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Trip Report Sailing the Spanish Virgin Islands: TheTrip Report

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SPANISH VIRGIN ISLANDS, MARCH 12-21, 2011

Can You Keep a Secret?

Apparently, I can’t, even if it’s to my detriment. I’ve already blown it by submitting my article about this secret destination to Spinsheet for publication in May. And I’m about to make it worse by singing the praises of the Spanish Virgin Islands on this webpage. But, really, how can I keep quiet about spending a week sailing in the Caribbean in steady trade winds, in crystal clear waters, mooring off pristine beaches, drinking local rum and sampling local fish without even needing a passport? This is the reality of a bareboat sailing charter in the SVI, the small, sparsely inhabited islands off the eastern tip of Puerto Rico.

Until 2003, the U.S. Navy had been using Vieques – the largest of the SVI – as a bombing range and munitions test site. And until the last couple of years, those few cognoscenti who wanted to sail the SVI had to talk a charter company in neighboring St. Thomas into letting them take one of their boats over (and then face an upwind, up-current slog of 25 miles to bring it back, as well as the formalities of checking in and out of customs and immigration between these two U.S. possessions). Now with the bombing ended and with a charter company based in Fajardo on the east end of Puerto Rico, these amazing cruising grounds are slowly opening up to charter sailors, and not just the wise and fortunate Puerto Ricans who have made these islands their weekend playground for years.

I’ve been wanting to sail the SVI for some time, but had been reluctant to do so until Sail Caribe opened for business. Their fleet of recent vintage Hunter monohulls and Lagoon catamarans is located at Puerto del Rey marina, a location that makes hopping to the islands easy; the nearest – tiny Isla Palominos and Isla Palominitos – are visible from the base.

The Particulars

My crew consisted of me and Rick and our friends Michael (aka MT) and Julie. We chartered a recent-vintage Lagoon 400 catamaran named Do Over, fitted out with luxuries which I’d not heretofore enjoyed on charter boats, including a chart plotter, a generator to run the air-conditioning (wholly unnecessary, due to having perfect weather and nights being cool enough to require a blanket), an electric winch, electric heads, and a separate refrigerator and freezer that kept our provisions in top shape for the entire week.

Though Rick and I have chartered a wide array of boats in the past, including catamarans, this one – while possibly the ugliest, blockiest boat we’ve ever sailed – was also, by far, the most comfortable for living aboard. There was a raised helm station to port, to which all lines were led, and a roomy, right-angled cockpit with plenty of cushions for all permutations of lounging and dining. The salon was on the same level as the cockpit, with the galley set up against the cockpit bulkhead and a sliding window permitting direct access to the galley wenches. An L-shaped settee and nav station were forward.

Down 4 steps to the port hull were two full/queen cabins and two heads. In the starboard hull was a single cabin aft and a large head forward (featuring a stand-up separate shower stall), with storage and a desk in between, including a large closet we’d dubbed the pantry. MT and Julie unnecessarily ceded the “master” hull to me and Rick, so we returned the favor by declaring open season on the roomy shower.

It’s a good thing there were plenty of 12-volt outlets on this boat, because this had to be one of the most connected foursomes who ever set sail on the open seas. Our array of electronics included 3 iPads, 1 Kindle (to which The Washington Post was delivered daily), a portable WiFi hotspot, 3 Blackberries, an iPhone, and an iPod. Despite all this paraphernalia and the fact that we were technically in the USA, there we places on our tour of the islands where we had no connectivity. This, I think, is a good thing! We might have thought that our power-hungry toys caused the voltage in the battery bank to dip sooner than it should have on a regular basis, but ultimately we concluded that it was a dud battery. So, with Sail Caribe’s blessing, we simply ran the engines or generator for about an extra 1.5 hours a day. Annoying, but worthwhile.

