British Virgin Islands

I checked in late for my flight out of anegada. someone in front of me had a vast assortment of beat-up cardboard boxes, and the six-seater was full. "No problem, man," said the 15-year-old writing my ticket. "When the plane lands, it will just turn around and come back for you."

So I sat down on a rickety bench under an open-air tin-roofed building. Next to me, supine, was Teddy, Anegada's entire police force, wearing a gray T-shirt and a black-and-white polka-dot baseball cap. On another bench lay one-half of Anegada's public works department, his jumpsuit unzipped to the waist. A few minutes later, out of nowhere, came a buzz, and the little plane dropped back into the scene. I jogged onto the uneven airstrip, crawled into the plane, and we slipped down the runway of the most laid-back place I'd ever been.

Indeed, the British Virgin Islands just might be the eye of the world's hurricane. An archipelago of some 40 volcanic islands that begins just 60 miles east of Puerto Rico and only amile from the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John, the BVI (as everyone calls them) are a simple, watery world of white-sand beaches dotted with palm trees, of sheltered lagoons teeming with birds and fish, of forlorn islands inhabited by no one but the ghosts of buccaneers.

Whether sailing between the islands, diving their waters, or hiking their steep mountains, I often felt as if two millennia of turbulent human history had passed the place by. It was as if the clear blue seas had blocked war, overdevelopment, crime, pollution, and religious fervor the way garlic is supposed to block vampires.

"What was money?" an old fellow named Leopold Vanterpoole said to me, as he reminisced about his youth on Virgin Gorda. "Sixty dollars would last ten years. You catch some fish, you give some fish." Today $60 goes a lot quicker than it used to, and most of the islands' 16,600 people owe their jobs to tourism. But where else could you still find a place where policemen doze in the sun and the airplane comes back for you?

On a Sunday evening in road town, the capital of Tortola, it was so quiet that I thought my hearing had failed. I was just off the plane from Washington, D.C., where I had grown used to the whoof, whoof, whoof of helicopters overhead, the screams of sirens, the roar of cars, even the pop of automatic gunfire. Road Town's silence unnerved me. Set between the high green wall of a mountain and a broad u-shaped harbor was a narrow street of one- and two-story clapboard buildings, each shuttered tight. This was Main Street.

I shouldn't have been surprised. For the 500 years since Columbus got carried away and called them the 11,000 Virgins, the BVI have been insignificant in the annals of world history. Absent here were epic struggles between distant colonial powers, as in St. Lucia, or internal violence, as in Haiti or Grenada. Long ago the Dutch and the Spanish passed through, but the British have held these islands since 1666. The sugarcane industry died with the abolition of slavery in 1838, and the BVI have produced nothing of note since. The British Home Office once called them the "least important place in the Empire."

Nobody in the islands themselves seemed too bothered, though. "We like the way things been going for us, man," a Tortolian named Douglas Penn told me. "You know, the nice and easy kind of living."

Doug runs a taxi service, and it took just two hours for him to show me all 21 square miles of Tortola, the largest island of the bunch. A high backbone - fittingly called Ridge Road - runs its length, and turning inland from the shore meant climbing steep winding roads. Tortola is so narrow that in just minutes we were 1,000 feet up, with the whole island in view and the archipelago a series of blue-green shapes, smaller and closer together than I had imagined. Tortola seemed complete, continental, a tiny world unto itself. I tried to imagine growing up here before airports and telephones, waking each morning to see the boundaries of my life.

We passed a small, wrinkled brown man sitting by the side of the road with his donkey. "When I was young," Doug said, as if reading my thoughts, "we used donkeys and horses to go places. The island was much bigger then." We wound past goats and cows ambling in the road, small terraced gardens sprouting sweet potatoes and cassava. The air smelled sweet, like hay in the Midwest.

On the western shore at Cane Garden Bay, a crescent of white sand and palm trees dotted with a few small hotels, Doug pointed out a large tree bearing white fluffs: "Cotton trees," he said. "In the old days my grandparents used to pick it every year and make pillows. But no one does that anymore when they can just go and buy a pillow!" he added, laughing without a hint of nostalgia.

I asked him whether the panoply of creole spirits that inhabit much of the Caribbean world held sway here.

"Oh no," he said, laughing even harder, "no one believes in that stuff." This straightforward outlook, I couldn't help thinking, was a reflection of the landscape itself. Tortola and the rest of the BVI are dry, scrub-covered, and bordered by clear water. Mystery and magic had no placeto hide or take root in such a place. Even the little rain forest perched on Tortola's very mountaintop seemed orderly and simple, devoid of the vines, tangles, mists, and disorder of things growing on other things that I'd encountered in another Caribbean rain forest on St. Lucia.

Like Venice, the British Virgin Islands exist in two mediums - land and water. The water gives definition to the land, of course, but it also links the individual island worlds, binding them into one coherent community. The islands cluster around Tortola like electrons around a nucleus, surrounding the Sir Francis Drake Channel as though it were a lake. With the exception of Anegada, no island is more than a 30-minute boat ride from the next, and islanders think nothing of catching a boat to work. Numerous hotels are acces- sible only by boat, and until recently even high school students on Virgin Gorda had to commute to school on Tortola.

