Bitter End Antidote for Bitter Winter
By Chris Rodell
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
January 2003

The distraction of the surrounding beauty was to blame. To the west was the robust deep blue of the mighty Atlantic, its waves crashing against the rocky shore of a narrow slip of Virgin Gorda too remote for any road to run. To the east amidst the robin egg shell blue of the Caribbean was an enchanting stretch of island Edens that compose the British Virgin Islands, the last dry land in that direction for some 3,200 miles clear to the west African desert nation of Mauritania.

With all that to behold, who could blame her for not looking at the dastardly rut in the rocks on the hiking trail some 300 feet above sea level? Instinctively, she reached for a railing-shaped branch that seemed poised for just such a safe-keeping duty.

Then she shrieked in agony.

My dear wife, Valerie, who skipped her normal Sunday duty playing hymns at our Lutheran church for our vacation, had unwittingly latched onto a spiny branch of Stenocereus Thurburi.

The church organist had seized the Organ Pipe Cactus. Nearly 30 inch-long needles extended from her palm like dozens of tiny exclamation points anchored by bright dots of her own red blood.

Was this some kind of divine signal that she ought not to miss church devotional duties for secular celebrations?

We'd arrived on Virgin Gorda (Spanish for "Fat Virgin") the previous evening six tedious hours after our scheduled arrival. We'd left Pittsburgh and its inhospitable below-zero windchills on a 6:30 a.m. flight with stops in Charlotte and San Juan. Three flights and six hours of interminable layovers still left us standing on a Beef Island dock awaiting our turn to board the North Sound Express for an hour-long ride that would take us to the best solution to what had been an unrelentingly brutal winter.

Our antidote for a bitter winter was the bitter end -- the Bitter End Yacht Club, that is. I'd heard about it -- both Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure name it as among the best resorts in the Caribbean, Bermuda and Bahamas -- but I'd also heard about how difficult it was to reach. You can't fly to it or take a leisurely bus ride. No, to reach the Bitter End you must go by boat. So named because it is the last tiny tip of land before dropping off into the vast Atlantic, "bitter end" is also familiar as a sailing term because the end of the rope is known as "the bitter end."

It is fitting that such an exhausting journey should reward travelers with such an exhilarating destination, something that escaped our attention as we stepped off the dock in front of the unassuming two-story main building at Bitter End. The first thing we noticed was the lack of confining walls and doors. Each building, including the guest villas, are as open as picnic blankets. Any valuables, we were advised, ought to be stowed in safety deposit boxes because it will be impossible to lock the doors and screens of the rooms unless guests were inside them. It was a disconcerting departure for anyone used to Code Orange security procedures in their own duct-taped home, but we found it liberating. Because there were no locks or foreign keys to cling to, we somehow felt freer.

The second thing we noticed was that we'd left a land of blizzards to step right into a land of another sort of magnificent blizzard. The black sky above was alive with a spangled multitude of shimmering stars that looked like a distant blizzard, a constant night delight. Little hooded, tin lamps suspended on arching poles discreetly illuminate the sidewalks. The night cloaked another magnificence that would not be unveiled until after a log-like sleep to the lullaby of the gently lapping waves of the Caribbean against the sugar shores beach just 30 feet below our balcony.

"Look out there," my wife said, nudging me awake.

We'd spent the past five months in the cold, gray north. No green grass. No blue sky. No warming sunshine or evidence of any solar activity. Just uniform shades of gray. The effect of awakening to look out at a Caribbean sunrise was the same as the moment when Dorothy and Toto stepped into Oz.

A satisfied looking pelican was perched atop a sprawling palm frond beach umbrella. A catamaran silently sailed past just 100 yards offshore. Off in the distance three islands rose out of the blue waters. We later learned that the most distant one, Necker Island, is owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Records and Virgin Airlines. It can be yours, too, for $26,000 per night (go ahead, feel free to steal a towel or two).

