<h1 class="main-title">Secrets Revealed</h1><div class="dek"> With the U.S. Navy gone, Vieques and Culebra are a pair of islands such as the Caribbean hasn't seen for decades </div> <div class="author">by Herb Mccormick</div><div class="article-extra-right"> </div> <p><span style="font-weight: bold;">Armed with Off!, we spun the inflatable away from our chartered Bahia 46 catamaran, <span style="font-style: italic;">Ricky Dee</span>, and pointed it toward the dark, narrow cut leading into Puerto Mosquito.</span>
The name alone made me itch.</p><p> It was late evening on a Tuesday in March, and my three buddies and<br /> I--escapees from a long stateside winter--were on a bona-fide tropical<br /> adventure that was getting better every day. Ours was the only boat in<br /> the reef-fringed anchorage on the south coast of the outlying Puerto<br /> Rican island of Vieques; the ecotourists on their kayaks who'd also<br /> been drawn to this unique inlet earlier in the night had long since<br /> departed. We now had the place all to ourselves And what a place it was.</p><p> We puttered in at a snail's pace, a big moon above casting a warm glow<br /> to the proceedings. Despite its name, we had no use for insecticide in<br /> Puerto Mosquito; the air was silky, calm, and bug free. It practically<br /> invited us to cut the outboard and drift in the night, and we were more<br /> than happy to oblige.</p><p> But the real reason one visits the<br /> shallow, plankton-rich cove in the dead of night isn't to idle, but to<br /> swim in its soupy, bioluminescent waters. And when my friend Ian took<br /> leave of the dinghy and knifed into the sea in a flat, perfect<br /> dive--leaving a glowing wake like a launched torpedo in a U-boat<br /> movie--we instantly understood the attraction. Seconds later we were<br /> all in, plunging, kicking, and choreographing our own personal<br /> underwater light shows.</p><p> A few months earlier, I'd barely even<br /> heard of the Caribbean island of Vieques or its nearby neighbor,<br /> Culebra. But as I scrambled back into the tender, cracked a cold beer,<br /> and took in the quiet, stunning night, I was already wondering how and<br /> when I might return.</p><p> <span style="font-weight: bold;">Broken Promise</span><br /> First off, here's my confession: I broke a promise.</p><p> For when John Jacobs of CYOA Yacht Charters in St. Thomas agreed to let my pals and me take the slick, quick <span style="font-style: italic;">Ricky Dee</span><br /> for a week's sojourn to the nearby Spanish Virgins, he did so on one<br /> condition. John wanted us at some point to fetch up on the main island<br /> of Puerto Rico to visit the El Conquistador marina, spa, and casino<br /> complex at Fajardo. As a veteran of the charter business, his reasoning<br /> was straightforward. John knows that the fairer sex sometimes gets<br /> short shrift on charter vacations--after all, it's often the women who<br /> end up toiling in the galley and succumbing to the Island Boy fantasies<br /> of the skipper and his fellow cronies--and he wanted us to sample and<br /> report on the sumptuous facilities and creature comforts of what is<br /> from all accounts a remarkable resort.</p><p> So here's where I come clean. We never got there. Not even close.</p><p> Perhaps if we'd had our wives along, it would've been a different<br /> story. Certainly, we were soon to learn that in Vieques and, later, in<br /> neighboring Culebra, the shoreside bars and restaurants that one comes<br /> to expect in countless anchorages in the U.S.V.I. and B.V.I. are few<br /> and far between. Ditto for moorings, aids to navigation, and all the<br /> general support services that are part and parcel of many Caribbean<br /> cruising grounds. To cruise the Spanish Virgins, you must assume and<br /> embrace a level of self-sufficiency that's simply not required in the<br /> immediate waters around St. Thomas and Tortola.</p><p> In other words, if you go chartering to eat out every night, you'll probably want to give Culebra and Vieques a miss.</p><p> However, if you do as we did and stock the larders, freezer, and fridge<br /> with food and drink from the excellent, one-stop-for-everything Pueblo<br /> supermarket in St. Thomas, then augment that with a pile of fresh fish<br /> from the open-air Frenchtown markets just down from the CYOA docks, you<br /> definitely won't go hungry. If you've got a couple of frustrated chefs<br /> aboard (photographer Bobby Grieser and me) and another pair of willing<br /> guinea pigs (friends Ian Scott and Charlie Zechel), all the better.</p><p> Still, it wasn't like we set out planning to dodge the night life on<br /> the main island. Quite the opposite. But after just a few days in the<br /> out islands, we quickly realized it would take much more time than we<br /> had available to really get to know them. And we didn't want to waste a<br /> single minute.