For two days I explored this watery world aboard the 51-foot sloop Effects, captained by Graham Pfister. "There's no other place in the world that has a channel like this for chartering," said Pfister, who grew up on the beaches of Australia, and must have salt water in his veins.

After sailing the world, he arrived in the BVI four years ago with his wife, Gillian, on their catamaran. "You've got such protected water that anyone can safely cruise here," Graham said, "even if they've only sailed dinghies before."

We circumnavigated the channel, sailing past islands that had no airports, no roads, often no people at all. The BVI were like a large bay that had been turned inside out: Instead of sailing into countless creeks and tributaries, we sailed around islands with coves of bleached sand and waters like crystal. But the pleasures were much the same, only heightened, for this was not pressured sailing from destination to destination, but unhurried wandering.

Heading out of the channel, we cut between St. John and Tortola and anchored at the greenish gray lump of Jost Van Dyke, whose 150 or so residents were connected to the electrical grid only two years ago. "The first night everybody turned on their lights at once," Graham said, "and the whole place lit up like a torch."

Jost lives for the yachts that come calling, and in Great Harbour we strolled down a main street of sand, shaded by coconut palms and lined with places like Foxy's Tamarind, surely the archetype for open-air tiki bars from the Caribbean to Bali. Fellow travelers swayed in hammocks strung between palms decorated with big red bows. A passel of copper- colored children limboed beneath a broomstick, and Foxy himself - barefoot and sporting short dreadlocks under a green baseball cap - strummed the guitar and sang whatever came to him, as he does every afternoon. He asked me where I was from andoffered up a calypso lyric:

"Well I like D.C. a lot,

but since you got rid of Barry,

the city's gone to pot."

I liked the hammocks and mango punches at Foxy's, but it was in Peter Island's Little Harbour that I found paradise. There were no houses, no beach bar, and only four other boats. Through nine feet of water I could see the bottom as if I were looking through glass.

The lagoon was alive with sea creatures. A ray five feet wide cruised by like some underwater Stealth bomber, followed by a school of smaller fish. Tiny baitfish clustered thickly near the surface, and dozens of brown pelicans dove relentlessly at them ten feet from the boat. With six-foot wingspans and bills as long as my shoes, they hit the water like rocks falling from the sky. Even before they could swallow their prizes, laughing gulls and boobies streaked in for a piece of the action, literally standing on the pelicans' backs, emitting a cacophony of squawks and screeches.

As I watched, a gull swooped down and stole a cracker right from my hand. There was nothing like this back home.

There was still one island I couldn't see from the drake Channel. It was Anegada, the "drowned land," which lay to the north, marked by strange green clouds that hung over it. More than 300 ships were said to lie broken on its fringingreefs. I said good-bye to Graham and Gillian and flew off in a puddle jumper (for which the ticket was the kind of generic receipt people use at garage sales). Just 12 minutes after leaving Tortola, we were skimming over shallow water covering coral and sand that stretched as far as I could see.

Lowell Wheatley met me at the airport, and we bumped down a rutted sand track called the East-West Road into a world of heat and silence and sky. A flat sandbar covered with mangroves, cacti, and wild sage, Anegada is actually the second largest of the BVI, but its reefs keep it off-limits to most charter boats, and the island is virtually undeveloped.

At a small bridge we stopped, and Lowell jumped out of the car. He spoke liltingly, "Look, you can see the flamingos out yonder." I squinted across what in the Chesapeake we call guts - brackish creeks and marshes that wind through the island - and saw faint pink shapes.

Lowell was a native of Tortola and one of the few people to immigrate to this wondrously forlorn island of coral and limestone. Only about 156 people live in Anegada's one village,The Settlement. Many more Anegadians live in New York City, in fact, than on Anegada. "The U.S. struck a special deal with them after World War II, and made it easy for them to emigrate. There are now more than 2,000 there," Lowell told me. "Not many young people stay here," he added. "I don't blame them." There is, after all, nothing to do except catch fish, lobsters, and conch.

A British developer named Kenneth Bates had other plans for Anegada and its miles and miles of white-sand beaches. Bates arrived in the 1960s, bought land, built an airstrip, erected a huge prefabricated warehouse, and built a small square of cinderblock apartments for those who would invest in his vision of a series of waterfront hotels around the island.

There was only one obstacle to his plans - the Anegadians themselves. They howled at the prospect of taming their wild island, and in 1968, by special order of the queen, the government bought Bates out. Some still speculate that Bates was merely a clever poker player, because he emerged with a $2 million profit. Whatever his game, today all that remains of Bates's dreams are a steamroller rusting by the side of the East-West Road, the warehouse - with its walls falling off - and the apartments, which Lowell turned into Anegada's one hotel.

"What I like is fishing, deep-sea fishing," Lowell said, "and the best fishing grounds in the islands are just 20 minutes away from here. Sixteen years ago, when I came here, everybody thought I was crazy. The government, the Anegadians - they said I wouldn't last three months."

