Island of Culebra, Puerto Rico

There are few things more pleasurable than a stroll on the beach. Warm, wet sand squishing between your toes as you walk. The rhythmic sound of ebbing and flowing waves. The distinctive aroma of the sea’s salty tang combined with coconutty suntan oil. You don’t even mind the sun streaming down on your head and shoulders, because its heat is tempered by cool breezes coming off turquoise water.

Let’s face it. A day at the beach is a feast for the senses.

Luguillo Beach, Puerto RicoOne of the best places to experience this sensory overload is to travel to Puerto Rico. With its more than 272 miles of coastline and average year-round temperatures settling between 75 and 85 degrees, every day here is a day at the beach.

There’s a disagreement as to how many beaches can actually be found in Puerto Rico. The number varies greatly depending upon whom you ask. The Puerto Rican government officially recognizes 248 distinct beaches found in 44 municipalities located along its coastline.

Locals, visitors, and travel writers alike will tell you the government’s number is conservative. They say if you include the roughly 100 offshore islands and cays that encircle Puerto Rico like an emerald bracelet, that number would top 1,000.

Whether it’s nearly 300 or more than 1,000, one thing is certain. Puerto Rico offers a beach for every taste. Here are a few of the Island’s best:

Bahia Beach. This pristine, two-mile beauty hugging Puerto Rico’s lush northeast coast offers sanctuary in more ways than one. Yes, serenity and peace can be enjoyed from the seat in a beach lounger, especially if you have a cold drink and a good book. But it also permeates every acre of this ecologically diverse environment that has been designated a Certified Gold Audubon International Signature Sanctuary.

From the fresh-water swamps, lakes, marshes, and mangroves of this former coconut plantation to the ocean waters and coral reef beyond, the Bahia Beach area is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, some of which are endangered. These include the leatherback turtle and the Caribbean manatee.

The area also is home to the elegant St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, the hotel destination for First Financial Security, Inc.’s Dream Destination Conference (DDC) 2016 main trip qualifiers. The AAA Five Diamond Resort offers its guests a beach experience second to none, including access to its exclusive Beach Front Cabana Rentals – private cabanas offering “signature St. Regis butler service.” Fluffy beach towels and comfortable chairs with umbrellas are available beach- and pool-side. The resort’s Aquatics Center can provide equipment and lessons for water sports, including kayaking, sailing, paddle boarding, as well as fishing on the nearby lakes.

Condado Beach. Quintessentially urban, Condado Beach has been described as “beach effervescence located at the end of Ashford Avenue,” so called for the tiny bubbles left behind on the sand when foamy, frothy waves crashes into its shore. The champagne inference is a fitting metaphor for this swath of shoreline that fronts luxury hotels (including the Condado Vanderbilt, where First Financial Security’s DDC elite winners will be staying); towering high-rise condos; an upscale shopping district; and many of the island’s cutting-edge restaurants.

Condado skyline, San Juan, Puerto RicoThe ocean and beach here are studies in contrast. The Condado’s wide, sandy beach is dotted with colorful chairs and umbrellas ready to rent. Waiters stop by offering cool cocktails with tiny umbrellas and slices of fresh fruit in them. Pushcart vendors hawk everything from frozen treats to souvenirs. It’s the perfect spot for relaxing and sun worshipping.

Depending on the time of year and weather conditions, the Atlantic Ocean, however, is anything but relaxing. The clear, blue waters can be deceiving. Rough waves, rip currents and strong undertow can be a significant challenge for even the best of swimmers. Be sure to check with your hotel staff before venturing in.

Luquillo Beach. Located 30 miles east of San Juan is Luquillo, a Blue Flag Beach. This means it had to pass a stringent set of safety, water quality and environmental criteria to receive and maintain this designation. A coral reef keeps the rough Atlantic Ocean at bay here, creating a calm, clear lagoon that’s perfect for families with children, or those who prefer a more leisurely swim. Its close proximity to nearby El Yunque rainforest, makes it the perfect second half of a day trip – spend the morning exploring the rainforest with an afternoon lounging at the beach.

This beautiful, crescent-shaped beach with white sand and nearby coconut grove is one of the most photographed in Puerto Rico. It’s also one of the most popular with locals and tourists alike.

You’ll pay a nominal charge for parking and use of the bathroom, showers and lockers. The walk between the parking lot and the beach takes you past a large camping and picnic area. At the far end of the beach are not-to-be missed kiosks. Here you can sample inexpensive local foods, such as empanadillas and mofongo, washed down with a reasonably priced beer, soda or a frozen, fruity cocktail. Be sure to check out the frozen pina coladas served in a pineapple, a delicious and affordable drink often cited on travel advice websites. Among the kiosks, you’ll find ones dedicated to souvenirs and beach gear, and a variety of water sport equipment rentals (kayaks, jet skis, paddle boards, etc.). You also can rent a chair and umbrella, or simply roll out your beach towel under one of the shady palm trees, lining the beach.

The Island Beaches. Puerto Rico is actually part of an archipelago or island chain, featuring four sizeable land masses of which only three are inhabited. The largest, of course, is Puerto Rico, but the other two are exquisitely charming islands worthy of special mention and a special visit – Culebra and Vieques. Both can be reached via a short, 90-min. ferry ride from Fajardo on Puerto Rico’s east coast. Click here to learn more about the ferry. You can also catch flights to Culebra and Vieques’ small airports from San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport.

