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Cruising the Spanish Virgin Islands,

by Nancy Birnbaum. Article featured in YTM #6 – Autumn 2011.

 

 

The Spanish Virgin Islands are fast becoming the hot destination for yachting and cruising. Just 15-20 nm from the US and British Virgin Islands, six nm from the east coast of Puerto Rico, the SVI’s are also referred to as the "Passage Islands”.  Considered to possess the most natural beauty and the best cruising grounds in the Caribbean, the SVI’s are made up of Isla Culebra and Vieques and their surrounding islets and cays. Less crowded and ringed with white sand beaches, the islands are still relatively untouched by developers and cruisers alike.
Both Spanish and English are the official languages, the U.S. dollar is the local currency and no visas or passports are required to enter Puerto Rico from the United States.
Isla Culebra
Just 11 square miles, Culebra is an island of unspoiled beauty. Along with miles and miles of stunning beaches and the snorkeling and dive sites are possibly some of the Caribbean’s best.
Although there are plenty of lovely anchorages to explore, the tiny offshore cay of Culebrita is a must-see. A wildlife refuge, Isla Culebrita is one of the most beautiful islands surrounding Culebra. There are six beaches ringing the island including Tortuga at the northeastern tip of the island. Tortuga is home to the baths (sometimes called the Jacuzzis), similar to the Baths at Virgin Gorda. The snorkeling here is excellent and the beaches are pristine, especially the 400 foot long sand crescent on the northern shore. The island offers ample nesting sites for shore birds and is the nesting home to a large population of sea turtles.
The anchorages are fairly deserted during the week, but the weekends are a different story. A favorite anchorage lies just outside the entrance at Ensenada Honda. Dakity Harbor is at the Southern end and is an idyllic anchorage protected from the swells by a pristine reef ideal for snorkeling. Further east is an anchorage that should be on every cruisers top ten once they have visited it. Called Bahia de Almodovar, it has clear blue water over a white sand bottom protected by a reef even when the prevailing wind is blowing a steady twenty knots. Everyone from Puerto Rico with a fast powerboat (known affectionately as the “Puerto Rican Navy”) makes Almodovar the weekend party destination of choice. Both Islands are a haven for families from PR, making the atmosphere friendly and safe, yet crowded on weekends.
Culebra is clearly the sailing center of the Spanish VI’s and the quiet and large Ensenada Honda is home to the start of the Annual Culebra Heineken International Regatta which takes place in March.  That weekend tends to be the busiest of the year for Puerto Rico with powerboats and fishing yachts dotting the coast. Yet even with the large influx of tourists, Culebra is still a laid back, easy-going island.
Ensenada Honda has everything a cruiser could want except a fuel dock, but there is fuel available by dinghy along the canal. Anchor just to the right near the mooring balls off Cayo Pirata. The anchorage behind Cayo Pirata: 18°18'27.00"N, 65°17'56.17"W in sand. You’ll see some of the local sailboats anchored here as well.
You can tie up your dinghy up at the small pier just to the right of the drawbridge, the centerpiece of the town. It spans the narrow canal where you’ll find several small bars and restaurants that you can dinghy up to. Its fun to watch the small boat traffic go by from Mamacita’s or the Dinghy Dock Restaurant, two local favorites.
There are some hidden jewels on the island including Juanita Bananas, a unique island restaurant. If you want a nice break from dining onboard, then you’ll want to dine here. Just grab a Publico (taxi), they usually hang out by the ferry dock.
Vieques - "Isla del Encanto"
What a pleasure to sail to a Caribbean island that has more open than developed spaces. Once here, you feel mas afuera - far out. Though as remote as it feels it also offers plenty to the visiting cruiser. The fact that the Marines and U.S. Navy used Vieques for bombing practice until 2003 also kept the unavoidable land developers, rampant commercialism, and profusion of sailing charters away. Thankfully much of what the Navy gave up is now the largest wildlife refuge in the Caribbean. As a result, these Spanish Jewels are still pristine and unspoiled, revealing crystal clear turquoise blue water and healthy intact reefs teeming with fish, coral and crustaceans. There are hills to climb and explore, nearly empty anchorages, and the natural allure of bygone days in the BVI’s. They both offer the gunkholing cruiser as well as the intrepid charter sailor a unique landfall.
