Many people fail to associate a Caribbean paradise with historic significance, assuming instead that it has always been a sandy, sun-drenched beach swathed in sunbathers and snorkelers. That's part of the beauty of Puerto Rico's Culebra Island. Yes, this island, situated 20 miles (30 kilometers) off the northeast coast, has beautiful beaches and plenty of sun, but it's also an old pirate hideout loaded with virtually undisturbed treasures. Not to mention that in 1493 Christopher Columbus dropped by this tropical oasis during his second voyage, and in 1909 Theodore Roosevelt declared Culebra one of America's first wildlife refuges. When World War II erupted, the U.S. Navy turned Culebra and the 23 other islands in the archipelago into the primary site for gunnery and bombing practice. This island remained a target until 1975, which turned out to be a good thing the reefs and surrounding waters remained unscathed by boaters and divers and the beaches were unspoiled by large-scale tourism development.
Today Culebra is appealing for what it lacks. There are no luxury resorts, elegant restaurants, discos, movie theaters, casinos, museums or boutiques. There's also no crime, hardly any traffic and few crowds (except during Semana Sancta Holy Week which precedes Easter).
What Culebra does offer is an unsullied and under-populated beach along with pristine waters filled with beautiful fish. There is also plenty of wildlife. The disconnected tracts of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, which total more than one-third of the islands' area, are populated with terns, gulls, pelicans, boobies and several species of endangered turtle. And the natives or culebrenses as they are known as well as the expatriates provide plenty of the signature laid-back attitude that is so familiar in the Caribbean.
Culebra means serpent in Spanish, a reference not to native wildlife but to the curling shape of the seven-by-four-mile (11-by-six-kilometer) main island. Its nickname, Ultima Virgen (Last Virgin), derives from its geological affinity to the Virgin Islands, just 12 miles (20 kilometers) east. Culebra's single town is named Dewey after Admiral George Dewey who commanded U.S. Caribbean forces but culebrenses call it "Pueblo" and to gringo expats it's simply "Town." Dewey is where nearly all of Culebra's restaurants, stores, and about 220 hotel rooms are found.
Getting to Culebra from San Juan is part of the experience. The easiest way is to catch an Isla Nena Air Service flight from San Juan International Airport ($60 one way, $115 roundtrip) or to take a taxi to the coastal town Fajardo (about $75 for the 40-mile ride) and catch the Puerto Rican Port Authority ferry ($2.25 one way). Isla Nena flights from Fajardo are also available ($20 one way). Upon arrival you'll probably want your own wheels but instead of Hertz or Avis you'll be renting a vehicle from someplace like Jerry's Jeeps (787-742-0587), Carlos Jeep Rental (787-742-3514), or a handful of others. Because demand for cars occasionally exceeds supply, make reservations early.