Pure serendipity led me to the corner of Fortaleza and Oristo streets. The scene was strangely familiar.
Paved in centuries-old cobblestones, Fortaleza Street descends a short distance from the heights of Oristo Street down to the gates of La Fortaleza, the oldest governor’s mansion in North America currently serving that purpose. Simple iron hitching posts stood like sentinels at carefully measured intervals, guarding the stone footpath on each side of La Fortaleza-a stark contrast to the Old World furbelow of the wrought-iron sconces dripping equally ornate gaslights.
Ah, Frederick Phillips. I was standing in the scene of his serigraph “After the Rain”, which graced a wall of my living room in a previous life. Phillips split the mansion into halves, leaving a view of San Juan Bay beyond, and he left out the gate, but this place was the same. I blinked a few times, standing in my own memory, and thought, “I need a cup of coffee.”
Ironically, coffee was indirectly responsible for my meeting with that moment. José Rodriguez Garrido, known as “Tillo” to friends and family, made his mark by rescuing his family’s coffee plantation before building the 121-foot Nectar of the Gods in an attempt to lure luxury charter guests to Puerto Rico. Selling the business permitted him this new venture, which includes packaging a week aboard with a week ashore at his villa, known as La Brisa, in Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic.
The combination offers an exquisite opportunity to drink in a destination new to many, and a yacht and villa designed to tempt guests into returning for many years to come.
My charter officially began in Fajardo, on the eastern tip of Puerto Rico, where I met Nectar of the Gods, built by Crescent Custom Yachts (“Cream and Sugar, April 2001). Her design and interior appointments reflect Garrido’s plans for charter. She’s luxurious without pretension, dressed in neutral fabrics, carpeting and blond woodwork. The arrangement of the common areas encourages casual conversation and good fun. The crew does, too.
Skipper Peter Mathieson is a fireplug of a man prone to outbursts of laughter and the odd joke or two. He’s the sort of unflappable captain whose confidence could inspire a timid charter guest to take off on a circumnavigation.
Hats off and belts loosened to chef Jayne Atkinson, as well. Our first night on the boat, she served beef tenderloin cooked medium rare in brown wine sauce, with mashed sweet potato molded into a perfect cylinder. She teased our appetite with spicy salmon cakes as a starter, and put us under the table with the lightest soufflé I’ve ever eaten. Of course, the coffee was superb.
The island of Puerto Rico is almost rectangular and is the smallest and easternmost in the Greater Antilles. In addition to the principal island, the Commonwealth includes Vieques, Culebra, Culebrita, Palomino (often referred to as the Spanish Virgin Islands), Mona, Monito and a variety of other isolated spots.
Our itinerary included a visit to Vieques, but U.S. military bombing practice that day kept us away. We instead headed for Culebra and dropped anchor for the night at Dewey, nestled securely on the tip of Ensenada Honda, a long bay at the southern end of the island.
Culebra Island is 19 miles east of the main island of Puerto Rico and 14 miles west of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was settled by the Spanish in 1886 and became part of the United States in 1898. Part of a mini-archipelago of 24 islands, Culebra is seven miles long and three miles wide, ringed with acres of deserted beaches and lovely coral reefs.
Compared with the main island, Culebra is quiet, more like one of the lesser-developed islands in other parts of the Caribbean. Visitors won’t find any casinos, neon signs, tour guides, or traffic lights-only empty beaches, magnificent coral reefs, stunning scenery and one small, sleepy village. This is an ideal island for anyone who likes to fish, swim, dive or snorkel without the typical crowds.
The island is also a sanctuary for sea turtles and other protected wildlife. In 1909, the United States established the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, which comprises about 1,400 acres. It is a nesting site for a variety of seabirds and preserves an important habitat for the endangered leatherback turtles, which nest on several beaches from April through June. Park rangers always welcome volunteer turtle watchers.
