Culebra Tropical Escape, Part 1

Flamenco Beach, Culebra, PR

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.

Swimming at Flamenco beach

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.

Waves, Flamenco beach

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.

Beach essentials

Flamenco beach from the air as we approach Culebra

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.

Coming in for a landing in paradise

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.

Driving the Thing

Party in the Thing!

Trunk in the front

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.

The "villas" at Culebra beach rentals - so cute!

Porch friend. The mellowest one-eyed cat ever. I almost brought this one home.

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.

Showing off my new Esther Williams suit on Flamenco beach

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.

Zoni beach, Culebra, PR

Enjoying the beach life

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.

Sunset from Tamarindo beach, Culebra, PR

Tamarindo beach, before sunset

Beach chickens

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.

Frozen mojito at Mamacita's

Bakery in downtown Culebra. Delicious pastries!

Culebra Dive Shop

Hotel Kokomo, downtown Culebra

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.

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A Place in the Sun

Palm

View of White Bay beach through a palm leaf

As an earnest liberal arts undergrad I studied “Race, Ethnicity, and Postcolonial Studies” as part of my degree. As a result, I thought of the Caribbean as a place with an enduring legacy of slavery, a proud history of anti-colonial struggle, and a place where identities, cultures, and ethnicities overlap and intermix to create “hybrid” identities (a favorite term in the 90’s, I hear its less in favor in the academy now). I saw the Caribbean as a multitude of nations of which people are immensely proud, immensely tied to the island they come from, and immensely skeptical, especially as demonstrated by the huge, and famous, West Indian Labor Day parade that takes place here in Brooklyn. All that to say that I really never saw the Caribbean as a place to go on vacation. However, last winter I had had it with the cold, snow and slush and decided that there had to be a better way than suffering through it all. So when the opportunity came this winter to go somewhere sunny for a 5-day getaway I thought, “Hmmm…”

View of Ivan's Stress Free Bar
Ivan’s Stress Free Bar

SMH had some friends who lived on St. Thomas for several years who recommended a place on a beach on some island near there with an honor bar.  That sounded promising. When we inquired further they told us about Ivan’s Stress Free Bar, which is part of Ivan’s Stress Free Resort on White Bay on the island of Jost Van Dyke, part of the British Virgin Islands. Jost Van Dyke is named for a Dutch pirate, and White Bay has been voted one of the top 10 beaches in the Caribbean by some travel magazine or another, and I believe it. Even better, cabins (really a sturdy plywood shack with pastel colors with a bed, mini fridge and window screens and perhaps a porch) were $75 a night in the high season, a price you would find hard to beat anywhere in the Caribbean. So I booked us a cabin at Ivan’s, figured out how to get to Jost Van Dyke, and decided to not plan any further.

White Bay, Jost Van Dyke

White Bay, Jost Van Dyke

Before I wax poetic about how much I loved it let me tell you: This is not the place to come if you want to go clubbing, indulge in luxury duty-free shopping, swim with dolphins, get a spa treatment or do yoga on the beach. This is not the place to come if you are upset by occasionally sharing space with (small) ants, or mind getting sand everywhere, or insist on a hot shower. However, if you are looking for a slice of paradise right here on earth with soft white sand, crystaline blue water, palm trees and a bar where you can order the perfect tropical cocktail with coconut, orange juice, pineapple juice, run and fresh nutmeg called the “Painkiller” from some of the nicest people you will meet, and not have to rub elbows with loads of offensive tourists, this place if for you.

Arawak Cabin

Our cabin at Ivan's Stress Free Resort

After we called to make our reservation at Ivan’s (I highly recommend calling) we found out that it had been featured in an article by the (former) Frugal Traveler in the New York Times in 2006. Little has changed since then, although now Ivan’s usually employs a bartender (most evenings its Dorian, who is also a cricket player for the BVI’s team -amazing) instead of being fully a mix-it-yourself kind of place.

Ivan's Stress Free Bar II

Ivan's Stress Free Bar Interior

 

Looking to where we need to go
Hiking the spine of Jost Van Dyke and ascending 0 to 1,000 feet above sea level very quickly! Those white dots are goats on the path.