Transitioning to Island Time

Rick and I have been to Puerto Rico several times now, no longer viewing it as a necessary but unwelcome way-station to the rest of the Caribbean but as a well-liked destination in and of itself. Thus, for us, getting to the Sail Caribe base in Fajardo was a straightforward exercise. We took the daily American Airlines non-stop from BWI to SJU and arrived in San Juan before noon. Though Sail Caribe would have assisted with transport to Fajardo, we elected to rent a car to give ourselves flexibility in our travels. While I’m usually a Hertz gal, with a location at the airport and one at the marina where Sail Caribe was located, Thrifty was the logical choice on this trip. Here, as elsewhere, my 2 years of high school Spanish (remembered through the fog of 25+ years) was a help, as each little snippet of Spanish that I could add to any conversation was appreciated and returned with a friendly attitude. Julie also speaks some Spanish, perhaps a bit more than me (or else she’s had fewer years to forget it all). By the end of our trip, I succumbed to calling myself Eva the Spanish way (Ay-ba) and picked up a Nuyorican accent (not really….)

Our first stop: Metropol in Isla Verde for lunch, next to the cockfighting arena. We even had the same waiter we always seem to get, and with whom we get instant credibility for ordering Medalla, the local brew, with our lunch. We asked if the losers of the fights next door featured on the menu, but he said that unless we see the word “pepita,” we wouldn’t be dining on the losers. Instead, lechon, mofongo, chicken and ceviche made a nice start to our island experience. From there, we took a leisurely drive to Fajardo, about 35 miles away. Here, having some Spanish really helps, since all of the road signs in Puerto Rico are in Spanish only.

Alas, we took a step backwards by electing to stay at the massive El Conquistador resort (we just called it “El”….) in Fajardo for our first night. Rick and I have stayed here before for a very different type of trip – a tennis-oriented long weekend – and we’d liked it well enough. But for getting the Puerto Rican vibe, El is not the place, as it’s so insulated from its environment that it can be any warm place on the planet. It’s a massive – albeit beautiful -- property, spread over an oceanfront cliffside. Our rooms in the marina portion of the complex required a long walk, then an elevator ride, then a walk along a shopping promenade, then a funicular ride, then more walking, then another elevator ride. All this for one night? Since we’d stayed here last, the rooms had been updated and are all now South Beach chic (bamboo, white furnishings, citrusy accents, punchy nautical artwork). Our spacious terrace looked out over the ocean and Islas Palominos and Palominitos, some of the Spanish Virgins we’d soon be sailing to. That, and a few rum drinks, whetted our appetites.

Sunday morning, we arrived the Puerto del Rey marina to begin our charter. Puerto del Rey bills itself the largest marina in the Caribbean. We caught up with Sail Caribe’s Jim, and soon our adventure started. Julie and I made a quick reconnoiter of the galley equipment and then left the boys behind for boat and chart briefings and headed to the Amigo market to provision.

Although we had menu ideas and lists for groceries, the store was short of some items and had other items in quantities we didn’t want to commit to, so we had to edit on the fly. Seems we got the last packages of Wheat Thins and Craisins in Fajardo, while there was not an avocado to be found. But most of the basics were available, including the ever-important beer (the local Medalla is quite good), wine (limited selection, but some familiar vintages) and rum (mostly Bacardi, Barrillito, and other PR brands). For those with more specific needs or a willingness to travel a bit further, Walmart and Costco have outlets within range and might offer a slightly better selection. Prices are noticeably higher than in Maryland, but that is the cost of paradise.

Another cost of paradise was finding our credit card charges serially declined. I checked out with my cartload and started loading up our car. A few minutes later, Julie ran out asking me to lend her my card to pay for the second load because her card had been declined. When I ran my card through, it was also declined. Luckily, I had another issuer’s card on hand and that went through. But both Julie and I paid the price for not having informed our issuers of our travel plans, even though we’d often traveled without having done so without ill effect in the past.

Back at the docks, we loaded the groceries into a golf cart, carted them down to our boat, and loaded up. Soon thereafter, we left the slip, got a quick lesson in raising this particular boat’s mainsail, dropped Jim off at the fuel dock, and set off for the elusive Spanish Virgin Islands. Jim sent us off with a quote from one of the great sailing movies of all time, Captain Ron: “If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen out there.”