Three hundred years ago, English pirates Blackbeard and Sir John Hawkins anchored here to plan their daring mayhem and conceal their gilded treasures. Its more recent history dates back to the days when fabled Caribbean yachtsman Basil Symonette put together a shorefront coconut pub and five ramshackle cottages he called "The Bitter End."

The Bitter End Yacht Club was founded in 1973 when Myron Hokin, after many years of visiting with Symonette asked if he could purchase one slim acre to build a family vacation cottage. Symonette sold him the whole compound. Hokin intended to make it a family retreat, one that would always welcome visiting sailors ashore for a meal and some camaraderie. The Hokin family enjoyed it because the cozy harbor offered superb sailing, diving, snorkeling and fishing. The adjacent Sir. Francis Drake Channel is considered some of the safest and best sailing in the world. These bountiful recreational options drew other enthusiasts and the Bitter End gradually evolved into what it is today -- a luxury resort utterly lacking in pretension or artifice. The 89 beachfront and hillside villas are elegantly spartan (no TVs or other electronic distractions) and every angle allows a Caribbean view, as do, of course, deluxe live-aboard yachts available for charter. From each of these accommodations it is possible to conduct even the most personal of affairs and still be soothed by the sea.

The rooms and hammocked porches are comfortable, yet spartan, as if the hosts wisely decided to surrender any attempts to engage in competition with what's outside where the action or real relaxing is best accomplished.

Another pleasant surprise, to me, was the superb quality of the food. Too often at many resorts, the food seems like a secondary concern and is unremarkable. Two restaurants, The Clubhouse Steak & Seafood Grille and The English Carvery, present steaks, chops, lobsters and more exotic local fare that manages to match the views.

We also found that the a poolside bar with sweet, chunky lobster salads and comforting first aid.

It was there we repaired to for repairs to Valerie's ailing hand after she'd high-fived the cactus. We'd gently plucked each of the spiny needles out of her hand the best we could and climbed back down the mountain and were told to soak the hand in a bucket of hot water. She needed hot liquids. I needed something much cooler, perhaps with a foamy head on it. The pool bar could fill both our needs.

Most of the brittle little shards popped out with the warm soaking, but a few of the more stubborn ones stayed put and would not emerge until days later. It didn't disable her. It didn't even hurt as much as the initial sight led us to believe it would. It didn't even scare my dashing bride into staying off the mountain trails.

The very next day we hiked along the shore to the narrow isthmus whose profound beauty had distracted her in the first place. We'd seen some tiny roofs embedded among the trees and were compelled to check it out.

Good thing, too, because looking down on it was beautiful, but looking out from it gave us maybe the most memorable views of the entire week.

We had unwittingly found the Biras Creek Resort, a properly British property that occupies some of the prettiest land either of us had ever seen in all our travels. It is bracketed on a gentle little rise between the Atlantic and the Caribbean. With the exception of the raucous waves of the Atlantic, the only sounds are from the tropical birds playfully flitting between the trees on the hillside. Its circular stone porches would be the perfect place to spend an afternoon with a good book, but for one exception: no writer has yet to pen a story as compelling as the scenery at Biras Creek.

While both posh resorts are at the remote end of one of the most remote islands in the Caribbean, there is one place on Virgin Gorda that is accessible and highly recommended. It is the Baths National Park and is a frequent excursion for cruise ship day-trippers.

Gigantic three-story boulders litter the otherwise sandy beaches and form a Jurassic sort of playground where barefoot explorers can bound about in chest-deep water-filled caves illuminated by long shafts of sunlight. A 20-minute hike up, under and around the rocks leads to the wondrous beach at Devil's Bay with its relaxing tidal pools for spectacular snorkeling and breath-taking ocean vistas. The surfer dudes have nearly rendered the word meaningless, but it's the best one to describe The Baths: It's awesome.

The long trip home left us plenty of time to ponder the memories. If Valerie being spiked by a cactus was a message meant to remind us that she shouldn't skip church organ duties for selfishly soulful vacations, then the Lord, indeed, does work in mysterious ways.

Because even with the minor accident, she and I both felt blessedly refreshed by the days away.

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