Drown the Gown

Drown the Gown | Isla Mujeres

So, there’s a second part to that awesome Isla Mujeres Destination Wedding I posted about.

Brittany and Crystal wanted to do a day after “Trash the Dress” session and get in the ocean wearing their bridal gowns.

“Heck yes!” says the photographer who is writing this with two black eyes from an incident involving a bride and groom on snowboards, a six year old out of control skier, the camera and the photographer.  Of course I want to get in the ocean with my camera.  That sounds awesome.

So we did.  Here’s a few of my favorite images from our Drown the Gown session on Isla Mujeres, along with images of me capturing them thanks to Julie Pizzo.

More on how we did it after the photos.

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When Britt and Crys first approached me about their wedding, the first wish they expressed was that they wanted to go in the ocean and do a drown the dress session.  I knew I would absolutely want to photograph it at least partially underwater, if not all the way underwater so I immediately started researching underwater photography housing for my cameras.  The options are varied and so are their prices. Full functional underwater housing, such as the kind my friend Ralph Pace uses for his amazing photography of underwater sea life, for my cameras is, in general, more expensive than my camera bodies themselves.  We’re talking in the $3500-$4500 range.  To rent it for two weeks while I was in Mexico was almost $1000.  I still considered it.  My original vision was to find a super calm cove and go out early in the morning when the water was like glass and get the girls full submerged.  I am now super thankful I didn’t go that route because it would have been impossible due to the weather we had the week we were in Mexico: it was blustery almost every day, all day long and it was especially windy the morning we had to photograph the session.

The next option was to go with a bag.  After talking to a number of folks, I made the decision that this was the way to go and pulled the trigger on a DiCAPac WP-S10.  I was told by most that it is hard to change the settings when it’s in the bag, that I would be sacrificing sharpness (which I’m fairly obsessed over), and some people said they ran it on autofocus and some said they pre-set settings and ran with it.  I found it easy to change aperture and shutter speed, but impossible to change autofocus and while I had set it up to autofocus, I wish that I had just chosen one of the focus selections in the top, middle of the frame and run with that.  Overall, I’m super stoked on what we captured.  I think it’s dreamy, passionate and makes you feel like you too could get swept away by the heat of the moment.  You can almost hear those waves crashing.

Everything that isn’t partially underwater is shot with the Nikon D750 and either the Sigma Art 50 or the Nikkor 70-200.  Everything that was taken partially underwater is the Nikon D800 and the Nikkor 24-70.

Location: Isla Mujeres | Second Shooter: Julie Pizzo | Camera: Nikon D800 and D750 | Waterproofing: DiCAPac

San Juan, PR

When we returned to San Juan to explore, we stayed in the same guest house as on our way to the island. The Numero Uno Guesthouse was the perfect San Juan Beach Hotel. Besides having a staff that was notably fun, talkative and willing to provide exceptional service, the house sits directly on the beach and offers an absolutely amazing restaurant on premises.

Numero Uno Guesthouse, San Juan, PR.

That evening, as the sunset on San Juan and we drank wine to the sounds of waves, we dined at Pamela’s. It was so difficult to decide on something from their exquisite menu but we finally settled on soy tamarind churrasco wontons and the shrimp entree. The chef was kind enough to send us out a complimentary taster of a desert she was working on. From start to finish, it was an excellent way to end our vacation.

Sunset Beach Dining in San Juan, PR.

But, I get ahead of myself.

We arrived in San Juan early in the day so that we’d have all afternoon to explore the cobblestone streets and fortresses of San Juan Viejo (Old San Juan). Old San Juan sits on a small narrow island on the north coast of Puerto Rico. Originally, it was used by the Spanish to control the trade waters of the Carribean. Above the harbor sits the battlement fortress Fort San Felipe del Morro.

Today, Old San Juan still retains it’s Spanish Colonial character. Our cab driver told us that no building can be torn down within the city walls and that colors can only be repeated every 7 buildings. The roads are narrow, hardly wide enough for one car much less two and the streets are paved in blue cobblestone.

The narrow streets of Old San Juan, PR.

At one point during the Spanish Colonial times, every inhabitant of the island lived within the city walls. This did not change until 1897.

In addition to wandering the streets and visiting both fortresses, we stopped in to look at the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, where you can find the tomb of settlement founder and famous explorer Juan Ponce de León. It is the second oldest cathedral in the Americas.

Cathedral de San Juan Bautista

For a whopping $7 you can purchase admittance for multiple days into both Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristóbal, now considered national state parks. If we hadn’t had to cram so much into one day, I would have considered splitting these adventures into two. After doing very little while lazying around on the beach for a week, that much activity seemed like a drain!

