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Spanish Virgin Islands: The Light Fantastic

The thumbnail moon was below the horizon, making it tough to see the dust devils rising through the holes in the floor of the rusty Ford Econoline van as we careened down the bumpiest dirt road I’ve ever travelled.
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The thumbnail moon was below the horizon, making it tough to see the dust devils rising through the holes in the floor of the rusty Ford Econoline van as we careened down the bumpiest dirt road I’ve ever travelled. We lurched to a halt and the door hinges creaked open as Pip exclaimed, “That’s great adventure dollar value, and we haven’t even launched yet!” Moments later, we were stepping into kayaks at the edge of Bahia Mosquito on the south coast of Vieques in the Spanish Virgin Islands, home to the most extraordinary bioluminescence on earth.

Each stroke of the paddle was like a rock concert glow stick exploding just below the surface. As the fish zipped away from us, you could trace each swish of their tails in the long trail of light behind them. Our guide told us that superstitious Spanish explorers had named this magical spot “Devil’s Bay” and had spent an enormous amount of time trying to seal the mouth off from the sea. Ironically, it’s the narrow entrance, plus the healthy red mangroves, that make conditions here perfect for supporting as many as 720,000 dinoflagellates per gallon, exponentially more than you need to light up your bow wave at sea. With only the stars reflecting off the surface of the bay for ambient light, the experience was spectacular.

We’d come to this bay the only logical way—if you’re a sailor, that is—six days into a week-long bareboat charter in the Spanish Virgin Islands. The six of us were refugees from a Boston winter—me, Jean, Megan, and friends Pip, Peter and Harry—and had collected Great White, a Bristol-condition Hunter 45, from the extraordinarily pleasant folks at Sail Caribe in Puerto del Rey in Fajardo on the east coast of Puerto Rico. After spending the first night at the dock in air-conditioned comfort and gleaning plenty of local knowledge at the chart briefing, we rolled out the sails in 10-12 knots of northeast wind and headed upwind for a couple of hours to Isla Palominos, first of the recommended stops on our itinerary and a great place to ease into vacation mode.

The brilliant sunshine illuminated all those crazy shades of turquoise that seem to exist only in the tropics. We picked up one of the numerous moorings maintained by the Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources—the first of several we lay to during the week, all apparently well maintained and free of charge—and made a quick visual check of the tackle before jumping in for some recreational snorkeling. We were putting our West Marine inflatable kayaks together when the flashing blue lights of a U.S. Coast Guard RIB interrupted us. They were businesslike, but friendly and while checking our safety gear shared some advice on great snorkeling spots—one of which was the reef in the middle of the bay where Jean found a cuttlefish, a high point of the trip for her. We also saw schools of blue and yellow jacks, sergeant majors, blue-headed wrasse, parrotfish, grunts, tangs, blue chromis, butterfly fish and a gigantic orange starfish—it was a thrilling alternative to contemplating snowflake variations back home.

The next morning saw us heading for the southern tip of Culebra, bucketing along at hull speed in a classic 20-knot northeasterly trade wind to Cayo Luis Peña—part of the 22-island Culebra National Wildlife Preserve—for a quick swim before feeling our way along the narrow passage into Ensenada Honda on Culebra and dropping the hook in Dakity Bay’s shallow reef-protected waters. That evening we took our drinks to the foredeck, where we enjoyed the new moon. With a little help from Google “Nightsky,” Megan spotted Uranus under Venus under Jupiter like a string of pearls hanging above the western horizon. There was no dissent when we declared the following day a Beach Day.

There’s a rough-round-the-edges undeveloped charm to Culebra. After we wandered the sleepy streets of Dewey next morning, we jumped aboard a minibus and headed for Playa Flamenco, where we found a crazy assortment of colorful cabanas at the road head serving up local favorites like coconut rice, crispy whole snapper and conch fritters. A cold drink fortified us for the trail to Carlos Rosario Beach, where we found a sign warning us sternly “Danger! Do NOT enter! Unexploded ordinance!” Carlos Rosario is a beautiful beach, but it’s the snorkeling that makes it worth the hot walk. Just to the west end is healthy coral and the biggest variety of reef fish I’ve seen in years in the Caribbean. We delighted in swimming with several turtles that seemed quite accustomed to snorkelers.

