The “Other” Virgin Islands: Vieques & Culebra, Puerto Rico (AKA The Spanish Virgin Islands)

I sprawled out on my lounge chair. White, powdery sand surrounded me. I felt energized, yet relaxed. The beach appeared picture perfect. It was nearly deserted. I looked out at the calming shades of blue water – from bright azure to light baby blue. The water was remarkably clear and calm. The air temperature hovered about 80 degrees. Just right for a day at the beach. A small number of beachgoers wandered around the horse-shoe shaped beach. A few people played in the water. Others walked the sandy shoreline. And some like me, remained planted in their beach chairs reading, napping or otherwise chatting away.

Flamenco Beach

Flamenco Beach

It is no wonder Flamenco Beach has been voted one of the best beaches in the world. A mile long stretch of soft, white sand and crystal clear water that you can enjoy in near solitude. No vendors trying to sell you stuff. No loud music. Only the sound of small, gentle waves coming ashore. My eyes began to get heavy. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought, “I can’t believe more people don’t come here.”

Looking to get away from the cold weather this winter, but don’t know where? Want to be lazy, unwind, and relax? A beach vacation to somewhere other than the typical touristy islands? A tranquil, low-key place? Off-the-beaten track without the crowds? A destination with character and a small island feel? Award-winning, must-see beaches and natural attractions? Well, set your sights away from the usual suspects and head to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico? Yes, the islands of Vieques and Culebra to be exact.

Vieques and Culebra are part of Puerto Rico. The two sister islands are referred to as the Spanish Virgin Islands. They lie just off the east coast of the Puerto Rico mainland – between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. The Spanish Virgin Islands reside in the prime tourist zone of the Caribbean. But strangely, they remain relatively underpopulated and underdeveloped. It is even more interesting given the accolades the islands have been getting.

The beaches of both Culebra and Vieques made the Travel Channel’s list of Best Beaches. Flamenco Beach received the international Blue Flag eco-designation by the Foundation for Environmental Education indicating high water quality and environmental management. The Discovery Channel named it the second best beach in the world. Vieques won Travel and Leisure’s 2008 World’s Best Awards readers’ survey for Best Island in the Caribbean, Bermuda, and the Bahamas. Vieques also made Islands Magazine’s 2007 list of the top 20 islands to live on. Travel Channel ranks Vieques on its list of “Mind Blowing Escapes” which highlight the “best that nature has to offer.” With two-thirds of Vieques protected as a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Refuge, the island also has earned the distinction of the largest wildlife sanctuary in the Caribbean.

Sun Bay Beach

Sun Bay Beach

Culebra is the smaller of the two islands in terms of size and things to do. It is only 7 miles long and 3 miles wide with about 2,000 residents. It boasts a total of one town, Dewey, which does dual duty as the capital. When I first arrived at Culebra and got settled in at the guesthouse, I asked a local passing by where was the town center. She motioned with her arm from one side to the other at a few rustic, wood buildings and said, “right here.”

This is the place to go if you really want to slow down and chill out. Culebra is a true beach “getaway” in that you get away from (i.e., there are none) high-rise hotels, resorts, shopping malls, chain restaurants, casinos, nightclubs, golf course developments, and other artificial entertainment options available at most popular beach destinations. No cruise ships dock here. But there not being much to do is exactly the point. It is why you come to tiny, remote Culebra – to relax, meander around, and take in the natural scenery of this sparsely visited tropical isle.

The island’s limited offerings provide a great fit for harried visitors seeking a slow-paced, doing-less-is-better type of vacation. Hang out at the few beaches, venture to some nature preserve areas, explore the 10 square miles of island in a four-wheel drive vehicle, visit a shop or two, patronize the handful of small, modest bars and restaurants (make sure you hit Mamacitas and Dinghy Dock), and simply sit with a beverage and a book. Just remember to bring a book, as there are no bookstores in Culebra.

Vieques is the larger of the Spanish Virgin Islands at 21 miles long and 5 miles wide at its widest point with about 10,000 residents. Vieques offers similar activities, just more than its smaller sister: more beaches, towns (or barrios), bars, restaurants and lodging options. The main destinations in Vieques are the two large coastal towns of Isabel Segunda (or Isabel II) and Esperanza, which lie opposite each other.

Isabel Segunda resides on the north side of the island on the Atlantic. It is the capital of Vieques and central business district. Isabel Segunda offers a wide range of bars and restaurants running the gamut from casual to upscale. My favorite bar is Al’s Marazul. The laid-back waterfront establishment offers great ambiance and views, particularly at sunset. Esperanza is a small beach town with big character on the Caribbean side (southside).

The town’s main attraction is a short boardwalk or malecon that runs along the waterfront. Across the narrow, paved street are a few shops, restaurants and bars that will remind you of Jimmy Buffet and give you an overwhelming urge to order a Pina Colada. My favorite hangout in Esperanza is Banana’s Bar & Grill. This open air bar and restaurant looks out onto the water and has a cool vibe.

