Richard Branson’s BVI hangouts

The Virgin Group founder, philanthropist and owner of private island retreats Moskito and Necker divulges new discoveries and lasting favourites to Maria Shollenbarger. Portrait by Owen Buggy

Richard Branson at Cow Wreck Beach Bar on Anegada
Richard Branson at Cow Wreck Beach Bar on Anegada | Image: Owen Buggy

“Years ago, I had been madly trying to come up with a way to impress a girl I had fallen for, and heard an island in the BVIs was up for sale. The realtor, who wasn’t wise to my status as a struggling entrepreneur, offered me an all-expenses-paid trip. I fell in love twice that weekend: once as the helicopter swooped over the turquoise water and white beaches of Necker Island, and again when I saw the smile on the face of the beautiful young woman who sat beside me. I ended up buying Necker a year after that, for a fraction of the asking price. As for the girl, Joan – I married her there, 11 years later.

A luxury tent at Anegada Beach Club, an ideal base for kitesurfing
A luxury tent at Anegada Beach Club, an ideal base for kitesurfing | Image: www.photo.vi

Everyone in the BVIs seems to constantly have a smile on their face, and for a reason: there’s year-round sunshine, vibrant culture, stunning scenery. And while, like most island nations, the BVIs is experiencing more development, the good news is that it, like other Caribbean islands, is investing in renewable energy, and is ideally placed to demonstrate and scale innovative, clean energy solutions. And this is so important, because we are bearing the brunt of climate change: sea‑level rises, increasing temperatures and extreme weather. Guided by the Carbon War Room, the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Clinton Climate Initiative, Caribbean governments and stakeholders are turning our islands into energy-transition models.

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Joan and I made the decision to move here permanently in 2006, and we’ve never looked back. There is no better place to stay active: you can kitesurf, play tennis, swim. On a calm day the ocean just sparkles, the blue contrasting with the vibrant green plantation and white sand beaches. So to me, the most exciting place to stay in the BVIs will always be on a boat. There is a wide range available here to charter, and whether you are the skipper or you opt for a fully crewed yacht, you really can’t beat a week’s island-hopping. I have a few local charter outfits in particular I send friends to – Moorings, TMM and Charter Yachts – for beautiful boats and great service.

Cooper Island
Cooper Island | Image: Cooper Island Beach Club

Probably the next-best place to stay would be a private villa. There are some real beauties, with exceptional views over the sea and pool terraces – on Virgin Gorda, you’ll want to go for Nail Bay and Spring Bay, up by the Baths. Baraka Point Estate, on Nail Bay, is one I’d particularly recommend: with five bedrooms, a nice infinity pool, funky Indian and southeast Asian decor, it’s great for large family and groups-of-friends holidays.

The Guest Library at Baraka Point Estate, a retreat on Virgin Gorda
The Guest Library at Baraka Point Estate, a retreat on Virgin Gorda | Image: Jim Scheiner

After being with my family, I’m happiest when I’m kitesurfing – give me a kite and a board, some wind and waves, and you won’t wipe the smile off my face. If you want to get the best kitesurfing here – and it is very good in places – and get a real experience as well, the luxury tents at Anegada Beach Club, on the north shore of Anegada, offer a unique natural experience. They are simple but pretty, with nice platform beds and breezy wood decks with large hammocks just feet from the water. You fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean and wake to surf, right on your doorstep.

The beach lounge at CocoMaya
The beach lounge at CocoMaya | Image: Marta Garraus Figaredo

Anegada is distinguished from the other BVIs by being remote, completely flat and home to one of the world’s largest reefs. I love coming here for lunch; we might kitesurf – it’s 13 miles from Necker, across open ocean – or we take the opportunity to sail a few islands and make a day of it. However you reach it, its seafood restaurants are wonderful; most are situated right at the edge of beautiful, near-empty white sand beaches and have quintessentially laid-back Caribbean atmospheres. Big Bamboo at Loblolly and Cow Wreck Beach Bar, on the northern coast, are the two I always recommend. Both do wonderful fresh lobster – we are working with the lobster fishermen here to ensure sustainable practices, so people can enjoy it for generations to come – and at Cow Wreck you can also get great fish grilled over wood fires and some of the most famous conch fritters in these parts.

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Another must for food is CocoMaya, which was set up years ago on Virgin Gorda by a fantastic pair called Kim and Aaron; they did such a good job there that I convinced Kim to come and help run Moskito Island for me. While they have a really delicious Latin-Asian fusion menu – you should order lots of small dishes and share them; my favourite is their incredible truffle fries – CocoMaya really shines as a spot to watch the sun set, and I don’t think there’s any better bar in the BVIs to have a few after-dinner cocktails. Then there’s Hog Heaven, perched high up on Virgin Gorda, which is an extraordinary place to soak up the views across the North Sound. The atmosphere is very relaxed – your cocktail will be served in a plastic cup – and social and the food is classic Caribbean: Blondie, the owner, rears all the pork locally in North Sound, so it really is fresh, and really delicious. And should you find you’re hankering for a good roast, as I occasionally do (living in the Caribbean full-time hasn’t diminished my taste for traditional Sunday lunch), the very best in the BVIs, hands down, can be found at Brandywine Estate, on Tortola.

But the place to be is out on the open ocean, whether it is on a kiteboard, sail boat or power boat. Or under the water, which is equally beautiful, at a number of wonderful dive sites. I love sending people to The Invisibles, a couple of miles away from Necker. Two rocks come almost, but not quite, to the surface – hence the name – and there is a real abundance of marine life enjoying the protection they provide. It’s not for beginners, but the night diving on this reef is particularly thrilling, as a lot of the big animals come out after dark; one of my most memorable nights here included sightings of three sharks, a turtle and a ray all in the space of a few minutes.

For long leisurely cycle rides or walks during the day, you can’t beat Virgin Gorda. You can follow a trail up to Gorda Peak, at the top of the island, where there is an observation tower to get you up above the vegetation and give you a stunning panorama: Anegada to the north, St Thomas to the west and, on a clear day, all the way to St Croix. You can rent bikes from a nice little place called Last Stop Sports on Tortola, and bring them over for an hour, or a day, on the ferry. Just be prepared to contend with some hills!

If surfing is your thing, the place to go is Josiah’s Bay on Tortola. It’s on the northern side and is home to the best break on the island, as well as a great atmosphere, welcoming locals and beautiful surroundings. My son Sam loves it here, and we’ve had some wonderful days out. You can rent boards and book lessons from good instructors, at Surf School BVI, not far from the point.

Souvenirs and style can be found across a few different points in the islands. Cooper Island Beach Club, which is a lovely little resort with just a few rooms and has become another fun spot to visit for lunch, has a great boutique called The Sea Grape, which is housed in its own little cottage and sells a bit of everything, from local spices to Panama hats and bikinis. Another favourite is Fat Virgin’s Treasures Boutique, next to Fat Virgin’s Café in North Sound, on Virgin Gorda. Here you’ll find good-looking jewellery and crafts made by locals – the owner, born and raised in the BVIs, went to Parsons design school in the US. It’s great for presents for family and friends, in a very atmospheric setting. And one of the most talented people in the BVIs is Amanda Baker, a photographer who moved here from the UK in the 1980s and who has Allamanda Gallery, with locations on Virgin Gorda and Tortola. Amanda focuses almost exclusively on landscape photography, and her colour-saturated, often large-format work perfectly captures the singular beauty and colours of the BVIs – a place I really do consider heaven on earth.”

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