A couple of hours later we headed back over the hill to Playa Flamenco, which the Discovery Channel reckons is the second most beautiful beach in the world. Outlying reefs provide a range of options from flat calm to real surf, and plenty of surfers were taking advantage of the northern swells. It didn’t take us long to find an area that was absolutely perfect for body surfing. After leaving the kids happily getting tossed about by the waves, Jean and I walked down this stunning beach to discover, among the coconut husks, the graffiti-covered shell of a World War II Sherman tank. The U.S. military once used Culebra and Vieques beaches for aerial and amphibious assault exercises. And while there are still some restrictions until the area is entirely cleaned up, the benefit is that the arrested development of these islands reminded me of the British Virgin Islands back in the mid-70s. This allowed me to share with my 11-year-old daughter the Caribbean I so fondly remember from when I was her age. 

After working up an appetite in the sun and surf we were ready for dinner ashore, so it was off to tie the dinghy up at Mamacita’s, a not-to-be missed rum bar and casual restaurant.

Provisioning is good in Dewey, and we restocked with essentials next morning—including several jerry-can runs to replenish water tanks ravaged by teen and pre-teen showering—before a short but beautiful sail took us over to Culebrita, which is the jewel of the Spanish Virgins. We poked our nose around the west end of this small island to look into the northern bay. But the northern swells were still breaking inside the bay on the second reef, so we headed back to the south side, where three DNR moorings were bobbing on a flat sea and there was plenty of room to anchor. We headed ashore for some light hiking, including a steep climb to the lighthouse that was keeping watch over the feral goats, then over to Turtle Beach. It’s hard to believe, but this is even more beautiful than the more famous Playa Flamenco. For most of the afternoon we had over a mile of perfect sugar sand to ourselves. After more than an hour of laughing and high-fiving with Harry and Megan about the fabulous bodysurfing, we hiked over to The Jacuzzis, natural tidal pools made spectacular due to the northern swells. Our extraordinarily high expectations didn’t prepare us for how unique and beautiful a spot we’d found—and again had all to ourselves. It’s well worth the walk down the beach, where you can add to the cairns as you make your way toward the sounds of the crashing surf.

That night Great White heeled to her anchor at 0300 as a succession of rain squalls marched through with 25-30 knots of wind. We’d left all our towels and suits to dry on the lifelines, but we were so thoroughly in vacation mode we figured nature was providing them a much-needed rinse. Weather systems passing to the north can make this anchorage rolly, but we were reasonably comfortable.

The next leg of our circumnavigation of these islands—Culebrita to Vieques—was interrupted when our simplistic fishing rig yielded the only bite of the entire trip, a young barracuda with a pretty nasty set of teeth that made getting the hook out interesting. Between the 151 rum and some pliers, we got his angry attitude back over the side. 

The seabed was visible 50 feet down as we sailed into Bahia de la Chiva, another picture-postcard strip of white sand backed by green slopes, where we happily picked up a DNR mooring in the lee of Isla Chiva. Aside from a couple of motorboats that came and went during the afternoon, we had the anchorage to ourselves as we swam and kayaked, marveling again at the abundant life above and below the water.

Esperanza, the biggest town on Vieques, has a sleepy Spanish feel to it. Sail Caribe owner Jim Veiga had already booked us the bio-bay kayak tour, so we spent a lazy afternoon checking out the shopping and restaurants. As darkness fell we enjoyed a wide selection of beers and a delicious dinner at Duffy’s while the local bucks rode ponies bareback up and down the main street along the harbor. These fancy little high-steppers are a regular part of Saturday night in town, where the local by-laws allow each resident to keep a horse, though saddle and bridle are apparently optional.

Next morning, the trade winds were ready for our sails and we tucked in a reef before heading past the base of Mont Pirata and rounding the western end of Vieques. We threaded the passage inside Isla Piñeros, and roared back to the shelter of the charter base. The memories of bioluminescence under aligned planets, solitary anchorages with fantastic snorkeling, excellent sailing and world class beaches will have us returning to the Spanish Virgins the next time the snow flies up north.

Photos by Peter Nielsen

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