My Caribbean paradise is located in the Virgin Islands. Christopher Columbus discovered the Virgins on a trip in 1493. He named the island group after St Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. The Virgins, (US & British) are a group of about 100 islands and cays (pronounced keys). The largest and most well known islands are St Croix, St John, and St Thomas (US) and Tortola and Virgin Gorda (British).
To the north of the islands lie the vast expanses of the North Atlantic. During the Winter, cold fronts sweep off the east coast of the US and often turn into violent gales, which send swell pulses southward to the islands which lie comfortably away.
The Winter surf season can begin as early as September and occasionally last until May, but usually by the end of March the swells become less and less consistent. The Fall can also be an awesome time in the Caribbean. Glassy surf and no crowds are generally the rule on most islands. The trade winds, which dictate the wind patterns, are always from the east, but tend to be more northeast in Winter and southeast in Summer. The “Christmas Winds” generally arrive in December, bringing gustier conditions.
Unlike PR, the Virgin Islands are small in comparison, so they don’t nearly have the amount of coastline or breaks. The islands are very rugged and access to many of the best breaks can be difficult unless you have the luxury of a boat. The surf too can be a little fickle….. many of the islands can block a swell if the direction is not exactly perfect.
Crowds too have become an issue in recent years, especially on Tortola. Lots of Americans have transplanted there, designated themselves as “locals” and have ferociously taken over the breaks. But when a fresh swell arrives from the northwest and you awaken to lines stacked to the horizon and light offshore winds…… well I can’t think of a place on the entire planet that I’d rather be.
The most famous breaks in the region are on Tortola. Photos of the famous Cane Garden Bay and Apple Bay have appeared in nearly every surf mag found in the world. Cane Garden is without doubt one of the most famous and most talked about surf breaks in the entire Caribbean. Cane needs a north swell and really doesn’t even begin to show until the surf reaches about 6 feet or so, but it really begins to go off when the surf gets in the 8 – 10 foot range.
When Cane is on the prime take off spot is at the base of a sheer volcanic cliff……. A rock and boulder strewn beach is only about ten yards away. If you blow the take off, chances are you’ll wind up meeting that rock beach face to face. One of my friends ate it on a take off there, wound up on the beach and refuses to surf there again.
A fast walled section that’s full bore for about 50 yards follows the drop. The next section is fully rippable and provides a breather before the racetrack section. The end or racetrack section requires mach speed…… a high line helps too! If you don’t make it you’ll probably get an up close and personal view of the reef. If you do, you’ll get to whack it at the end bowl and kick out into the safety of the deeper water outside the boat dock. On a good day, rides of 200 yards are not all that uncommon! Over the years with the publicity Cane has gotten, it has really become incredibly crowded. An airport has opened on Beef Island in Tortola in the last few years. When a good swell is coming up, guys fly over from PR as well as boat loads from St John and St Thomas.
Last Winter I surfed there with 45 guys in the water and 5 boats in the channel. Surfers sat all along the break and didn’t hesitate to drop in on you if you didn’t look like you’d make it, or maybe even if you did. On the other hand I surfed Cane this Fall just as a swell was coming up with only one other guy out. It was so incredible I thought I’d have a nervous breakdown. But the truth is Cane Garden is very inconsistent. It usually only breaks a few times a year if you’re lucky.
Apple Bay is a completely different wave than Cane Garden even though it’s located only a couple miles to the west. Apple is lots of fun at waist to chest high and can get unreal when it’s overhead. Apple is what you envision when you think of the Caribbean……. turquoise colored water and paper thin walls. Long rides can be had there, but nothing like Cane Garden. The wave at Apple is much peakier. Because it does have more peaks, it handles the crowd much better than Cane Garden. You’ve got a much better chance of getting waves to yourself there, rights and lefts, fast and hollow.
The famous Bomba’s Shack is right on the beach at Apple Bay. I can’t think of a cooler place to have lunch and a beer, or just cool off and watch the surf. Bomba’s has a full moon party each month. In the old days they served a potent shroom tea, the parties were epic, nudity and mayhem were the rules of the day. Today it has become a full on tourist scene. Busloads of elderly tourists are trucked in and served watered down tea.
Lots of other islands in the Virgins are capable of producing good to great surf too. Lots of spots are known, many are not. There are some epic breaks you’ll hear only spoken of in whispers. There are beach breaks and reef breaks, points too. It’s all there. Unfortunately my life would be in jeopardy if I revealed any more than that.
The real downside of a trip to the Virgins is the cost. Compared to the cost of a surf trip to PR or the Dominican Republic, a surf trip here can be out of reach of most traveling surfers on a budget. If you go to Tortola, stay at Sebastians. It’s right on the beach at Apple Bay. Don’t expect luxury accommodations, but there is something to be said for being able to paddle out to the break – a hundred yards in front of your hotel.
I’ve had the opportunity to travel to many of the islands outside of the Virgin Islands too. The truth is, there’s surf nearly everywhere.The Caribbean is an incredibly terrific place. From the surf, to the beaches, to the many friendly people, it has something for nearly everyone at nearly every level of ability. All you need is a spirit of discovery and a plane ticket. Pick out an island and check it out. You’ll be sure to have experiences you’ll never forget.