Secrets Revealed

With the U.S. Navy gone, Vieques and Culebra are a pair of islands such as the Caribbean hasn't seen for decades

Armed with Off!, we spun the inflatable away from our chartered Bahia 46 catamaran, Ricky Dee, and pointed it toward the dark, narrow cut leading into Puerto Mosquito. The name alone made me itch.

It was late evening on a Tuesday in March, and my three buddies and I--escapees from a long stateside winter--were on a bona-fide tropical adventure that was getting better every day. Ours was the only boat in the reef-fringed anchorage on the south coast of the outlying Puerto Rican island of Vieques; the ecotourists on their kayaks who'd also been drawn to this unique inlet earlier in the night had long since departed. We now had the place all to ourselves And what a place it was.

We puttered in at a snail's pace, a big moon above casting a warm glow to the proceedings. Despite its name, we had no use for insecticide in Puerto Mosquito; the air was silky, calm, and bug free. It practically invited us to cut the outboard and drift in the night, and we were more than happy to oblige.

But the real reason one visits the shallow, plankton-rich cove in the dead of night isn't to idle, but to swim in its soupy, bioluminescent waters. And when my friend Ian took leave of the dinghy and knifed into the sea in a flat, perfect dive--leaving a glowing wake like a launched torpedo in a U-boat movie--we instantly understood the attraction. Seconds later we were all in, plunging, kicking, and choreographing our own personal underwater light shows.

A few months earlier, I'd barely even heard of the Caribbean island of Vieques or its nearby neighbor, Culebra. But as I scrambled back into the tender, cracked a cold beer, and took in the quiet, stunning night, I was already wondering how and when I might return.

Broken Promise
First off, here's my confession: I broke a promise.

For when John Jacobs of CYOA Yacht Charters in St. Thomas agreed to let my pals and me take the slick, quick Ricky Dee for a week's sojourn to the nearby Spanish Virgins, he did so on one condition. John wanted us at some point to fetch up on the main island of Puerto Rico to visit the El Conquistador marina, spa, and casino complex at Fajardo. As a veteran of the charter business, his reasoning was straightforward. John knows that the fairer sex sometimes gets short shrift on charter vacations--after all, it's often the women who end up toiling in the galley and succumbing to the Island Boy fantasies of the skipper and his fellow cronies--and he wanted us to sample and report on the sumptuous facilities and creature comforts of what is from all accounts a remarkable resort.

So here's where I come clean. We never got there. Not even close.

Perhaps if we'd had our wives along, it would've been a different story. Certainly, we were soon to learn that in Vieques and, later, in neighboring Culebra, the shoreside bars and restaurants that one comes to expect in countless anchorages in the U.S.V.I. and B.V.I. are few and far between. Ditto for moorings, aids to navigation, and all the general support services that are part and parcel of many Caribbean cruising grounds. To cruise the Spanish Virgins, you must assume and embrace a level of self-sufficiency that's simply not required in the immediate waters around St. Thomas and Tortola.

In other words, if you go chartering to eat out every night, you'll probably want to give Culebra and Vieques a miss.

However, if you do as we did and stock the larders, freezer, and fridge with food and drink from the excellent, one-stop-for-everything Pueblo supermarket in St. Thomas, then augment that with a pile of fresh fish from the open-air Frenchtown markets just down from the CYOA docks, you definitely won't go hungry. If you've got a couple of frustrated chefs aboard (photographer Bobby Grieser and me) and another pair of willing guinea pigs (friends Ian Scott and Charlie Zechel), all the better.

Still, it wasn't like we set out planning to dodge the night life on the main island. Quite the opposite. But after just a few days in the out islands, we quickly realized it would take much more time than we had available to really get to know them. And we didn't want to waste a single minute.

Bombs . . . Away
There is, of course, a very good reason Vieques was off the radar screen of most sailors' island itineraries for so long: the bombing range. The possibility of getting strafed is a strong deterrent to fun in the sun.

In fact, for much of the last 50 years, the eastern half of Vieques was a "live fire" training facility for the U.S. Navy and off-limits to the public. By the late 1990s, however, protests against the bombings mounted, and the Navy faced considerable pressure to cease the practice. On May 1, 2003, it did so, handing over nearly 80 percent of the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With the swoop of a pen, Vieques was transformed from what was largely a military installation into the Caribbean's biggest wildlife refuge. And tourism suddenly became an important sector of the economy.

Coincidentally enough, on the day we flew into St. Thomas, that very point was underscored by a story in The New York Times travel section entitled "Vieques, Far from the Lounge-Chair Crowd."

"Modern-day Vieques feels more like a border town than an emerging tourist destination," wrote Pableaux Johnson. "For years it managed to keep a low-key image, known mostly to veteran Caribbean travelers and others willing to keep a secret. But the last two years, glossy travel magazines have lavished attention on Vieques. . . . [It's] still best known for the natural attractions that inspired the island's newfound fame--secluded beaches, crystal-clear snorkeling waters, and stunning forest vistas. They're open to any traveler willing to work a bit for the experience and adapt to the island's relaxed pace."

