Tortola and the British Virgin Islands have a reputation among seasoned travelers as the creme de la creme of the Caribbean, but legions of cruise passengers calling at Tortola have responded with a collective shrug and a hearty, «What's all the hoopla about?» The reason is that the assets of Tortola proper are limited in size and number, and the presence of even one large cruise ship in port puts enough visitors on the ground to overwhelm and overrun most of them. By way of example, passengers might take a shore excursion to Cane Garden Bay on Tortola's north shore, lauded by all the major travel journals as one of the top 10 beaches in the Caribbean, only to find a beach jammed nearly as elbow-to-elbow as Coney Island.
This is not to say that Tortola has little to offer. It has its own attractions in every category. A visit to Tortola, however, also offers a genuine chance to experience other islands in the BVI chain. These include Norman Island, Jost Van Dyke, Peter Island, Marina Cay and Virgin Gorda. All are a doable day trip to cruise passengers calling at Tortola.
Tortola and most of the BVI are mountainous islands, and, though verdant-green when seen from afar, the climate and vegetation are much drier than many Caribbean isles. Tortola has no rain forest per se. Cactus and succulents are more common than ferns, and rushing streams and waterfalls are virtually nonexistent. The dry climate of the islands has a beneficial side effect; because of the lack of runoff, the clarity of the sea is more dependably higher than many other places in the Caribbean. For that reason the BVI are a popular destination for divers and snorkelers. Because of the protective effect of the islands surrounding Tortola, seas tend to be calm here most of the time, making the region a welcoming destination for those prone to motion sickness and who want to participate in small-boat excursions. The steady winds and calm seas also make Tortola and the BVI one of the world's premier yachting regions, and any sailing excursions, whether ship-offered or independently booked, should be at the top of every interested visitor's list.
Lastly, one of Tortola's greatest attributes is the genuinely friendly attitude of its residents; don't expect the venality and sub rosa resentment of Americans often found in the Caribbean. The BVI are amazingly safe and crime-free. It's not unusual to find yachts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars docked in marinas with the key clearly visible in the ignition.