The Caribbean's Last Secret
A bombing range long kept visitors away and has left Vieques uniquely unspoiled

Monday, Jun. 23, 2003
Part of the fun of vacationing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques is to see the looks you get from folks back home. Many Americans recall the long-running controversy over U.S. Navy war games held on Vieques. They picture the place as a bomb-scarred moonscape, its waters poisoned with depleted-uranium shells. And that's exactly the image that some visitors would like to perpetuate — keeping to themselves the secrets of the island's miles of pristine beaches, brilliant coral reefs and unique glow-in-the-dark waters.

The truth is, the Navy bombed only about 1 sq. mi. on the eastern end of Vieques, even as the military presence blocked the island's hidden coves and forested mountains from commercial development. Since the Navy pulled out of Vieques on may 1, its protective role has been assumed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And word of the last Eden in the Caribbean has been rippling up from backpackers to more luxury-minded travelers.

To be sure, admiring tourists have been journeying there since Christopher Columbus, who in 1493, sailed past the 10-mile-by-5-mile gem and dubbed it Graciosa, Spanish for "graceful." (Vieques is an old Indian word for small island.) Lately, conference planners have been smitten by the place and have scheduled executive retreats at the Martineau Bay Wyndham resort.

The site opened under Wyndham's management wyndham.com) in February after the owner's 15-year struggle against not-in-my-backyarders and the logistical challenges of building a 42-acre, 156-unit resort on a remote former sugar plantation. Located on the northern shore, the Wyndham is the only resort of its size on the island. It offers a conference and banquet room for 180 people and plans to add a casino, spa and dive shop. Rooms, which range from $250 to $500, are luxurious if scarcely distinguishable from what you might find, say, on Grand Cayman. And the air conditioning is so ubiquitous and powerful that it reaches icy fingers to you even as you approach the reception building across sun-baked asphalt.

Leisure travelers will find more local flavor on the island's south shore, where rooms range from $150 to $370 a night. The 16-unit Hacienda Tamarindo (787-741-8525) offers an elevated view of the ocean and homey rooms decorated with old circus posters and other curiosities. Its next-door neighbor, the Inn on the Blue Horizon (787-741-3318), has one-room cottages with country-style wooden furniture, just steps from the sea. And the celebrated, open-air architecture of the Hix Island House hixislandhouse.com), farther inland, lets you feel as if you're camping but with all the privacy and amenities of a luxury rental, including appliance-filled kitchens, with rosemary and oregano bushes lining the path to the pool. The Hix House's altitude brings a steady ocean breeze through the rooms, and you won't mind the lack of air conditioning, except perhaps on the occasional summer spell when daytime temperatures can rise past 90°F.

There are two small towns on the island, the larger of which, Isabel Segunda, is located on the northern side and is largely populated by native Viequenses. The island's draw is privacy and nature, rather than nightlife. But the Media Luna restaurant serves a unique cuisine blended with Indian flavors, such as a curried red snapper filet and cannelloni with spiced lamb. La Sirena, in the south-side town of Esperanza, serves a simple but addictive mahi-mahi sandwich on toasted bread for lunch.

Of the many natural attractions of Vieques, the most magnificent is Mosquito Bay, the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world, where the roots of vitamin-rich mangrove trees create a perfect breeding ground for tiny sea creatures called dinoflagellates. These organisms light up the water at night with a greenish glow (though they are easiest to see when the moon is dark). Located to the island's south, the bay can be toured with Island Adventures (BIOBAY.COM) or on kayaks led by local guides. Once there, even jaded travelers are shocked into wonderment. Stick your hand in the water, and watch it glow like a firefly. Hop in the lighted water, and watch electrified eagle rays glide beneath you.

With the Navy gone, visitors can explore the island's miles of forest roads and drive to the beach of their choosing. A road down the western side of the island passes by 300 empty, ghostlike storage bunkers, where the Navy kept some of its munitions before it left. The silos are now historical relics. But you will find other marks the U.S. military left on the people of Vieques and their land, including an occasional sign that reads, NO TRESPASSING. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. DANGER. EXPLOSIVES.