A Legendary Journey: Los Roques

From the air, the Venezuelan archipelago of Los Roques announces itself dramatically - a necklace of pearly atolls in an expanse of blue. I have no expectations of this national park, just a desire to celebrate my birthday on a lesser-known paradise. On Gran Roque, the only inhabited island in the chain, I find lodging at Posada Acuarela, the inn/restaurant of Sicilian-born Angelo Belvedere, who treats me to a birthday feast. Seated at a table in the sand alongside mostly Italian sun seekers, I ease into la dolce vita, almost believing I've landed at an open-air cafe in Ischia or Portofino.

The next morning, as I walk past colorful posadas to the fishing pier, a fleet of motorboats is collecting passengers for day trips to the other islands. At the center of this activity is Oscar Maza, who sells everything from sandals to bonefishing excursions at the Oscar Shop. I ask him where the snorkeling is best, and he points southwest, describing an island about one hour by boat from Gran Roque.

The flat deserted stretch of Cayo de Agua doesn't disappoint. In crystal-clear seas, I play tag with tiny blueheads, iridescent surgeonfish and gold butterfly fish who dart behind feathery sea fans and hide in coral caverns. After hours that seem like minutes, I swim ashore to see that my boat captain, Virgilio, has come to collect his "castaway."