The British Virgin Islands (BVI’s for short) are a part of the Virgin Islands Archipelago, a group of islands east of Puerto Rico. The western part of the archipelago forms the U.S. Virgin Islands, a part of the United States. The more easterly islands, the British Virgin Islands, are an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. The four main islands that make up the British Virgin Islands are Tortola, the main commercial center, Virgin Gorda, renowned for its beauty, laid back Jost Van Dyke island, and the remote Anegada. Aside from these islands, there are close to fifty smaller islands and cays in the territory.
The temperature in the British Virgin Islands averages 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) in winter and 28 degrees Celsius (83 Fahrenheit) during the summer. The island’s heat is moderated by ocean breezes. The island’s get relatively little rain, but during the rainy season (July to November) there are often short-lived tropical showers. Peak hurricane season is in August and September, particularly in September.
The Virgin Islands were first settled by indigenous Arawakan peoples from neighboring islands. The islands were sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Columbus gave them the name “Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins”. This name was eventually shortened to the Virgin Islands. Although Spain claimed the islands, it never actually colonized them. Instead the Virgin Islands became bases for the notorious pirates who preyed on Spanish treasure ships during the 16th and 17th century. In the 17th century the English captured control over Tortola from the Dutch and the other larger islands that now form the British Virgin Islands.
The British planted sugarcane on their islands, and imported large numbers of African slaves to work on the plantations. Today people of African descent form the majority of the island’s population. The importance of sugar declined in the mid-19th century. By the second half of the 20th century the agriculture-centered economy had been largely supplanted by one based on tourism and offshore banking, which have made the islands some of the wealthiest in the Caribbean.
(3) Currency and Language:
Although the British Virgin Islands remain a part of the United Kingdom, the official currency on the islands is the U.S. Dollar. Major banks in Road Town on Tortola Island include FirstBank, Scotiabank, First Caribbean, and Banco Popular. Spanish Town, on the island of Virgin Gorda, also has a few banks. Other islands do not have any banks. English is spoken on all of the islands.
The British Virgin Islands have three airports. Terrence B. Lettsome International Airport (also known as Beef Island Airport) is located on small Beef Island, near to Tortola Island. This large facility is the BVI’s main airport, and it handles international flights. The smaller Virgin Gorda Airport handles more regional flights, while the tiny Captain Auguste George Airport on Anegada Island is used by charter flights.
(5) Entering and Leaving the Country:
Everyone needs a valid passport to enter the country. Some nationalities require a visa as well. Visitors can come to the islands by air or sea. There are no direct flights from the United States, Canada, or Europe. Instead international flights usually connect through airports on nearby Caribbean islands, usually San Juan in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, or Antigua. Road Town’s harbor, on Tortola Island, is a frequent stopover point for cruise ships. About 1 or 2 arrive everyday during the winter high tourist season. Regular ferry services link the British Virgin Islands of Tortola, Gorda Virgin, and Jost Van Dyke, with the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John.
Citizens of the British Virgin Islands enjoy a high standard of living comparable to North American and Western European countries. Medical facilities on the islands are limited, however. There is only one hospital in the BVI’s. People with more serious or complicated medical problems often have to be sent to hospitals in the U.S.Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. mainland, for treatment. Dengue fever exists in BVI, as it does elsewhere in the Caribbean.
(7) Tortola Island:
Tortola is the largest and most economically important island in the BVI’s. About 80% of British Virgin Islanders live and/or work on the island. Tortola also serves as the island’s administrative center. It is home to Road Town, the BVI’s capital. The name “Tortola” means “turtledove” in Spanish. When Columbus first came ashore in the 1490s these birds were abundant on the island. Today turtledoves no longer nest on Tortola in large numbers but are instead found on the nearby island of Guana.
(8) Virgin Gorda Island:
Virgin Gorda (“Fat Virgin” in Spanish) was a quiet backwater with a population of 600 before resort developers arrived in the 1960s. Since then tourist resorts have attracted visitors and brought jobs. Among the visitors drawn to islands are millionaires and billionaires Richard Branson. Branson has his own personal island just offshore of Virgin Gorda. The Baths granite rock formations are one of the island’s best known attractions. In the 19th century Cornish miners came to Gorda to extract copper. Today the ruins of the old mines are found in Copper Mine National Park, on the south-western tip of the island.
(9) Jost Van Dyke Island:
Historically Jost Van Dyke was a base for Dutch pirates. It later became a refuge for English Quakers escaping religious persecution. Today the island is a popular stopover for boaters and yachters, including some famous visitors like Jimmy Buffet and Keith Richards. One of the island’s most prominent residents is Calypsonian Foxy Callwood, who built a bar on the island for visiting boaters in the 1960s. Electricity and roads did not arrive on the island until the early 1990s.
(10) Anegada Island:
The name Anegada is derived from the Spanish for “drowned” or “flooded”. This is a reflection of the fact that hundreds of ships sunk on the reefs around the islands in colonial times. Today many of these shipwrecks have become tourist attractions for divers in the offshore reefs. Anegada can be reached by a 1.5 hour-long ferry ride or by charter-flight into its tiny island airport. The island has a striking desert landscape of pink flamingo-filled salt ponds, cacti and giant rock iguana. The sparkling blue waters, reefs and shipwrecks offshore attract scuba divers and snorkelers.
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