Leaving the “Mainland” Behind

Once out of the marina, it doesn’t take very long to reach the islands. With steady east and east-northeast tradewinds in the 10-20 knot range in the winter months, the first legs will be upwind; some sailors opt to make the longest trip first, going all the way to the east end of Vieques or to Culebrita, while others do as we did and take a series of short hops. We spent our first night moored off Isla Palominos, which we’d viewed from El just hours before, then hopscotched from there to uninhabited Cayo Luis Peña, to the outside of the town of Dewey on Culebra, on to uninhabited Culebrita, then three different anchorages on the south side of Vieques before returning to Fajardo.

Palominos, though tiny, is undoubtedly the most-visited of the Spanish Virgins, with tens, if not hundreds, of daily arrivals. This is because El does not have a beach of its own, and leases Palominos to serve as its beach. Regular ferries transport El guests to the rows upon rows of beach loungers on the beach, but the last ferry takes away the last guests before sundown, leaving the island to the boaters. As this was a Sunday night, there remained a substantial contingent of Puerto Ricans moored off the beach or rafted together, as “mainland” Puerto Ricans visit the offshore islands in droves on the weekends. They know a good thing when they see it! But neither their nor our money was any good to gain access to El’s amenities on the beach, as they are restricted to guests (and our El-issued charge cards clearly showed our departure date). Not that we cared, because this trip was about getting away from such things.

We knew that except for the towns, there would be little opportunity for dining out, so we provisioned accordingly. In fact, we had almost exactly the right amount of food, though we blundered by underestimating our wine consumption, having to restock the vino supply not once, but twice. We stuck with chicken and seafood, with Julie favoring exotic East Indian and Asian preparations, while I stuck with more island-inspired fare (though the famous chicken in ginger wine sauce adapted from a BVI recipe turned into chicken in mango-rum sauce for lack of ginger wine or anything approximating it). Coconut milk serves all of these cuisines well. We ate dinner aboard all but two nights, including our first night

Even tinier than Palominos is its tiny satellite, Palominitos. Rick and I had taken a Hobie over to Palominitos when we stayed at El the last time. It’s a delicious little sand bar with some sea grapes and a palm tree or two, a little bigger than the BVIs’ Sandy Spit, but smaller than Sandy Cay. We went over by dinghy on Monday morning, circumnavigated, did a few sun salutations led by our resident yogi Julie (to work out the kinks of Boat Mattress Back), and swung a little from one of the palms. In the golden light of early morning, with the rest of the world having gone back to work, it was the perfect start to our first full day of sailing. (Indeed, I already decided that day that we’d head back to the SVI the same week, on the same boat, next year.)

Much of the uninhabited islands, as well as parts of Culebra and Vieques, are wildlife or nature preserves. Thus, except for the small towns, much of the beachfront in the SVI is undeveloped and in some cases, not even reachable except by boat and/or four-wheel-drive vehicle. In the interest of protecting the sea bottom, there are free mooring balls installed in virtually every anchorage, and unlike more popular cruising grounds, there is no race to snag them because they are plentiful compared to the small demand for them. Palominos, and our next stop, Luis Peña, were no exceptions.

At Luis Peña, we shared the anchorage with only one other boat, though a periodic ferry arrived a couple of times and delivered mighty wakes – including one at 2 a.m. (huh?). The beach here is not especially notable, but the water is clear and the snorkeling is quite good. While Rick and MT snorkeled from the dinghy, Julie and I took to one of the trails in hopes of getting to the windward side beach. A big rustling in the sea grapes – too big to be coming from the creatures that live on an uninhabited island, right? – sent us scurrying back to the beach. Was it a gorilla/guerilla a la Captain Ron? Sasquatch? It turned out to be one of the many goats that live on the island, and we were interrupting their afternoon tea.