With a population of approximately 9,000 residents living in the center part, the island is also home to roaming goats and a large herd of wild “paso fino” ponies, the prancing descendants of conquistador mounts. They are small horses known for their prominent high-stepping gate, they have free run of the island and that means that if you drive you must do so carefully to avoid running into them on the roads.
The north shore of the island boasts a healthy reef system including Bahia Icacos Island. Don’t rely solely on charts to get in here. Instead use the entry waypoint from the guidebook and most important, have a good pair of eyes on the bow watching for coral heads. Bahia Icacos Island offers excellent protection and great snorkeling.
Heading east around the Vieques you will round Punta Este. Be sure to stay a least one-quarter mile off for safety. The anchorages on the southern shore offer good overnight anchorages but no facilities, just a good place to get out of the wind and waves if need be. Ensenada Honda offers better protection in everything except winds out of the west. Be sure to follow the guidebook for entrance waypoints and directions.
The next couple of bays to the west are the bioluminescent bays of Puerto Ferro and Puerto Mosquito. Entrances are very narrow and depth sometimes less than 5 feet at MLW. But if your draft allows, it’s possibly the coolest nature anchorage around, especially at night.
Keep in mind that if you throw the hook down at any of the anchorages on the eastern end of the island and go ashore, don’t do any shell collecting (read unexploded ordinance)! The guidebooks warn against wandering beyond the beach, but one must also consider what may lie on the bottom of the bay.
The main town of Esperanza is the most accessible place to anchor on the southern coast. Anchor off the little Cayo Afuera (just behind the small island - 18°5'24.35"N, 65°28'29.81"W). There’s a sand bar that runs almost to the beach.
The New Vieques Yacht Club is expanding and beginning December 26th they will include WiFi on your boat! Further plans include a work vessel to deliver water and fuel to members' vessels - rates start at $25 per day and include such amenities as hot showers and 50% off laundry ($5/load). Owners, Stuart Hankin and Natalya Kaydash are liveaboard cruisers who returned from a year-long cruise of the Eastern Caribbean to settle on this lovely island, and as a result are sensitive to the needs of boaters. They are long time residents and can offer brilliant advice and assistance for any boaters who need it.
A Relaxing Respite
Need more than a hot shower ashore? Consider a relaxing overnight at the Hix Island House - an “eco-hip” B&B designed by world-renown architect John Hix. Described as “an eclectic mix of ‘Wabi-Sabi’ and Modernism architecture – minimalistic and utilitarian,” it was purpose-built to blend into the natural surroundings.” Rooms are indeed minimalistic while still practical and come complete with a kitchenette stocked with fresh eggs, homemade bread (yummy walnut!); fruit, coffee beans, a grinder, and French press; juice and milk – all the makings for superb French toast. Relax on the balcony overlooking the surrounding wilderness and gaze at the ocean off in the distance. Enjoy the Hix Island House pool, voted best on the island. With no TV’s or phones, you’ll find this a perfect retreat for a break from the boat.
To give the galley crew a night off, check out the Island Steakhouse and enjoy their Sunday night Prime Rib special. Co-owner Eli Belevidez also offer rooms at the Crows Nest Guesthouse - studios with kitchenettes and TV’s for those who crave it. Eli describes his location as “accessible seclusion.”
Bio-Bay Experience
The Bio-Bay (Puerto Mosquito) is a ‘Must See’ when you are on Vieques. The bioluminescence is caused by a microscopic one-celled organism called a dinoflagellate, (Pyrodinium bahamense) that emit a bright glow whenever they are agitated, causing a literal micro fireworks display. Due to the narrow opening to the sea, the “dinos” congregate in huge numbers, making the Bio-Bay the best in the Western Hemisphere.

