British Virgin Islands

Rand Richards Cooper wasn't just a virgin to the British Virgin Islands when he took this, his first assignment for ISLANDS; he had never even been to the Caribbean. "I couldn't believe that the colors in the advertising images of the Caribbean were real," he says. "I thought of it as a nonplace, a beautiful nowhere. But when I got there, the nature was even more outrageous than in the ads; I was dealing with levels of visual beauty and color that I was not accustomed to."

He also found that each island had its own distinct character: "Go to Tortola for some of the best views and beaches, Virgin Gorda for natural beauty, Jost Van Dyke to party, and Anegada for peaceful isolation."

Cooper has been writing fiction for 15 years and has published two books: Big As Life: Stories About Men and The Last to Go, a novel that was filmed for ABC television. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, GQ, and Harper's; he "obsesses about" basketball and chess.

Leave it to a photographer - Darrell Jones in this case - to provide a simple explanation for the phenomenon of the mythical green flash mentioned in Cooper's story. According to him, as the last arcing sliver of the sun is about to dip below the horizon, the red spectrum falls away, so that the crescent appears as emerald green. "I've stood watching for the flash with a group of people," he says. "Some see it, and some don't."

Jones claims to have seen the green flash more than a dozen times, from many islands, and over many oceans. "The problem in the B.V.I. is that the sun usually sets over another island," he says, "but you can only see the flash if it sets over the water on a clear day. Anegada is probably the best island for an unobstructed horizon."

Based in Florida, Jones first visited the Caribbean nearly 30 years ago on a surfing trip with some high school friends. He's been to the B.V.I. a dozen times and to the Caribbean more than 150 times, but this was his first trip to Jost Van Dyke.

Dive In If you like wreck-diving, the B.V.I. has plenty, including one of the Caribbean's most popular and highly rated sites, the R.M.S. Rhone, located off Salt Island. Dashed against the rocks in a hurricane in 1867, the 310-foot ship now lies scattered across acres of sea bottom. (The Deep, starring Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset, was shot there.) Another notable wreck in B.V.I. waters is the 246-foot Chikuzen. Snorkelers will appreciate a number of beaches that have reefs just offshore: Smuggler's Cove, Cane Garden Bay, and Brewer's Bay on Tortola; The Baths on Virgin Gorda; and White Bay on Jost Van Dyke.

Beach Time Virgin Gorda's Baths are the major beach draw in the B.V.I. ("There are 50-foot-high boulders at water's edge," says Cooper, "jumbled in ways that create cathedral-like spaces with shafts of light pouring in, and underground grottoes for a private bath.") When the Baths get crowded, head by boat or on foot to the rocky but quieter Spring Bay to the north or Devil's Bay to the south. Cooper's favorite beach was the isolated Smuggler's Cove on Tortola, a sandy strand with "a ramshackle self-serve snack bar that looks like a fantasy castaway ruin."

Sightlines The best view in the B.V.I. is from the top of Eustatia Island, says Jones. To get there, take a boat from Virgin Gorda to the south side of the island, and follow the trail from the beach. ("It's quiet, the water has nice color, and you can see Necker Island - the private resort owned by Virgin Records mogul Richard Branson.") Cooper also recommends the 360-degree view from the Skyworld observation deck and restaurant atop Tortola. At sunset he enjoyed taking in Virgin Gorda's boulder landscape from the deck at the Mine Shaft Café, which is near an old copper mine.

On the Road There are no direct flights to the B.V.I. from the U.S. or Canada; you'll have to fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and take a connecting flight, or fly to St. Thomas, in the USVI, then take an interisland flight or ferry. A number of ferry services operate between major islands; from Virgin Gorda you can take a boat to Anegada or Eustatia. Despite the facts that B.V.I. roads are steep and curvy and you drive on the left (in an American-style car!), Cooper says that a rental is still the best way to explore Virgin Gorda and Tortola. ("There are many taxis, but I saw a lot of white-knuckled passengers," he says. "At least in a car you have some control over your own destiny.") Prices start at about $55 per day in high season. (A four-wheel drive handles the hills best.) Walk or take a taxi on Jost Van Dyke; on Anegada walk or hitchhike.

Room Key Cooper and Jones both enjoyed Nail Bay Luxury Resort Community on Virgin Gorda, a group of vacation homes that have full kitchens and overlook the water. (Rates start at $95 per day.) On Tortola, they stayed at Prospect Reef (doubles from $175 per night in high season). The Sea Crest Inn on Jost Van Dyke is a new no-frills condo-style place that has a nice view over Great Harbour and is close to Foxy's Tamarind Bar ($145 per night in season). For a quiet retreat on Anegada, plus water views and lobster dinners, Jones recommends the Anegada Reef Hotel (starting at $215 per night, double occupancy, including all meals).

What's to Eat Both writer and photographer raved about C & F (for Clarence and Florena) Bar and Restaurant in Road Town on Tortola. Cooper recommends the grilled fish, massive plates of ribs, fried plantains, and exceptionally fiery condiments. ("The pepper sauces are dangerous.") Quench - or fuel - the fire with local rum from Callwood's at Cane Garden Bay. On Virgin Gorda, the Rock Café & Sports Bar is the place not only to catch the cricket match on TV but also to grab some seafood at one of the tables scattered about at different levels among the boulders. ("My pasta must have had two entire lobsters chopped on top," says Cooper.) He also recommends Tortola's Roti Palace.

Read It and Leap For beach reading, try Herman Wouk's comic Don't Stop the Carnival, about a guy who tries to live out his fantasy by buying an island hotel, only to have everything go wrong in paradise. Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, will come alive when read in the place that may have inspired the book's setting. Insider tips and travel secrets can be found in The Best of the British Virgin Islands, by local Pamela Acheson. For a guide to the underwater world, get Linda Sorensen's Diving and Snorkeling Guide to the British Virgin Islands. Web Headings Check out the B.V.I. Online Travel Guide (www.b-v-i.com) for tons of facts and contacts; www.britishvirginislands.com has excellent restaurant and accommodations listings.

Cash FlowATMs and banks are easy to find on Tortola, rare on Virgin Gorda, and nonexistent elsewhere.