Culebra represented our first foray into inhabited SVI. Rather than braving the crowded Ensenada Honda that was full of anchored boats, we moored on the outside of the town of Dewey, near the ferry dock (which proved to be less disruptive than feared). Our goals wer to visit the celebrated Playa Flamenco, obtain some additional provisions (wine!) and have dinner out.

Playa Flamenco lived up to its billing. It is, simply put, one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet. Even with its many amenities – chairs for rent, food kiosks, showers and toilets, and the shuttles which bring visitors to the beach -- its wide creamy expanse takes them all in with plenty of room to spare (although that might be very different on a weekend day). With flour-soft sand and a gradual entry with no rocks or coral, it’s a wader’s delight. The surf is lively and effervescent. I can only imagine what Rick’s co-workers thought of the background noise when he took a conference call from the beach. Hidden behind the sea grapes, the food kiosks feature Puerto Rican specialties (lobster and fish empanadas, mofongo, fish, pinchos) and $1.50 Medallas. There is a campground at the western end of the beach, at which many hippy-dippy types seem to have taken up permanent residence. In contrast to their laid-back ways are a couple of hunks of disused military equipment, which have inspired the spatterings of graffiti artists.

The town of Dewey itself features streets in which snip-eared cats (indicating that they have been spayed or neutered), roosters, cars and pedestrians share the road. Low-rise buildings in a variety of colors (and repair) line the streets. A few shops and restaurants seem to take turns being open for business. The famed Mamacita’s, where we’d thought to have happy hour and/or dinner, was closed for renovations, so we went to the Dinghy Dock instead. A few cruising sailors had set up camp in the restaurant, taking advantage of the WiFi, and as the evening wore on, the dining room filled up with local residents, cruisers, tourists and expatriates, all taking advantage of the simple but tasty fare. I’m a sucker for a whole grilled fish, and was quite happy with my red snapper here.

After Dewey, it was back to the beaches. As beautiful as they are, it almost seems a miracle that they are largely free of development and visitors, though the obscurity of the cruising ground and the difficulty that land-based travelers would have in reaching them explains some of that. For example, when we arrived at lunchtime on Wednesday to the beach at Bahia Tortuga on the tiny island of Culebrita, we were only one of three catamarans occupying the spacious crystal-blue bay bounded by sugary sand. (Bahia Tortuga, by the way, won the prize for Best Beach of the Week). Though Bahia Tortuga is in the sight of St. Thomas in the distance (and is flown over by the jets on their way to STT) and offers stiff competition against the nicest beach in any of the British or U.S. Virgin Islands, the only real company one will have here is the sea turtles that nest on the beach and swim in the bay.

Beyond the beach, after a walk along some crumbly rocks and ironshore, we ventured to a spot called “The Jacuzzis,” where surf crashing through openings in the rocks creates bubbly pools. The site is dramatic and beautiful, the relative calmness of the blue-green pools contrasting with the foaming waves. I found it was worth the dicey walk, but sturdy amphibious shoes are definitely required, both for the hike and to actually stand in the rocky pools.

As beautiful as Bahia Tortuga was, the increasing northerly surge would have made it uncomfortable overnight, so we took a quick motor to a more protected shore on Culebrita (still in sight of the apparently disused lighthouse, and on yet another pretty beach) to stay the night.

As I’ve hinted, Bahia Tortuga is but one of dozens of stunning strands that edge these pretty islands. As a committed beach-o-phile, I couldn’t imagine bombing them as the Navy did. To this day, many of the beaches on Vieques still bear the prosaic monikers the Navy gave them, but ho-hum names like “Blue Beach” are giving way to their more lyrical Spanish counterparts, like “Bahia de la Chiva,” where we spent Thursday. This wide-open bay attracts a number of beach lovers staying on the island, but we never felt crowded. Aside from a few shelters (which may or may not have been private), there are no facilities at this and most other beaches other than the palm trees under which to take shelter from the sun. Much to my chagrin (and my only real complaint about the Spanish Virgins), there are no beach bars to be found. But the beach here was reward enough.

