British Virgin Islands (BVI)
Go here if you are a charter novice. The BVI are perfectly-suited for the newbie who wants to get a taste of what chartering has to offer. With generally protected waters, line-of-sight navigation, relative ease of travel, a tourism industry oriented to the visiting sailor, and beautiful beaches and landscapes, you can’t go wrong. If you’re an old hand, but like the conviviality of a destination filled with like-minded visitors, you’ll be happy in the BVI, as well. However, if you seek isolation or adventure off the well-trod path, go elsewhere.
An easy way to describe the Abacos as a charter destination is to compare them with the BVI, which most people seem to be familiar with. Many who visit here compare the Abacos to the BVI of 20+ years ago. Expect easy access from the United States, an increasing number of charter options, and a boating culture into which visiting sailors can easily slip. Well-charted seas and protected waters make the Abacos a good destination for beginners and experts alike. I think the beaches and seas are more beautiful than the BVI, but the landscape is less inspiring. Fewer charter options mean somewhat higher prices for boats, but most other costs compare favorably with expenses in the BVI.
A popular next stop after the BVI, the Grenadines offer an experience a few notches more challenging. Getting there can be difficult and costly, and there are fewer charter boats. Depending on where you range, there are open ocean passages that can leave you heaving over the lifelines. The anchorages don’t often offer mooring balls and are less protected, subjecting anchored boats to rocking and rolling. Provisions can be more difficult to obtain, and many services are offered by the infamous “boat boys” of the region, who can be very helpful, but also a nuisance. The payoff, however, is a more pristine and remote cruising area with more dramatic scenery and exhilarating sailing.
St. Martin, Anguilla, and St. Barth
Although a winter haven for the mega-yacht set, and with St. Martin a mass-market tourism magnet, these islands haven’t yet proven to be big players for chartering sailors. While getting to St. Martin is easy, and provisioning and dining varied and sophisticated, the few charter companies in the area are tucked in difficult locations (at least as far as ingress and egress goes), and the sailing conditions can be challenging. Nevertheless, the islands are cosmopolitan and—Anguilla and St. Barth in particular—elegant (with prices to match). Compared to the costs of land-based travel, visiting these islands by charter boat can be a relatively economical way to experience some of the higher-end destinations in the Caribbean.
I’ve visited Belize a few times, and each time, I think that I need to get back there before everyone else figures it out. And somehow, even though they’ve paved the sandy streets of San Pedro (on Ambergris Caye) and more visitors have caught onto its charms, Belize’s coastal areas and cayes retain a sleepy ease. Two charter companies cover the waterfront here, and the sailing inside the second largest barrier reef on the planet can be spectacular, with reliable breezes on the beam. The attraction is the reef and the solitude; you won’t find the dreamy beaches and sailor-oriented amenities of other destinations here. But, if you are looking to escape to what continues to be one of the few remaining frontiers, Belize is the place.
While I don’t shy away from the more popular sailing destinations in the Caribbean, more often I like the adventure of discovering a relatively new place and forging my own path. The relatively untrammeled Spanish Virgin Islands (which finally have a small charter company of their own) keep calling my name; other destinations, such as Panama’s San Blas and Bocas del Toro, are yet an insistent whisper. I’ll let you know how it goes when I get there.
~by Eva Hill