Off The Rocks Los Roques Archipelago, A Coral Necklace In The Southern Caribbean, Boasts Some Of The Finest Reefs And Beaches In The Hemisphere.

Posted: October 20, 1996

GRAN ROQUE, Venezuela — The young deckhands working the lines as the 55-foot catamaran slipped away from this tiny island village wore Yankees caps. But few places in the world could be further from the Big Apple than the Great Rock.

Gran Roque (Great Rock in English), where the streets are paved in sand, is home to about 150 families and is the only permanent settlement in Los Roques archipelago, a coral necklace of about 50 isles in the remote southern reaches of the Caribbean. It's the type of place where you would expect to find Sidney Greenstreet at the bar and Hoagy Carmichael tickling the ivories.

My wife, Carol, and I flew into this former smuggler's nest from our vacation base in Margarita Island to explore the reefs and beaches, touted in the travel brochures as some of the best in the hemisphere.

The brochures understated their case. We were about to sail into an untouched sun-worshiper's paradise where birds cloud the sky, and fish of all colors glide through the crystal waters.

But our adventure began before we reached Gran Roque. We had to be at the airport on the southern end of Margarita by 5 a.m., so Jorge Bernal and Jose Cohen, the agents who booked our day trip to Los Roques, arranged for a 4 a.m. ride from our hotel.

As we walked to the lobby, we heard a bus turning around in the narrow driveway and coming to a stop with the hiss of its air brakes. The driver, a wiry man with a smile too bright for the middle of the night, produced a manifest and asked our names.

He scanned the manifest, nodded and said, ``Si, Mr. and Mrs. CooPARE.'' As he helped us up the steps into the bus, I caught a glimpse of his document. Our names were the only ones on the list.

For the next 45 minutes we rattled into the night, the driver, Carol and I, in a bus built for 40. The driver, obviously confident about the lack of traffic at this hour, wound his way past signs that screamed ``Dangerous Curves'' in Spanish by lining up the hood ornament of the bus on the yellow reflectors that marked the center of the road.

The bus labored up the mountain passes and roared down into the valley on the other side as the driver used whichever side of the road was most convenient. We rolled through sleeping villages and then came to a grinding halt in a hamlet that chose to use a washboard row of speed bumps to handle its traffic problems. The bus slowly thumped over each bump jarring us in our seats.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, if you don't count the time when our driver passed a lumbering truck on a curve, going up a hill into the darkness.

At the airport, our driver, smiling as if the ride were just one more trip to the airport and not a white-knuckled brush with death, directed us to the ticket window, put colored stickers that read ``Holiday Tours'' on our T-shirts, and started to walk away.

In my pidgin Spanish, I asked him where we would meet our ride back to the hotel at night. He tapped the sticker on my shirt, gave me the international ``OK'' sign, and headed back to his bus to do battle with the Venezuelan roads in the daylight.

Shortly before 6 a.m. we and several other waiting day-trippers were assembled by our two young guides, Reuben and Caesar, who told us in Spanish, German, Italian and finally in English to line up and follow them single-file to our plane.

We saw the need for this orderly fashion when they led us clear of the spinning props of the four-engine Aereotuy Tourist Line (LTA) plane.

The flight was just an hour, and the first sighting of the eastern edge of Los Roques appeared with the dawn as a seemingly endless white line of surf breaking out of the dark Caribbean.

As the sun burned away the morning clouds, low islands were distinguishable behind the surf, and as we flew over them, the colors of the lagoons lit up like psychedelic posters under black light.

The plane banked sharply over Gran Roque, a great hump of jagged rock, and we swept low over the water for a sharp landing next to the village on a pocked runway built on the only flat space on the island.

Clutching our passports, tickets to Los Roques Archipelago National Park and a beach bag, we clambered down the stairs to the windswept tarmac.

Again, Caesar lined us up, this time in front of a small guard booth that looked more like a lemonade stand than a government installation. A somber official in a uniform stood in the booth and summoned us forward, one by one. He examined our passports, tore off half of the park ticket and waved us on.

On the other side of the booth, Reuben and Caesar divided us into two groups, one for Spanish speakers and the other for the rest of us.

Reuben led our group to the beach on the edge of the village as a driving wind whipped sand around our ankles and into our eyes. We were loaded into two long, open boats and within minutes were heading out into the small harbor, where a dozen boats of a dozen designs rode at anchor. Everywhere, pelicans were dive-bombing schools of small fish for breakfast as gulls laughed and soared.

