When Columbus discovered this Caribbean archipelago, he named it after St Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. Now Virgin mogul Richard Branson calls it home (at least some of the time). Mark C O'Flaherty searches out leisure, luxury and some seriously good beaches

Why so chaste?

The dozens of Virgin Islands comprise part of the Leeward Islands, and are scattered across an arc of the Caribbean east of Puerto Rico and north-west of Antigua. To the north, they face out to the Atlantic; to the south, the warmer waters of the Caribbean. They offer the purest essence of yo-ho-ho Treasure Island Caribbean: in just half a day's sailing you can drop anchor and swim to white-sand beaches free from sunloungers and "cocktail time!" service flags. No resorts can claim ownership of their beaches, so even the inhabited ones are yours for the taking.

Apart from the large business hubs of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) and St Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands (USVIs), most of the isles are little more than small sandy specks within an unexploited and undeveloped archipelago, cooled by the trade winds. Most are too small for anything other than a small dock or at best a tiny airstrip or helipad, and there's little industry apart from top-end tourism. Even this business is fairly restricted, given the limited access and, more latterly, caution about the effects of tourism on the environment.

Over half of St John, one of the biggest islands in the USVIs, is under the protection of the National Park Service, and there are 17 national parks in the BVIs.

USVIs? BVIs? why the different parentage?

Columbus discovered the islands and named them after St Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. This name was soon shortened. The Danes fought the English for control and in 1672 they split the territory. St Thomas, St John and St Croix became the Danish West Indies and the rest stayed under the control of London. The US bought the Danish West Indies in 1917 with a view to military strategy. Today the USVIs are US territory and the 60 BVIs make up a British protectorate, but are effectively independent, setting their own laws. They're quite progressive too: anti-smoking laws forbid smoking within 50 feet of any public space or individual, effectively outlawing the practice in public. The USVIs have yet to catch up.

What are the best destinations for 'fly and flop'?

Even though you'll be alighting in Tortola or St Thomas, get off those islands immediately or you'll spend your time dodging rotund, gaudily patterned cruise-ship day-trippers. This isn't a place for budget travel: all the key resorts pick up their passengers by private yacht and whisk them away to one of their groomed, palm-tree fringed, secluded worlds of Full American Plans (full board, sans booze).

Every resort wants to emulate the vibe of a private island: Caneel Bay on St John (001 340 776 6111; caneelbay.com) offers rooms from £575 per night, including all meals, and has seven of the best beaches on the island (including child-free ones and "raw" unserviced ones). It is so vast that minibuses work on a loop to ferry you around. Caneel has won a strong repeat-visit following and, along with its beaches, has the best dining options on the island.

An alternative on Virgin Gorda is Biras Creek (001 284 494 3555; biras.com). It is sophisticated, free of the under-eights, and a member of the Relais & Chateaux family. It has rooms from £500 per night including all meals. You can't drive here from the south of the island, so you'll have to take a boat.

Once they get you there, they'll give you your own motorised Boston Whaler to explore the bay, the reef and the nearby deserted beaches. In the afternoon you can play giant chess beside the Caribbean and then go back to your suite with an infinity pool overlooking the Atlantic.

Little Dix (001 284 495 5555; littledixbay.com), also on Virgin Gorda, had a $30m (£21m) brush and polish recently, making it one of the most contemporary-looking resorts in the area. This is middle-class family territory, with lots of them taking advantage of one of the most beautiful crescent beaches (and serenely landscaped cliffside spa developments) in the Caribbean. Rooms start at £304 per night, including breakfast.

Finally, the Peter Island resort (001 284 495 2000; peterisland.com) works as it sounds – it's on its own island. With so much space to sprawl, the resort never feels full. The huge and always sparsely populated beach on Deadman's bay has an instant wow factor, as do the vast luxury villas that lurk in the hills; some of these enjoy Flintstones-style landscaping by Disney SFX experts. Most of the accommodation, though, is in suites yards from the water, with their own hammocks; from £422 per night, including all meals.

