Vieques on its own
An homage to the best of the Caribbean's past, the home of the newly-extinct bombing range is a safe, welcoming, pretty place


VIEQUES, Puerto Rico - It's close, it's gorgeous, and there's hardly anybody here.

This is the Caribbean of days long gone: Fishing boats bobbing in the sweet curve of a bay. Breezy bars where shoes are optional and a 10-spot will buy a beer and a fish sandwich. A sandy drive leading to a beach without another soul on it.

This is Vieques, as it was and is and will be -- at least for the next few years.

If you've heard of this 55-square-mile island off Puerto Rico's main island, your impressions are likely linked to the Navy's controversial use of the island as a training site and bombing range. That's all in the past. February saw the last of the bombings; on May 1, the Navy officially pulled out, leaving the 9,000 residents on their own.

Whatever ill the Navy may have wrought over the past 60 years -- and even a visitor hears plenty of debate on both sides of that subject -- the result is that nearly two-thirds of the island is largely undeveloped.

Most of that hilly land is now wildlife refuge -- at least for the moment -- which means untrammeled crescents of sand rimming aquamarine coves, a sheltered bioluminescent bay and reefs brimming with fish within kayaking distance from the beach. The roads are good, the restaurants are surprisingly sophisticated. Hotels -- from Architectural Digest chic to funky little guesthouses -- are small and amazingly reasonable. (Think summer rates of $125-$150 and up at a deluxe boutique hotel, $50-$65 at a guesthouse) Most come minus TV and phone -- on purpose.

LAZY DAYS

Days go like this: ''You get up in the morning, get in your Jeep and take off down one of the roads to a beach that has absolutely no one on it,'' explains Scott Chappell, a New York-New Jersey graphic designer on his third visit with his wife, fashion designer Katie Morita.

``You plant your cooler and two chairs. At lunch, you go to Bananas for fish sandwiches. About 3, we go back to Blue Horizon -- [their favorite lodging] -- and have a drink. We take a shower, watch the sunset and have dinner. We like to be completely quiet.''

That same laid-back air is what has kept George and Elissa Hirschhorn of Philadelphia coming back every year for nearly a decade. And it's what drew Glenn and Wynne Curry to buy Bananas, a funky bar/restaurant and guesthouse on the Malecón in Esperanza, and move here from Philadelphia.

''For all the publicity Vieques has gotten about the Navy, it's a pretty, safe, welcoming place,'' says Glenn, a native of Key West. ``It's so much like Key West when I was growing up -- not like Key West now.

''There are a lot of things it doesn't have to offer. That's one of the things we like best about it.'' No stoplights, little night life, no casinos -- though one will open this fall.

This is, instead, the kind of place where a piña colada leads to a shot of tequila -- especially if you hang out at Al's Mar Azul when Al is there. (Al likes to treat newcomers to a round of shots.) Where your bartender one night is likely your masseuse the next afternoon, and your hotelier is a refugee from the rat race of Manhattan or San Juan. And where you need to watch your driving, lest you careen into a cow or horse wandering along the road, or a local out exercising his horse in the heart of downtown.

For tourists, the epicenter -- if you can call it that -- is Esperanza, a fishing village with a small row of restaurants and shops facing the pretty Malecón. This isn't the picturesque village of European fantasies -- the houses sit porch by porch, the graceless concrete boxes cheered by trims in green, pink, bright blue. But it's friendly, and on weekends locals open up pizza stands, barbecues and a shack-cum-bar on the waterfront. Visitors are welcome, but most seem to stick with the permanent restaurants or the souvenir shop. There's only one.

GREEN STORE

Nearly everything on this south side of the island is defined by its proximity to the no-name stop commonly referred to as ''the green store'' -- the only store in the neighborhood, and yes, it's green. Sun Bay, a park with spectacular public beaches, is up the road from the green store. Tito Bloque, which makes tasty pastelitos filled with lobster or crab or kingfish, is down the road and around the corner from the green store. PeeWees, one of the few night spots, is just a few doors from the green store. And if you need anything from sunblock to baby formula, you go to . . . the green store.

On the north coast lies the capital, Isabel II, population 2,000, seat of government offices, the ferry dock -- boats go to Fajardo on the big island, and the small isle of Culebra -- a shopping district and the island's only ATM machine. The crowded cemetery and some of the buildings retain a hint of 19th century grace.

The lighthouse and 150-year-old fort are now museums recalling the island's sugar-plantation past. Displays highlight Vieques' archaeological importance -- the 4,000-year-old Puerto Ferro man, was found here -- and pay tribute to the 1816 visit of liberator Simon Bolivar, his only Puerto Rican stop. But few exhibits are translated into English.

The real point of coming here, though, is just to hang out.

The 15,500-acre tract released by the Navy on May 1 is home to two of the island's best beaches, known in Navy lingo as Red Beach and Blue Beach. Previously open to visitors, both were closed in 1999 after a Navy pilot veered off course and dropped a bomb on an observation tower, killing a civilian guard. With the Navy gone, the beaches are open once again.

Red Beach is a postcard in 3-D, a wide arc of sand trimmed with coconut palms and picnic tables under shade. Blue is longer, narrower, with pull-ins so you can drive your 4X4 over the dirt road through the thorny mesquite right to the end of the sand. Keep your shoes on; the sand burrs are wicked.

