Just like with dog breeds or ice cream flavors, there are different types of beach people. I am the wild and untamed beach type. Give me a turbulent, pounding ocean too cold for surfing without a wet suit. Massive cliffs and rocky coves. Deserted beaches of gray or black sand strewn with driftwood, shells, or even chunks of melting icebergs. A beach day that requires an army blanket and layers of clothing to meet any unexpected shift of the weather’s mood. I blame it on growing up strolling Oregon’s Pacific Coast in beat-up tennis shoes and a thick sweatshirt.
Then there’s the crowded, sunny, bikini-clad, oil-slicked crowds of the vacation brochure beach. Colorful umbrellas, people sprawled in lounge chairs, surfers hanging ten in nothing but floral shorts, and a tiny personal piece of sand squished into a noisy sea of humanity, like a colony of penguins. Why this is the beach experience that dominates our vacation imagination I’ve never understood. It seemed too crowded, overwhelming, brutally hot and just dirty. I assumed the ideal of a perfect beach with gleaming sand, aquamarine water and palm trees outlined against a sunset was a myth.
I stand corrected.
And for the first time in my life, I understand the Caribbean beach experience.
It requires ditching the tourist resorts and heading for the sleepy corners of the world.
Last week, while exploring Puerto Rico, I found such a place, a short, bumpy plane ride from San Juan. I boarded a tiny plane of yesteryear, seating eight of us right behind the pilot, all of us arranged according to weight. We flew low over the lush green hills and bright sandy strips of Puerto Rico’s east coast, the misty mountains of the El Yunque rainforest to one side and the never-ending stretch of ocean to the other. We bumped and bucked with every brush of wind, soared over tiny pebble islands, banked breathlessly into a valley, and skid over the runway onto the easy-going island of Culebra.
Most tourists take the ferry or fly to Vieques, a neighboring island with plenty of resorts, beaches, snorkeling, and a bioluminescent bay. But Culebra is its laidback cousin, the place to go when you want to breathe deep and easy without the crowds. I walked onto the runway, through the tiny airport and out into Dewey, the only town on the island. Within minutes I was checked in to my basic, but clean guesthouse and watching local boys back-flip into the town canal with gales of laughter. A lizard observed me from the porch railing and a rooster crowed. Neighbors called “hola!” from their front porches as I walked around town, past artists’ studios and colorful murals splashed across fences. I ordered some of the best food of my life at restaurants no more than a window on someone’s porch or a front room in their house.
And the beaches! The most celebrated, and with good reason, is Playa Flamenco. Fleets of black and white vans – called públicos – shuttle salty tourists from the town ferry dock straight to Flamenco. It was a public holiday, the day Christopher Columbus first set eyes on Puerto Rico in 1493, and a rush of day-trippers from the mainland poured off the ferry onto the waiting públicos. I joined them for the brief bouncy ride across the island.
Imagine a perfect crescent of luminous white sand, without a blemish except footprints, backed by a canopy of palm trees. The island behind you, the ocean before you, and not a sign of human development except the snack shacks tucked out of sight in the trees. The occasional tiny plane from San Juan buzzes overhead. Aquamarine waters swell with waves small enough for safe swimming but big enough for body-boarding.
I had to agree. Playa Flamenco is a perfect beach. For once, this jaded traveler did not find the lhype overblown.
On weekends and holidays, it seems the entire island is on Flamenco. But it’s still not crowded. I walked past picnicking families out towards the edge of the sand crescent and spread my towel beneath the shady palm fronds within steps of the ocean. My neighbors were a joyous, flirting group of teenagers, their beach chairs parked at the edge of the sand, the playful surf caressing their toes. But I didn’t mind them. The soothing symphony of the waves, the salty wind, the rustling palms above took away all my cares. I napped. Read. Just gazed out to sea with my toes scrunched in the sand. Immersed in the warm water up to my neck, drifted on the waves, and marveled at the clarity of the water – I could see all the way to my toes!
My lazy afternoon flew, yet time hung in suspense, prisoner to a cocktail of sand, salt, and sun.
Playa Flamenco and Culebra are my Caribbean beach paradise. I started with the best and forever after, I am ruined to any other beach.