Culebra, Puerto Rico
Credit: James Baigrie / Getty Images

Culebra, Puerto Rico

The Caribbean's most unassuming beauty, a sparsely populated island once occupied by the U.S. Navy and now a paradise of deserted beaches and pristine waters, hides in plain sight off Puerto Rico's east coast. No, not Vieques, with its W Hotel and Alain Ducasse restaurant. We mean Culebra, which has no cruise ship dock, no fancy hotels, and no starred eateries.

Travelers don't come to Culebra for the thread-count or cuisine. They come for the beaches, and the small island offers a week's worth of choices. Playa Flamenco is a wide, endless curve of sand, punctuated by an abandoned tank and fringed by healthy reefs. Carlos Rosario is quite a bit more private thanks to the rocky walk from the road. Zoni, on Culebra's eastern shore, is a quiet spot popular with ocals. To the north, a sweaty forest hike leads to two vast and remote crescents, Brava and Resaca. If the surf there is too rough, there are palm fronds to build a napping hut and coconuts to split.

Culebra's secret-within-a-secret is the series of tiny islands that surround it, forming the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for seabird colonies and endangered turtles. The islands are accessible by rented kayak if you're fit and the water is calm; if not, take a water taxi or chartered boat. On Cayo Luis Peña, paddle around or scramble overland to the hidden northern beach or the coral wonders of the south. Culebrita is also well worth a full day. You can swim with giant grazing turtles at Playa Tortuga, plunge into foamy tidepools, and hike up to an abandoned lighthouse for an unforgettable panorama.  At sunset, the lights of Charlotte Amalie will begin to twinkle and you can imagine the throb of its nightclubs. A mere 12 miles separate Culebra from St. Thomas, but it feels like a whole different world.

Culebra has stayed sleepy because it isn't an easy place to reach. There are three options from San Juan International (SJI): the ferry, regular scheduled puddle jumper flights, and chartered planes. We recommend the charter. For $104 per person, Sergio Molina of Air Margarita will escort you from your arrival gate to his waiting six-seater, stocked with groceries and booze. Sergio flies out of SJI, which means you can land on Culebra a half-hour after deplaning in San Juan. The flight also represents your one opportunity to splurge. Culebra isn't expensive.

The most uniquely Culebran way to get around is in a colorful old Volkswagen Thing, which you can rent at Dick & Cathie Jeep Rental. Accommodations range from beachfront camping to the rough-and-tumble hotel in the town of Dewey to lived-in hilltop homes surrounded by mewing cats and staggering views. Travelers can find unique properties on AirBnB and HomeAway, too. The island has not reconfigured itself to better service tourists, and it's better for that stubbornness. Culebra offers something far more desirable than convenience: charm.

More information: JetBlue flies regularly to San Juan International, where travelers can transfer to Air Margarita or catch a cab to Fajardo, where the daily ferry to the island departs.