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The New York Times
Culebra: A Little Island Hard To Leave
by NINA SIEGAL
January 14, 2001
I HAD one worry when traveling to Culebra, a tiny island about 20 miles off the northeast coast of Puerto Rico: that I might not return home.
This seven-mile-long stretch of mangrove forests and white sand beaches set against turquoise waters seems to inspire impulsive acts. I first heard about it from a friend who eloped there last year. And everywhere I went on the island, I would run into another person from the States who had gone for a visit, abandoned all sense of ambition, bought a place and stayed.
The hosts of my guest house, Butch and Jackie Pendergast were both from Minnesota, traveled to Culebra 10 years ago and were so impressed that they bought two properties on the island -- one in Dewey, the one town on the island, and one on the east coast. When Jackie picked me up at the airport just outside town in October (as she or Butch do for all their guests) she cemented my fear about getting stuck; she confessed that, though she and Butch still had a place in Minnesota, they thought of themselves as Culebrans now.
It is easy to understand why people take to Culebra. You won't find any large hotels there (although a few are apparently in the planning stages) or a single McDonald's. It was only a few years ago that the island was connected to a water pipeline from the mainland, making potable water widely accessible, and the main east-west road across the island was essentially unpaved until 1999. There are still many dirt roads, and roosters and horses still wander about them freely.
The water surrounding the island is pristine, so blue it almost gives off a neon glow. And the dozen or so beaches are amazingly picturesque. It can be hard to take it all in, especially in the off-season, when you might find your footsteps the only ones marring the perfect continuity of white sand.
The other main attractions are the coral reefs that surround the island and a string of offshore keys. The island is also home to brown pelicans and a nesting colony of 60,000 sooty terns, and leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles use some beaches for nests. A portion of Culebra has been turned into a national wildlife refuge, and the keys are protected by refuge status as well.
Culebra remains unsullied, in part, because it is a bit tricky to get there. From San Juan, you can catch a puddle jumper on one of three small airlines, or you can take a ferry from Fajardo on Puerto Rico's northeast coast.
But because Culebra is still ''the boonies,'' as one friend in San Juan had warned me, everything there has a very informal feel. Getting a flight from San Juan's international airport was a little touch and go.
I was told by Isla Nena Air Service to arrive at the gate by noon to board, but no employees were at the gate until 12:35. Then suddenly, the man who had been at the upstairs ticketing desk ran down the stairs and told everyone to follow him outside to the plane. My heart sank as I saw the teeny eight-seater.
The 25-minute trip, though somewhat harrowing in such a little plane, gave me a chance to take in the topography. The island is shaped a bit like an elephant standing on a boulder, with a secluded harbor, called Ensenada Honda, breaking up its southern end, and a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic on the northwestern coast. It is surrounded by three keys -- Isla Culebrita, Cayo Norte and Cayo Luis Pena -- known for scuba diving. As we were flying in, I could also see the neighboring island of Vieques.
Although Vieques also enjoys a reputation as an untrammeled paradise, it has one thing Culebra hasn't: the United States military. Puerto Rico is a United States territory, and while the United States still conducts military maneuvers on Vieques, much to the chagrin of many Puerto Ricans, the Navy pulled out of Culebra in 1975, leaving it to private owners, the local government and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the 1,568-acre wildlife refuge.
All told, Culebra is about 7,700 acres, roughly half the size of Manhattan, much of it covered with mangrove forests and craggy hillsides. Guidebooks and friends in San Juan strongly suggested that I rent a jeep-like vehicle, though I discovered that it was quite possible to get around without one.
Vans run back and forth between the ferry terminal in town and the island's most popular beach, Playa Flamenco, about a five-minute ride. You can wave it down anywhere en route, and the charge is just $2 a trip.
But getting to the farther-flung beaches requires a car, and because cars are scarce even in the off season, it's best to reserve one before you arrive. In a rickety S.U.V. rented at Jerry's Jeeps, a ragtag operation near the airport, I was able to drive from one end of the island to the other and back in less than two hours.
With Butch as my guide, we drove up and down some treacherously steep roads observing the island's dramatic contrasts. One pothole-lined road passed windblown shacks where local residents were advertising homemade hammocks and led to glorious promontories where foreign millionaires were building gargantuan mansions.
