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British-owned, but very Caribbean

TORTOLA, British Virgin Islands - British? Here? Not a bloody jot and barely a tittle. Oh, you have the Pusser's Road Town Pub, purveying the rum that fueled the British navy long ago. And there's the Best of British Shop for tins of pudding and wee biscuits.

TORTOLA, British Virgin Islands - British? Here? Not a bloody jot and barely a tittle.

Oh, you have the Pusser's Road Town Pub, purveying the rum that fueled the British navy long ago. And there's the Best of British Shop for tins of pudding and wee biscuits.

But otherwise, Tortola is very Caribbean, from the calypso patois of longtime residents to the brilliant blue of the water that surrounds it. The British Virgins are much like the U.S. Virgins, but slightly more virginal. Yet the style is untucked and breezy, rather than stiff upper lip.

The weak but lovable dollar is accepted as a matter of convenience here, just as the vehicles come equipped with steering wheels on the left - even though traffic creeps along on the wrong side of the road. That way, a used SUV could be sold in Florida.

"No, no, no. It's not like British here," declared tour guide Glenroy Tobin, as the two of us rode in his 15-passenger van up, down and around the hills and mountains of Tortola. "We see a lot more people from the States than from England."

Still, and this is not just a technicality, the British Virgin Islands are a British territory, and Tortola - at 10 square miles the largest of the 36 islands - is the seat of British Virgin Islands government.

In Road Town, the main city for what most people around here call the BVI, the supreme court and legislature convene in a dignified building just a few yards from the high school. As his van plunged down a hill on the island's east side, Tobin pointed out a large, green-roofed complex on another hill. "That is the prison," he said.

Not that the BVI are full of troublemakers. The main islands - Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke and Anegada - are quite serene. About 17,000 of the British Virgins' 23,500 people live on Tortola, which makes for a lot of solitude.

Road Town and scattered bars around Tortola's perimeter provide what noise there is on the island. Boom boxes and occasional live bands fill the air with calypso and reggae stylings, fungi (odd instrument) rhythms and Greater Antilles energy ("hot-hot-hot!").

I finally did meet a British subject on the top of Sage Mountain, Tortola's highest peak at 1,780 feet. Jim Cullimore owns the Mountain View Restaurant up there and has lived on Tortola for 26 of his 58 years.

Before settling down in the BVI, Cullimore visited 68 countries, many of those as a ship's cook for the British Navy. He also supervised a kitchen that served researchers in Antarctica during what he swears were "the best two years of my life." He even conducts occasional Antarctica slide shows for customers who might be feeling a bit too hot-hot-hot.

The last 29 years haven't been so bad for Cullimore either, because he has become an enthusiastic Virgin Islands booster.

"In the Caribbean, we're in an ideal situation," he told Tobin and me after we had finished succulent lobster sandwiches. "We're a stable region with stable governments. The currency is the same, the language is the same. And, actually, Americans aren't that far from home - three or four hours on a plane.

"There's very little crime here and no discrimination of any kind," he said. "The kids are looked after. When I'm out in my truck, I pick up kids all the time and take them to school. There's no concern about that here. Everyone knows that children are our greatest asset."

During our travels, Tobin and I had the van all to ourselves, until he gave a ride to a young woman and let her off across the street from a rural grocery. "I see people I know, I give them a free ride," Tobin explained. "We always help each other out."

I chose to stay at the Sugar Mill resort on Apple Bay, where a succession of beaches line Tortola's north shore and vacationers enjoy a pleasant view of neighboring Jost Van Dyke.

At the Sugar Mill, there's no shortage of guilt-inducing luxuries. On a Monday evening, owners Jinx and Jeff Morgan threw a poolside cocktail party for the guests. The Morgans contribute to food publications, including Bon Appetit, so it was no surprise that the canapes proved to be exquisite little pastries filled with cream cheese and salmon or delicate shrimp.

Jinx, an accomplished watercolorist and cookbook author, entertained some guests at the far end of the bar, while Jeff, wearing an elegant black shirt and casual slacks, chatted with a few others.

"You seem to be a man of leisure," one man said. "I can't be a man of leisure," Morgan replied. "I own this hotel."

Later, guest Noreen Swanson of Salem, Ore., observed: "I'm impressed that they have an open bar. Usually at parties like this, the hosts serve only some kind of punch."

Dinner that night proved equally brilliant. I dined with Noreen, her son, Kevin, and daughter-in-law, Ida, in a dining room carved out of the remains of a 365-year-old rum distillery. We made plans to drive into Road Town the next day.

While European cruisers milled about Road Town's shops and vendors' tents near the cruise-ship dock, I walked several blocks until I found the Joseph Reynolds O'Neal Botanic Gardens.

Although its neighbors include the main police station and a car dealership, the gardens shut out most of the hubbub, and I had the four acres nearly to myself.

Except for the faint rattle of giant ferns and some crowing from roosters in nearby yards, I found the peace and solitude that other parts of the island offer in abundance.

At Apple Bay, for instance, I could stroll down the hill from my room, cross the road and find a peaceful beach and an ocean lagoon protected from the pounding waves by a natural reef.

So I could get a better look at bays and beaches, Tobin drove me to another mountain peak and a restaurant/observation deck called Skyworld. From there, I could see quite a few other Virgin Islands, big and small, U.S. and British. When the clouds cleared for a moment, the little lumps of volcano-formed land appeared to be patches of green suspended in air: Water and sky matched perfectly.

Far below, anchored in Road Bay, I could make out the Queen Mary 2, which is far too large for the Tortola cruise dock.

We drove past brightly tinted houses stuck improbably on steep hillsides. A long, brilliant mural graced a wall along one road. "It shows the way people here lived - all the way back to the slave days," Tobin said, "and it celebrates our emancipation."

Before that emancipation, early in the 19th century, the islands' original inhabitants were ousted by the fierce Caribs. The Caribs were on hand in 1493, when Christopher Columbus came upon the islands and named them

Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgenes

, because they reminded him of the story of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins.

By the late 16th century, Spanish invaders gained control of Tortola. Later came pirate bands and buccaneers. In the 17th century, the brigands were no match for determined English planters, whose cane harvesting and rum-distilling enterprises prospered for more than 100 years, but rapidly declined after slavery was abolished.

That evening, I remembered that I hadn't visited Bomba's Surfside Shack. I decided to go there for happy hour and to take some pictures before the light was gone. It was a live-band night, which happens every Wednesday and Sunday and anytime there's a full moon.

Bomba's is a Caribbean legend - truly a shack that's apparently held together by old license plates, graffiti-covered surfboards, ancient toilet seats, tattered business cards and crudely lettered signboards.

Bomba's isn't far from the Sugar Mill, so I set out on foot. A large van passed me, then stopped and backed up. It was Tobin. He insisted I get in.

"Going to Bomba's?" he asked. I smiled and nodded. "Good choice," Tobin said. He let me out and drove off, probably to pick up another friend.

Touring Tortola

US Airways flies nonstop to

Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands,

from Philadelphia International Airport. The lowest recent round-trip fare was $1,267.

From St. Thomas, ferries run to Tortola's

West End


Road Town

for about $45 round-trip.

Places to stay

The Sugar Mill



Sebastian's on the Beach



Nanny Cay Resort and Marina



Jolly Roger Inn



More information

British Virgin Islands

Tourist Board



British Virgin Islands

Welcome Tourist Guide