The shallows cradling Anegada make it a prime hunting ground for bonefish. One morning I climbed into Garfield Faulkner's boat, Shogun, and we sped around to the eastern end of the island in emerald water so clear and sparkling that it might have been run through a filter. The sky was blue, the sea bottom white.

Just off a deserted beach, Garfield cut the engine. We grabbed our rods and stepped into the knee-deep water, walking slowly, looking, listening. We spoke in whispers as the boat drifted untethered. Pelicans roosted in the trees. I was stunned by the silence and the shimmering beauty.

But we saw no bonefish, so we motored along the coast toward a thick stand of mangroves. I threw my line out and quickly reeled in an eight-inch jackfish, then another a few inches longer.

I asked Garfield about growing up on Anegada. "When you're little, you fish," he said. "When you get bigger you go to St. Thomas or Tortola." He was, at 27, the most taciturn person I'd ever met.

Amid the mangroves, he spotted the translucent tails of some bonefish, slowly circling in inches of water. He nodded, and I cast, but not far enough. The tails disappeared. "Practice, man - you'll get one," he told me. We climbed out of the boat again and walked. A quick flash in the water. "Triggerfish," he said. Three-foot-long sand sharks sprinted by my legs. Garfield nodded, always silent. I cast, always missing. What I didn't say was that I didn't really mind - that I was strangely content to be walking in such an untouched place.

That afternoon, back at the hotel, I wandered over beaches that showed no footprints and then explored The Settlement. The name was perfect. Despite its having been there for several hundred years, the town looked temporary, with tiny wooden clapboard houses spaced haphazardly. Some had rough cinderblock walls beginning to envelop them, forming embryonic new houses that might take years to complete. The Mount Calvary Deliverance Temple, one of Anegada's three churches, was the size of a one-car garage. Not far away rusting pickup trucks had taken root like weeds. There were few people about.

But at one small brown house I met Clement and Gracita Faulkner, two Anegadians in their 80s who had once lived in New York and then retired to a big house on the other side of the island. Two years ago they awoke with their home in flames. Of course, there was no fire department to call. Instead they walked to The Settlement while the fire consumed everything they owned, including a grand piano.

Despite all that, they remain devoted to life on the island. "When you're ready for some peace and quiet, this is the place," Gracita told me.

The next morning I flew back to Tortola, then hopped a ferry to Virgin Gorda. For an island eight miles long and barely two miles wide, filled with many of the BVI's best known resorts, it was remarkably quiet. "We play marbles, and when the marble season is over, we make slingshots," my taxi driver said to me.

Then the road we were on simply ended, and a boat had to take me the rest of the way to my hotel. Indeed, there were so few roads on Virgin Gorda that I soon took to the water once again, this time with a 16-year-old named Jerry.

"Tortola," he told me, as we sailed past a deserted mountainside that tumbled down to khaki-colored beaches, "is way too fast." But he acknowledged a flip side to Virgin Gorda's small-town atmosphere with an adolescent grin: "Man, everybody knows everything. You can't do nothing bad."

As Jerry and I boated past Spanish Town and neared the southern tip of Virgin Gorda, the mountains flattened and the khaki sand turned white. At a beach framed by giant boulders we dropped anchor and jumped into the water, swimming 20 yards to shore. This was The Baths, Virgin Gorda's most famous "attraction." Rust, gray, and black boulders the size of Volkswagens lay tumbled on one another, shielding grottoes of fine sand and sparkling pools. The boulders continued into the sea, and for several hours we played on and around them like kids on a half-submerged jungle gym - climbing, jumping, and snorkeling amid another world of puffers and snappers, flounders and trumpetfish.

Not long after we weighed anchor later that afternoon, the clouds and wind swept in, bringing a driving rain. But this was the tropics: The wind and the rain were warm, and we felt energized from our morning in The Baths. We cut the engine, hauled up the sails, and shot home with our leeward rail submerged under hissing white foam, reggae blasting from the boat's stereo, and rain and spray soaking us to the bone.

I spent my last day in the BVI on Guana Island, 850 acres of privately owned hills, beaches, and hiking trails. The island could accommodate up to 30 guests, but on this day I was one of only five.

I hiked, not knowing where I was going. Doves launched themselves into the air from the underbrush. Small lizards leapt out of my way. The trail crossed a road, and the broken tree branch in my path suddenly jerked forward! It was a rare rock iguana, not the slender green iguana you could buy in pet shops, but dark brown and thick bodied, as big as a small dog with a three-foot tail. Its movements were unreal - both smooth and herky-jerky at the same time, remarkably like Godzilla in those old low-budget Japanese sci-fi films. We eyed each other a long moment. Then it jerked again and sidled into the bush.

I moved on, and followed two narrow ribbons of cement leading through woods up a steep hill. Near the top I emerged from the trees and came upon, of all things, a bench looking out over surf crashing onto a rocky beach below and an endless sea. This time there was no island or person or boat in view. Out there in the world great storms raged, but I sat comfortably on a park bench, and watched great gray clouds roll by.