Take the kayak tour with Blue Caribe Kayaks (located on the Malecon just across from the Fishermens’ (dinghy dock). They provide transportation to the Bay and all the gear. Be prepared for the bumpy ride to the waters’ edge and don’t forget your mosquito repellent! With two guides leading the group, you paddle out into the middle of the wide bay at dusk and if you like, you can swim as well and see as many stars shining around you as above. Best to time your excursion close to the new moon. The tour lasts two hours, enough time to get your fill of this amazing natural phenomenon.
Of course there is an abundance of things to do on land, but there is also much to see beneath the surface. The waters around the SVI’s are home to an abundance of corals, fishes, sharks, dolphins, turtles, crustaceans and a multitude of other marine life.
Recommended Cruising Guides
A Cruising Guide to Puerto Rico including the Spanish Virgin Islands. Steven Pavlidis, 2003.
A Gentlemen’s Guide to Passage South – The Thornless Path to Windward. Bruce Van Sant, Eighth Edition, 2003.
Virgin Islands Cruising Guide by Nancy and Simon Scott. (http://www.cruisingguides.com/)

Resources: Vieques Yacht Club  - Tel:787 565 4141 / 787 694 2222, VHF Channel 16.

Restaurants:
Town of Dewey, Isla Culebra. Juanita Bananas Restaurant: (787) 742-3171, www.juanitabananas.com. This little jewel looked as if it had been plucked out of Bolinas in Northern California! Chef Jennifer Daubon and Javier Cabrera, the young couple who run this gem are committed to offering the freshest organic foods and local-caught seafood. (The oysters were unbelievably good as was the pumpkin soup!) They grow some of the herbs and veggies hydroponically, right next door. The food is in the tradition of the Seafarer's Inn restaurant founded in 1970 by Javier’s parents. Quite possibly the best restaurant on the Island and a truly charming find located on a hilltop overlooking the sea. 
Esperanza, Vieques. Island Steakhouse. Your hosts, Eli and Scott offer up Angus beef with all the trimmings, fish and pasta dishes. Fortunately we arrived on a Monday night just in time for Prime Rib night. It was excellent. They also have a great wine list. Located in the middle of the Island on Rt. They also run the adjacent Crows Nest Inn Guesthouse. Bananas on the Malecon. A nice selection of burgers, salads, sandwiches and more. Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner. Duffy’s on the Malecon. Great selection of mouth-watering fish, steak, chicken, and veggie wraps as well as Mexican fare. Try their homemade hot sauce if you are brave enough!
Accommodations. Vieques. Hix Island House: (787) 741-2302. Beautiful, relaxing, eco-friendly environment. Yoga classes offered three times a week. Rates range from just under $200 to $310 depending on season. The Crows Nest Guesthouse: (787) 744-0033, $100/night special includes Continental Breakfast. Bananas Guest House: (787) 741-8700, Rates range from $80-100 (plus tax) per night.
Landmarks and places of interest on Vieques:
The Bioluminescent Bay
Fortín Conde de Mirasol (Count Mirasol Fort), a fort built by the Spanish in the mid 19th century, now a museum
Playa Esperanza (Esperanza Beach)
The tomb of Le Guillou, the island's "founder", in Isabel Segunda
Old Nayda Cinema Theater
Faro Punta Mulas (Punta Mulas Lighthouse), built in 1896
Sun Bay Beach
The 300 year old ceiba tree

Clearing In: If arriving from the US or British Virgin Islands, all yachts must clear in. For clearance, one should anchor off the main town of Dewey, which is in the narrowest part of the isthmus. Dinghies can be left at the town dock which is west of the Dinghy Dock Restaurant. Clearance is done at the airport, a fair walk away. March 2010, US cruisers reported that it was possible to clear in by phone - call 787-729-6840. This works with or without a customs decal. (Noonsite.com).
Provisioning: Culebra - Groceries, including fresh fruit and vegetables, are easily obtainable at Milka, a grocery store southwest of the canal through Dewey. Esperanza, Vieques – There are two supermarkets on the island, but in Esperanza there is only a smaller market called the Green Store (Tienda Verde) and a couple of panaderias.
Tours/Excursions: Vieques Blue Caribe Bio Bay Kayak Tour: (787) 741-2522 Located just across from the Fisherman’s Pier/Dinghy dock in Esperanza on the Malecon. Stop by the office/shop early and book the tour with runs from 7-9PM. (Try to get there on a waxing moon or close to the New Moon for best viewing). Wear your bathing suits and maybe a light long-sleeve shirt to protect against mosquitoes. Swim with the Dinoflagelates and watch them do their thing.