|By Tom Uhlenbrock, St. Louis
Post-DispatchMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Apr. 13, 2008 - VIRGIN GORDA, British Virgin Islands -- Mary Jo Ryan, the longtime manager of Bitter End Yacht Club, suspected something was amiss several years ago.
"I'd meet our arrivals at the dock and could see they should have been in Las Vegas -- with the 3-inch spikes," Ryan said. "They weren't our kind of customers."
Bitter End is a legendary Caribbean sailing stop, and yachties don't wear high heels. Maybe flip-flops or deck shoes, when they aren't barefooted.
Myron Hokin, a Chicago-based industrialist, and his wife, Bernice, opened the resort in 1975, and it has been family-owned since. In 1997, after Myron's death, a management company allowed the club's focus to drift from water sports.
Now, the company is gone, and Dana Hokin, Myron's granddaughter, is managing the resort. Boaters again are No. 1, and the only high heels are on the wealthy patrons who disembark from the mega-yachts to dine at the Bitter End's restaurant or party at its pub, which serves the best pizza in the islands.
With a goal of updating the facilities, a multimillion-dollar renovation program is now in the works. The cottages stacked like treehouses up the scrub-covered hillside were gutted and refurbished. The work was done without disturbing the tropical plantings, which have grown lush with an irrigation system fed by wastewater from showers.
VISIT BY COLUMBUS
Among the first sailors to visit the protected harbor was Christopher Columbus, who noted the elongated island's bulging middle and called it Virgin Gorda, or "fat virgin." With hills nearly surrounding the harbor, called the North Sound, English pirates such as Blackbeard and Sir John Hawkins anchored in its shelter to plan their raids.
The British annexed the small archipelago in 1672, calling it the British Virgin Islands. A largely autonomous territory of Britain today, the islands total about 59 square miles of land and are populated by descendants of the slaves freed from the cotton and sugar plantations. Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke and Anegada are the largest of the more than 50 islands and the favorites of boaters.
When the Hokin family sailed into the North Sound in the summer of 1964, they were charmed by its natural beauty and remoteness.
On a return visit a few years later, they found yachtsman Basil Symonette had opened a shorefront pub and five cottages at their favorite spot, naming it "Bitter End" because it was the last stop before heading into the open waters of the Atlantic. He was helped during construction by Robin Lee Graham, a pretty fair sailor himself. In 1965, at the age of 16, Graham sailed his 24-foot fiberglass sloop, Dove, around the world and wrote a book, called "Dove," about the adventure.
Symonette was an eccentric Englishman. Approaching yachtsmen were required to sound their boat's air horn. If Symonette was accepting company, he'd use a megaphone to invite them ashore and sell them a meal. When he grew tired of company, Symonette would shut down the old diesel generator and douse the lights on his guests.
In 1973, the Hokins asked to buy an acre and Symonette sold them the whole resort, which they initially wanted as a family retreat. Two years later, they opened Bitter End as a hotel, with five cottages. The resort now resembles a waterfront village and is known for its sailing school and its water sports, which includes everything from snorkeling, scuba diving and deep-sea fishing to wind-propelled activities like sailing, windsurfing and kite boarding. A true sailor's delight.
Many families have been coming for generations, and the resort has the ambience of a country club that has aged gracefully. So has Marilyn Forney of Unionville, Pa., who wore a rubber swim cap decorated with flower petals on a snorkeling trip. "We started coming here 41 years ago," said Forney, who admitted to being "over 80, that's as much as I'll tell you."
Although she lamented that decades of over-fishing and coral bleaching have taken their toll on her favorite reefs, Forney found the Bitter End Yacht Club as charming as ever.
"It's my husband's favorite place," she said. "He wants his ashes scattered here."
You must arrive by boat at Bitter End; with no roads, the only traffic is the dinghies ferrying yachters back and forth. But it would be possible to enjoy your stay after that as a landlubber. You could get a seaside massage, hang around the pool taking yoga lessons or lounge on the beach doing nothing at all. Most visitors, however, head to sea, one way or the other.
The most popular deal at the resort is the Admiral's Package, which starts at $4,550 for seven nights, based on double occupancy, for a beachfront villa. The cost goes to $6,160 in the high season, Jan. 3 to April 4. The price includes three meals a day at the resort's fine restaurants, Sunday regatta and party, champagne and dinner cruises, snorkeling trips, sunset sails or day-long excursions, use of the club's fleet of kayaks, wind surfers and small sailing boats and an introduction to sailing course.
