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.

The Way Life Should Be in Summer

It’s early October, but summer is still hanging on by a desperate thread. Every day that I put on my open toed shoes I wonder if it will be the last until next season. But this little bit of summer in fall got me thinking about to the height of summer and the time I spent in Maine then. It already seems so far away, but I wanted to share some summertime memories with all of you.

My home state of Maine has had some pretty silly slogans over the past few years. I think there was a collective eye roll when “Vactionland” was the phrase that was placed on Mainers license plates. Our other catch phrase is the slightly less insulting “The Way Life Should Be.” Well, the way life should be if you like six months of winter, a sluggish economy, and being cut off from the rest of the United States (but being significantly closer to Canada, which is a benefit in my opinion).

Downeast fashion: Preloved t-shirt, Gap skirt (my "on the road" work uniform)

Relaxing on the farm: Built by Wendy t-shirt, J Crew shorts, Espadrilles from Les Toiles du Soleil

Esther Williams bathing suit. Best bathing suit ever. On Bates and Ministerial islands, Casco Bay, Maine. My favorite islands ever.

For a few short weeks in summer Maine lives up to its slogan. Days are sunny, long and not too hot. The ocean is refreshing, but swimmable. There is ample fresh lobster and seafood to eat. Farm fresh produce is abundant. The bugs of late spring have retreated a little bit. There are opportunities for hikes, beautiful drives along the craggy coastline, and boat rides to islands that can be privately yours for the afternoon.

Sunflower. Hiking in the background by SMH.

Day Lilies. Late summer Maine special.

Causeway. Deer Isle, Maine.

Because I was in Maine for work, as well as hosting a getaway weekend for my friends, I got to drive all through the state. I took highways and byways I hadn’t driven on since I was a small child. I was able to revel in the beauty of the state and see it through the eyes of an outsider.  With a place this beautiful it’s no wonder someone thought it was a good idea to call it “Vactionland.”

Eggemongen Reach, Maine

Greetings from Asbury Park (Well, Ocean Grove)

Asbury Park boardwalk at dusk

Ocean Grove at sunset

For the past few days I have been close to home, but faraway. I rented a small apartment with two of my good friends “down the shore” in New Jersey, a tranquil, two-hour train ride from Penn Station, but only a block’s walk from the beach and long from the crush of daily city life. I recently switched jobs and found out that I had to use up three days of vacation before the end of June. I called my friend L.J., who I have gone on adventures to Central Europe and Iceland with. Did she want to go somewhere for five days? Somewhere cheap and last minute? Yes! We dreamed of getting a super steal of a deal in the Caribbean, of jetting off to a quiet island for $300 apiece like the advertisements in the back of the New York Times travel section promise. However, after much research on every travel site we could find we found the deals to be far beyond our price range. We were depressed for a few instants, but then turned our sights to something closer. What did we want? Sun, sand and easy living that won’t strain our wallets. Why not the beaches of Long Island or New Jersey? We visit these beaches regularly on summer-weekend day trips and there’s no lack of cute towns. A little more research and we found our rental, in a historic community called Ocean Grove, right next to the storied Asbury Park.

Ocean Grove street at dusk

Nagle's, Main Ave, Ocean Grove

Ocean Grove is incredibly charming and full of historic, multi-colored, well-maintained Victorian summer homes. On Main Avenue is Nagle’s, a pharmacy and classic soda fountain turned restaurant where we had a burger our first night and a daily ice cream. The beach is popular without being swarmed and the boardwalk is well maintained. This is a long way from the hair gel, fist pumps and sleaze that has popularized by a certain television show. However, one thing we neglected to find out about Ocean Grove, is that it is owned by the evangelical Church. There’s regular worship services on the boardwalk, there’s a posting about daily scripture, you can’t go onto the beach before 12:30 on Sundays because you are supposed to be in church, and forget about buying alcohol. The advantage of this is the town is quiet and peaceful, the disadvantage that if you are made uncomfortable by rules, religiosity, and the sexism, homophobia and hypocrisy of the church (which we are) it feels a little… creepy.

Junot Diaz quote on the Asbury Park boardwalk

Marinere: American Apparel, Levi's shorts ("Mom shorts" found at Tucson Goodwill and cut off to be chique), Bensimon sneakers

Fortunately, not a 10 minute down the boardwalk is “sinful” Asbury Park, home of the Boss, Bruce Springstein, and the Stone Pony, the club where he got his start. The boardwalk pulses with life and on Saturday night you can hear the latest dance pop hits booming out over the water from the recently restored pier. There’s restaurants, bars, mini golf, ice cream stands, and The Silverball Museum, a pinball arcade full of vintage pinball machines where you pay by the hour! There’s also Asbury Lanes, a punk rock club that is also a bowling ally where $22 gets you unlimited bowling and admission to that evening’s show (a little steep for us, but a good deal for bowlers and music lovers).

Shirt: J Crew "Artist" T, Skirt: Brooklyn Industries, Worishofer Sandals, Sunglasses from in God We Trust (hah hah) in Brooklyn

The streets are bikeable and on a morning ride I relished taking deep breaths of the sea air and felt transported by the mixture of  of salt, sunscreen, sand and honeysuckle carried on the breeze. No makeup, no fancy clothes, no plans, just jean shorts, bathing suits, and sunscreen. These days have been like a gift—because they were unexpected there’s no obligation and no expectations put on this time. It’s just mine to read, relax, enjoy my friends, eat simple food and relish a sliver of the good life close to home.

Beach and boardwalk cruiser (not mine, I brought my road bike from Brooklyn)

Strawhat and shorts (cut off by me!) both found in Arizona, Esther Williams bathing suit (love!)