Five bareboat charter destinations you’ll want to visit again and again (published October 2015)
Asking me about my favorite charter destination is like asking for my favorite flavor of ice cream. I mean, it’s ice cream, what’s not to like? But truth be told, I do have a few favored destinations – the kind of places that, at the end of a charter, make me think, “I didn’t see enough of that, I need to come back.”
To me, the key to chartering is variety. Sometimes it’s about a tropical mood while at other times, it’s all about culture or pine forests. Here are some places that I can say I’m not done with so I’ll be charting a course back as soon as possible.
BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS(B.V.I.)
Short distances, steady breezes and lots of places to stop for an umbrella drink is why the B.V.I.s are often the first bareboat charter anyone attempts on their own. The anchoring is easy, the bars are plentiful and if your crew would rather beachcomb than adjust sails, you’ll be at your next stop in just a few hours – max.
Not to be missed are the Baths on Virgin Gorda and a romantic dinner on Saba Rock across from the Bitter End Yacht Club. But even if you’ve done the circuit a few times, I find there are always new coves to explore so coming back to the B.V.I.s is a sure thing.
Once completely off limits to charter boats, the 11-mile island on the horizon is like a siren’s song. Up until a few years ago, Anegada’s entrance was not easy to navigate. You had to line up compass bearings and keep a sharp lookout for coral while avoiding Anegada’s eighteen mile-long Horseshoe Reef, a notorious boat eater. Today, the entrance is marked with buoys and unless the weather is howling, there’s no reason not to visit this quiet island, even if just to get away from the party scene.
There are many moorings in the lagoon that are paid for at one of the few bars on the beach. Take a taxi to the windward side to one of the beaches where you may be the only visitor – a rarity in the B.V.I.s. In the afternoon, make reservations at the Anegada Reef Hotel for a perfect candlelit dinner that night and you’ll enjoy having your toes in the sand and a forkful of lobster in a dish of butter.
Finding a bareboat charter outfit in this area is child’s play. Check out Dream Yacht Charters, Moorings, Sunsail, Horizon Yacht Charters, CYOA (out of St. Thomas, USVI) and others. Provisioning is easy on just about any of the islands and eating out is tempting so don’t over pack the boat with food you won’t use.
The Grenadines are an island chain that runs north and south between Grenada and St. Vincent. I could spend six months exploring the coves of these little gems because each island has its own special character, but you can get the general idea on a weeklong charter.
The wind is a little stronger and the waves a little bigger here in the Windward Islands so a bit of sailing confidence and familiarity with reefing is needed. If you are lucky and the water is amenable, you may be able to sail both north and south on a beam reach. The rewards for intrepid sailing include snorkeling with turtles in the Tobago Cays and having a cocktail at Janti’s Happy Island bar (a spit built entirely of conch shells) in Clifton on Union Island.
Bequia is the northern-most island just below St. Vincent. (To sound like you’re in-the-know, be sure to pronounce it correctly, it’s “Bek-way.”) The Grenadines has a “boat boy” culture where entrepreneurial men and women come out in skiffs to help you catch a mooring or bring out ice and fresh croissants in the morning. They’re indispensable for island information, trinket sales and trash removal, so take care of them with tips and they’ll take care of you with just about everything else.
Stroll around town to visit a dozen curio shops and the fresh fish and produce markets. A wooden boat model from Mauvin’s Boat Shop will make an excellent memento (they ship anywhere). Bring your credit card because these are handcrafted and finely detailed and well worth it. Multiple restaurants line Belmont Walkway along Admiralty Bay and you can find everything from pizza to French cuisine.
The Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary on the windward side is a must. “Brother” King is the caretaker of hundreds of Hawksbill turtles and hatchlings that he raises or rehabilitates until they’re able to survive on their own. He’s passionate, informative and utterly engaging on the subject of his beloved turtles and you can even scratch their shells – they love that.
Dream Yacht Charters, Moorings, Horizon Yacht Charters and Sunsail all have bases in Grenada at the southern end of the chain. You will need to check in/out if you sail between Grenada and any Grenadines isles north of Carriacou, as you will be crossing into another country.
Tahiti – it’s the stuff of bucket lists. For a truly exotic sailing destination, consider the French Society Islands that are like nowhere else on Earth. Palm trees swaying with the tradewinds, white sand beaches, dramatic mountains rising from aquamarine waters and the song Bali Hai wafting on the breeze – it must be Tahiti.
The islands you’ll most likely visit are Raiatea, Huahine, Bora Bora, Tahaa and if you’re ambitious, Maupiti. I like to charter for 10 days or two weeks in these islands just to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the excellent cuisine, which is a blend of South Pacific tropical and top-notch French.
