Vieques Island, Puerto Rico
By Michael Franco
The islands that comprise the upper boundary of the Caribbean Sea are the big ones -Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
East of Puerto Rico, confident that their larger cousins are doing their job of guarding the warm blue waters of the Caribbean from the gray Atlantic, the islands get significantly smaller and tumble in a relaxed arc southward toward South America. The first of these small gems, just seven miles east of Puerto Rico is Vieques -- 21 miles long, five miles wide, and leagues apart from its bigger island sister.
Making a trip to Vieques is a worthwhile endeavor as much for what is there (tempting empty beaches, great restaurants, friendly people) as what is not there -- namely, the US Navy.
When the boys in blue pulled up anchor and left Vieques in 2003, after having used the island for target practice for over 60 years, what they trailed behind them was a wake of bad feelings.
WHEN TO GO
The weather on Vieques is particularly bliss-inducing from mid-November through the beginning of June. Days tend to be dry and breezy with temps in the 80 to 85 range with nights sometimes cooling down to the low 70s. However, that’s when prices at the island’s hotels are also at their highest.
June through November, prices tend to drop dramatically, while temperatures and humidity climb only slightly (85 -90 during the day, 75-80 at night.) September and October have been known to be oppressive with buckets of rain, high heat, high humidity and very few breezes however, this being a small island, and with weather around the globe leaving everyone guessing, each season can bring new surprises.
Without doubt, the best attractions Vieques has to offer visitors are its beaches. All of the typical superlatives used to describe Caribbean beaches apply here – sugary, powdery, turquoise, jade, crystal-clear, baby-blue, palm-fringed. But there are two additional words that apply to Vieques beaches that are not usually found in the lexicon describing idyllic stretches of island sand – practically deserted.
Sun Bay. The entrance to Sun Bay can be found on Rte. 997 on the island’s south shore. There is a small gatehouse that charges a $2.00 admission fee – if there happens to be someone sitting at the guard booth. Once inside, your ticket entitles you to all-day access to three gorgeous beaches.
Media Luna. Heading east of Sun Bay, the bumpy dirt road leads next to Media Luna. This beach is a small delight, at the end of a large protected cove that makes for very calm waters – a favorite spot for families with younger children.
Navio. You could think of Navio as the bad boy beach of Vieques – rugged and wild with a completely irresistible personality. The wind certainly can’t keep away, pushing waves toward the shore on a pretty much constant basis. This makes it a cool spot for body surfing or for listening to the sound of the surf mingle with the wind in the sea grapes and palm trees that intimately back the beach.
Camp Garcia Beaches
The eastern end of Vieques is the site of the former Camp Garcia, the largest section of the land formerly held by the Navy. Because this land has been turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service, it is now home to one of the most impressive collection of dazzling and mostly deserted beaches in the Caribbean.
Red Beach/Playa Caracas. A graceful semi-circle of white sand welcomes calm waters on one side and visitors – who can take advantage of a small collection of wooden gazebos – on the other. Low, green-capped volcanic bluffs on the western edge provide a darkly dramatic contrast to the electric blue water that laps at its base. A small island, or cayo about 100 yards offers an interesting snorkeling opportunity. A popular spot with local families on the weekends.
Blue Beach/Bahia Los Chivos. Although the Navy was less-than-creative in the color-code naming scheme of the various beaches on the island, in this case, they got it right. The water at Blue Beach is truly just that – a variety of jewel-like blues that range from almost diamond clear to a deep, dark lapiz out toward the offshore island. The sand is powdery white and stretches along the shore in a “W” pattern. The western half of the “W” offers a collection of private pull-offs for your car and plenty of space to claim your own section of sun-soaked beach while the eastern half offers several wooden gazebos to provide you a bit of shade. For good snorkeling, stand where these two curves meet (the center of the “W”) and swim straight out toward the right side of the island.
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION
They may sound like something out of a bad science fiction movie, but in fact they have the starring role in a nightly show that dazzles visitors to Vieques’ Mosquito Bay -- one of the most vibrant bioluminescent bays in the world.
By venturing out in either kayaks or on an eco-friendly electric boat, you can see fish trailing bluish shooting-star-like patterns under the dark surface of the water because dinoflagellates (completely harmless microscopic organisms) glow like fireflies when disturbed. On either trip, you can jump overboard and swim in the bay where your movements will be traced by a vivid halo – perfect for making “light angels” by swirling your arms and legs.