I want to get active

Head to the water – or, indeed, under the water. Every decent resort will have a watersport concession, offering Hobie Cats (small, easily manoeuvred catamarans), canoes or motorboats. But the most popular pursuit by far is snorkelling. Coral reefs abound, and just by walking from your sunlounger into the shallows you're likely to encounter vibrant leopard-patterned rays and the odd (harmless) nursing shark. Take a free snorkel-and-flippers set from your hotel and hop over to Loblolly Bay on Anegada to play with the stingrays, barracuda and turtles.

If you want to stay on land, trek from the headland down to the Baths at Virgin Gorda – vast volcanic boulders that have formed caves and rock pools along the beach. This is a great place to swim away from any hotel activity, but check if there's a cruise ship drop-off planned, and reschedule your trip if there is – the area can get very crowded, very quickly.

The best scuba views?

Look for the shipwrecks – that's where the beneath the waves action is. The stand-out plunge in the Virgin Islands is down to the wreck of the HMS Rhone, off Salt Island. The vessel was a Royal Mail steamer which sunk in 1867 and is now home to legions of brightly coloured sea inhabitants.

The hull of the Chikuzen, beneath the waters by Tortola, is still mostly intact and a great place to find barracuda and octopus. Elsewhere, the so-called Alice in Wonderland dive at Ginger Island features a Fantasia-style coral wall, complete with shoals of butterfly fish.

Do I need my own yacht?

No, but it would be nice. You'll see some grand gin palaces in dock across the region. Plenty of recreational sailors seem more accustomed to cocktail parties on deck than facing perfect storms. They like to cruise the Virgin Islands during the winter months – and use many of the resorts just for their restaurants and spa facilities.

Some resorts, such as Peter Island, can arrange part-stay/part-cruise itineraries with their own yachts, but for something more adventurous and with the freedom to explore the Virgin Islands on your own terms, charter a small yacht with friends and an optional captain from the likes of the Moorings (001 727 535 1446; moorings.com), which has bases in both the BVIs and USVIs. The company offers vessels from a small monohull to a family-sized catamaran; prices start at £267 per day.

A place to stay with character?

Every night on Guana Island (001 212 482 6247; guana.com) is effectivelyu oa 32-guest house party. Guana is a ravishing private island in the BVIs owned by an eccentric science enthusiast, complete with wonderful nightly dinner-party chatter: "Well next month we're going on a cruise to ancient Greece. Quick, get the number of this chap's travel agent, maybe he can do us a trip to Medici-era Tuscany next summer."

Doctors, lawyers and successful business types come here for romantic breaks à deux year after year, usually to coincide with visits by the rest of a clique that formed here on one of their first trips. If lunch and dinner is a group activity for friends you may not have met yet, the rest of the day is about solitude. The half-mile long White Bay Beach has only a handful of loungers by a small bar at the dock – the rest is free from any evidence of resort life.

Cottages and villas of varying scales are peppered around the hills: the view from the pool at Jost Villa straddles both the Atlantic and Caribbean waters. Guests in the villas get their own motorised carts. These allow you to trundle around from the resident botanist Dr Liao's orchard to the flamingo pond and sugar mill ruins. Or you could head out to the private cottage on the isolated wild North Beach, which feels more like Cape Cod than the Caribbean; it is a favourite with couples who want to be at one with nature, and who don't want to pack too much in the way of attire.

The whole island is often booked out for private groups (from £15,820 per night), and several times a year the owner closes up shop to hand over the keys to a select band of marine and land scientists. Prices for a regular stay start at £497 per night, including all meals as well as wine with lunch and dinner.

At the other end of the price scale, Carringtons Inn (001 340 713 0508; carringtonsinn.com) on St Croix is one of the most utterly charming guest houses in the Caribbean. There's a cute private pool and four poster beds in the brightly coloured rooms. Resident hosts Roger and Claudia can point you in all the right directions for the best fortnight's stay possible. Doubles start at £87 per night room only, but including an energy surcharge.

What will I eat... and drink?

The Virgin Islands are not, it has to be said, a top destination for gourmets. American-style casual dining abounds. Although you'd expect an abundance of lush fruits de mer around here, ciguatera disease in fish, caused by proximity to the reef, means that the tuna steak or mahi-mahi on your plate is probably an import. Expect a few creole slants on menus – blackened fish can be very spicy.

