Who Needs a CaribbeanYacht When You Can Take the Ferry?

placeholder image

Orion was shining brightly in the dark sky above Anegada in the British Virgin Islands. But the constellation had some electric competition in the band of bright mast lights bobbing offshore — “like a bejeweled Orion’s belt,” observed a new acquaintance who introduced himself as Spoons, the pilot of one of those yachts. He and his crew of five friends from the Boston area had paid $10,900 for eight days on a 45-foot catamaran to sail from island to island.

Chartering a boat is one way to island hop in the B.V.I. — and a popular one. According to the tourism board, slightly more than half of all visitors to the British overseas territory’s 60 islands and cays stay on yachts.

I, on the other hand, chose a far cheaper way to travel between islands. Using the B.V.I. ferry system, I spent $140 — not including accommodations, which added about $700 to my expenses — over a five-day trip, reaching four ports in bargain, connect-the-dots style.

In the Caribbean, several ferry companies offer opportunities for multi-island vacations, such as the L’Express des Iles, which cruises from Guadeloupe to Dominica, Martinique and St. Lucia. Others offer domestic service, including ferries from St. Vincent to some of the outlying Grenadines, and those that link the United States Virgin Islands.

But few Caribbean destinations offer a ferry system as extensive and convenient as the British Virgin Islands’. The tourism board details schedules and links to seven islands on an interactive web page devoted to island hopping.

From my first childhood ferry trip to Mackinac Island, Mich., where cars are banned, I have had a romance with ships that fill in for roads, carry vital cargo and allow communities to thrive in isolated places. They are buses for commuters, trucks for suppliers and relatively cheap maritime thrills for travelers.

Yes, cruise ships can actually be a rock-bottom ticket to the Caribbean — on my trip, I met a couple from South Carolina who spent only $600 each on an 11-day Norwegian cruise — but as an independent traveler, I find those affordable ships too big, and small charters too expensive. The ferry system seemed just right to this backpacking Goldilocks.

Seeking a winter warm up and a budget tropical vacation, I went to the B.V.I. in January to test the convenience and cost of the ferry system, hitting the cruise hub of Tortola, the mountainous beauty of Virgin Gorda, and remote Anegada.