Travel

This National Park Is Basically Joshua Tree Meets the Ocean

Heaven's entrance fee? $3.

cdwheatley/E+/Getty Images.
cdwheatley/E+/Getty Images.
cdwheatley/E+/Getty Images.

They call it The Cathedral. At The Baths National Park in the British Virgin Islands, it’s also the money shot. Here in this grotto, massive boulders lean into each other, light streaming through their gaps as if from the heavens themselves, saturating the already blue-green waters. Visitors pose under these natural spotlights, swimming out, looking in, whipping their hair (here, it actually looks cool). Flip though Instagram, and this framing dominates.

But in reality, there’s no bad shot in this most unusual and gorgeous park, with its towering granite boulders tumbling into the water, some as big as 40 feet in diameter, formed in slabs when magma pushed its way toward the surface of the Earth and cooled underground (“baths” is short for batholiths). A haven for rock climbers, the boulders pile high above the turquoise water like a half-submerged Joshua Tree National Park, 3,300 miles away in the deserts of California. There’s even cacti: pipe organ-or dildo-cacti line the sandy hiking paths, along with pungent wild sage, jasmine, and fluttering white butterflies.

cdwheatley/E+/Getty Images
cdwheatley/E+/Getty Images
cdwheatley/E+/Getty Images

Take the well-trodden Devil’s Bay Point Trail straight down to Devil’s Bay. At the south end, enter The Baths through a narrow slit, depositing you pretty much at The Cathedral. Or meander down the long way from the top, along sandy beaches (Baths Beach Trail) and spelunking through caves (Caves Trail). Exploring the terrain isn’t strenuous, but in the caves the boulders can get slick and gaps too small for walking upright. Rope handrails, wooden platforms, and ladders help with maneuvering, and water shoes are recommended, as well as a dry bag for any supplies. When you’ve met your exploring quota, take a moment to perfect your hair toss or sunbathe on the powdery white sand.

And get this: It’s just three dollars to enter. If you’re a BVI citizen, it’s free.

Photo courtesy of The British Virgin Islands Tourist Board & Film Commission
Photo courtesy of The British Virgin Islands Tourist Board & Film Commission
Photo courtesy of The British Virgin Islands Tourist Board & Film Commission

THERE ARE ABOUT 60 TROPICAL ISLANDS in the BVI, and of those, just 16 are inhabited. Tortola, Anegada, Jost Van Dyke, and Virgin Gorda contain most of the action; the rest range from private isles like Richard Branson’s Necker and Moskito islands and Google co-founder Larry Page’s Eustatia Island to snorkeling hotspots like Salt Island, home to salt ponds and the wreck of the RMS Rhone (featured in the movie The Deep), to uninhabited spits of land best explored on foot. Most of the islands are volcanic in origin, making the terrain hilly, rugged, and lush with vegetation-with the exception of flat and easy-to-identify Anegada (helpful if you’re on a boat). It owes its distinct geology to ancient creatures, aka it’s mostly limestone and coral.

The BVI, along with the US Virgin Islands, are all part of the Virgin Island archipelago, named by Christopher Columbus when he floated up upon them in 1493. He called them Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes (“St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins”) and claimed them for Spain. He wasn’t the first human to set foot here, of course: the islands had been inhabited for upwards of 3,000 years, first by the nomadic Ciboney, fish-foragers out of South America; then the Arawak sailors from Venezuela; later, the warlike Caribs took over. After the Spanish arrived, the Indigenous population slowly disappeared. Some surviving pottery and artifacts from the Carib and Arawak can be seen in the Virgin Islands Folk Museum in Tortola.

And though the BVI is technically United Kingdom territory, it shares much more in common with its US counterpart and nearby Puerto Rico. Beyond similar climate and food staples, its currency is the US dollar.

BlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock
BlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock
BlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock

Within those 60 or so islands in the BVI, there are 20 national parks. They include places like the 800-acre RMS Rhone Marine Park, which also covers Dead Chest Island-lore says Blackbeard abandoned 15 of his crew here after a mutiny, leaving them nothing but a bottle of rum (and inspiring the pirates’ song “fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum,” fromTreasure Island). Sage Mountain National Park, on Tortola, features the highest point in all the Virgin Islands (1,716 ft), and the J. R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens, in the heart of Tortola’s Road Town, claims a turtle colony, a plethora of palms, and a gazebo of orchids. There’s also Prickly Pear National Park, 243 acres with salt ponds, hiking trails, and bird sanctuaries, and Copper Mine Park, with the ruins of a copper mine, built by Cornish miners in the 19th century.

The seven acres that comprise The Baths gained their status in 1990. The protected area also includes the aforementioned horseshoe-shaped Devil’s Bay and nearby Spring Bay, with see-it-to-believe-it turquoise waters and powdery sand, which attracts sunbathers in droves. In addition to the trail, it’s also accessible by anchoring your dinghy at an offshore dock line. (If you’re coming by boat, it’s also worth visiting nearby Fallen and Broken Jerusalem islands for the similar scenery-with a fraction of the tourists.)

You’ll find both The Baths and Devil’s Bay on the south end of Virgin Gorda, the third-largest island in the BVI. Those familiar with Spanish will know that the name means “fat virgin,” named by Columbus. It seems he surveyed the 8.5 square miles of palm trees, beautiful lush peaks, ancient boulders, unspoiled beaches, and blooming vegetation and said, “You know what that looks lie? A fat lady lying down.”

Rich Crowder/Getty Images
Rich Crowder/Getty Images
Rich Crowder/Getty Images

But back to this century. Come on a weekday, right when the park opens, to avoid the cruise-ship crowds. Stop for coffee at Top of the Baths, a restaurant with panoramic views, plus shops, a pool, and above-average Caribbean-fusion fare right off the main parking lot. Bring cash, as beachside at The Baths you’ll also find Poor Man’s Bar, a painted-green wooden hut serving up sandwiches, Jell-O shots, beach rental chairs, and cocktails. Order a Painkiller, a rum-orange-pineapple-coconut cousin of the piña colada, invented in 1971 by Daphne Henderson at BVI’s famed Soggy Dollar beach bar (so named because you typically have to swim to it, rendering your dollars…soggy). There’s said to be three versions corresponding to two, three, or four ounces of rum. Most tourists will only be aware of-and most bars will only serve them-the two-ounce version. The brave ones will always ask for more.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She will one day be brave enough to ask for four ounces of rum in her Painkiller. 

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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