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

The Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the smaller of the two fortresses, was designed to guard the entrance to the San Juan Bay. It defended the city from seaborne enemies. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Castillo de San Cristóbal is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World. It wrapped around the entire city at one point, protecting the inhabitants of the island. You could not gain entrance to the island without going through the fortress. Eventually, the population of San Juan grew so large the city walls could no longer contain it and following a century of peace, the walls were finally torn down.

Exhausted from the sun and walking around castles all day, Buddy and I spent the afternoon at a tiny unassuming bar that yelp suggested for great local food. It did not lie! The joint may look like a dive bar. The inside may have the appearance of one too many rum shots gone wild and the outside patio may just consist of plastic patio tables and chairs underneath a strip mall, but Punto de Vista is not joking around. I had some of the best mofongo of the trip and Buddy’s small tacos were accompanied by hands down the best beans I’ve ever eaten. For serious.

Mofongo at Punto de Vista

San Juan, Puerto Rico Travel Suggestions:
Stay: Numero Uno Guesthouse
Lunch: Punto de Vista
Dinner: Pamela’s
Visit: San Juan National Historic Site and the Cathedral de San Juan Bautista

Old San Juan offers many other recreational museums and galleries to visit that we did not have time for. Having a few days there would be worth your while.

Children find relief from the Puerto Rican heat in the Plaza del Quinto Centenario

These are some of my favorite photos from our day in San Juan, but you may see the entire gallery here

Other Bits and Pieces from Vieques

“‘Rum and ice,’ I shouted, holding my cup aloft. ‘Heavy on the ice.’. We will write our own Rum Diaries.” -Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary

Other than the wedding, and wedding related events, we did a multitude of things on the island in our week there.

The number one recommendation I have for travelers to Vieques is to make time to go see the Bio-luminescent Bay. Vieques is home to, allegedly, the world’s largest and brightest Bioluminescent bay. It is called Mosquito Bay and the luminescence is caused by dinofalgellates, a micro organism that glows when the water is disturbed. A tour guide leads you at night in a kayak out into the bay and the kayaks, your paddles, and hands leave trailing streaks of neon blue. Our guide told us that the only non-drug referenced description she’s ever heard for the bay came from a five year old who exclaimed, “It’s like Tinkerbell is peeing in the water!”

While on the tour, our guide explained how the phenomenon occurs: mangrove treed use the salty sea water to grow. They expel the salt through their leaves, which drop into the bay and the micro organisms in turn feed on the dead leaves. With cool, deep water and a lack of modern development, this small channel provides one of the world’s most amazing sights. It was absolutely unbelievable! As you kayaked across the water, fish would leave trails of blue as they swam under, past and around your boat.

Our other days were spent exploring the gorgeous beaches of Vieques. Buddy and I tried to find Playa Negra to no avail one day and ended up on Playa Grande. Regardless, we certainly had no reason to complain about the view!

Hunting coconuts on Playa Grande, Isla de Vieques

Since we were on bikes and the sky was threatening to rain, Buddy and I didn’t spend too long on Playa Grande that day. We rode into Esperanza just in the nick of time, settling into Bananas, a local bar and guest house that makes fresh homemade pina coladas and fantastic food just as it started to pour rain. I recommend the blackened snapper sandwich and lentil salad on the side. I loved it so much I ate it multiple times over the course of our vacation!

Bananas Guest House, Isla de Vieques

While on the island we also went to the appropriately named Blue Beach with everyone for an afternoon. It was absolutely stunning. The water was as blue as blue could be, the sand white and the sun glowing. It was my favorite beach day.

Playa de Chivas (aka Blue Beach), Vieques Island

Buddy and I spent an afternoon in Sun Bay as well. We were the only people there for about three hours. It was an absolutely deserted crystal blue bay. Unfortunately, I didn’t take my camera with me that day so I have no photos.

We spent quite a few of our post beach afternoons and evenings in Esperanza, hanging out on the Malecon, talking to locals, and exploring the town.

Pier in Esperanza, Isla de Vieques

Great snorkeling site! Esperanza Pier, Isla de Vieques.

On Mother’s Day we all celebrated with a Mother’s Day brunch together. The kids cooked for the moms and the rest of us lazed by the pool and feasted!

