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Nov 04, 2005
Einstein on the Beach: The Ph.D.'s of Culebra - The New York Times

SOMETIMES, a place is a paradise because nothing ever happens there. On the island of Culebra, 17 miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico, the thing not happening for Marcus P. Knowlton, a Princeton University lecturer in aerospace engineering, and his wife, Merry, a stockbroker, was nuclear fallout.

It was the 1960's, and Mr. Knowlton was "worried that some small unexpected event would launch a nuclear war," he said. "We considered wind directions and targets and looked at maps for somewhere where we could escape, and that's when I saw this small speck called Culebra."

In 1971, the Knowltons and four other couples from Princeton purchased several tracts of land on the island, which like Vieques, the nearby better-known island, was being used by the Navy for target practice (that ended in 1975). The Princetonians bought a simple shack next to the water with solar and wind power and started inviting friends down. "Apart from the school principal, we were the original gringos on the island," Mrs. Knowlton said.

Three decades later, some four dozen families - several from the Knowltons' Princeton circle - have built second homes there and have transformed Culebra into a seasonal exile for scientists, business executives and other high-wattage Americans. It has become a sort of Institute for Advanced Studies in the tropics.

Strolling the narrow streets of Dewey, the island's only town, one notices small gatherings of "Yanqui" islanders quietly expounding on geopolitics, books and their latest home-improvement projects around the wooden tables at Mamacita's restaurant, at the Dinghy Dock's simple bar or in the aisles of Mayra's grocery store. These are not the sort of people likely to wear a thong on the beach; down here, seersucker is a popular form of beachwear.

"It's a place where people are as animated about physics theories at breakfast as about which beach they're going to," said Michael Moynihan, an author and fellow at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, who has been going there for a decade with his family.

Not that the choice of beaches isn't spectacular. Flamenco Beach sweeps across the lush northwestern end of the island like a preconcrete version of Waikiki. Rosario Beach on the western shore features colorful snorkeling reefs. The Culebra Wildlife Refuge on the north coast is a nesting ground for endangered leatherback sea turtles, the largest sea turtles in the world. Zoni Beach on the northeastern shore offers solitude and spectacular views to nearby islets.

Despite all these charms, Culebra's second-home owners largely have this 10-square-mile island - almost half the size of Manhattan - to themselves. Culebra is awkward to reach. The only flight from San Juan is on a cramped prop plane, and that entails making a heart-fluttering bank around two mountains before landing. The alternative is an often choppy ferry ride from Fajardo, P.R., to Culebra's harbor, which is too shallow for large cruise ships.

Given the primitive state of the island's first vacation homes, members of the American colony still often refer to their houses as "shacks." These days, though, they are often anything but.

Mary Ann Opperman, who recently retired as a senior research assistant at Princeton University, and her husband, Joe, who was an executive with Johnson & Johnson, originally went to the island with a friend of the Knowltons. They quickly fell in love with the place and decided to build a home on Fulladoza Bay, on the south side of the island.

The house, designed and partly owned by Mrs. Opperman's brother-in-law, Tasso Katselas - the architect of the Pittsburgh International Airport - is a sculptural three-storied concrete-and-wood structure. There are no windows, but the walls are screens covered by louvered slats that roll up and down, which take advantage of the breezes coming off the ocean a pebble's throw from the house. In tribute to his family's Greek heritage, Mr. Katselas built a miniature Greek amphitheater up the steep hill in the back.

"I'd love to claim we've staged great tragedies there," Mrs. Opperman said. "But actually the most memorable performance was my grandson re-enacting the entire movie of 'Star Wars' for friends.

On Punta del Viento near Zoni, Neil Bond, a San Francisco-area venture capitalist and Princeton graduate, and his wife, Ann, have built a striking home. A rain cistern and desalination plant keep the pool water fresh and the oasislike garden watered. The home would fit right into the Hamptons, a fact that's even more surprising because everything, from the galvanized steel beams to the Italian sofas, had to be brought in by boat from the mainland.

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