Culebra Island, Puerto Rico
Many people fail to associate a Caribbean paradise with historic significance, assuming instead that it has always been a sandy, sun-drenched beach swathed in sunbathers and snorkelers. That's part of the beauty of Puerto Rico's Culebra Island. Yes, this island, situated 20 miles off the northeast coast, has beautiful beaches and plenty of sun, but it's also an old pirate hideout loaded with virtually undisturbed treasures. Not to mention that in 1493 Christopher Columbus dropped by this tropical oasis during his second voyage, and in 1909 Theodore Roosevelt declared Culebra one of America's first wildlife refuges.
When World War II erupted, the US Navy turned Culebra and the 23 other islands in the archipelago into the primary site for gunnery and bombing practice. This island remained a target until 1975, which turned out to be a good thing - the reefs and surrounding waters remained unscathed by boaters and divers and the beaches were unspoiled by large-scale tourism development.
Today Culebra is appealing for what it lacks. There are no luxury resorts, elegant restaurants, discos, movie theaters, casinos, museums or boutiques. There's also no crime, hardly any traffic and few crowds (except during Semana Sancta - Holy Week - which precedes Easter).
What Culebra does offer is an unsullied and under-populated beach along with pristine waters filled with beautiful fish. There is also plenty of wildlife. The disconnected tracts of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, which total more than one-third of the islands' area, are populated with terns, gulls, pelicans, boobies and several species of endangered turtle. And the natives - or culebrenses as they are known - as well as the expatriates provide plenty of the signature laid-back attitude that is so familiar in the Caribbean.
Villa Arynar B&B
Operated by retired U.S. Navy Officer Bernie Roeder and his French wife Francette, this B&B occupies a hillside overlooking the blue waters of Ensenada Honda, about one mile south of town. Guests can enjoy lounging in hammocks, swimming, or fishing from the Villa Arynar pier. Bernie, an avid sailor who was part of an America's Cup Challenge team in New Zealand, will gladly spin yarns about the sea to eager ears. A full breakfast is served on the deck. No children, pets or smoking allowed. Villa Arynar is open mid-October through mid-May.
Best Luxurious Hotel
Luxury is relative on Culebra, and what Tamarindo Estates provides is the luxury of seclusion. Occupying a 60-acre plot on a private bay, the hotel offers accommodations consisting of a dozen 1- and 2-bedroom cottages. Each unit has a veranda with ocean views, a color TV (hardly standard on Culebra), air-conditioned bedrooms and a fully equipped kitchen with a microwave. The hotel's 1,800-foot beach is an excellent place for swimming, shelling, kayaking, scuba diving and snorkeling. There's also a relatively small swimming pool with a covered deck.
Best Family Hotel
Web: www.clubseabourne.comA tranquil and intimate hideaway in a lush setting overlooking Fulladosa Bay, Club Seabourne appeals to families with 14 air-conditioned sleeping units and a freshwater swimming pool. Its freestanding accommodations consist of eight pink-and-white villas and a pair of two-bedroom cottages with kitchens, each accommodating up to four guests. All rooms have refrigerators. The Clubhouse has a patio bar, screened-in dining room and lounge equipped with plenty of books, games and videos. Rates include continental breakfast and transportation to and from the airport or ferry dock.
Best Budget Accommodation
Posada La Hamaco
This 9-unit, Spanish-style guesthouse is located on the edge of a canal that cuts through Dewey between the Caribbean and Ensenada Honda in the most urban setting found on Culebra. Accommodations - all air-conditioned with private baths - consist of six standard rooms, two efficiencies and a 2-room apartment that sleeps up to 6. There's no restaurant or bar, but guests can lounge on a terrace overlooking the canal. Each day the hotel provides guests with beach towels and coolers filled with - a Culebra rarity - free ice.
Food & Drink
Web site: www.mamacitasguesthouse.com
Mamacita's is a pastel-colored saloon where locals, modern-day pirates, boaters, divers and ordinary tourists gather. Sit on the deck, sip the house pina colada (passionfruit juice, coconut cream and rum) and listen to recorded reggae and calypso music while the sun sets. Located alongside the canal just south of the Dewey drawbridge, Mamacita's is also a budget-priced hotel and a popular "nuevo Caribbean" restaurant with highly praised chicken wings, conch salad and churrasco (braised meat).
