I brought hats to the British Virgin Islands — two of them, in fact, one for me and one for photographer Zach Stovall, who works for me and is therefore required to wear funny hats at my whim. Unfortunately, nobody at the Caribbean’s most renowned nautical resort seemed fooled for a minute by our snow-white Army-/Navy-surplus Gilligan caps. Apparently, genuine sailors don’t go to sea in Birkenstock sandals and bring along their wallets and iPhones in Ziploc baggies. Well, that was eight bucks wasted.
Virgin Gorda’s North Sound is all about the boats. Sailors have for centuries dropped anchor in these waters, which are protected by lovely yet treacherous reefs and a handful of islets pretty enough to make a wall calendar — places like Prickly Pear (a 243-acre national park with a resident population of pink ﬂ amingos), Eustatia (once owned by Google co-founder Larry Page) and Necker (Richard Branson’s private playground).
The Bitter End Yacht Club presides over this cerulean corner of the world. Clinging to a mile of Virgin Gorda’s shoreline, the 38-year-old resort — whose name, for the uninitiated, refers to a nautical term for the last bit of a line tied to a “bitt,” the mooring cleat on the bow of a boat — is reachable only by boat (or seaplane). And no surprise, it’s a water-sports wonderland. Guests can choose from snorkel, scuba and ﬁ shing tours; kite-boarding, windsurﬁ ng, kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding; and, of course, sailing. Lots of sailing: The resort has a ﬂeet of 100 or so vessels and oﬀers instruction on everything from Hobie cats and Laser-class racers to IC24 keelboats and its own 37-foot racing sloop, Cosmic Warlord.
Mo Sallah is the Bitter End’s new general manager, and that’s no mere footnote. Mo is a friend of this magazine and a friend of mine, met while he presided over the Lighthouse Bay Resort, on Barbuda’s long and luscious Low Bay Beach. He was, and is, the most gifted of hosts: easygoing yet eﬃcient, congenial yet businesslike.
Mo’s new gig is notably more demanding. There’s almost four decades of history here, after all, traditions to be honored and scores of guests whose return visits number in the double digits. Yet after just a few months on the job, Mo — under the affable tutelage of resort manager Mary Jo Ryan, a 30-year veteran — was intimate with the Bitter End’s storied history, clubby rituals and sprawling grounds, and he addresses staffers — and guests — by name. I just can’t imagine how he does it, but that’s why he’s him and I’m not.
I came to the bitter end with the loose intention of learning how to sail. OK, that’s not entirely true: I arrived on Virgin Gorda with fantastical visions of standing at the helm and hurtling out of the North Sound and into the open sea, squinting heroically into the salt spray and barking orders to first mate Stovall with timber-shivering authority. Trim this! Hoist that! Batten down the other thing! But after damned near sinking a Boston Whaler (a dinghy with the slogan “The Unsinkable Legend”) in two feet of water on my ﬁ rst day, I have grave misgivings. So does ﬁrst mate Stovall.
“You, uh, wanna drive?” He dutifully asks each time we get into the boat. “Captains don’t drive, sailor,” I say, outraged. “Captains sit up front and decide where to drive.” He’s relieved, I’m relieved, and oﬀ we go. It’s a mildly humiliating routine, but it’s the only way I can get him to wear the hat.
A seaplane touches down in open water, and the Bitter End is in a tizzy as it taxis toward the resort. It’s the Whale Force One, the ﬂoatplane operated by the charter outfit Fly The Whale. Sailors are practically falling oﬀ their boats for a look, and people on shore are acting like Lindbergh just landed in Paris. A few old-timers look sullen, nursing pints in the pub in their Sperry Top-Siders and non-Army-/Navy-surplus captain’s hats, grousing about some crazy aeroplane showing up at a respectable sailing resort. The gall.
A sleek motorboat purrs up to the dock, and two tidy sailor types hop out, followed by two non-sailor types, one of whom is Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. We had seen his logo-emblazoned jet at the airport, and this motorboat bears the mark of his $70 million 224-foot ultra-super-megayacht, Lady Anne. He comes over after chatting up the seaplane pilots. “Nice place you got here,” he says to Mo. Billionaires.
Mo keeps ﬂashing that smile and asking me when we’re going to have a Hobie cat race. A race. Like now I’m Dennis Conner, racing sailboats. By all accounts, Hobies are about as sinkable as rubber duckies, but it’d be just my luck to make history. I laugh and wag my ﬁ nger and stammer a bit (“Oh, I’m gonna ... You old scoundrel ... Don’t think I’ve ... You bet your ...”), then distract him and make a run for it. I’ll see him later at dinner and say something about those damned hammocks being too comfortable ... He’s not oﬀ the hook ... Wait till tomorrow ... Be there or be a square knot ... har, har ...
Fortunately, for a place that had a hailing frequency before it had a phone number, Bitter End has plenty of non-nautical activities. There’s a terriﬁ c bar, an award-winning spa, another terriﬁ c bar, lovely white-sand beaches and yet another bar. And there are some ﬁ ne hiking trails too.
At the north end of the resort’s 60 acres lies the start of Guy’s Trail, an occasionally steep, rocky path that ascends hillside behind the resort. It leads to a breezy crest 446 feet above sea level, with stupendous views of the sound and beyond. It’s a half-hour up and a half-hour back, and the perfect excuse for two-hour nap in a hammock when you return.
I don’t usually favor loitering in one’s hotel room, but for the Bitter End’s beachfront cottages, stylishly revamped in 2008, I’m happy to make an exception. Accessed via an elaborate network of stairs and walkways, their view-blessed porches boast big hammocks that’ll knock you out quicker than Snow White’s poisoned apple.
Dinghies are the rental cars of the North Sound: Skinny-dipping along some lonely stretch of sand, snorkeling on the reef, and drinks and dinner at the Saba Rock Resort are only a quick boat ride away. So despite my short and soggy dinghy history, I’m resigned to their necessity.The breeze picked up overnight, and the sound is looking a little frothy in the morning light. It’s not exactly dinghy weather, but Stovall wants to get out on the water anyway, something about needing to take pictures.
We’re driving the Boston Whaler into the wind; he’s at the tiller, and I’m perched up front like Washington crossing the Delaware. Wavelets are slopping over the bow, and the little motor is coughing and straining. My Birkenstocks are ﬂ oating around the bottom of the boat. We’re a hundred yards from shore and taking on water at an alarming rate. In a nick of time, I discover that my sailor’s hat has value beyond the comic: It bails.
Later, I’ll recall Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the book that made me want to grow up to be a water rat. Asks Mole, a non-boater: “Is it so nice as all that?” Answers Rat, the most devoted of boaters: “Nice? It’s the only thing. … Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolute nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”