On Friday, we were back to relative civilization, anchoring (the only time we didn’t get to moor) off the town of Esperanza on the south side of Vieques. After reaching and running to arrive here, and after one unsuccessful and one successful attempt to anchor, lunch on Esperanza’s colorful Malecon beckoned. The pretty waterfront promenade is bordered with funky bars, shops and restaurants. After lunch at Banana’s (fish tacos), we explored the waterfront, bought the requisite t-shirts, and ended our wandering with a visit to the Vieques Yacht Club (they happily welcomed us, not even inquiring as to whether there was reciprocity with our club, because the VYC is not much more than an information exchange for visiting boaters). For dinner, we’d made reservations at the justly lauded El Quenepo, which would be at home in any major city in terms of quality, but features island style and ease. Dinner was pricey, but very good, combining high-end preparations with local ingredients.

(A note here about safety. Esperanza’s town dock is the only place in our travels that Sail Caribe advised us to lock our dinghy – and the locals hanging out there repeated the reminder. From what we experienced, crime is not a major issue in the SVI, but it pays to heed local knowledge, and it’s never wise to be cavalier with valuable and portable possessions – like a new 10+ foot RIB with a 20HP outboard.)

One of Vieques’ most notable attractions is its bioluminescent bay, which is accessible only through the outfitters that ply the waters there. We had every intention of booking a kayak trip with one of the tour companies recommended by Sail Caribe, but the waxing moon that was so bright that its shining through our hatches woke us at night, made that a non-starter. Indeed, on our last night in Vieques, moored off Green Beach on the west end of the island, a spectacular “perigee moon” rose above the palm trees, brightening the night’s darkness (a perigee moon is visible when the moon's orbit position is at its closest point to Earth during a full moon phase).

Alas, our last night in the Spanish Virgins was a rocky one. Our location – chosen so that we could easily reach the Sail Caribe base by 10 the next morning – was exposed to the wind and seas, which had turned more northerly and increased. The rocking and rolling, and the noise of the wind gusts, made for a rough night. The next morning’s motor back to Fajardo was similarly rocky, and we took several waves over the bows, which is not insignificant since the Lagoon 400 has about 6 feet of freeboard. Though Julie and I had the best intentions of packing up and cleaning up while underway, the hobby-horsing of the boat made it impossible to do so without risking seasickness. Fortunately, we got back to the base early enough to clean up and were in no particular hurry to get back to San Juan.

Echoes of the Past

If the topography of the Spanish Virgins and the pleasure of sailing there hearkens back to the British Virgin Islands, it is the BVI of decades ago, before the “credit card sailors” descended en masse, and with a decidedly Latin twist. If stepping back into the past was one of the themes of our journey, we fittingly concluded it with wanderings over the ancient blue cobblestones of Old San Juan and among the pastel and wrought-iron old buildings of one the oldest settlements in the Americas before jetting back to reality.

We spent our last night in Puerto Rico at the Ritz Carlton in Isla Verde, with the intention of re-compressing before heading home. The Ritz, of course, makes re-entry a soft landing, greeted as we were at the reception desk with flutes of champagne notwithstanding our disreputable sailor appearances. After the rocky night on Do Over, I was more than ready to sink into the downy comfort of a luxurious hotel bed. We also enjoyed a beautiful dinner at Pikayo in the Conrad hotel in Condado.

On Monday, we made our way to Old San Juan, and explored the expansive El Morro fortifications before meandering about the colorful and atmospheric streets of the old city. It was our tenth straight day of nearly perfect weather (the morning before excepted), with sunny skies, balmy breezes, and low humidity. Only one cruise ship was in port – we watched it navigate the narrow entrance of the harbor – so traffic was fairly light. And although one of our favorite restaurants, Aguaviva, was not open for lunch, we enjoyed the Parrot Club across Fortaleza Street. All too soon, it was back to the airport and home, but I’m seriously planning to re-live the singular pleasures of this American paradise soon.

[Photos from this trip can be viewed on my Facebook page -- you don't have to be a member to take a look: https://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=384302&id=731677785&l=c587ebc1d2]

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