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Caribbean Vacation: It's A Carefree Paradise In Culebra

By Eli Reyes

January 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Newsday. All Rights Reserved.

THE TWO roaring engines of the nine-seater aircraft shut out any opportunity for conversation with fellow passengers, many of whom were left to silently signal downward at pristine shores or frontward at the stretching horizon.

The half-hour eastbound flight from Isla Grande Airport on the outskirts of San Juan was worth the small inconvenience, though: It ended in paradise.

As our pilot guided the trembling plane between mountain peaks that hid the airstrip, I was already wondering how I would ever be able to leave Culebra Island, the 7-by-3-mile speck about 20 miles off eastern Puerto Rico.

Its miles of sugary sand, tourist-free beaches and laid-back lifestyle have over the years seduced many vacationers. "A lot of North Americans who are here worked in three-piece suits and gave it up," says Mary Pryless, a part-time bartender at the Club Seabourne resort, who a few years ago traded her 14-hour-a-day job with IBM in Atlanta for Culebra and now works at the sole Internet-savvy outfit in the island's only town, Dewey.

Culebra's unspoiled ambience and carefree pace, however, may not be there forever: Construction is under way for a massive hotel/ condo and there are worries about tapping fragile natural resources. "This is paradise on Earth and we are trying to preserve it for the long-term," says Santiago "Chago" Prieto, the island's director of art and culture. "However, progress is coming, but at a slow pace."

Claimed by Christopher Columbus for the Spanish crown, Culebra became a pirate sanctuary before it was eventually ceded to the United States when it defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The U.S. Navy occupied most of Culebra in the early 1900s an, from the 1940s to 1975, used part of it as a prime bombing practice site. (Part of its sister island to the south, Vieques , is the bombing site that has inspired protests and jailings of many, including the Rev. Al Sharpton.) President Theodore

Roosevelt established a Naval center on Culebra in 1903, and a bird refuge a few years later. A considerable chunk of it is part of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, spreading over more than 1,480 acres scattered among 23 offshore islands and cays, and is overseen by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Even with its historical twists and turns, Culebra remains mostly apart from the rest of the world. And that accounts for its engaging simplicity. There are no hotel or resort chains, no casinos or neon signs, no expensive boutiques, no golf courses or lacrosse fields, traffic lights or traffic jams, no movie theaters or dance clubs - not even a gourmet coffee shop.

What I found was a sleepy, undisturbed island where - for the moment, anyway - a wandering bicyclist is a more frequent sight than a foreigner. It's a virtually crime-free island, with spectacular views from abrupt cliffs, friendly and unassuming residents, uncrowded beaches with ice- blue water, deserted cays that offer exceptional sport fishing, world-class scuba diving and snorkeling on colorful coral reefs.

On a late morning, I jumped out of bed in my villa at Club Seabourne, a hilly hideaway overlooking Fulladosa Bay. I went down to a well-known spot, the Dinghy Dock, for a delayed breakfast and a snorkeling trip to Culebrita, the largest nearby cay. Capt. Pat and Capt. Jack, island transplants who run a water-taxi and snorkeling operation out of the restaurant, were readying to ferry out.

As we got close, it was clear why many visitors ride out to the island: Its amoebic frame rests on a majestic sea of blue and is rimmed by the most exquisite coral reefs. The other four passengers and I agreed to be picked up for a return trip about 3 p.m, giving us five hours to explore this dot on the world's map. We all fanned out in different directions. I decided to hike a beaten path up a hill to the Culebrita Lighthouse. Built in 1886, it's known as the oldest operating lighthouse in the

Caribbean, and it shows. The scars of time, hurricanes and vandalism are easily identifiable.

From that vantage point, I scouted a snorkeling spot right below and, after more than an hour in the water, decided to plunk down at the beach and have the sandwich I had brown- bagged from the Dinghy Dock. I then began exploring the island and, for long periods, my only company were dry shrubs, a couple of birds and a lone palm tree (hurricane season can be brutal here). I slowly made my way to the other side of the island, only to find sunbathing visitors who had anchored their impressive boats for the day. Soon, Capt. Jack arrived for our return trip.

