Tortola Ride, 27 Dec 2009

Looking back at the ship and the bay from the first hillcrest

Tortola, about 15 miles long and 3 miles wide, is one of the British Virgin Islands and is actually one of the largest. The center of the island consists of high hills or mountains more than 1000 feet above sea level. Our cruise ship, Grandeur of the Seas, docked in the Road Harbor port in the town of Road Town on the south side of the island. The day was gray as Yaffa and I got an early start around 9am. We walked the bikes off the ship onto the pier and carefully road down the pier into the harbor area to get started on our ride. Dive boats were already picking up the cruise ship passengers who had booked dives at various places around the island. Our plan was to make our way through the hawkers near the port into the town and immediately turn east for the coastal road that skirts the coast to the eastern tip of the island about 8-10 miles away. We were looking to scout out the coastline and beaches along the way and consider crossing the island to the north side using a road about 5-6 miles from the port. If that turned out to be feasible, then we would also check out some of the beaches on the north side of the island. From our ride on St. Maarten, I had gotten the impression that the water and scenery on the north side of the islands facing the Atlantic Ocean were somewhat different from the water and scenery facing the Caribbean on the south side.

The road immediately through the town was flat and smooth and led us past relatively new government buildings and a small shopping area, probably for tourists and well off local residents. I gained comfort from seeing two apparent residents also riding along our route. We passed into a more industrial area containing small businesses which supplied the harbor and the ships using the harbor, and then moved into greener tree lined areas on the east side of the harbor. We then encountered our first hill as the road rose a few hundred feet before turning on a switchback. We stopped to rest and take a photo of the harbor and our ship. For the best view, we climbed a driveway of the home on the lookout.

Clifftop home on Tortola

The home was unoccupied this Sunday morning, but seemed to be about 2000 sq ft in area on one level, probably built 5-15 years ago.

Yaffa snaps a pic from the first hilltop

Here, also, Yaffa began her pleas to me to be careful to move as far off the road as possible when stopping, because the cars were swinging wide to make the turns. There weren’t many cars on the road, perhaps one every two minutes, but most drivers seemed to be practicing for a grand prix race, using as much of the road as was available to negotiate the frequent switchbacks and turns.

I quickly realized that our ride was not to be an easy one. Although the road (now called Waterfront Drive) follows the coast, it rose and dipped several hundred feet as it alternated between the crests of the cliffs and the lower beach area which cropped up every half mile or so. It was a ride of constant climbs and downhill coasts to the water. I had to stop and walk at more than one of these climbs. I tried to concentrate on the birds circling overhead to take my mind off the effort. The birds were large and black, probably turkey vultures.

We passed many isolated houses both in the cliffs and near the beaches. All seemed to be 1-3 room wooden structures and somewhat weathered. Some of them had chickens running around and a few had larger animals like cows and pigs. We also encountered a few churches which served a few dozen to a few hundred worshippers on this Sunday morning. At some of them, I could hear the singing. But this was definitely not a wealthy area. We passed bays called Boughers Bay, Fish Bay, and Brandywine Bay. A few wooden and an occasional steel fishing boats could be seen moored near some houses in each of the bays. The ride was exhausting because of the frequent climbs. We stopped at a few places to take photos, but I think the real reason was to get a short rest. At one of the stops, we spied a small pack of dogs about 200 yards walking toward us and decided discretion was the better part of valor and that we had best get on our way least we might find ourselves in a confrontation with a pack of dogs of unknown intentions.

Continuing on, the road moved inland for a while and then turned toward the coast again, where we spotted an offshore island called Buck Island. The road now turned north again through a somewhat more populated area and we eventually came upon a town called Parham town. Here was where the road split and one fork headed toward the north side of the island. But the hills between us and the north side looked forbidding, perhaps more than a thousand feet high. That sapped my desire to see the north side. We stopped at a local police station to ask advice about the road north and the road further east. The officer looked at me as if I were crazy when I asked about riding north. He moved his hand in an exaggerated up and down motion and I got the idea that there was no 100 foot high pass to get to the north side. I asked about the ride east to and past the airport. He indicated this was not so rugged but that the airport was a very small one. We decided to ride on nevertheless to and past the airport.

I was two aircraft flying nearby before we spied the airport, but the officer was right. This was definitely a small airport with a single runway and not many amenities. We rode just past the airport to get a view of the east end of the island—and then we decided to turn back.
We retraced our steps past the airport and Parham town before coming to an inn at the side of the road which looked ideal for lunch and an extended rest. We had trouble finding an entrance door but a hostess inside pointed out the way and we entered the tavern. We were the only customers, but it was just before noon on a Sunday. The place was decorated with British insignia and naval flags and seemed able to hold a pretty raucous crowd at its best times of the day (or night).

Decorations inside the tavern near Parham Town on Tortola

Pirate themes abounded and ship models were at several tables. In the back was a porch with tables fronting onto its own harbor. I saw no boats but remnants of small skiffs were underwater. The water was very shallow, no more than a foot or two for 20-30 yards out. I assume the tides in the area are significant and the water gets to be 5 feet high or so at high tide. The water near the porch contained 6-inch stickle fish and guppy sized fish, but not much else.

Shallow bay outside the tavern

Across the bay we could see some larger boats. These may have been boats holding divers collected from the cruise ship. We opted for the breakfast—I had pancakes and Yaffa had scrambled eggs. The food was tasty and well prepared and the coffee was excellent. Most of all, the rest was wonderful.

Lanai area at the tavern on Tortola

After two rounds of coffee, we finally dragged ourselves back onto the bikes to complete the trip back to the boat. The hills didn’t get any shallower, but the knowledge that we were on the way home drove us on. The return trip took about ninety minutes and was relatively uneventful. As we climbed the last hill and turned on the downhill with the ship in site about 1-2 miles away across the harbor, I felt almost giddy. I even felt stronger and a little bit refreshed. The ride through the town on the flat was invigorating, and we turned into the port area near the ship. I noticed much more activity in the port area at this time of the day (about 3pm) than earlier in the morning. Several sailboats were leaving port, perhaps for a sunset dinner. We dismounted near the ship and I finally realized how tired I was. After boarding the ship and putting the bikes away, I met Marilyn with Yaffa and we headed to the buffet. I think I had 6 glasses of iced tea.


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