For centuries, this collection of tiny islands and cays in the northern Caribbean has been the preserve of seafarers, pirates and adventurers, and that rugged, buccaneering tradition continues to this day. Which isn't to suggest that there's any direct line traceable from Blackbeard, who sailed these waters, to the British Virgin Islands' most famous latter-day beardie, Richard Branson. The Virgin mogul bought his own little piece of virgin paradise in the 1970s, Necker Island, and has holidayed here in paparazzo-free isolation ever since. Nevertheless, recent press coverage of Branson's rebuilt mansion on Necker helps to reinforce the message that if you come to the British Virgin Islands, you need your own boat – and preferably your own island.
The BVIs aren't just for tycoons, though, and the islands are keen to promote themselves as a family-friendly destination that offers more than just a safe harbour for your super-yacht or banker's bonus. The area's sheltered waters – laced around the four main islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke and dozens more uninhabited isles all east of Puerto Rico – make this discreet destination a paradise for sailors and water-sports fanatics. My mission, on a twin-centre holiday, was to discover whether the islands would work for a family that includes two resolutely water-averse members. None of us sail, only two of us enjoy swimming and one of us needs a hefty push in the lower back just to get his toes wet. Not perhaps the target audience for a place where beaches tend to be viewed as just the entry-point to an ocean-based activity.
Our watery adventure started spectacularly, with a thrilling 40-minute boat ride across darkened seas from Tortola, the main island of the BVIs, to Virgin Gorda. Well, in truth, it started with a less-than-thrilling eight-hour flight to Antigua, a four-hour furlough at Antigua airport, and a further two-hour island-hop via Nevis and St Maarten on Liat, the local airline. But we were soon speeding past the dark humps of mysterious islands under vast, unfamiliar skies, with the mast lights of distant yachts strung out around us like fireflies.
Our private motor launch, manned by uniformed crew, drew up at the jetty of our first destination, the Bitter End Yacht Club, and we strolled into the colonial clubhouse feeling like the cast of a James Bond film. There's a touch of old-style Caribbean magic about the Bitter End. Family-run for three generations, it perches on a remote outcrop of Virgin Gorda, accessible from the rest of the island only by boat. Cabin-like rooms, furnished in dark teak, perch on stilts in the hills above the shore, connected by rugged timber boardwalks. Each snug cabin has its own veranda, with a hammock and a view over the ocean to neighbouring islands – including Necker. At night, the trade winds set the slatted shutters banging, creating the illusion of being in a crow's nest in a tropical storm. But the next day dawns bright and clear.
As a non-sailing family, we were in the minority at the Bitter End. Visiting yacht-crews drop in to stock up on supplies, to get a shower and a decent meal. The atmosphere is friendly, even homely. Many of our fellow guests seemed to have been regular visitors for years. The airy clubhouse is an Ian Fleming fantasy of porticos and verandas. It serves food that wouldn't shame a high-end restaurant – sesame-crusted tuna seared ruby rare, lime-marinated grilled wahoo, conch fritters and lobster salad, as well as Caribbean specialities and the kind of humongous and complex breakfasts American travellers require as standard.
There seemed to be two species of guest at the Bitter End. The lean, hard-bodied sailing types, whose sun-bleached T-shirts spoke of distant yacht clubs in Long Island or Maine. And families who had chartered crewed boats – distinguishable by their brand-new sailing outfits and nervous expressions. What there didn't seem to be was anyone like us – people who didn't sail and didn't have any intention of starting now. For the first couple of days we resisted the lure of the ocean, shuttling between enormous meals in the restaurant and the beach, a thin strip of pristine white sand dotted with hammocks and sun-loungers. From a horizontal position, we watched infants tacking expertly across the sheltered waters of the North Sound, and hearty, bronzed Americans padding off to kite surf or kayak. We lounged on the beach during the Hobie Cat Beer Can Pull. We swung in hammocks during the Regatta. My children listened, with looks of benign "that's not in my contract" indifference, when I tried to talk them into visiting the kids' club, with its sailing lessons, scavenger hunts and coconut-whittling classes.
Eventually I broke them down and persuaded the family to accompany me on the hotel's weekly snorkelling excursion. They allowed themselves to be kitted out in masks and flippers. But once the flat-bottom boat reached the reef, they mutinied, opting to stay aboard while I snorkelled, the kids going green as the boat swayed.
