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Anegada: The island Irma couldn’t shut down


The “forgotten island” of the British Virgin Islands has finally arrived. It’s all the result of an unexpected reprieve from Hurricane Irma, a brand-new ferry, and a government doing everything it can to bring in visitors.

“Anegada is the only island in the BVI that is exactly the same as it was before the hurricane as after,” said Doug Riegels, a BVI native who owns Anegada Beach Club (ABC) and the brand-new Anegada Express ferry, which began service March 3, just in time for the Anegada Kite & Paddle Festival, which took place that weekend in Keel Point. And, he added, “We had a record February.”

 As the mind behind the idyllic, sun-drenched beach club with its luxury palapa-roofed tents, a world away from the occasionally chaotic rebuild of the rest of the territory, Mr. Riegels observed, “For the six years that we’ve been running, that was our best month ever. There’s a combination between day traffic from the boats, and then we have people staying seven to ten nights because all of the resorts that are down [around the BVI]. Instead of just a few days a week, it’s Monday through Sunday.” After years of being forgotten, Anegada was at last on the map.

 The early March festival also served as the inaugural run of the Anegada Express ferry. “We knew it had to happen this weekend,” said Mr. Riegels. “We had some early difficulties but we are happy to have it running. And it will keep going and it will get better.”

 Although Mr. Riegels said ABC wasn’t spared by the storm, his ability to rebuild so quickly was attributed to having the right people on his side. Before the storm, he had invested in a Nicaraguan company who can build palapa roofs the way they’re built all over the world. “All the tents were gone; a lot of the infrastructure was damaged,” he said. “We own a lot of companies in Nicaragua that pre-manufacture all this stuff. Sixteen containers and forty-two Nicaraguans later, we’re back.”

“It was amazing how fast he rebuilt those tents,” said Kezzia Gray, co-organiser of the festival, who watched the Nicaraguans rebuild. Six months after the storm, the luxury tents at ABC are standing tall.

During the festival in March, 96 visitors from the BVI and beyond stepped off planes and ferries to experience the pristine Anegada the way it was meant to be experienced–flat, wild, untouched and ideally suited for sports like kitesurfing and paddle boarding. 

“We are embracing the weather and getting people on some really awesome down-winders [paddleboard trips],” she said as she herded paddlers into the water.  For the first down-winder of the day, paddlers were driven up to nearby Cow Wreck Beach and then paddled back down to ABC, pausing halfway to surf the swells and spotting stingrays and turtles in the crystal-clear water along the route.

After the storm
Originally, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Residents of Anegada got an evacuation order a mere day before the storm, with Government warning residents that the low-lying landmass–whose very name comes from the Spanish for “drowned island”–would offer no protection against the heavy winds and storm surge that was expected to pass directly over Virgin Gorda’s North Sound. About half eventually heeded the warnings and went to Tortola.

However, to their surprise Irma zigged when she should have zagged, ravaging the rest of the islands of the BVI but largely sparing their neighbour to the north.

During the annual Charter Yacht Show in November, charter captains wooed brokers by promising to bring clients to Anegada mainstays like Loblolly Bay, Cow Wreck Beach and the legendary Flamingo Pond.

In November, Graham Gips, captain of charter yacht Allende, said that Anegada would be the saving grace of this year’s charter seasons–the one destination preventing guests from choosing to go somewhere else entirely. He said he was revamping his entire itinerary to focus more on this once “forgotten” island. “That’s where everyone’s going to be.”

That same month, visitors from neighbouring islands poured in for the annual Lobster Fest, which celebrates the island’s status as the seafood capital of the territory with attendance topping out at 1,500. “Let it be known, this was not about lobster this year: It was about the people,” said Sharon Flax-Brutus, director of the BVI Tourist Board. “It was the first event since the hurricanes and an opportunity for a gathering, and the people came in big numbers. Since then, the Tourist Board has gotten in the act, offering guests, through the month of February, four-night stays for the price of three at Anegada Beach Club, Four Diamonds Resort or Anegada Reef Hotel.

On the ferry
Tourism on Anegada didn’t start out promising. Although Mr. Riegels’ father urged him to buy the 10-acre property, he said he was hesitant about building on Anegada at all. “Building things is Anegada is a logistical nightmare. Getting anything here is very hard; there are no barges; ferries run three times a week; it’s a big headache. Costs are really high.”

But then September 6 came, and all that changed. Anegada immediately became the place to be. While he rebuilt the resort, he bought the brand-new, 35–passenger boat from Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda, which is in a rebuilding process and didn’t need it. “Brand-new engines. As it grows, I’ll look into investing into a bigger boat, but we’ll see.”

Mr. Riegels said a regular ferry was the last thing preventing Anegada from achieving the same level of visitors as its sister islands. For years, potential visitors to Anegada were held captive by the Monday-Wednesday-Friday Road Town ferry schedule, unless they wanted to charter an expensive plane ride through VI Airlink. But the Anegada Express ferry will shuttle people from Trellis Bay, on the eastern end of Tortola, on a daily basis. “I bought the ferry, but I’m having a young Virgin Islander [Shem Samuel of RNS Charters] operate it for me,” he said, and explained that Anegada will now be connected to the outside world like never before–and the outside world connected to Anegada.

“It works well for all the hotels–we have Anegada Reef, Neptune’s Treasure, and ourselves. We’re now not held down by people who can’t come for periods of time; people couldn’t come back on a Monday and that ruined weekends,” he explained. “Now we have the opportunity to capitalise on weekends. And Anegadeans get to do their banking and immigration. They’re not held hostage.”

 Those pouring into Anegada’s shores to paddle, kitesurf and be enchanted by its wildlife and unspoiled natural beauty likely won’t hesitate to come back. “And even when everybody else [in the BVI] comes back,” said Mr. Riegels, “Anegada will dip down but it will be considerably more than it was before. A lot of people have never been to Anegada, but we’re now on the map.”