"They start at Sailing 101," explained Geoffrey Werner, a youthful manager who does a bit of everything for the guests. "First, they learn the nomenclature of the boat. We'll get them on the water with an instructor the same day. We do kids camps year round. Parents love that, they get to go off and do their thing."
Like the renowned sailors before them, the rookies learn that the North Sound is a perfect place for boating.
"We have a deep water anchorage with sand bottom and protection from nearly every side," Werner said. "And we get the trade winds. It's consistently blowing 15 to 20 knots. It slows down in summer and hurricane season, that's when we close -- late July to early October."
I served as ballast, with Werner manning the sails, when newly arrived guests were invited to take part in a race of small catamarans. Our class had only three Hobie cats, and the judges graciously announced we had tied for second. A bottle of Mount Gay rum was our reward.
PEERING AT A PARROT FISH
Virgin Gorda had two other famous pioneer entrepreneurs.
One was the late Laurance Rockefeller, an early proponent of eco-tourism. Rockefeller opened Little Dix Bay Hotel in 1964, with 14 stilt houses on a "wilderness beach." Rosewood Hotels and Resorts now manages the upscale destination and maintains Rockefeller's vision of offering luxury accommodations without spoiling the tropical setting.
The other was Bert Kilbride, a treasure hunter who came to the Virgin Islands in 1958 and created one of its first diving operations. A frequent customer was Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the renowned ocean explorer. The two dove together for 13 years, and Cousteau made a movie about Kilbride.
Known by friends as "the last pirate of the Caribbean," Bert died Jan. 8 in California at the age of 93. But Kilbrides Sunchaser Scuba still has a shop at Bitter End Yacht Club, and I headed out on a diving trip to The Dogs, a group of small islands. A wrecked airliner has been submerged as an artificial reef on the south side of Great Dog, and I swam along its fuselage, peering into the cockpit at a large parrot fish, which peered back.
TOP WRECK SITE
Another dive is to the Rhone, considered the top wreck site in the Caribbean. The ship sank in a hurricane in October 1867, taking 124 passengers to Davey Jones' Locker. The National Geographic Channel visited the Rhone last year and taped a program that included a local dive instructor enlisted to play a spirit said to haunt the site. Divers have reported that they were tapped on the shoulder while exploring the coral-encrusted ship and turned to find no one there.
I had wanted to visit the Rhone but those same winds that make sailing so popular in the islands had stirred the water, murking up visibility. Instead, we motor-sailed a large catamaran to The Baths.
Various explanations were offered for the geologic phenomenon that left the giant boulders jumbled on the beach at The Baths National Park. Volcanoes, tsunamis, whatever. A short trail lead through the awesome maze of granite, into grottoes where waves lapped in and out, up wooden ladders to scamper over three-story rocks, onto the half moon of Devil's Bay beach.
Snorkeling is said to be excellent around The Baths and at nearby Spring Bay, but we were dissuaded by the afternoon's unruly surf, which grabbed unsuspecting waders and rolled them in the sand.
BANANAQUITS AND BRANSON
The main reception office and restaurant separate the two sides of lodging at Bitter End. Renovation is nearly completed for the 30 units on the north, while the 40 on the south await updating. The north side faces the Caribbean, and the cottages are open-air to benefit from the cooling wind. The hills block the south, where the units are air conditioned.
I was on the renovated north, in a duplex halfway up the hillside, overlooking the pines and palms that lined the beach. A ceiling fan and the nighttime breeze made me add a cotton blanket to the king-size bed.
A hammock, two chairs and a lounge were on the wraparound porch. The floors inside were wood, except for the tiled walk-in shower, which had louvres on the screened windows for privacy but still allowed a view of the Caribbean outside. Twin stainless steel sinks on teak vanities were added in the renovation, and the back wall painted orange and blue to match the bedspread and pillow cases.
The room provided a wonderful way to start the day. Bananaquits, the official Virgin Islands bird, began fussing in the canopy outside shortly after dawn, which cast a soft light on the yachts bobbing in the turquoise waters.
Without budging from bed, I could see Prickly Pear and Eustatia islands, and Necker beyond that. Necker is the private island of Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire who founded Virgin Records and Virgin Airways. He has built sumptuous Balinese-style villas that accommodate 28 and rents out the whole island for $46,000 a night.
Maybe next time.
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