Vieques: An Astonishing Puerto Rican Island
Vieques Island, Puerto Rico
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 against 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.
However, they also left behind something far more positive and increasingly rare in the Caribbean – acres, and acres of undeveloped Caribbean real estate. This lush green land has since been turned over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and is now officially the largest and most biologically-diverse national wildlife refuge in the entire Caribbean.
And, while a sizeable portion of the land is still off-limits to tourists due to ongoing clean-up efforts, there are still enough perfectly safe, practically deserted, and patently dazzling beaches backed by nothing but palm trees, mesquite bushes, and almond trees to entrance any visitor for days on end.
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 the weather around the globe leaving everyone guessing, each season can bring new surprises.
Without a 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 Beaches
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.
The first, Sun Bay itself, is a mile-long, crescent-shaped dream of a beach. The sand is golden, the water is glittering, and there are palm-trees aplenty for catching some zzzzzz’s in the shade. Sun Bay is the only beach with facilities that include showers, toilets and a small eatery that serves good, cheap burritos.
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.
The water is always a particularly beguiling shade of baby blue and the sand slopes very gradually, letting you walk quite a distance out before the water gets too high. The beach itself is narrow, however, there are plenty of shaded palm groves and huts where you can set up shop for a day of serious daydreaming.
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.
Black volcanic outcroppings at either end of Navio hold within their craggy walls several sea caves worth exploring – especially when the surf is calm. Walk to the east end of the beach, find the small path that leads you up and out on the bluff. Keep walking over the rocky terrain and you’ll find one of the island’s only blowholes.
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.
Beaches below are listed with both their island name and “navy” name. It is important to note that the beaches in Camp Garcia are only open from 6:00 AM until sunset at which time the main gate is closed.
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 the 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 kayak 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, a 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.
By day, the poolside bar offers guests the chance to mingle with each other while enjoying self-serve cocktails on the honor system. At night, the bar becomes The Palms and welcomes outside visitors. A creative mix of music along with the lapping surf provides the perfect soundtrack for a stay here.
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.
Every unit has A/C, TV, kitchenette and, perhaps most importantly, a view of the ocean. And, while the grounds and buildings of Evamer certainly make a stay here worthwhile, the real star of the show is the personable manager, Mark, who will pick you up from the airport, help you with rental cars and give you advice that only a local could. $125 – $200.
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.
“Single” rooms feature one double bed, “doubles” hold a double bed and a single, and three studios with private kitchens hold four to six people each. All rooms feature AC, TV and private bathrooms. The onsite “World Café” offers a great spot for breakfast and evening cocktails and conversation with the Guest House’s young, warm and knowledgeable owners, Joe and Maria. $75 -$105.
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.
Coffee is served every morning in the kitchen where you are also invited to prepare light meals throughout the day. A small bar room provides a guest computer or you are welcome to connect your own laptop to the complimentary wifi.
A communal TV room offers a fun gathering spot but with the various patios and balconies, you might never use it. All rooms feature AC, private baths, mini-fridges and ceiling fans.$80 – $125 during winter months, $75 – $110 during the summer months.
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.
The menu is equally attractive. Choose from fresh fish prepared in your choice of styles including grilled with pineapple salsa or corn-encrusted pan-seared with toasted almond butter. Or select from a variety of Caribbean specialties like mofongo, churrasco or fresh lobster. Also, a great spot to gaze at the sea and share a super-fresh super-sized salad for lunch.
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.”
Ultra-talented chef Chris Ellis serves up creative tapas (small plates of food) that expertly combine global influence with local ingredients such as local sweet plantains combined with Serrano ham and goat cheese ice cream … or salt cod with potato brandade and grilled chorizo.
Start with the traditional manchego and olives (a true Madrid tapas) and let your palette wander the planet from there. A cozy wine-tasting room highlights a different red and white for you to try each night.
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.
You might want to split one as an appetizer (the super-light crust makes them satisfying but not filling) and then move on to other menu choices which include spicy Thai ground pork lettuce wraps, ginger roast duck wontons, and tandoori spiced pork tenderloin. A hip, downtempo soundtrack accompanies the culinary choreography. Request a seat out on one of the two tiny balconies and watch life in Isabelle Segunda go by – often on horseback.
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.
Rental Car Companies
Island – 787-741-1666
Maritza – 787-741-0078
Martineau – 787-741-0087
Chepito’s – 787-741-8691
Marcos – 787-741-1388