The leatherback is the largest sea turtle in the world, the average adult weighing 500 to 1,600 pounds. Nesting leatherbacks will not enter an area polluted by lights or noise, so nesting grounds are rare. Resaca and Brava beaches, both within the wildlife refuge, provide ideal settings. Volunteers meet at sunset and spend the night on the beach. When a turtle comes ashore, the volunteers wait at a distance until she has prepared her nest, after which she goes into a trance and drops her eggs. One volunteer counts the big, fertile eggs, and another counts the small, infertile eggs. They measure the turtle and document the event before she returns to the sea.
Taking part in such an event is only one of the many pleasures Nectar affords charter guests, particularly those who have never cruised west of Sint Maarten and are looking for new islands to explore. Another don’t-miss opportunity is spending some time in Old San Juan before boarding Garrido’s private turbo-prop Beechcraft for the quick flight to his villa in the Dominican Republic.
Old San Juan retains a European character in architecture and mood, though “island time has slowed the pace compared with that of capitals on the other side of the Atlantic. Still, by Caribbean standards, the 465-year-old city is a bustling metropolis of shops, restaurants, banks, museums and traffic along the narrow streets.
An alternative to sitting in traffic is a walking tour beginning at the Cementario de Santa Maria Magdalena on the northwestern tip of the peninsula that is Greater San Juan. This ancient cemetery faces the Atlantic Ocean outside the wall of the city. Monuments, bleached white by the sun and salt air, grow in every shape and size, attesting to the city’s deeply Roman Catholic heritage. A handful of children flew their kites from among the neat rows of grave markers-a lovely sight not as incongruous in fact as it is in the reporting.
The Fuerte de San Felipe Del Morro, rising 140 feet above the sea, was built to protect the city from attack by water. Construction to its current configuration required the 243 years between 1540 and 1783. Administered by the U.S. Park Service, El Morro enjoys status as a National Historic Site.
From El Morro, you can cross into the Plaza Del Quinto Centenario, which commemorates the arrival of Christopher Columbus, then trek along Oristo Street until Fortaleza Street may, as it did me, stop you with its stunning serendipity.
The second part of our charter, a stay at the villa La Brisa at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, was on even slower island time. Casa de Campo is a private community of fine villas, a hotel, two championship golf courses (plus another under construction), tennis courts and a complete stable. The villas belong to private parties who live there part of the year and rent the villas through the Casa de Campo management team at other times.
La Brisa accommodates 10 people in five bedrooms, the exact number of guests Nectar entertains. Like the yacht, the villa is fully staffed, so all guests have to do is enjoy.
The rear side of the villa opens onto nearly an acre of manicured lawn that borders a fairway of the Teeth of the Dog golf course and the sea. In Caribbean style, the common area forms a large patio that remains open most of the time. Monster-size fans spin lazily a few feet below the cathedral ceiling, stirring the air when the sea breeze takes a siesta.
An eclectic assortment of casual furniture arranged in conversation blocks beckons guests to entertain themselves in jolly interaction. I expected to see Sydney Green-street lolling on one of the chaise lounges, sipping Dominican rum (the best) and puffing on a cigar the size of a woman’s wrist. Maybe he’d be more comfortable in the hammock next to the huge stone barbecue on the eastern side of the patio.
Although the staff speaks a Dominican version of Spanish and very little English, communications were intuitive during my stay. Almost as soon as I thought about having rum with lime juice, it appeared at my side. The cook, a native of the Dominican Republic, specializes in local cuisine, which uses rice, beans, chicken and bananas as primary ingredients.
The package Garrido has created after leaving the coffee business behind is a unique way for yachtsmen with landlubber family and friends to share a few weeks of vacation in nearly ideal surroundings. Extra cream and sugar, indeed.
Contact: Bob Saxon Associates, (954) 760-5801; fax (954) 467-8909; [email protected]; www.bobsaxon.com, or any charter broker. La Brisa is available for $28,000 per week, plus expenses. Nectar of the Gods charters for $65,000 per week, plus expenses. Each accommodates 10 guests.