Long the best-kept secret of local travelers and a few in-the-know visitors, largely from the East Coast, Puerto Rico's island municipalities Vieques and Culebra are finally getting their due.
The towns remain blissfully undeveloped (without a fast food restaurant or traffic light between them) and both still retain the air of Puerto Rico back in the 1950s.
You will find sandy beaches and breathtaking coastal waters, and the colorful wooden cottages and flaming flamboyant trees so typical of the Puerto Rican countryside.
The islands are still a bargain, and both remain places to kick back and relax. Increasingly, however, island accommodations and restaurants have grown upscale, with ever more sophisticated offerings, and there has been an explosion of island services and products directed at visitors on both islands.
Now known as the Spanish Virgin Islands, the two islands are creating a buzz with their unspoiled beaches and stylish inns and vacation homes. With the opening of the W Retreat & Spa Vieques Island in 2010, complete with a signature restaurant by Alain Ducasse, Vieques has finally arrived as a full-scale tourism destination.
While more and more inns have opened on both islands, a great way to stay on both Vieques and Culebra is to rent a luxury vacation home, many of which have bold architectural designs and fabulous pools and vistas.
Both towns have escaped the larger development that has taken place on less blessed Caribbean islands through their painful histories as U.S. Navy military training grounds. After years of protest, the Navy finally abandoned its Vieques firing range in 2003, after 6 decades, while it had ended its Culebra training back in the 1970s.
Vieques, which has more tourist facilities than Culebra, lies 7 miles (11km) off the eastern coast of the Puerto Rican "mainland." It is visited mainly for its 40-odd white-sand beaches.
Vieques was occupied at various times by the French and the British before Puerto Rico acquired it in 1854. The ruins of many sugar and pineapple plantations testify to its once-flourishing agricultural economy.
The U.S. military took control of two-thirds of the island's 26,000 acres (10,522 hectares) in 1941. The area was used for military training with live-fire maneuvers. After massive protests, the U.S. announced in 2003 that it was shutting down its Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, the site of the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility.
Celebrity sightings are still a rarity on both islands, but more and more visitors are discovering the undeniable charm of the Spanish Virgin Islands. That will undoubtedly change the nature of both Vieques and Culebra, so see them now while they are still young and full of promise, not to mention a relative bargain in the Caribbean.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.