From ship to shore. Brian Viner discovers the best way to see the British Virgin Islands is to divide your time between a motor yacht and a luxury villa

The indignity of being toilet-trained, I had assumed, was, in more ways than one, behind me. But that was before I took a bespoke holiday in the Caribbean, combining two nights in a luxurious house in Antigua, with two nights aboard a sleek $1.75m (£900,000) motor yacht, sailing around the British Virgin Islands.

The indignity of being toilet-trained, I had assumed, was, in more ways than one, behind me. But that was before I took a bespoke holiday in the Caribbean, combining two nights in a luxurious house in Antigua, with two nights aboard a sleek $1.75m (£900,000) motor yacht, sailing around the British Virgin Islands.

Tim, the young Scottish skipper of the 64ft Virgin Venture, could not have put it more delicately. Had I been to the loo on a motor yacht before? No, I had not. In lavatorial matters, I was unequivocally a landlubber. Well, he said kindly, would I mind using only two sheets at a time, or the system could become clogged, with potentially dire consequences.

That sensitive matter dealt with, Tim showed me to my quarters of burnished wood and gleaming brass. There are three double bedrooms - sorry, cabins - on Virgin Venture, all with en-suite facilities and about as comfortable as one could wish for, not that one would want to spend any more time below decks than strictly necessary when one is cruising around the BVI.

My three companions and I boarded Virgin Venture at Road Harbour, Tortola. Among the guests who had been on board before us was one Robert De Niro, actor. I'd have liked to have been a mosquito on the wall when Tim told De Niro how to wipe his bottom.

Still, I'm sure the great man would have been as charmed as we were by Tim and his South African partner, Mandy, who, although just 25 and 28 respectively, are accomplished hosts with the instincts of veteran hoteliers in the subtle business of knowing when to consort with the guests and when to withdraw quietly, which is important in a confined space. And speaking of confined spaces, from Virgin Venture's compact galley Mandy produced a series of delicious meals, including a better black-bean soup than I have ever had on dry land.

The eating regime on board went as follows: breakfast (featuring an austere confection called Pina Colada French toast), lunch (typically, monkfish kebabs on rice flavoured with tarragon and turmeric), happy hour (Mandy's baked walnut camembert washed down with a neon cocktail of Tim's called banana bushwhacker) and dinner (grilled red snapper with caramelised onions and Duchess potatoes, followed by glazed apple tartlets on vanilla cream). A viable alternative to a week at Champneys this was not. And yet, we did enough energetic snorkelling to feel as though we vaguely deserved the opportunity to stuff ourselves silly.

The snorkelling was superb. I had been to the BVI twice before, but had only snorkelled off shore. Tim dropped anchor just off The Indians, a rock formation only accessible by boat, and led us through some spectacular forests of coral, on one memorable occasion in the slipstream of an enormous shoal of doctorfish, black with an aquamarine trim. There must have been 1,000 of them, gliding this way and darting that with the seemingly choreographed grace of a corps de ballet. It was an almost tear-jerkingly wonderful spectacle. Lurking behind the doctorfish we spotted a couple of surgeonfish, who looked, needless to add, slightly more senior.

I knew they were surgeonfish because not least of the fun of snorkelling was had on board afterwards, knocking back a cold Carib beer while looking through Tim's comprehensive reference book, putting a name to the fish with markings like a Tiffany lamp, and the fish with a face like Norman Lamont. We had also, it transpired, seen yellowtail parrotfish, trumpetfish, banded butterflyfish, and even the blissfully named slippery dick.

Tim showed us a similarly interesting book identifying land-based creatures native to the Virgin Islands, including a tiny gecko only found on Virgin Gorda, which enjoys the rare distinction within the lizard family of having a name - Sphaerodactylus parthenopion - longer than itself. But we didn't need to concern ourselves much with dry land. We were confirmed seadogs now, or would be, once I started calling the toilet the "head".

We spent our days criss-crossing the main arterial route through the BVIs, the Sir Francis Drake Channel. It is a name evocative of pillage and plunder, as are the names of some of the islands themselves, among them Dead Man's Chest and, immortalising a buccaneering Dutchman from long ago, Jost Van Dyke.

Just off the island of Little Jost Van Dyke, we swam to a beach of gleaming white sand, which fringed Green Cay, a perfectly round island not much bigger than a football-pitch centre circle, with a single, elegant palm tree bang in the middle. Despite the beauty of the spectacle, it had almost a cartoonish quality. The palm tree needed a shipwrecked sailor leaning against it, watching his friend collecting driftwood and remarking: "You do realise that it could take years to build that bridge."

At night, we anchored just off the southern tip of Tortola, in Cane Garden Bay. If Green Cay had been almost a caricature of a picture-book desert island, so Cane Garden Bay, with its bobbing boats and soaring frigate birds, and on shore a crescent of multi-coloured wooden houses looking absurdly pretty against a backdrop of lush undergrowth, seemed like a caricature of a Caribbean anchorage.

Before dinner, Tim took us ashore on Virgin Venture's motorised dinghy. We drank rum punch at Myett's Bar before returning to Mandy's splendid cooking, and ended the evening lounging on deck doing some gentle, alcohol-enhanced crooning - "Moon River", by Julie from Edinburgh, got a tumultuous encore - and looking unenviously across the channel to the US Virgin Island of St Thomas, which was lit up like Las Vegas.

Having so enjoyed myself gaining my sea legs, I really didn't want to disembark, but all virgin ventures must come to an end, and at least we had the consolation of two nights on Antigua before heading eastwards to renew acquaintance with a British winter.

The trip had been billed as a particularly exclusive way of visiting the Caribbean, safely away from hoi polloi. And so it proved. In Rock Cottage, as on Virgin Venture, we could have as much privacy as we wished. Although a part of the chi-chi Blue Waters resort, Rock Cottage - in truth, a handsome five-bedroom villa more than a cottage - is set apart from the main hotel at the end of a small promontory. We ate, drank and swam there, visited only by Beverly, who prepared yet more delicious meals, and the occasional snuffling mongoose. The mongoose, Beverly told us, was introduced to Antigua to get rid of the snakes in the sugar cane. "There are no snakes here any more, but lots of mongoose," she cried, with a peal of delighted laughter.

Blue Waters is owned by Ron Randall, a British meat tycoon who started in business with just a single butcher's shop. We sat on the terrace at Rock Cottage, watching the sun setting over distant Montserrat, and wondering just how many lamb chops a man has to sell before he can call a place like this his own.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Getting there

Return flights from Gatwick to Antigua with Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) cost from £420.

Caribbean Star (001 866 864 6272; www.flycaribbeanstar.com) operates inter-island flights between Antigua and the British Virgin Islands from $150 (£83).

Jacaranda Travel (01962 776996; www.jacaranda travel.co.uk) offers a week's b&b at Rock Cottage in Antigua plus a week's full board on Virgin Venture in the BVI for $36,450 (£19,184) for a total of six adults sharing three bedrooms/cabins. International and domestic flights are not included in the price.

To book just the yacht ( www.virginventure.co.uk), the weekly rate from December to March is $18,950 (£9,973).

To book just Rock Cottage (01327 831007; www.bluewaters.net), the cost is $3,300 (£1,736) per day.

Further information

British Virgin Islands Tourist Board (020-7355 9585; www.bvitouristboard.com).

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