We motored past a fishing skiff awash to its gunwales and occupied by two dozen pelicans who didn't even bother to look our way. On the edge of the anchorage, four sleek catamarans painted with the distinctive LTA blue-and-gold trim were tied to moorings.

The boatman pulled up along the Tornado, one of the 55-foot cats, and we quickly boarded. Caesar and Reuben made a head count, an exercise they would repeat several times during the day (``We don't want to lose anyone,'' Reuben said), gave a signal to the Tornado's skipper, and we were off.

I have been sailing most of my life, but this was my first experience on a big catamaran. The boys in the Yankees caps sprang to life as the captain gave a few orders followed by hand signals. The boys, all in their teens except one who looked to be about 10 or 11 (he later turned out to be the bartender), raised the sails, and the captain turned the Tornado off the wind and shut down the two 70-horse-power outboard motors.

The wind, blowing a crisp 15 to 18 knots, filled the sails and the boat jumped forward, its two hulls boiling white water along their edges.

Gran Roque slipped into our wake and Reuben began his travelogue.

``The tower on the top of the rock was a lighthouse built by the Dutch. The Spanish, English, French and Dutch fought back and forth for the islands of the Caribbean, and it seems that whoever won built a tower on top,'' he said.

(Los Roques are in a line of islands that stretches across the north coast of Venezuela and that includes the Netherlands Antilles, Margarita and Trinadad/Tobago.)

The sun was coming up big and hot as we headed for a low land formation on the horizon. Most of our three dozen shipmates were on deck, soaking up the beauty of the approaching land. The tip of the closest island was covered with low, thick vegetation, and we passed within a hundred yards of the point.

The passengers gave a collective ``oooh'' as we turned into a lagoon, sheltered on the right by the island and on the left by a reef that stuck its coral heads out of the tide like devil's dentures.

``The colors,'' Carol said in wonder. ``Have you ever seen such colors?''

The answer, of course, was, ``No.''

The water around us ran the entire violet spectrum. From azures to teals to greens to blues to blacks.

Reuben, a notepad in hand, came over and asked, ``What size are you?''

Seeing the puzzled look on my face, he pointed to my feet. ``Your foot size, for the flippers.''

He took one look at my 10-EEEs, he wrote down ``large,'' and moved on to the other passengers.

As the deck hands doused the sails, the captain motored into 10 feet of water and anchored in the lee of the reef. It was 8 a.m.

Reuben and Caesar began setting out flippers and masks and snorkels. One of the boys lowered a set of stairs between the two hulls of the catamaran. Reuben gave a quick run-through of the rules and warned that touching the coral could kill it and could also cause serious skin irritation.

Donning equipment at the base of the stairs, we slid off into a world that was as beautiful and unique as the land and colors above.

Schools of fish took last-minute detours around my face. An angelfish, bigger than anything I have ever seen in an aquarium, fanned by, paying me no mind. I took Reuben's advice and stayed just off the reef, but the fish were everywhere. I raised tropical fish in a tank when I was a boy; now I know where they came from. One member of our party reported swimming over what he thought was a sandy bottom only to see about five feet of it lift up as a ray swam away in a cloud of silt.

When our turn was up, we returned to the boat to let the other half of the passengers fan out over the reef. Reuben and Caesar were constantly counting heads and did not want too many of us in the water at one time.

While the others swam, Carol and I ducked into the cabin of the Tornado. There were four large tables that could accommodate 32 diners, an open area in the center, and a three-sided snack bar. A large ice chest was full of frosty Polar beer; snacks and crackers were set out, and a bottle of rum was produced for those who wanted to have a nip before the sun was above the yardarm.

A galley was set up in the port hull, and the starboard hull contained two roomy heads.

After the last batch of snorkelers returned, the deck hands weighed anchor, set the sails, and we were off again. The wind had picked up and was blowing a steady 20 knots as the Tornado rocketed off to our next destination, another lagoon inside the isle of Crasqui.

Carol and I took a position along the life rail on the windward side of the boat as it heeled ever so slightly. One of the Germans worked his way out across the rope netting that joined the bows of the boat and let his legs dangle over the water. Most of the chatter on the boat stopped as we took in the feelings of power, nature and the sheer joy of moving fast under sail.

In 45 minutes we had crossed the open water and were cutting through the flat waters just inside Crasqui. We could see surf breaking on the other side of the low island, but on our side it was just ripples. Some form of exotic eel-like fish broke the surface and flew across the surface of the water for more than 100 feet in a wild, undulating dash.

Birds swirled through the sky in great flocks; diving, soaring, screaming. The noise of the birds was stunning. The passing of flocks of Canada geese over the Eastern Shore of Maryland or the swarming of gulls on a South Jersey shore can't hold ground against the birds of Los Roques.