If you have more time and don’t mind spending a half-day bashing to windward, Huahine is the least developed island in the group. A few hours of a rental car will bring you to the fish traps, maraes (religious site ruins) and the blue-eyed eels in the river on the northern tip. You’ll be stopping often to get great shots of the amazing water colors over the surrounding reef.
By Tahiti standards, Bora Bora is the most developed island but it still has a mystique that must be experienced. Mount Otemanu dominates the crystalline lagoon and the island loves the camera. After a quick stop to re-provision at the town dock in Vaitape, it’s a 90-minute motor to the back side of the lagoon. Due to the coral heads and some marked dog legs, it’s not advisable to sail.
The protective fringing coral reef means you can anchor in 10-30 feet of calm water while still benefiting from the windward side breeze that keeps things cool and mosquito-free. A terrific drift snorkel is at a coral garden near the southeastern tip of the motu (reef island) chain. Just walk up the beach (with reef shoes) and then drift back to where you started and you’ll see eagle rays, turtles and hundreds of clams with iridescent mantles.
Dream Yacht Charters, Tahiti Yacht Charters, Moorings and Sunsail have bases on Raiatea, a 45-minute flight from Tahiti’s capital, Papeete. Non-stop major carrier flights are available from Los Angeles and San Francisco so paradise is definitely within reach.
If it’s culture you want, you can’t go wrong with Greece and specifically the islands of the Saronic Gulf which is a compact cruising ground that leaves plenty of time for shore-side exploration. Set aside a few days before or after your charter to visit Athens and the spectacular Acropolis.
A half-day sail from the marinas near Athens will bring you to Poros, Spetses and Hydra, among other islands. Then, just island hop to take in the sights and the amazing food. With the strong dollar, Greece is relatively affordable now but due to the country’s recent financial difficulties, you may not be able to rely on credit cards, so bring cash.
The island of Hydra encompasses the quintessential Greek experience. Hydra’s circular harbor is packed with cafes, tavernas and souvenir shops and it doesn’t take long to walk from one end to the other. For a good two-hour hike, climb up through town and a pine forest to the 19th century monastery of Profitis Ilias.
Hydra is one of those places that can’t take a bad picture. Everywhere you turn your lens, there are colorful terraces, cute donkeys, unique architecture, and charming cafes beckoning you to laze away an afternoon, digging into chunks of salty feta cheese and sipping local wines served in a carafe.
A must-do is the Ydronetta Bar, which is just a sliver of patio carved out of a West-facing rock wall. Watching the sunset from here, ouzo in hand, may just be the defining experience of any Greek isles visit.
There are many private outfits that serve the various island groups of Greece. For the better-known companies, look for Dream Yacht Charters, Kiriacoulis and Sunsail, all of which offer boats in multiple Greek ports near different cruising grounds. There is no escaping Med-mooring in Greece so be prepared for lots of close-quarter maneuvering. By the end of the week, you’ll be a pro.
SAN JUAN ISLANDS
For a completely different take on chartering, consider the San Juan Islands in Washington State. If you are not fond of hot climates and sunburns, the San Juans offer an alternative and they are close to home so flights should be easy and affordable.
Anacortes and Bellingham are the most likely places to book a charter. From Anacortes, the heart of the San Juan cruising grounds is just around the corner. The distances between islands are short so you can stop often to hike, sample great local seafood, enjoy a band in a local bar or visit with the locals.
The entire Pacific Northwest offers phenomenal cruising and if you bring your passport and pre-arrange it with the charter company, you can also cross into Canada to visit Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.
Haro Strait separates the U.S. from Canada and it’s also the most likely place to spot orcas and dolphins. Just be sure to let them come to you because chasing sea life for a photo op is prohibited in these waters
HIGHLIGHT—MORAN MANSION ON ORCAS ISLAND
A must-do stop is Orcas Island and the historic Rosario Resort/Moran Mansion museum. Shipbuilder and one-time Seattle mayor, Robert Moran, purchased 7,000 acres here in the early 1900s and built an Arts and Crafts style residence which is now a museum and is open to the public.
Moran’s nautical background is evident in all the furnishings and fixtures and the music room features a 1913 Aeolian pipe organ and a 1900 Steinway grand piano. Six days a week at 4:00 p.m., Christopher Peacock, accomplished musician and Rosario historian, presents a free concert, which includes music and silent film footage from the original Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney. Peacock’s excellent hour of entertainment includes the history of the mansion and the Moran family. Schedules may change so call ahead.
Anacortes Yacht Charters, San Juan Sailing, Bellhaven Charters and Crown Yacht Charters all have a selection of power and sailboats. The cruising season is short here so book early and consider the shoulder seasons of May and October. The winds are light and fluky here and trying to get in quality sailing time may be tough so consider chartering a powerboat. Go ahead, we won’t tell anyone.
Zuzana Prochazka is a veteran cruiser and freelance writer. She is based in Southern California.