I found an island with 1,800 residents, 250 guest rooms, five roads, one ATM, a bakery, two gas stations, no drugstores, bookstores, mo-vie theaters or high-speed Internet access, hundreds of protected sea turtles and amazing beaches.

Its capital is Dewey, which takes 10 minutes to walk around, after a stop at Mamacita's for chicken wings and Medalla beer on tap.

It's a freshly painted, newly paved, perky little outpost that serves as the ferry landing spot for the boats coming from Fajardo, on Puerto Rico's mainland 17 miles west.

Although it's not for everyone, Culebra's my kind of place. Developers haven't yet found it -- although the $22 million, 165-room Costa Benita resort, which opens this summer, may signal the beginning of a building boom.

Culebra welcomed more than 68,000 air arrivals last year, up 4.7% over the  previous year. 

Christopher Columbus, who  sighted Culebra on his second voyage of discovery in 1493,  didn't bother to lower his sails and come ashore.

Culebra was disputed over by the Tainos and Carib Indians, used by pirates as a safe haven for their ships during hurricanes, eventually colonized by Spain and later claimed by the U.S. Navy from the early 1900s to 1975 for use in military maneuvers and as a naval firing range (much like Vieques, a larger island south of Culebra).

That's history now, but what outlasted the Navy and put Culebra on the ecotourism map was a 1909 law signed by then-President Theodore Roosevelt establishing Culebra as a wild- life refuge.

Its beaches are nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles; large coastal mangrove forests are breeding grounds for small fish; barrier reefs create rich feeding areas for other sea life; and birds are everywhere.

Add to that some of the widest, whitest, cleanest, least crowded beaches around. It won me over.

Playa Flamenco is CulebraPlaya Flamenco, about two miles north of Dewey, is Culebra's best-known beach -- a horseshoe-shaped, palm-lined crescent, with clear waters, calm surf and snorkeling reefs on either end.

The beach offers little in the way of shade, so sunscreen and water are necessities, although signs warn visitors not to bring glass bottles on the beach.

My guides on Culebra, which is all of seven miles long, four miles wide and shaped like a crab claw, were the husband-and-wife team of Cecilia Rodriguez and Jose Marti, owners of the 14-unit Club Seabourne, Culebra's largest hotel.

They met me at the Benjamin Rivera Noriega Airport, a surprisingly modern terminal served by eight-passenger Air Flamenco planes on the 17-minute flights from Fajardo and Isla Grande airports on the mainland.

Club Seabourne's brightly painted, multicolored van -- a moving advertisement for the resort -- meets and greets all guests, some of whom opt for the 90-minute, $2 ferry from Fajardo that pulls up to Dewey.

Rodriguez and Marti bought the 12-year-old Club Seabourne (see Room key at end of second page) in the spring of 2001 (the hotel's name refers to creatures, especially turtles, who are born "of the sea," according to Rodriguez), closed for a four-month renovation and reopened for Thanksgiving, when most of the Caribbean was reeling from the events of 9/11.

"It's been an uphill climb since we opened, but it is paying off now," Rodriguez said. "We had lots of ideas, and we've turned them into reality."

These ideas -- many of which the Culebrenses (people of Culebra) had never before seen -- included on-site weddings (nine in the past year), staff training programs, salary increases and incentives for employees and executive charter programs for small corporate groups.


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