On another road, which seemed to ascend directly to the sky, we could see the island's highest peak, Monte Resaca, in the wildlife refuge, as well as St. Thomas to the east. On some roadsides, we found industrial supplies that seemed to have been discarded; on others, we saw elegant sailboats docked in a thicket of mangroves.
It took only about 20 minutes to explore Dewey, even allowing time to browse through its few unimpressive trinket shops. That left plenty of time for the island's main event: the water.
Even though Playa Flamenco, a crescent-shaped cove north of Dewey, is the most popular beach, that doesn't diminish its beauty in any way. But it was still nice to trek out to the more isolated beaches, like Zoni, a tiny slip of sand on the northeast coast offering views of the keys, and Carlos Rosario, a 20-minute hike west from Playa Flamenco, where you can snorkel right from the shore.
I spent about a half a day at Zoni, which I was assured would be worth the challenging trek to find it. The drive on Route 250 was about a half an hour to the end of the main road heading east. But as I neared its narrow end, the road became so steep, and so potholed that I decided it was safest tackle the rest by foot.
I parked and descended for about 10 minutes, passed through a tiny opening in a fence, and found myself on Zoni, utterly alone. A narrow slice of white sand wrapped around the dunes, curved to admit the clear blue water, and then led out to a massive, black rock.
Island residents complain of a shortage of hotel rooms on Culebra, though a 162-room hotel, Costa Bonita, is in the works. At the moment, only about 250 rooms are for rent in all of Culebra, though in peak season, I'm told, the local population of almost 2,000 can skyrocket toward 10,000. Up to a third of the residents (mostly those who live on the northern side) will rent out their own homes during the peak vacation months, November through February. A house accommodating six or eight costs $2,000 to $3,000 a week.
I SPENT two nights with the Pendergasts at Casa Ensenada, at $90 a night, and then drove a mile south into the hills to Club Seabourne, which I was told was the island's luxury hotel. That is not saying much: Although the main lobby of the hotel has a screened-in dining hall, a nice living room with a television, the rooms (called ''villas'') are modest. Mine was fairly spacious, with a king-size and a twin bed but little else. The bathroom was plagued by a swarm of mosquitoes, but there was a deck with a fantastic view.
The rooms at Casa Ensenada were also humble, like most of the rooms I saw on the island. But some of the guest houses offer little perks that make up for the simple housing. For example, the Pendergasts provide guests with use of a kayak (they also run a business called Culebra Boat Rentals) provided they sign a liability waiver.
For me, taking the kayak into the harbor was the high point of the trip -- and I did it twice. The water in the harbor is not the translucent hue of the ocean, but it is invitingly warm and very tranquil.
Boats moored there come from all over the globe. From my tiny craft, I started up conversations with a sailor from New Orleans, who had a gig playing guitar in town that night, as well as a family just down from Cape Cod.
As I paddled out toward the sea, I watched cormorants and egrets land on a small island where a man with a white beard ambled silently with his dog. Later, as I drifted back to shore with the current, I spotted an improbably lean bird with angular black wings, a forked tail and an elegant white head. It appeared to glide across the sky for a half an hour without a single stroke of its wings. Asking around later, I learned that it was a frigate bird, or iwa, found only in the tropics; because of its enormous wingspan, it can apparently soar for hours on a single updraft. It is moments like these that are Culebra's true luxury.
Culebra is so small that it has a cast of characters, which may be especially apparent in the off-season. After two days there, I began to recognize the faces in the jeeps, on the beaches and at the bars -- an assortment of North American hippies and sailors and Puerto Rican hippies, sailors and builders, and a sprinkling of foreigners. At night, I found the entire cast at Mamacita's, a friendly, spacious bar where gringos mingled easily with the locals, and a D.J. spun merengue and American popular music.
Later in the evening, when the bar closed in consideration of its house guests, the crowd moved down the street to El Batey, a larger dive that closes at about 2 a.m. I was tired from snorkeling and couldn't go on, but I understand the party continued to another location, El Eden, until about 4 in the morning.
''Culebra's not really a big party place, but if you're looking for a party you can find one,'' said Mike McCarty, the Cleveland native who owns Mamacita's.
Despite Culebra's small size, it would be easy to spend a week there, seriously unwinding, especially for those who have an adventurous spirit and like to hike. But Culebra can also easily be done in a day, as part of a trip to Puerto Rico.
As to staying forever: well, let's just say it can get lonely in paradise. Take a friend when you go.