</p><p> <span style="font-weight: bold;">Bombs . . . Away</span><br /> There is, of course, a very good reason Vieques was off the radar<br /> screen of most sailors' island itineraries for so long: the bombing<br /> range. The possibility of getting strafed is a strong deterrent to fun<br /> in the sun.</p><p> In fact, for much of the last 50 years, the<br /> eastern half of Vieques was a "live fire" training facility for the<br /> U.S. Navy and off-limits to the public. By the late 1990s, however,<br /> protests against the bombings mounted, and the Navy faced considerable<br /> pressure to cease the practice. On May 1, 2003, it did so, handing over<br /> nearly 80 percent of the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.<br /> With the swoop of a pen, Vieques was transformed from what was largely<br /> a military installation into the Caribbean's biggest wildlife refuge.<br /> And tourism suddenly became an important sector of the economy.</p><p> Coincidentally enough, on the day we flew into St. Thomas, that very point was underscored by a story in <span style="font-style: italic;">The New York Times</span> travel section entitled "Vieques, Far from the Lounge-Chair Crowd."</p><p> "Modern-day Vieques feels more like a border town than an emerging<br /> tourist destination," wrote Pableaux Johnson. "For years it managed to<br /> keep a low-key image, known mostly to veteran Caribbean travelers and<br /> others willing to keep a secret. But the last two years, glossy travel<br /> magazines have lavished attention on Vieques. . . . [It's] still best<br /> known for the natural attractions that inspired the island's newfound<br /> fame--secluded beaches, crystal-clear snorkeling waters, and stunning<br /> forest vistas. They're open to any traveler willing to work a bit for<br /> the experience and adapt to the island's relaxed pace."</p><p> As we<br /> beam-reached toward Punta Este, the island's eastern point, in a<br /> delightful 10-knot southeasterly, we could relate to the part about<br /> relaxation, though we'd hardly begun to expend much energy on the<br /> experience. Indeed, clipping along at an effortless six knots on a<br /> brilliant afternoon, the snowy days of winter seemed far away. The<br /> distance between the CYOA base and Punta Este is roughly 22 miles, and<br /> as we ticked them off, it wasn't long before the hustle and bustle of<br /> St. Thomas felt equally remote.</p><p> "If you're looking for the<br /> Caribbean as it was three decades ago, head west for Culebra and<br /> Vieques!" exults Don Street in his excellent guidebook on the region<br /> (to see "Sailing the Passage Islands," <a href="http://www.cruisingworld.com/article.jsp?ID=38016&typeID=420&catID=0">c lick here</a>).<br /> But Street didn't make it easy to pick our first anchorage; both Bahía<br /> Icacos, on the north coast, and Bahía Salina del Sur, to the south,<br /> make his top-10 list of best anchorages in the eastern Caribbean.</p><p> We flipped a coin and opted for the former, which turned out to be a<br /> wide, beautiful bay surrounded by reef, with the exception of a pair of<br /> passes to the north. We chose the more westerly of the two, and Charlie<br /> and Ian hopped into the dinghy to scout the reef before entering. Once<br /> inside, just as Street said we would, we discovered a sensational<br /> anchorage that we shared with three distant powerboats. As would often<br /> be the case as the trip unfolded, we were the lone sailboat there. And<br /> Street was right: The stark, bare landscape, without a house or soul in<br /> sight (though we did spot a couple of wasted tanks while sailing in),<br /> looked and felt like a scene from a bygone era.</p><p> If we made one<br /> mistake on the trip, it was to not spend more time in Bahía Icacos. A<br /> few weeks later, I received an e-mail from cruising sailor Stacey<br /> Collins, who was anchored in the bay with her family. "I think we could<br /> stay a week," she wrote. "Neil's having the best spear-fishing since<br /> the Bahamas, and we have the beaches all to ourselves (except for the<br /> sea turtles, manta and eagle rays, birds, and the occasional pickup<br /> truck from the observation post)."</p><p> We saw a few folks from the<br /> powerboats--who must enjoy living dangerously; hey, what's a little<br /> undetonated ordnance?--wandering inland from the beach a ways, though<br /> by the letter of the law, it remains a restricted area. But as we had a<br /> quick errand to run, we never even went ashore, preferring instead to<br /> set out early the next day.</p><p> <span style="font-weight: bold;">On to Esperanza</span><br /> We'd tried from Bahía Icacos to clear customs by phone--a requirement<br /> for all vessels, even those transiting from the U.S.V.I.