Old Camp Garcia

Old Camp Garcia

Not surprisingly, the primary leisure activities in the Spanish Virgin Islands revolve around its natural attractions. The most popular activity is exploring and enjoying the numerous beaches. By far, the most notable is Culebra’s famous Flamenco Beach. This mile and half long, cresent-shaped cove is protected by a reef. This keeps the waters calm and the beach in pristine condition.

Flamenco is great for snorkeling, swimming and sunbathing. As the main public beach, it provides facilities such as campsites, bathrooms, showers, grills and food vendors. The more adventurous should definitely hike the unmarked, one-mile dirt trail at Flamenco Beach to Carlos Rosario Beach. Flamenco Beach is a must-do if you only have time to visit one beach while in Culebra. But if you have the time, check out Zoni Beach. This quiet beach is more secluded in terms of visitors and geography.

Snorkelers should visit Melones Beach, Malena Beach, Tamarindo Beach, and Punta Soldado. Turtle Beach (located on Culebrita cay) is popular with both beachgoers and snorklers. Other top attractions in Culebra are the tiny cays off the shores of Culebra, particularly Culebrita and Luis Pena.

These islands, part of Culebra, are nature reserves and only accessible by boat. Culebrita off the eastern coast of Culebra is the most popular. It has a number of beaches, but Turtle Beach is the one most visited. Culebrita is also known for having the oldest operating lighthouse in the Caribbean. Luis Pena located off the north side of the island is more isolated and secluded. Most vacationers spend their time on these cays snorkeling, swimming, sunbathing, and taking nature walks.

In Vieques, head to the main public beach called Sun Bay. Located about a half mile from Esperanza, it is by far the most popular. This picturesque, lanky, crescent-shaped beach is the place to go if you can only visit one beach on Vieques. Easy access, services, plenty of shade, and tranquil water make Sun Bay a top choice for most beachgoers. Facilities include bathrooms, showers, snack bar, campground and a swimming area with lifeguards. Sun Bay is a mile-long stretch of water and sand with coconut palm trees, sea grape and almond trees running along the entire length of the beach.

Hopefully, you have the time to explore the many other scenic, more remote beaches of Vieques. Virtually all the best beaches reside on the old U.S. naval training grounds. The U.S. Navy left the island in 2003. The U.S. Government turned over ownership of the property to the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Service. They, in turn, designated the land a protected wildlife reserve – the largest in the Caribbean.

It is worth the drive down the pot-hole infested dirt roads to reach the beaches of old Camp Garcia located on the southern part of the island. Four-wheel drive vehicle and fastened seat belts are a must. While all the beaches (named after colors by the Navy) are recommended, Blue Beach (Bahia La Chiva) and Red Beach (Playa Caracas/Bahia Corcho) should not be missed. While inconveniently located on the northwestern end of the island away from the other beaches, Green Beach (Punta Arenas) is another favorite worth the trek. Green Beach is more remote and private. It also offers a great view of the Puerto Rico mainland.

Red Beach

Red Beach

Beyond beaches, the top attraction in Vieques is its world-famous bioluminescent bay, Mosquito Bay. Visitors come here to experience and see the bay waters glow at night. Hundreds of thousands of one-celled micro-organisms called dinoflagellates (or Pyrodimium bahamense using their scientific name) create the glowing effect. You cannot see these mirco-organisms, that is except at night, when they are disturbed from sudden motion – from a fish or a person. This is when they glow.

Using a biobay tour company, you can kayak out into the bay. Once you get in the water, just move around and watch the water light up around you. It is safe to say that you will not forget the experience of this uncommon, spectacular natural wonder. Mosquito Bay received international recognition when the 2008 Guinness Book of World Records identified Mosquito Bay as the brightest bioluminescent sanctuary in the world.

Come see for yourself why Vieques and Culebra’s natural attractions are rated among the best in the world. Now is the time to head to the Spanish Virgin Islands. The tourist industry is beginning to respond to all of the attention. Case in point, the W Hotel chain recently discovered Vieques and plans to open the W Retreat & Spa in March 2010, the first W hotel in the Caribbean. So, hurry up to the Spanish Virgin Islands to slow-down.

Getting there

To get to Vieques and Culebra, you must first fly to San Juan via San Juan International Airport (SJU). Once in San Juan, your choices are to either take a 30-minute flight or the passenger ferry from Faardo. I recommend flying since its faster and easier. If cost is most important, the ferry is by far the cheapest option. Flights from San Juan depart from San Juan International and from San Juan Isla Grande Airport (SIG).

Isla Grande airport offers less expensive and additional flights. A 15-20 minute taxi ride gets you from San Juan International to Isla Grande Airport. The main local airlines that service Vieques and Culebra are: Isla Nena Air Service, Air Flamenco and Vieques Air Link.

You can also charter a flight. This may be appealing if you have a group of people traveling together. A few air charter companies include Culebra Air Services, Air America and MN Aviation Services.

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If you opt for the ferry, the best bet is to take a taxi to Fajardo. The 30-mile drive will take about two to three hours depending on traffic. A one-way ferry ride per person is about US$2. Once on the islands, make sure you rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get around. (Tip: make reservations in advance) To travel between the islands, book a flight on one of the previously mentioned local airlines.

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