As we beam-reached toward Punta Este, the island's eastern point, in a delightful 10-knot southeasterly, we could relate to the part about relaxation, though we'd hardly begun to expend much energy on the experience. Indeed, clipping along at an effortless six knots on a brilliant afternoon, the snowy days of winter seemed far away. The distance between the CYOA base and Punta Este is roughly 22 miles, and as we ticked them off, it wasn't long before the hustle and bustle of St. Thomas felt equally remote.

"If you're looking for the Caribbean as it was three decades ago, head west for Culebra and Vieques!" exults Don Street in his excellent guidebook on the region (to see "Sailing the Passage Islands," click here). But Street didn't make it easy to pick our first anchorage; both Bahia Icacos, on the north coast, and Bahia Salina del Sur, to the south, make his top-10 list of best anchorages in the eastern Caribbean.

We flipped a coin and opted for the former, which turned out to be a wide, beautiful bay surrounded by reef, with the exception of a pair of passes to the north. We chose the more westerly of the two, and Charlie and Ian hopped into the dinghy to scout the reef before entering. Once inside, just as Street said we would, we discovered a sensational anchorage that we shared with three distant powerboats. As would often be the case as the trip unfolded, we were the lone sailboat there. And Street was right: The stark, bare landscape, without a house or soul in sight (though we did spot a couple of wasted tanks while sailing in), looked and felt like a scene from a bygone era.

If we made one mistake on the trip, it was to not spend more time in Bahia Icacos. A few weeks later, I received an e-mail from cruising sailor Stacey Collins, who was anchored in the bay with her family. "I think we could stay a week," she wrote. "Neil's having the best spear-fishing since the Bahamas, and we have the beaches all to ourselves (except for the sea turtles, manta and eagle rays, birds, and the occasional pickup truck from the observation post)."

We saw a few folks from the powerboats--who must enjoy living dangerously; hey, what's a little undetonated ordnance?--wandering inland from the beach a ways, though by the letter of the law, it remains a restricted area. But as we had a quick errand to run, we never even went ashore, preferring instead to set out early the next day.

On to Esperanza
We'd tried from Bahia Icacos to clear customs by phone--a requirement for all vessels, even those transiting from the U.S.V.I.--but were informed that since our vessel hadn't been issued a user-fee decal by the U.S. Customs Service, we'd need to pay a visit to its airport office. (We later learned this can be done in advance online; to see "Sailing the Passage Islands," click here) So we hoisted sail and set a course for Esperanza.

The 15-mile run around Punta Este and down the south coast in a light, northerly breeze was simply exquisite. The shoreline was mostly empty, save for mile after mile of white, sandy beach. We saw exactly two boats, a Mako runabout and one other catamaran. The water was crystal clear, the bottom easily visible 70 feet below. At one point, as a school of flying fish took flight, a huge, gleaming dolphin fish broke free of the water in a long, wet arc, then locked on to one of the flyers. Back in its element, the dolphin fish zigged and zagged like a tracer missile and was right there--chomp!--the instant its prey hit the drink.

Once in Esperanza, the south coast's only real village, Bobby and I rented a jeep and drove out to the airport, where we quickly cleared customs. On the way back, we decided to stop at the tony new Wyndham Hill resort on Martineau Bay, the sole facility of its kind on the island, for a rum punch. At the poolside bar, Bobby struck up a conversation with a lithe, clueless young woman from Philadelphia with a penchant for laughing, annoyingly, at her own jokes.

"I told my travel agent to get me Puerto Rico without the Puerto Ricans," she said, clearly oblivious to the fact that half a dozen Puerto Ricans were four feet away and waiting on her hand and foot. We backed down the rum, made a dash for the gates, and never looked back.

Returning to town, we soon discovered that Vieques owes much of its charm to the very people Miss Philly was trying so desperately hard to avoid. In an open-air bar along the main street's lovely promenade, the salsa music was blaring, and local couples of all ages--and I do mean all ages--were sipping Coors Lights and dancing Sunday afternoon away. We couldn't help but join them.

For most of the next day, we put the jeep to hard use and tried our best to see all the places The New York Times advised intrepid tourists to see, and then some. From the bustling town of Isabel Segunda on the north shore to the inviting waters of Ensenada Sun Bay on the south, we took it all in. We honked down the old naval airstrip, already being reclaimed by nature, and four-wheeled it up a wild dead-end road to an ancient water tower.

Moving on, we swam at three more of the island's best beaches--that's a subjective statement; there are plenty, and they're all terrific--which are still known widely by the names the gringo sailors gave them: Red Beach (Bahia Corcho), Blue Beach (Bahia de la Chiva), and Green Beach (Punta Arenas). All are accessed by rough dirt roads, though the drive to Green Beach, on the western flank of Vieques, also takes you up and through a lush rain forest before descending into open pasture that serves some of the island's countless wild horses. The beach itself provides a nice view of mainland Puerto Rico, the east coast of which is only six or seven miles away.