Mother’s Day Vacation Brunch

And of course, last but not least, there was the wedding itself. We had an amazing time. The wedding was relaxed and simple, just a short ceremony right on the beach followed by an absolutely stunning reception at the W Hotel and Resort. The food was fantastic and the setting was beautiful. I didn’t take any photos of the ceremony since that’s left best to the hired pros and simply spent the night enjoying myself. At the end of the reception, the entire wedding party leapt into the pool with their clothes on. I can’t wait to see that photo!

I loved my fabulous dress! Purchased just for this occasion!

Overall, it was an absolutely stunning vacation. So welcome. So needed. So so so great to wake up every day and lay on a beach and drink delicious drinks and spend time doing absolutely nothing and riding bikes all over a place that was filled with wild horses, and jungle, and beach and fun. It was refreshing, gorgeous, and amazing. Thankfully, our travels were not quite done when we left because we still had one last day and night to explore San Juan!

If you would like to see all the photos from my week in Vieques, you may do so here.

Vieques Travel:
-Sleep: Hix Island House
-Eat and Drink: Bananas Guest House
-Try the traditional Puerto Rican dish of mofongo at El Queneop
-Rent Bikes: Black Beard Sports
-Visit the Bio-Bay: Abe’s Snorkeling and Bio Bay Tours

Island Wedding BBQ

“There is something fresh and crisp about the first hours of a Caribbean day, a happy anticipation that something is about to happen, maybe just up the street or around the next corner.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary

Our days in Vieques were lazy, cocktail filled and amazing. Most days, Buddy and I would lounge about in bed, reading, talking and dining until we were ready to leave. We’d ride down to the W where Julie and the wedding party had rented a villa in the private residences. It was an absolutely gorgeous location to lay by the pool and stare at the ocean.

The Wedding Party’s Villa by the Sea

On Friday night, we had a BBQ by the pool to celebrate with everyone. There were 36 people who had traveled to Puerto Rico in honor of the occasion and it was the first time we were able to get everyone together. The wedding was to be held the following Sunday. The night was perfect and the sunset that evening was spectacular. We feasted on pasta salads and burgers, drank wine and rum with pineapple juice, danced to old swing music and generally just enjoyed each others company.

Here is a selection of some of my favorite photos from the evening.

Hix Island House

Our first night in San Juan was short lived: we arrived late at night and woke up at 7 to head back to the airport. I felt no dismay as we had a planned a full day and night in San Juan on the way home. Our flight to Vieques was out of San Juan Isla Grande, which is less of an airport and more of a holding pen. An hour early was WAY to early. Travel tip: if you fly out of Isla Grande, 20 minutes will suffice. Seriously. It left me with plenty of time to play 9 rounds of the game that I never win but can’t stop playing Scramble while my boyfriend anxiously looked over my should because he really wanted to play Angry Birds on my phone.

I had arranged for us to stay at the Hix Island House. On most occasions, I am a traveler and while I wouldn’t consider myself to be a budget traveler, I by no means spend excessive amounts on rooms. I would rather stay with locals and in guest houses nine times out of ten because I think that it provides a more unique and authentic experience and a better avenue into an understanding of the community you’re in. As a proprietor of a guest room on Airbnb, I really like to try to utilize the site when I travel as well. I figure that since I make my travel money from Airbnb, that I should pass it down the line as well. I used it with great success in La Paz, but there were few guest rooms available that really stood out as special on the island. What did stand out was the Hix Island House.

Hix Island House is the vision of Architect John Hix and along with being a green hotel and featuring the Caribbean’s first off-the-grid guest house, it is the model of uniqueness. There are four different buildings on the property, each made out of concrete and in a different geometric shape. All of them feature open air lofts. OPEN AIR. That’s right. No screens.

Our building (room is top right corner loft) at the Hix Island House.

Our room was on the second floor and had a HUGE 20 foot long window straight into the forest. The back wall was sloped in an elliptical shape so that the wind would come off the ocean, up the hills through our large window, across the back wall and out the back window. We never shut the door. We never carried keys.

Our loft, #4!

Because it is low season, we got a really great low rate on the room and the staff actually upgraded us to a much nicer loft for the original price. I had booked a cheaper loft on the first floor. Being up high made the entire experience even more amazing. I have no doubt that our sleep was much more comfortable thanks to the extra breeze from being 20 feet off the ground.

The view from our window.

The nights were cooler than on the coast since we were higher in elevation. Every morning, we’d wake up and make french press coffee and breakfast in bed. They staff your kitchenette every day with local coffee, eggs, juices, fruits and homemade almond flour bread which made amazing french toast. Sometimes we’d lounge by the pool for awhile before taking our bikes down to the coast to spend time with the rest of the wedding party.

Pool in the jungle!

