THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

(Kristen Green for the Boston Globe)

On the cheap, a beachfront rental

The living is easy for a couple on sleepy little Culebra

Email|Print| Text size + By Kristen Green
Globe Correspondent / December 24, 2006

CULEBRA -- When my husband and I found ourselves craving beach time, we did a quick search for flights to the Caribbean and settled on Puerto Rico because the flights were the cheapest.

Turns out that's not the way to pick an inexpensive destination.

Little else about the trip was inexpensive, at least by our backpacker standards. We spent the first week of our vacation paying US prices to explore the main island, hiking through the tropical Caribbean National Forest known as El Yunque, admiring Ponce's colonial buildings , and dining in Old San Juan.

But once we landed on Culebra, one of two tiny islands known as the Spanish Virgin Islands just off the coast of Puerto Rico, we forgot all about what the trip was costing us.

Home to 2,000 people, most of whom work in the tourism industry or have government jobs, this sleepy little island was exactly what we had wanted. Dewey, the island's sole town, basically shuts down at 9 p.m., 30 minutes after the last ferry arrives. There were no teeming nightclubs and no hot restaurants calling our names. There was nothing to distract us from relaxing.

Many visitors fly to the island from San Juan, but we decided to take a ferry from the port city of Fajardo, about 40 miles from the capital. While we waited for one of the three daily ferries, I bought an orange from a cart owner who peeled it and scooped a hole in the top, making it easier to slurp the delicious juices.

The 20-mile voyage east to Culebra, which, along with its neighbor, Vieques, was used as a bombing practice site by the US Navy for many years, was an unexpectedly rough journey. But once we landed 50 minutes later, my attention turned to the quaint island.

Culebra, which is seven miles long and four miles wide, has no true hotels or resorts, so we had contacted a local realtor , who offered us nightly rental rates ranging from $50 for a double bed and bath to $500 for a four-bedroom house with a pool overlooking St. Thomas. My husband and I had arranged to rent a beachfront studio for $136, including tax. The apartment was a 20-minute walk from Dewey, but since it was dark outside and we were carrying our bags, the realtor offered to drop us off.

The small, but ample, room and bathroom combination was tastefully decorated. But what made the place memorable was a hidden kitchen on the porch. A folding door opened onto the wooden deck, obscuring the view of the neighboring porch and revealing a kitchen stocked with a coffee maker, blender, full-sized refrigerator, and two hot plates.

After traveling for a week, we were tired of eating in restaurants and were looking forward to cooking our own meals, something we enjoy doing at home.

The unit was steps off Melones Beach, a deserted coral beach. Instead of being covered in soft, white sand, it was scattered with pieces of coral, piled like bones.

The beach wasn't suitable for swimming, as the ocean floor was covered in prickly coral. But wearing plastic sandals, we walked some 200 feet to a point where we waded into the ocean to snorkel in total privacy. During our four-day stay, we encountered only one other person in the area.

Most days, we headed into Dewey, where we caught a public van, or "publico," to the famous Flamenco Beach, which the Travel Channel has named one of the best beaches in the Caribbean. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and the crescent-shaped beach did not disappoint.

The sand was silky and smooth, and the water crystal blue. The turquoise sky seemed to stretch forever. We immediately headed for the ocean, which was the temperature of bath water and incredibly calm, save a single wave breaking gently on the shore.

We waded out to the reefs, a stone's throw from the beach, which appeared to be about the size of a school bus. Visibility was perfect, and the ocean floor was clean. I meandered around the reefs, approaching a polka-dotted fish swimming with a school of brilliant blue fish, and spotted a turtle, the island's symbol.

I spent part of the 80-degree days lounging on the beach, which was not overly crowded, despite being a popular day-trip destination for Puerto Rican families. Children around me built sand castles, teenagers played volleyball, and families picnicked. I also enjoyed wandering down the beach, where I encountered a rusting tank left behind by the US military.

Several times a day, we traipsed over to the stands set up near the beach entrance to get our fill of fried local delicacies. We were craving the scrumptious shrimp turnovers known as "pastelillos" and "tostones," or fried plantains.

As the day grew late, we headed back to Dewey and walked the potholed road to our rental, studying the dry vegetation and taking in sweeping ocean views . When we arrived, my husband blended piña coladas from fresh pineapple and coconut juices and Puerto Rican rum. We poured the drinks into plastic cups, topped them with cherries, and then headed to our coral beach. We pulled lawn chairs onto the shore and sipped our drinks while taking in the dazzling sunset .

We would have stayed there all night had the mosquitoes not forced us to return to the studio, where we doused ourselves with bug spray and set to cooking.

During the day, we visited Dewey's three little markets to pull together meals using what we found in stores. The selection of fruit and vegetables was disappointing, and the local fish market was out of fresh fish during our visit, which coincided with a holiday.

But we understood that this was the island way. A kiosk of island souvenirs said it best -- "Open some days, closed others." A woman who ran the island's lone copy shop said by way of explanation for her Internet access prices ($5 for 15 minutes): "Remember where you are."

We perused the shelves of the markets, all within walking distance of each other, trying to be creative. Two of the stores carried the essentials, but the night we arrived, they were sold out of milk and bread. A third store, housed in a trailer up a dirt road, carried a wide selection of pricey gourmet foods, including cheeses, wines, and microbrews.

We purchased a frozen local fish after striking out at the docks, which we paired with rice, beans, and peppers. We sampled Puerto Rican cheese and stocked up on pineapple juice, which we drank with every meal. And each day we visited the town bakery, where we bought loaves of freshly baked bread for sandwiches and replenished our supply of tasty guava pastries.

We looked forward to our nights together, sipping beers while chopping vegetables and talking on the porch, stopping occasionally to admire a lizard slithering along the wall. Tuckered out from the sun and swimming, we fell into bed early. When we awoke, the only sound we could hear was the crashing of waves on the coral beach.

Then, the copy shop owner's words -- "Remember where you are" -- took on new meaning.

Contact Kristen Green, a freelance writer in Somerville, at kristen.green@comcast.net.

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