NEWS

Getaway: Sailing's the life in Virgin Gorda

Michael Morton

While our catamaran cut through turquoise Caribbean waters as translucent as mouthwash, I resisted the urge to jump in and focused on my next dazzling maneuver as captain: hurling myself from one side of the boat to the other as I tried not to hit my daydreaming shipmate in the head with the steering tiller.

We were at one of the worlds' premier sailing destinations, Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. And I had more at stake than a good tan. I wanted a shot at nautical glory.

I had entered the weekly Sunday Regatta at the Bitter End Yacht Club.

Constant trade winds make the British Virgin Islands a sailing hotspot, and Bitter End is a popular stop on the yachting circuit for Richard Branson and other moguls.

But that doesn't mean commoners - and landlubbers - can't join in the fun.

So like other guests, I found myself in friendly competition under the watchful eyes of the resort's sailing school staff. After a quick session in the briefing room - think "Top Gun" in bathing suits - our boatload of four (including an instructor) pushed our Hobie Cat Getaway off the beach, secure in the knowledge that if all else failed we could always bribe the race official with a six-pack.

In the end, we didn't need to. After deftly navigating the buoys in the early rounds and earning a couple of top-three finishes, our instructor, Geoff, gave us a quick lesson in steering and adjusting the two sails. He then gave me the controls.

Turning the boat across the wind proved to be the hardest part. During each maneuver, I quickly switched sides while heaving the tiller over, wary of disrupting the human ballast otherwise known as one of my shipmates.

And I got results. We tied for second. We received a prize of a bottle of Mount Gay rum, and a few salutes to our heroics ensued.

Having conquered sailing, my companions and I explored other ways to catch the wind, namely the relatively new sport of kiteboarding. With a large kite and trapeze-style handlebar connected to control lines and a short surfboard, the concept at first seemed to me a little extreme. But when I heard it was all the rage with Google co-founder Larry Page and other Silicon Valley geeks who visit the resort, I knew I had to step up.

Working with limited time, our teacher, Scottie, left the boards on the beach and taught us how to control an airborne kite as we stood in thigh-deep water. Shaped like an airplane's wing, the kite strained at its lines and shot back and forth whenever we moved the handlebar a fraction of an inch.

Trying to keep the airfoil aloft, I performed my next stunning feat: As the wind suddenly died, the kite's control lines slackened, and I found myself backpedaling toward Scottie. He quickly abandoned any thought of stopping me and I fell down, put one hand onto the sandy ocean bottom, caught myself and spun around while passing the handlebar behind my back. A miraculous save to be sure, but the control lines had crossed, and the kite soon plummeted.

"What did you just do?" an incredulous Scottie commented. But other guests later stopped me and complemented my kiteboarding moves, thinking I actually knew what I was doing.

After such active days, guests at Bitter End happily retire each night to luxury cabanas, perched high above the water on a hillside thick with frangipani and bougainvillea. Off the coast, brown pelicans can be spotted diving for a meal, soon replaced by sailboat mast-lights twinkling like stars. Chirping tree frogs and lapping waves provided a natural sound machine.

It was easy to see why colonial sailors named this spot the Bitter End - they would leave here for the desolate waters of the open Atlantic. It's also easy to see why the resort draws repeat visitors, many of whom have been coming for decades.

Not all the attractions are wind-related, of course. During a snorkel tour of Eustatia Reef, my companions and I watched purple sea fans waving lazily while fish of every stripe and hue darted among the coral. While hiking along one of the island's trails to the nearby resort of Biras Creek (www.biras.com), we heard workers belting out hymns while riding an evening commuter ferry.

And at The Baths, a National Park at Virgin Gorda's southern end, ladders, ropes and natural passageways revealed caves, pools and sheltered coves among a series of stacked boulders.

But the wind was still the most powerful draw.

If you go

Getting there: Most flights are via San Juan, Puerto Rico, to the British Virgin Islands and Terrence B. Lettsome Airport, also known as Tortola-Beef. From the airport, Bitter End Yacht Club guests can take a short walk or taxi ride to the dock for the North Sound Express, which departs Beef Island for Virgin Gorda; tickets $35 for adults, free for children 12 and under.

Staying there: Billing itself as the "finest watersports resort in the world," Bitter End Yacht Club (800-872-2392; www.beyc.com) offers guests free use of a fleet that includes sailboats, kayaks and windsurfing equipment. Nightly rates start at $650 per couple, per night, including three meals daily, accommodations in the recently renovated Beachfront Villas and an introductory sailing lesson. Packages include the option of dividing your stay between the resort and a captained yacht.

Find more travel features and the Get Away with Fran blog at www.wickedlocal.com/getaway