Several tour operators will arrange for your visit to this truly stunning locale. Don’t think “tour group” in the usual way, though. These tours tend to be fun, informative and low-key, not cheesy and irritating.
Blue Caribe - Offers kayaking tours of the bay.
Abe’s Snorkeling - Another quality biobay kayaking operator.
Island Adventures - Provides eco-friendly electric boat tours of the bay. Perfect if you’re uneasy about kayaking.
WHERE TO STAY
Bravo Beach Hotel - Sleek and modern yet simultaneously warm and welcoming, this boutique hotel is located directly on the ocean on the island’s north shore. The property consists of 8 units, one two-bedroom villa, an onsite restaurant, bar and two pools. The décor is decidedly South Beach chic with rooms featuring A/C, flat screen TVs, iPod docks, Playstations and platform beds.
Evamer - Situated on a sloping hillside directly above the beach on the north shore of Vieques, this collection of 4 private villas and two studios has one of the most idyllic settings of any lodging facility on Vieques. Guests can relax by the small but perfectly-situated pool or take the private staircase down to the beach.
Tropical Guest House - Situated in a typical island neighborhood just on the outskirts of Isabelle Segunda, this charming guest house offers a variety of basic but sparkling clean rooms at some of the best prices on Vieques.
Casa De Amistad - Conveniently located on a side street in Isabelle Segunda, just steps from the ferry dock, this laid-back hotel oozes charm. The care of the owners and managers is evident everywhere you look, from the eclectic assembly of antique and island-inspired furniture and artwork, to the well-stocked communal kitchen, to the open, breezy décor in the rooms, to the charming courtyard featuring a small but very inviting pool.
WHERE TO EAT
The dining options on Vieques are basically divided between the island’s two main towns – Isabelle Segunda in the north and Esperanza in the south. To generalize, the bulk of fine dining spots are concentrated in Isabelle Segunda while more casual, beachy eateries are found in Esperanza although plenty of both can be found in each location.
Duffy’s Esperanza - Duffy, a Caribbean legend himself, has opened many a bar/eatery on Vieques. His latest project is actually run by his son Mikey and features the always-winning formula of a casual environment, friendly bar staff, and good food at reasonable prices. Selections include great burgers, fish tacos. Come at day's end and get a seat at the bar to watch the setting Caribbean sun paint the sky the color of a perfect rum punch.
Tradewinds - Get to this longstanding Esperanza icon before the light fades from the day, grab one of the tables by the edge of the porch and you’ll be treated to a great dinner surpassed only by the view. Tradewinds indisputably has the best vantage point of any restaurant on Vieques, looking out over the Caribbean Sea toward the tiny, uninhabited island of Cayo Afuero.
ISABELLE SEGUNDA AND ENVIRONS
Bravo Beach Hotel - While the vibe at this popular Vieques nightspot can be likened to that of one of the hip eateries along Lincoln Road in Miami’s South Beach, the food is harder to pigeonhole geographically. Perhaps the best way to think of it is “the world meets Vieques.”
Media Luna. There are plenty of exotically-spiced delights on the menu here, yet the true stars of the show are the brick oven pizzas. “Crust” is almost too mundane a word to describe the base on which an assortment of toppings is delivered to your table. Light, slightly sweet and at once flaky and chewy, it’s pizza at the peak of its form.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
All journeys to Vieques begin at the San Juan airport. From there several small airlines operate daily flights (on equally small planes) to Vieques. Flights take about 25 minutes and cost, on average, $90 each way. A secondary option is to take an hour or so taxi ride from the airport to the eastern town of Fajardo and from there board a ferry for the approximately hour-and-a-half crossing to Vieques. The taxi costs roughly $75 each way, but the ferry is a bargain at $2.00 per person.
Once on Vieques, it is possible to take a publico, or van, from the ferry dock or airport to your hotel but most guests go straight to any of the five or so car rental companies to pick up their car. In fact, if you want to see the majority of the island’s beaches and sample its various restaurants, a car rental ($60 - $85) is essential as publicos are not reliable for tourism transport around the island.
Cape Air – 1-800-3582-0714
Rental Car Companies
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