Back on Culebra, I drove out to Flamenco Beach. Last year, it grabbed second place on a tourism survey as one of the more beautiful beaches in the world. The crescent-shaped spot sits on fine sand abutting acquamarine water and hangs under a magenta sunset. In the few hours I was there, I was again reminded that this is one of the last islands where a willing seeker can experience the Caribbean as nature intended it to be.


Getting There: Visitors can fly out of San Juan or take a plane or ferry trip from the town of Fajardo (about 40 miles southeast of the capital city). For flight information, contact Vieques Air Link at 888-901-9247 or Air Culebra, which specializes in charter services, at 787-268- 6951 or 787-379-4466. Keep in mind that some flights originate at Luis Muoz Marin International Airport in San Juan while others take off from Isla Grande Airport (a 20-minute drive from the international airport) as well as Fajardo. Air travel time from Fajardo is about 15 minutes and about a half-hour from San Juan.

Boarding the Fajardo ferry to Dewey can be cheaper than flying, though it would require a taxi ride from the airport or renting a car, which could travel to Culebra on the ferry for an additional fee (public transportation is also available from San Juan). Because ferry travel is not only less expensive but also the preferred mode of transportation for Culebrenses, making ferry reservations is essential; take into account that weather conditions may delay departure or increase the 90-minute travel time and that it's also smart to purchase round-trip fares to ensure a spot on a returning trip. For information and reservations, call 787-742-3161 in Culebra or 787-863-0705 in Fajardo.

Where to Eat: Visitors looking for five-star restaurants, turn around and head out. What travelers get if they stay, though, is an appetizing mixture of informal local cuisine (fresh fish caught locally), Puerto Rican dishes and fruity drinks (Medalla, the local beer, is pretty good, too). Mamacitas Restaurant (and guest house), the unofficial hangout in the heart of Dewey, offers a mixed, delicious menu (its octopus salad is remarkable), music and a friendly atmosphere at moderate prices. For a more island-driven ambience, Dinghy Dock is the spot. It's not only the home of a snorkeling-and-diving-equipment rental business and a water-taxi operation but it's also a bar-restaurant. Travelers seeking more intimate surroundings can stop by Club Seabourne.

Where to Stay: Culebra counts about 300 rental units. The options range to accommodate the budgets of wandering students to the comfortable means of more discriminate travelers (add a 9 percent government tax to all accommodations). An easy stroll from Dewey is Casa Ensenada Guest House. It offers three air-conditioned rental units, sleeping two to four each, and a private pier and mooring as well as airport or ferry pickup service. With daily rates ranging from $70-$80 for a small unit to $115-$130 for a large apartment, this may be an option for many travelers. Call 787-742-3559.

Hidden on a hill overlooking Fulladosa Bay, Club Seabourne consists of about 15 units - including eight villas, two cottages and two rooms in the main house. Rates range from $95 a day for an inside room at the main house to $135 for a large cottage. Call 787-742- 3169.

Tamarindo Estates Beach Resort, 10 minutes from Dewey, has daily rates for one bedroom cottages starting at about $150 ($175 for a lodging-and-car-rental package) and bubble up to $265 a night for a two-bedroom villa ($285 for combined package). Call 787-742-3343.

Getting Around: Public transportation (el pblico), bicycle rental, car leasing, and water taxis are available. Some visitors opt for a morning exercise session with their bicycles from Culebra Bike Shop. Call 787- 742-2209. There several car-rental outfits, but not all of them provide the personal service of Jerry's Jeeps, located across from the local airport. Call 787-742-0587. Other possibilities include Dick & Cathy at 787-742-0062 or Carlos' Jeep Rental at 787- 742-3514.

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