Tiny Culebra is 11-sq. miles and the more “laid-back” of the two islands. If you’re looking for tranquility this is the place. While the island is significantly underdeveloped compared to Puerto Rico, it does offer a range of accommodations that include everything from campsites to guest rooms, apartments and small villas. There are a few gift shops and local restaurants, but you don’t go to Culebra for any of these things. You venture to this island gem to go to Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco).

Yolas and FlagThe Discovery Channel proclaimed the mile-and-a-half-long Playa Flamenco as the second best beach in the world, while Travel & Leisure named it one of the world’s “30 secret islands.” Flamenco Beach received both honors and many others because of its “natural beauty.”

No matter in which direction you look, that beauty is on full display – soft, white-as-sugar sand; crystal-clear, Bombay Sapphire-blue water; lush green mountains; and towering palm trees. A protected horseshoe-shaped bay keeps the water here nearly still. This makes it a prime spot for snorkeling and exploring the beautiful coral reefs and other sea life. If you prefer a leisurely swim or soak, Flamenco Beach is a great choice for that, too.

There are lifeguards on the beach most days, and you can rent chairs. Among the other amenities are bathrooms with showers as well as open-air kiosks, offering beach gear and food. The only restriction here – no glass bottles.

If you go, make sure you take a walk along the beach. In addition to beach-goers, you’ll see rusted out – and at least one brightly painted – tanks, remnants of a time when the U. S. Navy trained here.

With a land mass of 52-sq. miles, Vieques is located about 10 miles south of Culebra. As with its smaller “sister” island, it too, was the site of U.S. Naval training operations. For more than 60 years the Navy used this lovely island as a “firing range and testing ground for bombs, missiles and other weapons.” Following high profile protests by local Viequenses, politicians and activists, the Navy agreed in 2003 to withdraw from the island (SOURCE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vieques,_Puerto_Rico).

Today, much of the Navy’s testing ground (located on the eastern and western ends of the island) has been designated as a National Wildlife Refuge, that offers a variety of hiking opportunities. The central third of the island has flourished during the past decade-plus, becoming a popular ecotourism destination.

The main reason for this is Vieques’ Puerto Mosquito (Mosquito Bay). One of three bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico,* it’s by far the most spectacular. At night, this small, shallow bay, surrounded by mangroves, comes to life and light. Thanks to the millions of microscopic organisms, known as dinoflagellates, the still water is illuminated with brilliant blue to blue green “lights.” The magical glow occurs when the half-plant/half-animal organisms are agitated by a passing school of fish, the pull of an oar steering a kayak, the wake made by an passing boat, water currents, or a myriad other reasons.

Several ecotour companies offer nightly excursions via electrically powered pontoon boats, or lead kayak tours. While the “light show” can be seen from the shoreline, optimal viewing is from on the water. Also, when booking a tour, be sure to check the moon phases – the intensity of the light show diminishes when the moon is full.

If you plan to visit Vieques, be sure to check out Sunbay Beach, a two-mile stretch of tan-colored sand, fronting clear, blue Caribbean waters and offering a great view of several off-shore islands. Sunbay is the only beach on Vieques with facilities, onsite lifeguards and a small restaurant, and it has been designated as a Blue Flag beach.

If you want to snorkel, you’ll need to go to La Chiva Beach, located in the National Wildlife Refuge. As the crystal clear water flows away from the beach toward the horizon, its blue-green color shifts from the palest bottle green to vibrant turquoise to deep navy and is in stark contrast to the white sand. Head to the far east side of the beach, where small cays can be found. Remember to bring plenty of supplies, food and water – La Chiva Beach doesn’t have any facilities. There are snorkeling tours you can book that will take you to the best spots along this beautiful, rugged beach.

Two final things to be on the lookout for on Vieques Island:

  1. The Ceiba Tree of Vieques – You might be surprised to learn that people travel from all over to see this tree. But, this is no ordinary tree. Situated in a quiet park west of the airport and east of Mosquito Pier on Rt. 200, this imposing tree, also called a silk cotton or kapok tree, is said to be between 300 and 400 years old. Everything about this tree is huge, from its massive roots stretching out in all directions to the thick thorn-like spines covering its new branches. Pods filled with silky “fluff” hang from its branches. There is a small nature center here offering information about this living landmark.
  1. While you’re visiting the Ceiba Tree, you might spot some of the “wild horses of Vieques.” First, they’re not wild. They have owners that allow them to roam the island freely, munching on local vegetation and anything else they can reach. So, your chances of seeing one are quite good while visiting the islands. Not surprising, the horses often make their way to the island’s beaches, especially Sunbay, which not unlike their human counterparts, is a favorite.

Whether you choose to enjoy your hotel’s piece of the shoreline, or adventure to a secluded, beach gem, your day at one of Puerto Rico’s beaches will be a day to remember.

Laguna Grande, located near the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort in Fajardo, is the second brightest of Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays. Several tour operators offer kayak and electric-powered boat excursions.