The Equator, in an old sugar mill at Caneel Bay (001 340 776 6111; caneelbay.com), serves excellent glossed-up Caribbean fare, while the resort's Turtle Bay Estate House is as fine a high-end steak restaurant experience as you'll find anywhere in the Americas.

The best Virgin Island restaurants are much lower key in design than their Bajan counterparts. The view from the terrace at Asolare (001 340 779 4747) on St John (which does quite lovely things with tuna steak and sesame crusts) features twinkling harbour lights and a cosmos of wonder above, but the restaurant itself is smaller than anything on the west coast of Barbados. Pick from green curry or sushi with lashings of champagne at the Dove (001 284 494 0313) at 67 Main Street in Road Town on Tortola.

Piña colada and rum punch dominate every cocktail list. Order a sharper version of a classic colada by asking for a "lime and coconut" at the Beach Bar on St John (001 340 777 4220; beachbarstjohn.com), where floral print-clad cruise ship flotsam mixes with kooky local jetsam. Expect to pay around £7 for a burger or grilled sandwich and upwards of £14 for restaurant mains; cocktails clock in around the £8 mark.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The usual gateway for British travellers is Antigua, served from Gatwick by both British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; virginatlantic.co.uk). The usual connections to Tortola are on Liat (001 268 480 5601; liatairline.com).

The alternative way in, particularly for the USVIs, is via San Juan in Puerto Rico. San Juan can be easily reached via New York or Miami. Indeed, you can combine the Virgin Islands with a short US city break, with an onward flight on JetBlue (001 801 365 2525; jetblue.com) to San Juan. From here, Cape Air (001 508 771 6944; flycapeair.com) has frequent flights on to Tortola, St Thomas or St Croix.

Several specialist operators offer inclusive holidays. Caribtours (020-7751 0660; caribtours.co.uk) has 10 nights in the British Virgin Islands combining Biras Creek and Rosewood Little Dix Bay from £2,941 per person. The price includes return flights with Virgin Atlantic, inter-island flights and transfers.

Red tape

For the BVIs, British travellers need only a passport. But if you are including the USVIs at any time, or transitting them en route to the BVIs, you will need to go through all the hoops for admission to America. For the visa-free option, you must register at least three days ahead, online at tiny.cc/1ausy.

If travelling by yacht to the BVIs from the USVIs, clear customs and immigration at ports at Jost van Dyke, Anegada or the any of the three ports at Tortola. To the USVIs from the BVIs, clear immigration at St Thomas, St John or St Croix.

Getting around

On the larger islands, hitch (the locals all do it) or book a cab to get from hotel to restaurant. If you want to island hop, make use of the extensive inter-island ferries: tiny.cc/FTAaD.

More information

bvitourism.com, usvitourism.vi

Necker - a very private island

Necker Island (020-8600 0430; neckerisland.com) has transcended the label "exclusive resort", to become a byword for a certain style. "Necker" is for the rock star on retreat, or Sir Richard Branson and his family looking for a week's peace and quiet in what is effectively their Caribbean bolt hole.

Branson bought the island in 1982. As with his airline and many of his other endeavours, he invested a fortune on it make it the best and most contemporary of its kind. He commissioned a Balinese fantasy, and that's exactly what he's got.

There are just 14 bedrooms – nine in the Great House and the rest in the Balinese-style houses. Usually the island is taken over for a block booking, but during Celebration Weeks (26 September and 3 October this year), individual rooms are available for couples from £18,142 for a week. Otherwise you'll need all the numbers and the bonus ball to come up in the Lottery to afford the £37,235 per night for the whole island. But it is all-inclusive, right down (or indeed up) to the champagne.

The three gong strikes announcing lunch or dinner time mark the highlight of a stay, whether it's dining off the floating sushi bar in the beach pool or a Moroccan-themed dinner inspired by another Branson property - Kasbah Tamadot, near Morocco.

A stay at Necker is very much playtime for grown ups: you're invited to plunder Branson's dressing-up box for Long John Silver costumes for the regular Pirates of the Caribbean parties. Sir Richard knows more than anyone about injecting high-end travel with a well designed shot of pure fun.