Damn the Torpedoes! 
Leigh Gallagher, 3/4/02

Forget the bombing. Vieques is one of the Caribbean's best-kept vacation secrets. For now.

Most people know Vieques for the protests over the U.S. Navy's involvement there. The Navy bought two-thirds of Vieques--an island roughly twice the size of Manhattan that lies 7 miles east of Puerto Rico--in 1950, and since then has been bombing the daylights out of a 900-acre training range at the far eastern tip. After an off-target bomb killed a security guard in 1999, protests against the bombing got louder, and expelling the Navy became a cause célèbre for such politicos as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton. 

Here's what you probably don't know: Vieques (pronounced "vee-AY-kes") has some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. Paradoxically, it's the Navy's presence that has kept them that way, since civilian development has been relegated to a thin slice of the island's middle. 

On a recent afternoon in mid-January, as cruise ships dumped tourists by the thousands on St. Thomas and as celebrity-seekers twittered on St. Barts, not a soul was in sight on Green Beach, the exquisite crescent of sand that rims Vieques' western end. Like many of the island's beaches, this one sits on former Navy land--8,000 acres once used for munitions storage. These acres, ceded last year to the U.S. Department of the Interior, a conservation trust and the municipality of Vieques, are now a wildlife refuge, home to several plants and animals on the endangered species list, including the West Indian manatee, the brown pelican and four species of sea turtles. Prettier beaches fringe Camp Garcia, the Navy's toehold on the eastern third of the island. Though once available to civilians, they currently are off-limits, to prevent trespass by antibombing protesters. 

No matter. Vieques has dozens of accessible beaches to choose from, all nearly deserted and each possessed of its own personality. My favorite: Navio Beach, whose surf and rock caves made it the setting for the 1963 film Lord of the Flies. 

The paucity of tourists has helped preserve another treasure--Mosquito Bay (as in Mosquito Indians, or so the theory goes, since there's no outsized insect population here), a bioluminescent jewel whose waters are among the purest in the world. A surrounding thicket of mangrove trees nurtures a potent concentration of dinoflagellates (600,000 organisms per gallon, compared with the 50 or fewer found typically in ocean water). The creatures glow an electric blue when disturbed by an oar or a hand. Jump in at night (there are boat cruises for the purpose), and it is like swimming in the stars. 

Despite these attributes, Vieques isn't for everyone. If you need pampering, think twice. No one will bring you a fruity cocktail as you laze on the beach. You're better off packing lunch and lots of water, since some remote beaches are a 20-minute drive from the nearest restaurant. Accommodations are simple. The whole island has only 140 rooms, mostly in unpretentious inns or guesthouses. You are likely to see more wild horses than vehicles. 

Indeed, there's not much to do besides eat, drink and lie on the beach with a good book--which is just the way Vieques' regulars like it. The island gets 2,000 tourists a year (most of them returnees), compared with 2.5 million for the U.S. Virgin Islands. "People who come here don't want to be found," says Scott Bowie, co-owner of the Crow's Nest, a 16-room inn. 

That may change. Last year President Bush recommended the Navy cease maneuvers on Vieques as early as May 2003 (it's been using inert bombs since the accident). Sitting smack in the middle of the cruise-ship circuit and boasting more undeveloped land than almost any of its neighbors, Vieques is a developer's dream. Word is starting to get out: Windjammer cruises now dock regularly for tours of Mosquito Bay; and developers have been making inquiries about the Navy land. Some are talking about casinos. 

If and when the military leaves, its 14,000 acres would go to the Department of the Interior, but not before a lengthy scouring of the area for unexploded bombs. (The Navy's 900-acre range, littered with ordnance, could remain off-limits forever.) 

The Navy has called Vieques the "crown jewel" of its dozen or so training ranges; it's the only such site, it says, where it can rehearse land, air and amphibious assaults all at once, in an area free from commercial air and sea traffic. Vacationers in the know consider it a crown jewel of a different sort--an undiscovered paradise that may not stay that way much longer. Go before the shelling stops.