--but were<br /> informed that since our vessel hadn't been issued a user-fee decal by<br /> the U.S. Customs Service, we'd need to pay a visit to its airport<br /> office. (We later learned this can be done in advance online; to see<br /> "Sailing the Passage Islands," <a href="http://www.cruisingworld.com/article.jsp?ID=38016&typeID=420&catID=0">c lick here</a>) So we hoisted sail and set a course for Esperanza.</p><p> The 15-mile run around Punta Este and down the south coast in a light,<br /> northerly breeze was simply exquisite. The shoreline was mostly empty,<br /> save for mile after mile of white, sandy beach. We saw exactly two<br /> boats, a Mako runabout and one other catamaran. The water was crystal<br /> clear, the bottom easily visible 70 feet below. At one point, as a<br /> school of flying fish took flight, a huge, gleaming dolphin fish broke<br /> free of the water in a long, wet arc, then locked on to one of the<br /> flyers. Back in its element, the dolphin fish zigged and zagged like a<br /> tracer missile and was right there--chomp!--the instant its prey hit<br /> the drink.</p><p> Once in Esperanza, the south coast's only real<br /> village, Bobby and I rented a jeep and drove out to the airport, where<br /> we quickly cleared customs. On the way back, we decided to stop at the<br /> tony new Wyndham Hill resort on Martineau Bay, the sole facility of its<br /> kind on the island, for a rum punch. At the poolside bar, Bobby struck<br /> up a conversation with a lithe, clueless young woman from Philadelphia<br /> with a penchant for laughing, annoyingly, at her own jokes.</p><p> "I<br /> told my travel agent to get me Puerto Rico without the Puerto Ricans,"<br /> she said, clearly oblivious to the fact that half a dozen Puerto Ricans<br /> were four feet away and waiting on her hand and foot. We backed down<br /> the rum, made a dash for the gates, and never looked back.</p><p> Returning to town, we soon discovered that Vieques owes much of its<br /> charm to the very people Miss Philly was trying so desperately hard to<br /> avoid. In an open-air bar along the main street's lovely promenade, the<br /> salsa music was blaring, and local couples of all ages--and I do mean<br /> all ages--were sipping Coors Lights and dancing Sunday afternoon away.<br /> We couldn't help but join them.</p><p> For most of the next day, we put the jeep to hard use and tried our best to see all the places <span style="font-style: italic;">The New York Times</span><br /> advised intrepid tourists to see, and then some. From the bustling town<br /> of Isabel Segunda on the north shore to the inviting waters of Ensenada<br /> Sun Bay on the south, we took it all in. We honked down the old naval<br /> airstrip, already being reclaimed by nature, and four-wheeled it up a<br /> wild dead-end road to an ancient water tower.</p><p> Moving on, we<br /> swam at three more of the island's best beaches--that's a subjective<br /> statement; there are plenty, and they're all terrific--which are still<br /> known widely by the names the gringo sailors gave them: Red Beach<br /> (Bahía Corcho), Blue Beach (Bahía de la Chiva), and Green Beach (Punta<br /> Arenas). All are accessed by rough dirt roads, though the drive to<br /> Green Beach, on the western flank of Vieques, also takes you up and<br /> through a lush rain forest before descending into open pasture that<br /> serves some of the island's countless wild horses. The beach itself<br /> provides a nice view of mainland Puerto Rico, the east coast of which<br /> is only six or seven miles away.</p><p> Having done the tourist bit,<br /> we retired to the boat early for another swim and dinner, and the next<br /> day we made our way toward the solitude and pleasures of bioluminescent<br /> Puerto Mosquito. From there, we had new islands to explore.</p><p> <span style="font-weight: bold;">Chilling in Culebra</span><br /> In retrospect, I made a tactical error on our long beat, in steady 14-<br /> to 18-knot northeasterly trade winds, from the east end of Vieques to<br /> neighboring Culebra. Much too late in the exercise, I decided to bear<br /> away to the isle of Cayo de Luis Peña--an uninhabited wildlife refuge<br /> to the immediate west--rather than making for Culebra's main harbor,<br /> Ensenada Honda. It cost us a livelier, cracked-off reach and added a<br /> few more upwind miles. Still, it was a great day of sailing,<br /> highlighted by the unforgettable sight of a pair of breaching humpback<br /> whales. And at trip's end, we found yet another solitary anchorage in<br /> 18 feet of crystal-clear water, where we torched the grill and took in<br /> a fine sunset behind the distant, majestic Puerto Rican peaks of the El<br /> Yunque rain forest.