Go with the glow in Puerto Rico
- Recommended for:
- Beach, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range
On the tiny island of Vieques, in Puerto Rico, you can float in a phosphorescent bay and chill out on one of the Caribbean's top 10 beaches
Leonardo and his lover bought phosphorescence to the big screen in The Beach, but Vieques, a small island off mainland Puerto Rico, has the honour of having the most bioluminescent water in the world. Mosquito Bay is a small lagoon surrounded by mangroves where swimmers and kayakers glow Ready-Brek blue. I had seen phosphorescence before but never anything on this scale.
The idea is to kayak out into the centre of the bay at dusk. As night falls, you begin to see wispy trails of blue from the paddles, but half an hour later the transformation is incredible. The water has such a high salt content that you can float on your back, Dead Sea style, looking up at the stars. With so little light pollution, this alone is pretty incredible, but once you move your arms up and down you create your own set of iridescent angel wings so bright it looks like images of a distant light show the other side of the galaxy.
It is caused by marine plankton called dinoflagellates, which are funnelled into Mosquito Bay in enormous quantities by the current. They only reveal their strange secret when the water is disturbed after the sun has gone down. To qualify as a biobay, there must be 150,000 of thes plankton per square foot of water; Mosquito Bay has three times that amount. As you lift your arms out of the water, thousands of tiny, glowing pearls burn bright as they roll down your arms. Kayaking back to land, the water froths alien blue around the hull as neon fish flash by.
Back on dry land, Vieques has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Until 2003 60% of the island was owned by the US Navy and so remains virtually undeveloped. Though some of the island is still off-limits after decades of bombing tests, most of it is now a pristine Caribbean wildlife reserve. The southern coastline is is one long stretch of unspoilt beaches accessed by bumpy dirt roads, you will need a 4x4 to explore.
Red Beach must be one of the Caribbean’s top 10 beaches. A small cutlass-shaped cove with striking rock formations and idyllically turquoise waters, it has no shops or bars, just a few local families barbecuing their Sunday lunch. The nearby Blue Beach is a two-mile strip of perfect white sand, with jeep-sized parking spots into the bush every 100m or so, guaranteeing every visitor a couple of hundred metres of privacy.
In terms of accommodation, the Martineau Bay Resort and Spa was upgraded to a W hotel in 2008 and is the best of the big hotels. The Bravo Beach Hotel is a boutique bobby dazzler, and was voted best new hotel 2005 by Condé Nast Traveller. Fans of bold modern architecture should also check out the uber-stylish Hix Island House. All in all, if you like really memorable travel experiences in up-and-coming destinations before the tourist hordes hit, Vieques is the destination for you.
Local opinion is divided on the best way forward to develop the island but for now the low-impact model is winning here. It's a different story on mainland Puerto Rico, which is characterised by large casino hotels on every strip of sand. However, it is worth spending a couple of days in the colonial-style capital of San Juan on your way through. Stay at El Convento, a very elegant 350-year-old converted convent, and check out the tapas and cocktails at nearby Baru (150 Calle San Sebastián). Apparently Martha Stewart's favourite hangout, it is a blood-red masterpiece with unctuous still life paintings and "the best mohito in town".