First it was the Taino Indians, who ventured from present-day South America to settle these islands thousands of years ago. Then came the Spanish Conquistadors, followed by pirates and planters seeking treasure and fortunes. Now, those with no higher aspirations than finding a secluded corner of the Caribbean still untainted by megaresorts and trinket shops come to one of the region’s least known, yet most appealing destinations — the Spanish Virgin Islands. Anchored just off Puerto Rico and due west of the more familiar US and British Virgin Islands, the twin pearls of Vieques and Culebra share much of the history and natural attributes of their neighbors, but are defined by their hundreds of years under Spanish colonial rule which gives the cuisine, culture and language a distinctive Latin accent.
Spanish Virgin Islands: Made for Exploring
Until earlier this decade, these islands were off-limits, unknown to travelers for most of the last century because of their use by the US military. Now, the islands’ colorful history and local culture are open for exploring, and the good news is that this isolation has allowed them to remain relatively unspoiled examples of the Caribbean’s wild beauty. Broad stretches of untrammeled white sand, rare species such as leatherback turtles and sleepy island towns like Esperanza make the Spanish Virgins a treasure trove of island-flavored adventure. Although there are charter flights and ferries serving the islands from Puerto Rico, one of the most appealing ways to arrive here is under the billowing sails of the three-masted schooner, Arabella. An intimate, 40-passenger vessel, the ship exudes a casual elegance reminiscent of grand passages of the past. Nostalgically outfitted with brass fittings and polished hardwoods but with modern amenities throughout, the svelte, 160-foot schooner provides ready access to the cozy bays and anchorages here, such as Ensenada Honda, which are too shallow to accommodate larger vessels.
Sailing from St. Thomas, your first stop on Arabella’s itinerary is Vieques, where you will anchor off the small town of Esperanza, which means “hope” in Spanish. Just 20 miles long and 5 miles wide, Vieques can still claim some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful beaches. Setting out from Esperanza on the protected south shore, it’s just a fifteen-minute walk to the most popular stretch of sand, Sun Bay, also called Sombé by the locals. The longest and most accessible beach on the island, Sun Bay also features some basic amenities like hammocks and showers. Once you’ve put in some quality hammock time and want to engage in more beach research, a short walk further eastward will take you to two other lovely locales: Media Luna, blessed with gently lapping surf making it perfect for small children, and isolated Navio, featuring brilliant turquoise waters and sugary sands.
Now that you’ve gotten a taste of the beauty and the beaches that Vieques offers, you may want to go farther afield. Just know that on languid Vieques, buses and taxis are few and far between, so a rental Jeep is the way to go. There are a handful of reliable rental agencies here, but be forewarned it’s important to reserve ahead, as securing a rental during the winter high season can be tough coconut to crack. Once you have wheels, however, the island is your oyster. If your time is limited, focus on the south shore, which is protected from the larger surf and more unpredictable currents of the Atlantic which hit the exposed northern shore.
Heading east from Sun Bay, a string of sybaritic beaches beckon like sirens, each seemingly more captivating than your previous discovery. Some are only accessible by boat, but your four-wheel drive will get you to some of the best. Cruising past modest, brightly painted homes bordered with banana trees and a riot of colorful flowers, you’ll see wild horses grazing in abandoned cane fields and tantalizing vistas of the ocean peeking through stands of scrub forest. You eventually turn on a rough gravel road entering what was once Camp Garcia, a former US Navy installation. At one time, Camp Garcia and other naval installations here took up nearly two-thirds of the island, and access to these areas was extremely limited. Now, however, with the closing of the bases in 2003 and their conversion to nature preserves under the authority of the US Fish & Wildlife service, you are free to explore sandy stretches that seem light years from the military exercises that once took place here.
After bumping along past abandoned Quonset huts and sagging fences topped with razor wire, the first beaches you arrive at are Playa Corcho, more popularly known by it’s military moniker, Red Beach, and Garcia Beach. Their protected shores make them an ideal place to pull the rental over underneath a shady palm before wading out into the gentle surf.
Next on the beach tour agenda should be Bahia de la Chiva, aka Blue Beach. Small shacks, or bohios, provide welcome shade from the intense sun while just offshore, excellent snorkeling abounds either steps from the beach or a short kayak paddle away at tiny Isla Chiva (“Goat Island”). Rental kayaks and snorkeling gear are available in Esperanza.
Caribbean Night Moves
As inviting as these refuges are during the day, the waters of Vieques also put on a show after dark, entertaining visitors after sunset with one of the Caribbean’s most see-worthy natural phenomena. Microscopic plankton put on a luminous light show every night in the shallow waters of a bottleneck lagoon with the unfortunate name of Mosquito Bay. Located around a headland from Sun Bay, the tiny organisms contain two chemicals that when mixed by any disturbance, such as the wake of a boat or paddle of a kayak, create a spectacular display of glowing bioluminescence that leaves adults giggling like fifth graders. For the full effect, bring your bathing suit and dive into the waters where your every movement makes you part of the show. And make sure to go with guides using electric motors or kayaks, as gas-powered pirate operators contribute to the destruction of the bioluminescence that makes this place such a wonder. For a small island, things also get surprisingly lively on weekend nights at a string of small taverns and inns lining Esperanza’s malecon, or esplanade. Amapola Inn & Bili Restaurant is the perfect spot for a cold one after a day of exploring beaches (ask if the fishermen have brought in lobster for a special treat).
Caribbean’s Secret Hideway: Culebra
One of the biggest bonuses of sailing on the Arabella – besides the onboard Jacuzzi and savory cuisine — is a stop at diminutive Culebra, just one-third the size and 25 miles to the northeast of Vieques. Its rustic island feel and snowflake-white beaches like Flamenco bring out anyone’s inner Jack Sparrow, making Vieques seem downright sophisticated in comparison. Arriving in the small port town of Dewey, your first view will likely be of a passel of sailboats floating serenely in front of the serpentine hills where a fading sun nestles each night. This is the Caribbean many dream about, at least those whose idea of idyll is empty, wave-tossed shores, pristine reefs and dusty roads filled with laughing kids. The town takes on a definite Pirates of the Caribbean feel (minus the killer mermaids of course) as your launch putters up an old canal before depositing you on a landing to dine at the open-air Dinghy Dock, where the catch of the day and potent piña coladas transport you to tropical nirvana. The Arabella’s shallow draft again serves you well during a day sail to even more intimate Culebrita, an islet off of Culebra that offers snorkeling and sea kayaking in waters seemingly painted by a divine hand in breathtaking shades of azure. Consummate castaway that you are, now is the time to paddle out to the reef or find a secluded spot on the beach, and in a tradition long since established on these shores, claim your own little piece of paradise in the islands known as the Spanish Virgin Islands.