Culebra: What to know before you go

Bill Barich, whose most recent book, The Sporting Life (Lyons Press), is a collection of articles on some of his favorite pastimes - fishing and horse racing among them - vividly recalls his bonefishing excursion on Culebra. "The water was so clear," he says, "it was like waking up to a world you"ve never seen before."

And while the fishing took place on a shallow reef, there was always deep water just beyond: "If you stepped too far to one side, you were in the ocean."

As for the island itself, Barich says, "Culebra is a small and laid-back kind of place, with not a whole lot to do. It would make a nice romantic escape."

Santa Barbara-based photographer Michael Moore says his first impression of Culebra was that it was barren and somewhat stark. But, he adds, "You have to get to know the island, and then it grows on you. By the time I left, I was in love with it."

Along with the beaches, which he described as "incredible," Moore liked the fact that Culebra still felt as if it were undiscovered.

"I met quite a few people who had been looking for a hideaway," he said, "and this is where they ended up."

WHY HERE? The leatherbacks come to Culebra for a reason: quiet, empty beaches, untouched Puerto Rico, no night lights. And Brava Beach is only a little more than half a mile long, which means it has more nests per square foot than larger beaches.

WHEN? Prime turtle-nesting season is from April to June. The public can participate in turtle watches Fridays, Saturdays and other occasional weekdays, depending on scheduling. Contact Carlos Diez at the Endangered Species Office of Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources at cediez@yahoo.com or 787-724-8774 ext. 2237 or ext. 4039.

DIVE IN Culebra has beautiful shallow-water corals and that clear water mentioned above. Some of the most popular dive sites - Anchor Reef, an old navy anchorage, for example - are in about 50 feet of water. Snorkelers should check out the beaches along the west coast, as well as Punta del Soldado on the island"s southern tip.

FERRY OPTION You can get to the island by boat. Take a taxi 40 miles from San Juan to Fajardo ($50), then catch the ferry for the two-hour crossing to Dewey. (Cost? About $2.50.)

ROOM KEY Most accommodations are relatively basic, although there are really no budget lodgings. Places in the town of Dewey are convenient, but it"s better to track down one of the quieter-than-quiet out-of-town hideaways. Barich and Moore both were happy in the villas ($95 to $135) at the Club Seabourne.

DAY TRIP You can visit the surrounding cays with local dive operators or by water taxi or even kayak. One favorite destination is Culebrita, a wildlife refuge that"s open to the public for day use. It features a 19th-century lighthouse, beautiful beaches (with some excellent bird-watching), and deep, sheltered tide pools called The Baths. You can get there by water taxi for about $40 per person round-trip.

BEACH TIME Beaches on Culebra often have little shade, so bring cover-up clothes. Finding your own spot is easy. ("Walk down the beach for ten minutes," Barich says, "and you can be completely alone.") Some of the author"s favorites: Playa Flamenco (long, sandy, somewhat isolated) and Playa Zoni (good snorkeling and a view of St. Thomas on the horizon); both are on the north coast.

ON THE ROAD Culebra is small, mostly flat, and has little traffic - ideal for bicycling (rentals: about $10 a day), but if you prefer a steering wheel to handle bars, plan on spending about $45 a day for a jeep. (There are taxis, but they can be hard to find.)

WHAT'S TO EAT The best bets are simple, local dishes centered around rice, beans, and fish. Try Tina"s for Puerto Rican dishes and the Dinghy Dock for lobster and fresh fish. ("My tuna steak there was just incredible," says Moore.) The Medalla beer is good.

HISTORY LESSON For 40 years the U.S. Navy used Culebra for target practice. That ordnance training ended two decades ago, but rusty tanks still dot the island, and the bombardment remains a sore point with many locals. (A word to the wise - should you come across any ordnance, just leave it alone.) Most of the navy"s former target areas are now part of the National Wildlife Refuge and are administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

ISLAND BEAT Looking for a little nightlife on Culebra? Then check out the local pool hall/bar/lunch counter, which becomes a dance club on Friday nights. ("Everybody goes," Moore says, "and they party until four in the morning.")

READ IT AND LEAP Hands down the best guidebook to the island is Harry E. Pariser"s Adventure Guide to Puerto Rico (Hunter Publishing), which covers Culebra in some detail.