The excursion took us close enough to Branson's private island to allow us to indulge in a spot of rubber-Neckering; we could see the shell of the main house, which dramatically burnt to the ground after a lightning strike in 2011, and the new one starting to rise beside it (it eventually reopened last month). On the way back, we detoured to nearby Biras Creek, where we watched pelicans scooping up fish and returning to settle puffily into their nests, and giant starfish clinging to rocks in the clear waters. Then it was back to the Bitter End, to return three pairs of shamingly dry masks and flippers to the rental store.
These volcanic islands don't offer much in the way of walking, but as the afternoons cooled, we scrabbled our way up paths into the hills behind our cabin, startling sleepy iguanas and raising parrots into flight. A ferry took us over to Virgin Gorda's main town, where we slithered our way around the main visitor attraction, The Baths, an assault course of gorges, boulders and caves, like a clammy, granite version of Total Wipeout.
By our last day at the Bitter End, the boys had relaxed enough to be persuaded out on to a sailing boat, a small sloop captained by a husky blond American, Dustin. He was remarkably tolerant in the face of a barrage of questions from our seven-year-old, including: "Is this the first time you've been on a boat?" Scudding across the turquoise waters, we felt we were experiencing the BVIs as they are meant to be experienced. Then we gratefully clambered ashore to get a steadying drink and return to the beach.
For the second part of our holiday, we transferred – via another short hop on a motor launch – to Peter Island, a private isle holding just one hotel. Its appeal is that there is really nothing much there: a couple of restaurants, a bar, a spa and a selection of staggering undeveloped beaches, and that's about it. The hotel stretches along a sweeping curve of pristine white sand, Deadman's Beach, apparently named after the mutinous crew marooned by Blackbeard on a nearby island, with just a bottle of rum and a cutlass each. They tried to swim across the bay but only half of them survived, an event which is said to have inspired the shanty 15 Men on a Dead Man's Chest.
Nowadays the beach where the dead pirates reputedly washed ashore holds a line of sun-loungers and hammocks. Anyone marooned there who requires another rum-based drink just needs to hoist their personal beach flag and a waiter will come scurrying across the blazing sand to take their order – no cutlass required.
After all the activities we didn't do at the Bitter End, here was a place to relax completely. Our rigorous schedule of sunbathing was only interrupted by shady beachside lunches, surrounded by coconut palms and a visit to the temple-like spa for a hot-oil massage. We took a couple of excursions, including a day trip to White Bay, another perfect crescent of deserted beach, where we relaxed in our own wooden tiki hut and ate a picnic lunch delivered from the hotel in a cool box. We were feeling pretty ritzy, until an enormous super-yacht moored nearby and disgorged a bronzed, buff tycoon and his family, plus five-man crew, who immediately put up a volleyball net and started mixing cocktails. That's the trouble with living the dream – there's always someone with a better dream than yours.
Like the Bitter End, Peter Island used to be exclusive in the sense that you had to be a sailor to reach it. Now it feels a bit more democratic, although some of the older guests, correct in formal jackets and perfect hair-dos, look slightly bemused to be rubbing shoulders with people wearing shorts and flip-flops at dinner. But there was a genuine friendliness from the staff, who greeted new arrivals as though they were long-lost friends, and seemed to know many by name from previous visits. One long-standing staff member, Jean Kelly, was particularly effusive; her role seemed to be head of Good Vibes, rather like Bez in the Happy Mondays. It's the only resort I've visited where meals are interrupted by regular displays of hugging and cries of "Welcome Home!"
Having only experienced the Caribbean before in guilt-inducing gated compounds on more popular and accessible islands, the relatively prosperous BVIs were a revelation. Despite the area's reputation as the playground of millionaires, the resorts we visited felt inclusive, rather than exclusive, and we didn't leave with the feeling that we'd holidayed at the expense of someone else's misery. We may still have been landlubbers when we got home, but we were landlubbers with suntans and some lovely photographs of the sea.
There are no direct flights to the British Virgin Islands. The usual route is via Antigua, which has non-stop flights from Gatwick on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Liat (liatairline.com) provides connections to Tortola.
Tracey MacLeod travelled with BVI specialists Turquoise Holidays (01494 678400; turquoiseholidays.co.uk) which offers five nights' full board in a beachfront cottage at the Bitter End Yacht Club and five night's half board in an ocean-view room at Peter Island Resort & Spa from £3,285pp including international and domestic flights and all boat transfers.