You Can Actually Go Swimming in This Rare Glowing Bay

There's only a couple places in the world you can… get lit.

Photo courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico
Photo courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico
Photo courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico

Editor’s Note: We know COVID-19 is continuing to impact your travel plans. As of April 2021, official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention states that fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk, though safety precautions are still required. Should you need to travel, be sure to familiarize yourself with the CDC’s latest guidance as well as local requirements/protocols/restrictions for both your destination and home city upon your return. Be safe out there.

The water is jet-black, but under the surface, there’s evidence of magic. Run your fingers through it and it comes alive, shimmering like blue-green stars. Lift your hand up and it glitters: They say humans are made of stardust and here it could be true. Above, the moon hides behind clouds, but it’s better this way: a bright beam from above would only ruin the luminous effect.

This is what it’s like to glide through a bioluminescent bay: rare ecosystems that occur when microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates converge in the thousands per gallon. When agitated they glow in the dark, turning a tropical night into something out of a science fiction movie.

These sparkling ecosystems only occur in a handful of sites around the world, usually in warm water with narrow access to the open seas. One is the famous emerald waters of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, designated a UNESCO World heritage site in 1994. Another is Luminous Lagoon, in the marshlands of Jamaica.

And there are three-count ‘em, three!-bioluminescent bays located in Puerto Rico. Which means that with a mere 2.5-hour flight from Miami (and a negative Covid test, but hey, no passport required), you can experience this natural nighttime phenomenon in person.

There are three bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico… 

The first is Mosquito Bay located on Vieques, a tiny island seven miles off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico’s main island. This is the most sought-after bioluminescent bay experience as it’s traditionally the brightest of the bunch (declared so by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2006). Visiting the waters of Vieques usually requires an overnight stay, since the ferry stops running early evenings.

Near the town of Fajardo on the northeast tip of the main island, a visit to Laguna Grande lets you traverse through mangroves, partially protected by the Cabezas de San Juan reserve’s coral reef. And finally, there’s La Parguera in the southwestern town of Lajas, a little over a two-hour drive from San Juan. The region has yet to be tapped by the tourism throngs, which means its quiet natural wonders and abundant wildlife are largely undisturbed.

Photo courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico
Photo courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico
Photo courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico

But there’s only one you can actually swim in

La Parguera is the only bioluminescent bay where it’s legal to swim in the country (but not the world; apparently you can jump right on into Jamaica’s lagoon).

Why can you swim here and not the others? “La Parguera is the most open to the ocean,” says Percy Rier of Kayaking Puerto Rico, which guides tours out to the Laguna Grande Bio Bay. “Therefore it has a more complete exchange of water.” That helps keep this shallow bay clean by flushing out harmful chemicals like insect repellent, sunblock, perfumes, and oils. It also filters out the sediment kicked up by hundreds of nightly guests, which would otherwise affect the microorganisms’ glow power.

Dinoflagellates need clear waters to do their thing. “Because of the slower exchange of water in Vieques and Laguna Grande,” Percy explains, “the sedimentation will stay in the same place for longer periods of time.” Which is why tourist activity in Mosquito Bay and Laguna Grande is limited to boat or kayak excursions, including clear-bottomed options.

Dinoflagellate count is fragile: In all three of Puerto Rico’s bays, it dipped dramatically after Hurricane Maria in late 2017. Laguna Grande is still lagging in numbers but Mosquito Bay and La Parguera have fully recovered, with locals reporting the bays even brighter than before.

Visiting the bio bay in La Parguera

A number of local tour groups like Rincon Vacations  and Alelí Tours will take you out to kayak,  swim, or even snorkel in the bay, or you can rent your own kayak and go at it solo. Before you go, skip the sunscreen, lotion, perfume, and anything else chemically that could harm the dinoflagellate ecosystem. If you use bug spray, opt for DEET-free.

The timing of your tour is also crucial: You want it as dark as possible. Try to snag the latest available time slot, and avoid visiting during a full or near-full moon (they recommend the New Moon phase).

Overcome the mental hurdle of jumping into opaque black water, and dive in. Splash as much as possible to activate the enchanting blue-green sparks. Most importantly, take mental pictures-after tonight, this bucket list experience only resides in your memory. Bioluminescent bays are very much unphotographable-most of the photos you see online are photoshopped.

Photo by Vanita Salisbury for Thrillist
Photo by Vanita Salisbury for Thrillist
Photo by Vanita Salisbury for Thrillist

More things to do near La Parguera

The bay is enchanting for sure, but there’s more to see in this Southwest region. Far away from the resorts and touristy San Juan, here you can get a taste of what living on the island is really like.

So make a trip of it: Miles of coastline offer gorgeous secluded beaches, while the pink salt flats of the Cabo Rojo wildlife refuge are not only visually stunning, but an important stop over for migratory birds in the Eastern Caribbean. The town of La Parguera is a bona fide nightlife destination, with a waterfront boardwalk lined with food, games, cocktails, local artisans, and a much-used outdoor stage. And caffeine fiends can explore the thriving coffee industry of Yauco, known as El Pueblo del Café (Coffee Town), as well as a really cool mural project Yaucromatic that celebrates the community and Puerto Rican history.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She is definitely made of stardust. 


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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