Despite our avoiding planning too heavily we found plenty to do, and struck a perfect balance between sitting on the beach and reading and exploring the island. This island is small.  You can walk over the steep hills in to town, which had a sand main street, and go to Foxy’s, which might be the most famous bar in the British Virgin Islands. Jost Van Dyke is quiet island which is about 4 miles long and inhabited by more goats than people, which we encountered when we took a grueling, then revelatory, hike along  the spine of the island. The hike, rumored to be among the best in the Caribbean, revealed glittering views of the the ocean and Tortola and St. John.

Great Harbor from Above
Jost Van Dyke Great Harbor from above. St. John in the background.
Watching the waves in the bubbly pool

Bubbly Pool, Jost Van Dyke

We ended our hike in the bubbly pool, which is like a natural hot tub refilled by crashing ocean waves and then a meal at Foxy’s Taboo, a bar and restaurant owned by Foxy (and named for his big black dog Taboo) on the far side of the island. We later met Foxy briefly on the main dock in town scaling freshly caught fish on his fishing boat and when we told him we lived in Brooklyn he smiled and said, “I gotta get up there to Play Mas sometime.”

Norman Island Caves

Norman Island and the caves that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson

We also took a day long snorkeling trip with BVI Eco Tours, where an amazingly nice group of Aussie and Californian surfer dudes served as our guides and captain. It was an incredible 6 hour long adventure for a very cheap price and included a stop for lunch at Pirate’s Bight on the otherwise uninhabited Norman island. On Norman island we also go to snorkel into caves that reportedly inspired Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. At the end of the day they mixed us up some rum punch on board our boat, which was the perfect way to end the day after swimming in the beautiful water. We also rented snorkel gear for 4 days from the same place, which was great.

Jost Van Dyke Main Street

Jost Van Dyke Main Street

Food is not cheap on the islands so we tried to minimize how much we ate out by cooking out own. We brought a bunch of dried, canned food, but what we quickly learned in the campground communal cookstove lacked the oomph we take for granted from our stove at home. In the future we will bring plenty of heat and serve food. However, on the night we arrived it was Ivan’s Thursday night barbeque.  We splurged and at $25 each got heaping servings of rice, pasta, salad, barbeque ribs, fish, and chicken. That is a lot of money for food in the states, but keep in mind that everything has to boated in to the island.

The Good Life on White Bay

The good life on White Bay

As different of a setting as it is, Jost Van Dyke reminded me of the islands off the coast of Maine like North Haven and Monhegan where I used to go for a few days in the summer to visit friends. As a necessity you have to live lightly on the land there and you can’t take any resource for granted. The towns are small and after a few days everyone waves at you as you walk around. It was the same on Jost. Our waiter from Foxy’s Taboo, who also turned out to be the custom’s officer, remembered us while we were waiting at the ferry dock. On Jost, like the island in Maine, while it’s clear who’s an outsider and who’s a local no one is made to feel unwelcome if you are respectful of the place and the culture and don’t act like an invading horde.

West End Harbor, Tortola

West End Harbor, Tortola

Getting to Jost Van Dyke is simple, but not always quick. We flew into St. Thomas (in the USVI), took a ferry to West End in Tortola, where we cleared Her Majesty’s Customs and Immigration, and then took another ferry to Jost. All worked smoothly, but going back to St. Thomas  a ferry that was supposed to take us to there via St. John was an hour late, which caused a bunch of fretting and nail biting on my part because I was worried we would miss our flight. We didn’t, but next time will take a cue from another couple who were headed home. They booked a night in a Best Western on St. Thomas near the airport (and right on the beach) so they had a day cushion and didn’t need to worry about how late the ferry was.

Sunset Looking West from Jost Van Dyke

Sunset Hike, Jost Van Dyke

Writing this in Brooklyn it’s hard to imagine that perfect beach, balmy breeze, soft sand, azure water, and the sound of waves crashing on the beach as we slept in a pastel colored cabin were real, but it’s right down there, just a flight and two boat rides away, paradise attained, even for a skeptic like me.

White Bay Light IV

White Bay in the late afternoon