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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.''
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
point of coming here, though, is just to hang out.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
the years ahead are uncertain times. Everyone who lives there -- and
plenty who don't -- has a vision for things to come.
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.
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
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.''
the changes are starting.
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.
more of what I've been doing,'' he said. The villas are slated to open
in fall 2004.
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.
a lot more [visitors] here than any other May that I've known,'' he
said one recent morning.
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.
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.''
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.
hotel might be the reason they come here, but they'll come back because
of the island.''