</p><p> It turned out there was a fair bit of<br /> current around Cayo de Luis Peña, which at one point had our bow spun<br /> due southwest though the breeze remained steady out of the northeast.<br /> The next morning, we motored around to the island's northern end and<br /> anchored in a clear, sandy thoroughfare between two lanes of coral.<br /> There was good snorkeling right off the boat, though we found even<br /> better in the rocky outcroppings known as Las Hermanas, a short dinghy<br /> ride away. There, I dropped into the water and came face to snoot with<br /> a medium-sized barracuda lurking ominously off the transom. The fish<br /> shot me a quick look of disdain and frittered off at the pace of an<br /> extremely bored teenager.</p><p> We sailed to Ensenada Honda later<br /> that day and picked up a rare mooring in the anchorage behind the reef<br /> off Punta Colorada, just beyond the entrance to the large inner harbor.<br /> A serene, lovely spot, Street declares it "certainly one of the better<br /> anchorages in the Caribbean." Ho hum. Like, what else was new?</p><p> The history of Culebra also holds a closed chapter on U.S. military<br /> presence, and the main town of Dewey--to which we soon dinghied--is<br /> named after a Navy admiral from a distant past. We stopped at a liquor<br /> store for some rum and directions and ran smack into yet another one of<br /> those pesky Puerto Ricans. "There's a saying here," said the<br /> shopkeeper, and her smile was sincere. "Stay for a weekend on Culebra<br /> and we'll be friends. Stay for a week and we'll be family."</p><p> A<br /> fine anchorage in its own right, Ensenada Honda--along with the scores<br /> of cruising boats that had sought shelter in its protected<br /> enclosure--was pasted in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo, and upwards of 300<br /> boats were washed ashore. Today, especially when compared with almost<br /> anywhere in Vieques, the harbor and Dewey seem like veritable beehives<br /> of activity. Over the next couple of days, we treated ourselves to<br /> lunch at the Dinghy Dock--a sailors' haven where big tarpon linger<br /> right off the pier--and to dinner at Mamacita's--on the small canal<br /> that links the main harbor with a little inlet called Bahía de<br /> Sardinas--where the fresh dorado was absolutely killer.</p><p> As we<br /> stepped ashore one morning, we ran into a shaggy fellow gringo pedaling<br /> out of town with a surfboard under his arm. "Where're the waves, mate?"<br /> I called.</p><p> "North shore today," he yelled back. "It's going off!"</p><p> We hired a jeep and aimed it north toward one of Culebra's more famous<br /> beaches, Playo Flamenco, where there was indeed a huge, frothy break<br /> off the bay's eastern point and some very ridable three- to five-foot<br /> bodysurfing waves right off the beach. After a good session in the<br /> surf, we drove around to the island's eastern edge and kicked back on<br /> the much more placid but no less beautiful Playa Zoni. On the mile-long<br /> beach, there may have been a dozen other bathers. What a crowd.</p><p> <span style="font-weight: bold;">One Last Stop</span><br /> Our time was growing short, and the boat was due back in St. Thomas the<br /> next day, but we had one final stop to make on the return trip. The<br /> little refuge island of Culebrita, just three miles off Culebra's<br /> eastern coast, boasts a couple of fine anchorages. We made a quick<br /> attempt to motor into the more protected option to the north but chose<br /> discretion over valor at the first dip and roll from an impressive<br /> northerly ground swell. Instead, we backtracked to the west and dropped<br /> the hook in 10 feet of splendid water.</p><p> We scrambled ashore and<br /> made the short but sweaty climb up to the Culebrita Lighthouse, built<br /> by the Spanish in the mid-1880s to confirm their sovereignty over the<br /> Brits and Danes also sailing these waters. Due to weather and neglect,<br /> these days the lighthouse itself is in rough shape, but the view from<br /> its tower remains breathtaking.</p><p> From there, we could<br /> practically retrace the high points of our cruise: the open-water<br /> passages, the remote anchorages, the coral passes, the sensational<br /> beaches. It'd been a straightforward trip, but there'd been some<br /> challenging moments, and we all agreed it would be a fantastic<br /> destination not only for experienced charterers and southbound cruising<br /> sailors but also for anyone on the verge of an extended voyage who<br /> wanted to sharpen their skills before setting out.</p><p> If you want<br /> to go, don't tarry, for the secret's getting out on the Spanish<br /> Virgins. And from what I understand, there's a pretty good casino<br /> nearby, too. </p>
Re: Secrets Revealed
Very interesting article! Quite inspiring.
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