Tuesday, February 21, 2006

# Posted 8:26 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

PARADISE REGAINED: After six miles of hard biking, we arrived at the shores of Zoni Beach on the northeastern coast of Culebra. The palm trees and other tropical foliage ambled right up to the edge of the gentle, off-white sand.

The beach stretched out for a half-mile along the coast, with no more than two dozen visitors relaxing on the long stretch of sand. The water was cool at first touch but warm once your whole body was immersed. The water was so clear that you could see your shadow on the sand at the bottom.

Small, uninhabited islands floated offshore and St. Thomas lay just over the horizon. I think my girlfriend picked the perfect word to describe our visit to Zoni: magical.

(And if you want, you can drive to the beach instead of biking. We just wanted to earn our share of paradise.)

Culebra is mostly a tourist destination, with just 2000 locals year-round and hundreds of visitors or more arriving and departing every day. In other words, it is still a backwater in the landscape of Caribbean tourism. There are no large resorts, just dozens of small guest houses and hotels, most with only a handful of rooms.

There is only one small town on the island, with a handful of restaurants and bars, where you will see many of the same visitors as before if you go back a second time. But even if you had to eat every meal at Mamacita's, you would enjoy it. Just order whatever fresh fish or seafood is on the menu that day, or some barbecued ribs if you're feeling like a carnivore. And don't forget the frozen drinks.

If you're going to Mamacita's for dinner, get there before seven, since the waiting list for the night is often full by then. If you get turned away, try the Dinghy Dock, which also has fresh frish, grilled to perfection. The service at the Dock isn't great, however. Our waitress clearly wanted to be relaxing on the beach instead of waiting on tables.

In fact, the service ethic didn't seem to be much of a priority for anyone on Culebra, except for some of the expats who've opened businesses there. In other words, Culebra is a destination for those who just want to enjoy the peace and quiet outdoors, not those looking to be pampered at a high-end resort.

Everyone was friendly and wanted to be helpful, but had no interest in setting their clocks to the tourists needs. In fact, as my girlfriend sharply observed, there wasn't a single clock we saw on the island that even had the right time, or anything close to it.

But this laid back ethic is actually a good thing, since locals seem to have a fairly positive attitude toward visitors, instead of seeing them as an imperial class they serve at the behest of the almighty dollar.

To make the best of this situation, self-reliance is the way to go. As a vacation planner, my biggest mistake was relying on taxis instead of renting a car. With a taxi, you never know when it will show up, especially at night. One morning, we called Migel, our usual taxi driver, for a ride into town an he said he'd be there in 15 minutes.

After 45 minutes, a different driver showed up to pick up some other guests and said our driver wasn't coming, but he would take us into town on his next run. When we got into town and went to Mamacita's for lunch, who did we see in a little captain's hat getting ready to take a cruise from the nearby dock? That's right, Migel. [Who really does spell his name without a 'u'.]

Looking at the big picture, that small frustration made no difference. But it would've been better to avoid it.

Finally, if you're looking for a place to stay on Culebra, try www.allvacationplanners.com, which lists availability at more than a dozen small guest houses and hotels. The site was invented by Mike, a refugee from Cleveland, whom we met at the bar in the Bahia Marina hotel, where we were staying.

The Bahia Marina has a stunning view from its mountain-top perch. It is also clean and spacious and, for a Caribbean hotel, reasonably priced. But skip the restaurant.

So that is my little write-up of Culebra.
(3) opinions -- Add your opinion

Lucky bastard. It looks amazing there.
Ok...I'm ready to jump on a plane now.
I know Migel! Was just in Culebra myself a few months back. Didn't think anyone else'd made it here. We ended up staying in Migel's friend's house for the night after missing the ferry and realizing how little accomodations there were (and how many mosquitos there were). And eating about 12 hand-picked young coconuts for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
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