The Spanish Virgin Islands are really a part of the U.S. along with Puerto Rico, and that means you can travel there without a passport or even a special international phone plan. You do, however, need to clear into the islands if you are arriving from the USVI or BVI, which are just a few hours’ sail away.
Many people charter a boat in the USVI, where CYOA and Island Charters have bases on St. Thomas, and sail across, but that means making a return trip into the teeth of the prevailing wind. The alternative is to fly into San Juan on mainland Puerto Rico and take a taxi to Fajardo, where Sail Caribe, Virgin Island Sailing and Dream Yacht are based in Marina del Rey. Sail Caribe also has a base in Red Hook on St Thomas, making one-way charters possible.
The Spanish Virgins are a compact sailing area but a week there flies past quickly. If you’re looking for party action, you’ll be better off in the BVI or USVI. The SVI are unspoiled and quiet, and that’s just the way they ought to be. The U.S. Navy used the islands for military exercises for many years and only stopped using part of Vieques as a target range in 2003; the stigma lingered, so the development that overtook the BVI in the last 20 years was a non-starter here.
Instead, you’ll find lonely anchorages, crystal clear water, reefs brimming with colorful fish, an abundance of bird life, small towns, and an overwhelming sense of what the Caribbean was like 30 years or more ago.
Midway between St. Thomas and Puerto Rico is the island of Culebra, which was declared a protected wildlife refuge by Theodor Roosevelt in 1909 and it’s a nesting site for sea turtles. There are no tourist traps or giant resorts and the anchorages are never crowded. On nearby Culebrita, you can hike to the ruins of a lighthouse or snorkel with turtles near Tortuga Beach, and anchor in a protected bay sporting a perfect half-moon beach.
Some of the prettiest bays on nearby Vieques are off-limits because of unexploded ordnance, but there are still plenty of small, quiet anchorages to choose between. Closer to the Puerto Rico coast, Isla Palominos is the perfect first-night stop.
Hurricane Maria was rough on Puerto Rico but the charter trade ticks on. Provisioning can be done close to the base and the natural beauty of the islands and the sheer peaceful quiet is still a big draw.
The bioluminescent bays on Vieques
Spending a night or two at Culebrita
Hiking on Cayo Luis Pena
Playa Flamenco on Culebra, a world-famous beach
Climbing to the lighthouse on Culebrita
Jesse Campo (base manager) and Erin Houpt (charter manager of the Americas) Dream Yacht Charters
Jesse advises, “The highlight of the SVI is Culebra, as it’s absolutely breathtaking, filled with gorgeous landscapes and some of the clearest blue waters you will ever dive into. Not only are the beaches fantastic, but the food is amazing too—different restaurants filled with local fresh fish and some of the best banana daiquiris you will ever taste. Moreover, the locals are as friendly as can be. It’s best to do all your provisioning at the home base in Puerto Rico before you head to the other islands since there are fewer opportunities out there.”
Erin adds, “Head to Culebra and the famous Playa Flamenco beach with its powdery sands. If you are after snorkeling with turtles, head to Playa Tamarindo with its shallow waters that are also home to rays. Another place to see turtles is Playa Tortuga on Culebrita. Visit Esperanza on Vieques and the open-air restaurant El Quenepo for traditional dishes, such as Mofongo. For a delicious mango daiquiri, try Cafe Mamasonga.”
Jay Pennington, base manager, CYOA Charters
“While picking just one favorite from the U.S. and Spanish Virgin Islands is difficult, the lighthouse and the waters surrounding Culebrita are surely near the top of my list. On a recent ten-day trip to the SVI my wife and I did the hike up the hill to the lighthouse. The road has been cleared and the brush cleaned up post-hurricane. The views are spectacular in every direction. Sailing to the SVI from our St. Thomas base has never been easier. We have customs decals on all of our vessels so customs clearance can be done on a smart phone using CBP Roam app. The application there can be used to clear into the Spanish Virgins and also to clear back into the USVI from the BVI.”
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