Best Waterfront Atmosphere
Dinghy Dock is the ideal all-purpose waterfront hangout for low-key, tropical Culebra. It's located on the banks of Ensenada Honda just south of the drawbridge and actually has a dock where dinghies and other craft can anchor. There is a full bar and a restaurant that serves American and Caribbean dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Try the exotic tropical waffles for breakfast and the lobster or other fresh seafood (notably the tuna) for lunch or dinner. Enjoy the sunset with margaritas or Puerto Rico's own Medalla beer.
Best Local Seafood
Club Seabourne is a secluded hotel with a casual restaurant serving American-Caribbean style seafood in a 35-seat screened-in porch overlooking Fulladosa Bay. Menu highlights include tuna and kingfish in various Caribbean sauces. The menu expresses the American origins of restaurant's proprietors Dan and Erika Gilmore with items such as the New York strip steak, but nods to the surroundings with Puerto Rican dishes including pastelon, lasagna made with fresh plantain. Arrive early and grab a drink at the popular outdoor bar. Club Seabourne is open for lunch and dinner.
Best Family Restaurant
Marta's Al Fresco
The location is convenient, the ocean view appealing and the home-style menu diverse enough to please just about any member of the family. Those with more sophisticated palates can savor Creole-style seafood and meat dishes or asopaos, a Puerto Rican rice and meat soup. Others can partake of steaks, burgers, sandwiches, and rice and beans.
Best Kid Stuff
Playa Flamenco (Flamingo Beach)
This horseshoe-shaped, palm-tree-lined public beach that is situated between mountain ridges, used to be in the line of fire of US Navy artillery practice. Today the mile-long strand is the most popular beach on Culebra. And with its soft white sand, warm shallow water and unthreatening surf, it's also the most child-friendly beach. An excellent site for entry-level snorkeling and diving, Playa Flamenco offers toilet facilities, Coconuts Beach Grill for lunch and a couple derelict target-practice tanks to explore. Home to brown boobies, sootie terns, laughing gulls and endangered leatherback sea turtles (nesting season is March through June), the beach gets its name from flocks of flamingoes that winter on the premises.
Best Day Trip
In 1909 Theodore Roosevelt established the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, which now encompasses four tracts totaling 1,480 acres on Culebra plus 23 outlying islands and rocks. Isla Culebrita, a mile-long coral cay located about a mile off Culebra's east coast, has changed little since Columbus' visit in 1493. Culebrita's sundry attractions include the abandoned Culebrita Lighthouse, six beaches, tide pools full of trapped sea creatures, lush forests, and abundant species of birds and diverse wildlife, including several endangered species of turtle (hawksbill, Atlantic green, leatherback, Atlantic loggerhead).
Best Adventure by Land
The small area, mostly flat terrain and virtually traffic-free roads of Culebra make it an ideal place for cycling. Possible destinations include Playa Brava - a heavy surf area on the northern coast - secluded Playa Zoni on the eastern coast and Punta del Soldado, a great place for snorkeling at the end of the peninsula, south of Dewey. Or ride out to Flamenco Beach for an alfresco lunch at Coconuts Beach Grill, where options include burgers, fresh lobster and pina coladas. Mountain bikes can be rented from the Culebra Bike Shop (787-742-2209) or Dick & Cathie (787-742-0062). Some hotels also rent bikes.
Best Adventure by Sea
Culebra Dive Shop
Web site: www.culebradivers.com
An active US Navy gunnery range until 1975, Culebra was off-limits to boating and other potentially reef-spoiling activities. Captain Richard Cantwell of the Culebra Dive Shop takes scuba divers and snorkelers to 50 sites off Culebra and smaller surrounding islands. Neophytes can wet their feet with the resort course while more advanced divers can check out triggerfish and French grunts in Amberjack Hole, take an open-water dive in Anchor Reef, or examine exotic squatters in a sunken tug boat. Deep-sea fishing, boat trips, water-taxi service and kayak rentals are also available.