Saba Rock: The Storied Caribbean Hotel on its Own Private Island

Saba Rock lies just off Virgin Gorda island
Saba Rock lies just off Virgin Gorda island | Courtesy of Saba Rock
Sofia Vyas

Sink your toes into the sand of this freshly-styled stay, rebuilt in the British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma.

The British Virgin Islands are a magnet for the moneyed. But you don’t need to have a net worth in the millions to experience a slice of private-island life. Saba Rock sits on a tiny one-acre island – just large enough to house a hotel, restaurant and bar. But for years, its sizeable reputation has outshone its speck-in-the-ocean size and it’s long been renowned as a paradisiacal pitstop for in-the-know sailors charting a course around the Caribbean. After the devastating impact of Hurricane Irma, the resort had to be crafted afresh. Here, we take a behind-the-scenes look at the newest edition of the renowned resort.

A storied resort

Saba Rock has a colourful history. Pitched in the pristine British Virgin Islands, it’s spent the better part of six decades as one of the Caribbean’s most popular, and unusual, watering holes. But back in the 1960s, before it was on the radar of yachters and in-the-know travellers, it was occupied by Bert Kilbride, a prominent diver and marine archaeologist who set up his headquarters on the island.

After Hurricane Irma, the resort had to be rebuilt from scratch

From Saba Rock, Kilbride researched and documented the shipwrecks in the area and opened a dive shop, where he developed The Resort Course, an introductory scuba-diving course now used throughout the world. Saba eventually garnered a reputation among boaters and locals as an unofficial stop-off on island-hopping routes, prompting Kilbride to open the Pirate’s Pub, which quickly became a stalwart of the British Virgin Islands bar scene. “It was the place to stop when you were boating around,” says Alain Prion, the resort manager. “Saba has been an institution for many years, now probably going on for 50-odd years.”

Unwind beside the tranquil waters of the British Virgin Islands

However, it wasn’t until the ’90s, after Saba Rock changed hands, that a hotel and restaurant opened on the island. By then it had already cemented its revelrous reputation, which Prion remembers from one of his own idyllic trips to the islands back in 1994. “I stayed at Bitter End resort, which is right across the water from Saba,” he says. “Day and night, Saba was rocking… It was a constant party. You would wake up in the morning, go to breakfast and there were boats milling around. You could hear laughter, and during the day it increased – the music, the laughter, everything went up.”

It’s an atmosphere that Prion and his team are keen to bring back with Saba Rock Resort 2.0. When Hurricane Irma ripped through the region in 2017, the original resort was damaged beyond repair. The new structure (built now to withstand a category five hurricane) had to be crafted from scratch by Czech-based ADR architects, whose globe-spanning portfolio includes hotels such as Velaa private island in the Maldives. As well as the practical, they also covered the playful – including a working phone booth, brought in all the way from England.

The rooms have been updated to give the resort a more luxurious edge, but Prion insists the resort will stay true to the island’s roots. With plenty of Caribbean colour on display in the accents and textiles, he says: “It’s both fun and casual. We aim to please the entire BVI community.” Indeed, despite the high-end accommodation, prices in the restaurant and bar remain accessible.

The resort has just seven luxurious rooms and two suites

Across the bay

Running a resort on a standalone island doesn’t come without challenges. Prion’s team has orchestrated a network of boats that will ferry people to Saba Rock from the main islands of Virgin Gorda and Tortola, widening the resort’s appeal beyond yacht-charter itineraries. It’s the perfect place, in fact, for those without seafaring experience who want to hole up somewhere remote – Saba Rock may be small, but it comes with access to all the amenities you would expect from a far more expansive hotel.

Tuck into tropical treats like fresh coconuts and tacos at sister restaurant Sugarcane

A short boat ride across the water is sister restaurant Sugarcane where guests can lounge by a lagoon-style pool with a cocktail and gleaming views of the sound. The restaurant itself – which has also been totally remodelled as a result of Hurricane Irma – is a breezy, open-air space with a thatched roof and a menu that combines the best of Caribbean and international food. Steps away from the restaurant, you can wander through the remains of an 18th-century sugarcane plantation – the most intact sugar works site on Virgin Gorda.

Right next door is a blissfully air-conditioned gym at Nail Bay Sports Club, which is also home to a greenery-wrapped tennis court. Two new squash courts have opened and guests can sign up for one-on-one or group coaching with Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Joe Kneipp.

Dive into Sugarcane restaurant’s lagoon-style pool

Going with the wind

Saba Rock has a relaxed appeal that’s perfect for spending days swaying in a hammock. Those looking for some time out can unwind happily on a miniature beach, with icing sugar-soft white sand. But the British Virgin Islands have equally perfect conditions for water sports. The BVI Regatta – one of many regattas that take place in the area – happens annually, when boats sail to each of the archipelago’s islands in one week, creating a buzz around stop-off points like Saba.

“We have tremendous winds here, which are great for sailing and kite boarding,” says Prion. “We have a lot of people who have their own boats and cruise around the islands, so they know Saba as a place to come and enjoy.”

Saba Rock’s new bar and restaurant has a laid-back atmosphere

Anyone keen to charter a boat and recreate the regatta experience for themselves can do so easily with the help of Prion’s team. “We have a number of different marinas in the area, close to Saba Rock,” he says. “We can make contact with the charter-boat companies and get everything together.”

The islands’ waters are teeming with quiet snorkelling coves and swimming spots, too, including The Baths, a Crusoe-esque series of pools, formed around volcanic rocks. Continuing Kilbride’s legacy, the resort now has an on-site dive shop – so the sharp-eyed can head out to spot marine life like sting rays, turtles, octopus and tiger sharks.

Virgin Gorda lies just across the water

Reviving an institution

Pirate’s Pub might be a thing of the past, but the new Saba Rock will have the same lively atmosphere it’s had since the ’60s, opening its appeal to a new generation of sailing enthusiasts and sun-seekers.

“It’s very new and improved,” says Prion. “But what we want to do is bring back the vibe, the fun, the laughter that was there… It’s exciting and we’re not opening, if you would, a new hotel: we’re re-opening what was prior.”

Ultimately, whether you’re a boater, diver, new to the British Virgin Islands, or have been holidaying there for years, you’re sure to find something to suit you. What’s clear is that it will take far more than extreme weather to squash the spirit of Saba Rock. This is still the most unmissable place to moor up in the Caribbean.

Saba Rock has been a popular pit-stop on sailing routes for decades

Following its makeover, Saba Rock is now open in the British Virgin Islands.

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