New York winter is terrible. It grinds on and whether it snows or not, it feels like it never ends. To survive it you need to plot your escape. Our escape all started with the a flyer for the “Bruisecruise” – an indie rock cruise that features bands, DJ’s and plenty of sun starved hipsters. A. and I seriously considered it for awhile – three days on a boat with rock bands and warmth. We were thiiiis close to buying a ticket when we realized 1. the bands that were playing play in New York frequently and 2. do we really want to be stuck on a cruise ship with half of Williamsburg? and 3. for the money we could create our own tropical getaway.
First we defined our criteria: direct flight from New York, easy, but not something that was just an all inclusive resort or tourist trap. Not too pricey. We decided on Puerto Rico because we don’t need a passport to go there and would not have to change money. I remembered when SMH and I were doing research for our tropical vacation last year we seriously considered Culebra, a small island to the east of Puerto Rico. It features one gas station, one ATM, and nary an all inclusive resort. Perfect. We mustered the troops: SMH, S., A. and myself and a few weeks of research and a few conferences calls later and we were set.
Here’s why you go to Culebra: you love beautiful beaches with hardly anyone on them, nature, and a slow pace of life. You don’t go there if you want all inclusive packages or jumpin’ nightlife or high fashion.
The flight itself is worth it. While there is a ferry from Fajardo, we were advised not to take it and I can see why. It was cancelled two out of the four days we were there. Instead we flew Vieques Air Link (you can also take Air Flamenco) from Isla Grande Airport in San Juan to Culebra – a half an hour flight. Limited to 30 pounds of luggage a piece before we got on the plane we joked that there would be a public shaming ritual where everyone was asked their weight. It turned out to be true! The plane is small enough it needs to be weight balanced and I felt like we were in van that happened to fly. For the landing we flew right over Flamenco beach, one of the world’s best beaches and where were staying. After the beach it looked like we were headed right for the trees! We flew in between two mountains, banked hard to the left and landed. I admit it, I was whimpering. As we were getting out the pilot was laughing and said, “Someone back there was scared!” I sheepishly admitted to it. At the airport we sipped a perfect cafe con leche and waited for our rental jeep to arrive.
Culebra is a small island, but not so tiny that you can walk everywhere. The roads are narrow and twisty and it’s helpful to have some kind of transportation. After looking into the three car rental options available S. found the perfect one for us: Dick and Cathie’s Jeep Rental, which features the very strange Volkswagen “Thing,” a car that has a cultish following in the US. It’s got 4 gears and feels a little like driving a riding lawn mower, but with speed limits that max out at 35 miles an hour who needs a sleek jeep with frivolous features like windows and a roof? Cruising around in the Thing, top down, made it clear we were on vacation. We adored the Thing and “thinging” became a verb for driving somewhere in our vacation parlance. Dick also showed us where to park in town, where the super markets were, pointed out the vegetable seller that came to the island once a week (score!) and warned us about a pothole so big it tipped over a cement mixer. Dick and Cathie also offer bike rentals. We rented mountain bikes for 2 days, but were so busy with doing nothing, we never used them.
For lodging we stayed at Culebra Beach Rentals on Flamenco beach, which has been rated one of the top 10 beaches in the world. The rentals featured everything we needed, and have full kitchens, so it was easy to prepare our own food. The highlight of our place was the huge porch with rocking chairs, a hammock, a dining table and grill. We prepared our dinners and ate family style every night, joined by a group of feral cats who seduced us with their sweet ways and were treated to a gourmet diet of chicken, fish and beef while were there. Of course the best part was that the beach was steps away and we walked out at every hour to soak in the sun, sunset or stars.
Flamenco beach was wide, vast and even though some grumbled it had been “discovered” at maximum we counted 35 people there. There’s also a cluster of food stalls you can walk down to that feature homemade mofungo, shark kebabs, and from the “Mexican” themed one the best pina colada we had on the island.
Thanks to the Thing we also explored some of the island’s other beaches: Zoni beach, which was the locals secret 10 years ago, but is now well known to locals and visitors. These included some nudists, who we were surprised to discover far down the beach.
We also went to Tamarindo beach, which features a reef full of sea life that is perfect for snorkeling. You have to be sure not to touch anything though – Culebra was used by the US Navy for training exercises and there are still unexplored bombs on the ocean floor! Tamarindo is also one of the few beaches on the island that faces west, making it prime real estate for sunset watching.
For the inside scoop on beaches and snorkeling we asked at the dive shop on the main street by the ferry dock. They also recommended Captain Sebastian to us for a boating adventure, but I’ll write more about that in part 2.
I’ll leave you with a few more scenes that I hope will transport you out of winter for a moment. I remember my former dubiousness about going to the Caribbean, which I have since shed. I think it’s really about finding the places off the beaten track that are strong on local flavor and pride. It’s about respecting the unique culture of a place and appreciating the rhythm of island life. In addition to the sun, sand and time away I appreciated that we found a place that felt so “us.” For a getaway from winter with some of my best friends I couldn’t ask for more.
Note: This was the inaugural trip for my new digital SLR camera – a Canon Rebel T3i. These photos are mostly taken from this, but the airplane shots are from my trusty Canon PowerShot (and taken by SMH) because I needed something quickly at hand (and he had a better view in the plane).
Note 2: For more information on all things Culebra visit this sweet website.