Everywhere you looked there were dark clouds of birds. Frigates, boobies, pelicans of all colors and stripes, and gulls, gulls, gulls. They moved in synchronized waves. One squadron would be flying one way and then, in a second, they would all be off in another direction.

The deckhands dropped the sails and, as the captain motored toward the beach, one of the boys lowered an anchor off our stern. On the bow, a deck hand jumped into the clear water and hauled a line up to a stake set into the beach.

Reuben announced that the beach was all ours for an hour and told us to be back for lunch.

Carol and I climbed down the stairway and waded ashore with the rest of the passengers. What we found was a beach of matchless beauty. Talc-white sand so fine and soft that it felt like powder. To call this a beach is like calling van Gogh a landscape painter.

We left our fellow passengers stretched out on towels and small folding lounge chairs and wandered down the strand.

The flock of gulls that had been on the beach when we landed fled in a raucous retreat only to re-form in the water, bobbing over a line of coral about 50 feet from shore. Long, thin shadows of bonefish or barracuda darted through the shallows. Four pelicans moved with the precision of the Blue Angels, circling 20 feet over the water and then dropping in unison as they hit a school of fish. We were lost in time, ours the only footprints in the sand.

We returned to the Tornado, where a hot lunch of fresh fish, vegetables and potatoes was ladled out by Reuben and Caesar. The day yawned into an afternoon of swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing before we set sail for a cruise through the nameless keys. We sailed by two small islands that appeared to be linked by an iridescent band of teal-blue water. Every island we passed flashed a smile of virgin beaches.

The captain eased his vessel over and the lump of Gran Roque grew bigger as the boat raced back to home port.

We were whisked off the boat as quickly as we had boarded, and within minutes Reuben was leading a small group of us through the byway (there are no highways) of the village. Most of the buildings are one-story, stucco and brick construction, painted in a riot of Caribbean purples, yellows, greens and blues.

Two small hotels on the beach are run by Aereotuy. Reuben held open a door in a stucco wall and we stepped into a small, sunlit courtyard draped with bougainvillea. Off to the side, a small bar was lined with half a dozen stools and down the hall was the dining room. The dozen rooms were small, but neat. There's no air-conditioning on the island, but each room had a ceiling fan and a window that opened outside or onto a courtyard. The price of the hotel includes meals and day trips on the catamarans or on power launches owned by the airline. Carol and I decided that next trip we would spend a few more days exploring this enchanting chain of islands.

The day was coming to an end as we climbed the stairs to the rooftop sundeck of the hotel and settled into Adirondack chairs overlooking the narrow beach. Fishermen labored on the boats hauled up on the sand.

The birds took to the sky by the thousands, swirling on the rising thermals. Our plane was due shortly to return us to civilization.

For a brief moment, though, we stared off to the horizon, mesmerized by the quiet and the beauty.

The only thing missing was Humphrey Bogart, waiting offshore in a fast boat, and Lauren Bacall, offering to give whistling lessons.

IF YOU GO Getting there. The airstrip on Gran Roque is served by several flights a day from Caracas, the coastal resort city of Puerto La Cruz, and Margarita Island.

Packages. Linea Turistica Aereotuy, the Venzuelan local air carrier, operates all-inclusive day and overnight trips. From Margarita, day trips can be booked through the numerous tour companies that have booths in the lobbies of all the major hotels. It is a popular day trip, so you should book it the day you arrive and be willing to take any day they have available. Our day trip was $200 a person and included ground transportation, the round-trip flight, a day's sail on a 55-foot catamaran, snorkeling equipment, lunch and all beverages. Longer stays range from $325 a person, all inclusive, for two days and one night, to $1,175 per person for seven days and six nights. The additional days also include boating and snorkeling. Aereotuy can be reached directly by calling 011-58-2-761-6247.

Lost World Adventures, a Georgia-based travel company, offers day trips and overnight stays in guest houses or aboard sailing yachts. Flights are from Margarita, Caracas and Puerto La Cruz. Prices for day trips range from $240 to $288 a person. Two-night, three-day stays in a guest house or on board a yacht are $595 per person, all inclusive. Scuba diving and bonefishing excursions are available at additional cost. Lost World Adventures can be reached at 800-999-0558.

On your own. For the do-it-yourselfer, there are several sites on the Internet with more information on how to get to Los Roques on your own and how to find cheaper places to stay. A Yahoo search for ``Los Roques'' will turn up some options.

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