Beaches, reefs, and something like a milkshake
Vieques Air Link, (787) 742-0254, flies to Culebra twice a day from from the Isla Grande airport near Old San Juan for $95 round trip.
Isla Nena Air Service, (877) 812-5144, leaves from the international airport so you can link directly with flights from the United States, charging $115 round trip.
In peak season, there might be as many as four flights a day, but don't count on the published schedules. Sometimes, the companies fly simply when they can fill up a plane. In the off-season, there may only be two flights a day.
For just $2.25 each way, you can take a ferry from Fajardo to Culebra (two or three trips a day); information: in Fajardo, (787) 863-0705, and in Culebra, (787) 742-3161.
But getting to Fajardo from San Juan can be tricky: a private cab will cost $50 to $60 one way, and take about 45 minutes. A public van service, or publico, which will pick you up anywhere in San Juan, can be significantly cheaper. But a friend who lives in San Juan warned me that they make many stops, and that I should allow at least three hours to catch the ferry.
Where to Stay
Accommodations in Dewey are mostly small guest houses with 3 to 12 units, and they all seem more or less the same -- clean but basic. Those right next to the ferry dock tend to be less attractive and to be noisy.
I was perfectly content at Casa Ensenada, 142 Calle Escudero, in Dewey, (787) 742-3559, fax (787) 742-0278, where my midsized room with air-conditioning, a kitchen, and one of the few television sets in town, cost $90. Depending on season, the three rooms cost $65 to $130 a night, or $390 to $780 a week.
Also in Dewey is Villa Boheme, Post Office Box 218, Culebra 00775, phone and fax (787) 742-3508, www.villaboheme.com. It has 11 rooms, a great terrace out back with hammocks, and a communal kitchen (three efficiencies have their own kitchens). Doubles, $87 to $130.
South of town, Club Seabourne, Post Office Box 357, Culebra 00775, (787) 742-3169, fax (787) 742-3176, is a cluster of pink villas on a hill about a 10-minute drive from Dewey. It has a pool, 13 comfortable rooms with air-conditioning, and a good restaurant. Rates, $95 to $145.
Rental listings and information on places to stay are on the Web at www.culebra-island.com or www.culebra.org.
Where to Eat
You will not find fine cuisine on Culebra. At Mamacita's, 64 Castelar, Dewey, (787) 742-0090, I had sea bass, which was not great but came with yummy mashed potatoes. The menu features pork loin, filet mignon and churrasco. Dinner for two, with drinks, costs about $60. The bar's trademark drink is a Bushwhacker ($5), an unholy combination of rum, vodka, Bailey's, Kahlua and coconut, which has the unassuming taste of a milkshake.
Local cooking, mainly chicken or pork with beans and rice, can be found at El Caobo (787) 742-3235, a restaurant off the main drag. Everyone calls it Tina's, after the owner, and the decor is plastic chairs and picnic tables with laminated tableclothes. But if you want a hearty, inexpensive meal that won't cost much (less than $10 with and two beers), this is the place.
To my tastes, Happy Landings, next to the airport, is a better bet for local cuisine, with similar prices.
You can find decent sandwiches (about $3.50) at El Batey, 250 Escadero, (787) 742-3828, and the locals all heartily recommend the Oasis Pizzeria, on Calle Marquez, (787) 742-3175. Pizzas are $8 to $12.
What to Do
There's nothing like the feeling of the sultry wind in your hair as you drive from one end of the island to the other. Rent a vehicle from Jerry's Jeeps, (787) 742-0526, and be treated to Jerry's lecture about every aspect of the island. Rentals, $45 to $55 a day.
To arrange for scuba diving, contact Culebra Divers, (787) 742-0803, or see www.culebradivers.com; Reeflink Divers, (787) 742-0581; or Culebra Dive Shop, (787) 742-0566. A two-tank dive excursion, with equipment, runs about $75 to $85.
For a boat charter to the offshore keys, try Willey Solis, (787) 742-3537, who charges $80 a day for two people, or Vacation Planners, (866) 285-3272, which charges about $25 to $35 a person\.
Photos from Lead Page: Kayakers in the tranquil Ensenada Honda.; Playa Flamenco, Culebra's most popular beach.; Backyard of Casa Ensenada, on the harbor. (Photographs by Laura Magruder for The New York Times)