MILITARY PAST

The entrance to these recently released acres is one of the few places you'll see reminders of the military past. Banners witness anti-military sentiment. A series of crosses recall locals who, activists say, died because of the military presence -- though many were deaths from cancer and other diseases that, some argue, had nothing to do with the military. (Activists contend the illnesses were caused by contaminants.) And because of an unexpectedly violent protest May 1 when $1 million in military property was destroyed, a horde of Kevlar-vested police crowded near the entrance of this new wildlife refuge during a recent visit.

Inside the refuge are a few more buildings harking from the Navy, also guarded. The square mile at the eastern tip of Vieques is completely off limits -- this was the former bombing range -- as are other areas that might hold live ordnance. But the land is so thick with mesquite that only a masochist would try to cross it.

The other military remnants are a long pier where naval vessels once moored (now a great place to catch sight of sea turtles), a few buildings and old ammunitions bunkers, all in the western part of the island that the Navy gave up two years ago. Here, too, is Green Beach, another long expanse of pristine coast.

Some would argue that the best beaches, though, have been open all along.

Sun Bay is the big one, a half-moon of white and palms with decent snorkeling near the ends. The rutted road leads on to Media Luna -- a favorite with Viequenses -- and Navio, a small sugary cove where the Hirschhorns come each day near sunset to end the day.

Navio is the beach of choice for Chappell and Morita, the New Yorkers. And on a recent weekend, it seemed to please Grammy-winner Alicia Keys and her video crew as well.

The same dirt road leads to Bio Bay, one of the best-preserved bioluminescent bays in this part of the world. Most nights, Mark Martin Bras, a local conservationist, leads tours aboard a slow-moving pontoon boat, explaining as he goes how the shape of the bay and its fertile, unpolluted nature keep it rich in the one-celled organisms that, when agitated, give off a brilliant yellow glow.

Comets of light flash just below the surface -- fish darting past. When you dip into the water for a night-time swim, you see Day-Glo marbles of light roll off your arms.

A small bottle of water can hold 40,000 glimmer creatures -- the fireflies of the water world.

FUTURE DIRECTION

For Vieques, the years ahead are uncertain times. Everyone who lives there -- and plenty who don't -- has a vision for things to come.

Some want the island to remain much as it is. Some urge a low-key future of sustainable development that will soften life for the 9,000 islanders, whose standard of living lags 20 percent behind those who live on the main island, said Juan Fernandez, commissioner of Vieques, during a recent interview in his San Juan office. There are those who favor ecotourism, some who favor a split with the U.S. and press for tours that underscore U.S. military shortcomings in the region.

Though most of the former Navy lands are now wildlife refuges, the legislation designating them so leaves room for change. And that makes some locals worry that developers will gain control of now-pristine lands, turning the island into a ghetto of cookie-cutter souvenir shops and pricey, large-scale resort hotels.

''People here are very conscious of the dangers of this moment,'' said Robert Rabin, director of the historical museum at Fort Conde de Mirasol in Isabel II during an interview in his office. Rabin, an academic who moved here from Boston 20 years ago, helped lead the anti-Navy protests. With Fernandez, he is a member of a group that has produced a 300-page study on sustainable development on the island. ``Nobody wants the Navy out and the Hiltons in.''

Already, the changes are starting.

This winter brought the opening of Wyndham's Martineau Bay, a gated, 164-room upscale resort on one of the few private beachfront tracts. The place has a breezy, plantation feel about it, with low-rise villas scattered about the hillsides and decor -- hard woods, light colors, marble baths -- that promises romantic comfort. The resort offers the island's first spa and, come November, a small, European-style casino.

At the exquisite 10-room Inn on Blue Horizon, owner James Weis, who moved here from New York a decade ago and built Vieques' first upscale lodging, is adding 14 private villas on his 20 acres near Esperanza. The three-bedroom villas will start at more than $500,000 and will be rented to hotel guests when owners are absent.

''I'm doing more of what I've been doing,'' he said. The villas are slated to open in fall 2004.

Tourism is on the rise, says local hoteliers, and so are land prices -- up about 10 percent in the last year, said Eli Belendez, a partner in the Crows Nest inn and Crows Nest Realty.

''There are a lot more [visitors] here than any other May that I've known,'' he said one recent morning.

Rumors are swirling about big hotel chains looking to make deals with local authorities regarding lands they now control, say several hoteliers. But between dealmaking, permitting and construction, any significant new projects are likely five to 10 years away.

For the moment, Vieques promises to be much as it was when Judy Leach, a retail manager in Bethlehem, Pa., moved here six years ago. To make ends meet, Leach works as bartender, masseuse and now, as editor of Vieques Events, a monthly magazine she started just over a year ago.

''The services are changing,'' she said over breakfast at the Trade Winds, overlooking the Malecón in Esperanza. She points to Chef Michael's, a gourmet food shop opened a year ago, and the increased availability islandwide of fresh flowers and foods. ``But the clientele -- it hasn't changed.''

For now, at least, Vieques is that rarity, an homage to the best of the past. And that, says Ben Tutt, general manager at Wyndham's Martineau Bay, is exactly what guests want.

``The new hotel might be the reason they come here, but they'll come back because of the island.''