Having done the tourist bit, we retired to the boat early for another swim and dinner, and the next day we made our way toward the solitude and pleasures of bioluminescent Puerto Mosquito. From there, we had new islands to explore.

Chilling in Culebra
In retrospect, I made a tactical error on our long beat, in steady 14- to 18-knot northeasterly trade winds, from the east end of Vieques to neighboring Culebra. Much too late in the exercise, I decided to bear away to the isle of Cayo de Luis Peña--an uninhabited wildlife refuge to the immediate west--rather than making for Culebra's main harbor, Ensenada Honda. It cost us a livelier, cracked-off reach and added a few more upwind miles. Still, it was a great day of sailing, highlighted by the unforgettable sight of a pair of breaching humpback whales. And at trip's end, we found yet another solitary anchorage in 18 feet of crystal-clear water, where we torched the grill and took in a fine sunset behind the distant, majestic Puerto Rican peaks of the El Yunque rain forest.

It turned out there was a fair bit of current around Cayo de Luis Peña, which at one point had our bow spun due southwest though the breeze remained steady out of the northeast. The next morning, we motored around to the island's northern end and anchored in a clear, sandy thoroughfare between two lanes of coral. There was good snorkeling right off the boat, though we found even better in the rocky outcroppings known as Las Hermanas, a short dinghy ride away. There, I dropped into the water and came face to snoot with a medium-sized barracuda lurking ominously off the transom. The fish shot me a quick look of disdain and frittered off at the pace of an extremely bored teenager.

We sailed to Ensenada Honda later that day and picked up a rare mooring in the anchorage behind the reef off Punta Colorada, just beyond the entrance to the large inner harbor. A serene, lovely spot, Street declares it "certainly one of the better anchorages in the Caribbean." Ho hum. Like, what else was new?

The history of Culebra also holds a closed chapter on U.S. military presence, and the main town of Dewey--to which we soon dinghied--is named after a Navy admiral from a distant past. We stopped at a liquor store for some rum and directions and ran smack into yet another one of those pesky Puerto Ricans. "There's a saying here," said the shopkeeper, and her smile was sincere. "Stay for a weekend on Culebra and we'll be friends. Stay for a week and we'll be family."

A fine anchorage in its own right, Ensenada Honda--along with the scores of cruising boats that had sought shelter in its protected enclosure--was pasted in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo, and upwards of 300 boats were washed ashore. Today, especially when compared with almost anywhere in Vieques, the harbor and Dewey seem like veritable beehives of activity. Over the next couple of days, we treated ourselves to lunch at the Dinghy Dock--a sailors' haven where big tarpon linger right off the pier--and to dinner at Mamacita's--on the small canal that links the main harbor with a little inlet called Bahia de Sardinas--where the fresh dorado was absolutely killer.

As we stepped ashore one morning, we ran into a shaggy fellow gringo pedaling out of town with a surfboard under his arm. "Where're the waves, mate?" I called.

"North shore today," he yelled back. "It's going off!"

We hired a jeep and aimed it north toward one of Culebra's more famous beaches, Playo Flamenco, where there was indeed a huge, frothy break off the bay's eastern point and some very ridable three- to five-foot bodysurfing waves right off the beach. After a good session in the surf, we drove around to the island's eastern edge and kicked back on the much more placid but no less beautiful Playa Zoni. On the mile-long beach, there may have been a dozen other bathers. What a crowd.

One Last Stop
Our time was growing short, and the boat was due back in St. Thomas the next day, but we had one final stop to make on the return trip. The little refuge island of Culebrita, just three miles off Culebra's eastern coast, boasts a couple of fine anchorages. We made a quick attempt to motor into the more protected option to the north but chose discretion over valor at the first dip and roll from an impressive northerly ground swell. Instead, we backtracked to the west and dropped the hook in 10 feet of splendid water.

We scrambled ashore and made the short but sweaty climb up to the Culebrita Lighthouse, built by the Spanish in the mid-1880s to confirm their sovereignty over the Brits and Danes also sailing these waters. Due to weather and neglect, these days the lighthouse itself is in rough shape, but the view from its tower remains breathtaking.

From there, we could practically retrace the high points of our cruise: the open-water passages, the remote anchorages, the coral passes, the sensational beaches. It'd been a straightforward trip, but there'd been some challenging moments, and we all agreed it would be a fantastic destination not only for experienced charterers and southbound cruising sailors but also for anyone on the verge of an extended voyage who wanted to sharpen their skills before setting out.

If you want to go, don't tarry, for the secret's getting out on the Spanish Virgins. And from what I understand, there's a pretty good casino nearby, too.