The grounds are on five acres of natural wildland. There were hammocks in the yard, games to borrow, yoga every morning, wild horses running around and what really made me decide that I wanted to stay here: every loft has an outdoor shower.

Hix Island House Outdoor Shower.

You know that you’re living large when your boyfriend yells from the bathroom, “Girlfriend! I can see the sky while I’m pooping!”

At night, we would ride our bikes back up the hill to the hotel while it was dark and cool out. We never saw more than one car and more often than not, the only movement we came across was that of wild horses grazing on the side of the road. The road to the hotel was like a cavernous jungle at night, with tree branches creating a tunnel into darkness and a cacophony of frogs and crickets sounding the way. It was so loud you could hardly hear each other breath while you pedaled up hill. The ride took about half an hour from the Isabel Segundo side of the island and only 20 minutes from Esperanza. It was a nice little climb and every night after we arrived back, the first thing we’d do is jump in the pool.

You would sleep under a mosquito net, the frogs and crickets sounding you to sleep. At dawn, the birds would come out and have a serious party outside your window. The first night we were there, both Buddy and I had a hard time sleeping but by the 2nd night, our psyches had adjusted to the nighttime sounds and we had no problems at all.

Our loft patio.

Overall, while the Hix Island House was about three times more than I normally budget for lodging while on vacation, it was nice to splurge for once and, I must say, it was worth every penny.

An Introduction to Vieques, PR

When my friend Julie became engaged, I immediately invited myself to the future event, of course, and then begged her to have a destination wedding. I love other people’s weddings. What better way to party than in fancy clothes with free booze and cheesy music? What’s not to love? Unfortunately, I haven’t had very many occasions to attend until this year, during which I have six. I have to travel for most of the weddings already, so really, instead of traveling back to Texas which I already do about four times a year, I’d much rather travel somewhere fabulous and new. You can imagine how thrilled I was when Julie decided to hold their wedding in Puerto Rico! My first wedding this year was in January and we went to La Paz, Bolivia and had such an amazing time so by May, I was so ready to repeat the amazing experience somewhere different. Basically, I’ll take any excuse for a trip somewhere new!

The destination was Isla de Vieques, a small island municipality of Puerto Rico. It is part of the Spanish Caribbean Islands and has a very interesting history. The island is long and narrow, only 4 miles across at the widest point and 21 miles long. Until 2003, Vieques was used as a bombing range and testing ground by the US Navy and wasn’t a tourist destination. There were very few people living on the island and even today, you cannot even step foot on half the island. They call it a “wildlife refuge” but everyone knows that it’s due to the danger of undetonated shells. The navy finally left the island after protests became incessant and persistent after a civilian was killed by a misfired bomb in 1999. The few locals who did live on the island took to their boats in order to block the target practice. Due to regional and eventually national pressure that the protests created, the Navy finally seceded, withdrew their control and much of the land used by the navy was designated a National Wildlife Refuge by the US Government.

Today, Vieques is lacking the large destination resorts you would often find on beaches of it’s caliber. The only major American resort is the W, where the beach may be nice, but it’s not the best and the cocktails will set you back $15. Locals seem to be very guarded against large corporate development and strong fears of over-development. As a result, the charm of the Spanish Colonial Era is still very present and the sleepiness of the island really provides a laid back atmosphere. It is very much so on island-time.

There are two towns on the island, Isabel Segunado, where the locals live and Esperanza, which is the more touristy of the two, featuring a malecon filled with locals and music at night and a number of restaurants and bars that face the water. Vieques is filled with rolling hills and is volcanic in formation. In fact, when I called and made our hotel reservation, the staff member dismissed my insistence that we were not going to rent a car while on the island, just bikes. She said that it wasn’t possible and that the island was “too mountainous.” Just to confirm my suspicion that we would be absolutely fine, I looked up the highest point on the mountain – Monte Pirata (“Pirate Mount”) – which stands at 987 feet. That’s as if I road from my house to the top of Emerald Bay, which is my morning bike ride every day. Definitely not too mountainous for me! We would absolutely not be renting a car.

To get to Vieques, you can fly into San Juan International Airport via many major airlines and take one of the many puddle jumper flights over or the ferry. I decided that our best case scenario, since we were arriving into San Juan so late at night, was to spend a night in San Juan and then take the cheapest of the puddle jumpers, Vieques Air Link, over to the island. You save money by taking this charter since they fly out of a different airport than the main one. It broke up our trip a little bit and, after arriving at our delightful San Juan Hotel, the Numero Uno Guesthouse, we didn’t mind in the least.