Gorda) and down to the north side of the island. On the way up, the spectacular vista – ocean, rocks, and green hills – stretches out as far as you can see. We pulled off the road at the island’s narrowest point near Savannah Bay and looked down enviously at a couple walking hand-in-hand along the white sands of the otherwise deserted beach.

My husband and I were startled awake at 5 o’clock one morning by an ear-splitting shriek. We jumped out of bed and looked out the window toward the source of the sound, just in time to catch a nightmarish glimpse of a toddler – our daughter Michaela – rolling out the back door of the cottage and down three concrete steps.

Michaela had apparently been sleeping at the foot of her bed, leaning against the door, when the latch gave way. She was completely unharmed, if somewhat startled at waking up outside. My husband and I tucked her back in, secured the door (which the maintenance staff promptly repaired), and climbed back under our covers with our hearts still thumping.

Breakfast in bed? Not in this life. But later this morning, we’ll chase a few lizards and then take our pails and shovels down to the beach.