At Peace in Vieques

The former American military base has once again become a serene Caribbean island that remains largely undiscovered.

Puerto Rico

Cover Story

February 15, 2004|By Reed Johnson | Reed Johnson,Los Angeles Times

For 62 years, the U.S. Navy's hulking presence kept Vieques, a Puerto Rican tropical idyll, frozen in a Cold War time warp.

During those decades when the military used Vieques' beaches for bombing practice, this serenely beautiful, 21-mile-long island off Puerto Rico's east coast saw only a few thousand visitors a year, mostly harried urbanites seeking a respite from noisy, crowded San Juan. Paradoxically, the Navy preserved the beauty of Vieques for posterity.

Now the Navy is gone, driven away by protests after a fighter jet missed its target and a stray bomb killed a local civilian in 1999. But when the military packed up and left last May, an opportunity opened for real estate speculators, travel agents, hotel chains and cruise ship operators.

Everyone, it seems, is eager to secure a piece of what may be the Caribbean's last great tourist frontier: a low-key oasis of calm azure waters, lush green hills, wild horses that graze by single-lane roads and vast coral seabeds inhabited by iridescent fish.

My wife, Marla, and I came to Vieques (pronounced "vee-AA-kis") near the end of a two-week Puerto Rican summer sojourn, and it turned out to be the high point of our first trip to America's putative 51st state.

After landing in San Juan on the Fourth of July, we rented a car and took a circular route around the main island of Puerto Rico, sampling its placid western beaches, prowling the charming colonial-era streets of Old San Juan and basking in the warmth of the people we met.

But even these attractions hadn't prepared us for the isolated charms of Vieques. With a population slightly greater than 9,100 -- most of it concentrated around the sleepy southern village of Esperanza and the northern port town of Isabel Segunda, the island's de facto capital -- Vieques is still largely undeveloped and unspoiled.

During a restorative three-day visit that allowed us to unwind, we snorkeled in see-through water, kayaked at the edge of a wild mangrove swamp and swam off deserted white-sand beaches.

Vieques and its smaller sister island of Culebra, a few miles north, are probably more deserving of the name "virgin islands" than the archipelago to the east and south bearing that name. Apart from a new plantation-style Wyndham resort, accommodations on Vieques consist of a few chic, boutique guesthouses and cozy, unpretentious inns.

There's a handful of good restaurants, but don't expect to dine on four-star cuisine or disco till dawn. You won't find a single traffic light, shopping mall or drive-through KFC on Vieques. Not yet, anyway.

Our odyssey began on the Puerto Rican mainland in the industrial eastern port town of Fajardo, where daily ferries shuttle passengers to and from Vieques and Culebra.

Forewarned that the ticket line would be long for the 9:30 Sunday morning ferry, we showed up before 7 a.m., just as a thunderstorm blew in from the east. For the next two hours, we huddled with locals under the open-air ticket office roof until the ship loomed into view through the mist.

With ocean spray clinging to our hair and clothes, we arrived in Isabel Segunda as the storm lifted, and quickly found a van to take us to our hotel, the Crow's Nest. The hotel's grounds crew was sweeping up storm debris when we arrived. The manager was friendly and helpful in getting us settled. Like many Puerto Ricans, he segued easily from Spanish to English.

We had picked the Crow's Nest over the more popular Inn on the Blue Horizon (whose Web site includes a thumbs up from travel author Paul Theroux), mostly because we had splurged in San Juan and didn't plan to spend our time in Vieques lolling in a hotel room.

The Crow's Nest, set in a beautifully landscaped 5-acre hillside spread, was a fine alternative. Our room, with an outdoor deck and full kitchen facilities, was all we could have hoped for: secluded, clean, simply but nicely furnished and air-conditioned, all for less than the Blue Horizon's rates.

Surf and sand

Seated at the hotel's picturesque open-air restaurant and bar, watching the remaining storm clouds break up over the Atlantic, Marla and I weighed our options. Vieques does have a few man-made attractions: the meticulously restored Fort Conde de Mirasol Museum, which houses some interesting artifacts from Puerto Rico's imperial past, and the Punta Mula lighthouse, with its superb views.

Well, maybe some other time. We had come here, unabashedly, for the surf and the trade winds-swept sensuality. So after picking up a bare-bones Jeep clone at Island Car Rental, just paces from our hotel, we set off to explore the island's southern coast, about 10 minutes away.

The island is only 4 miles wide, so getting around is easy. But unless you're committed to walking everywhere, you'll need a four-wheel-drive or a bike to reach isolated swimming spots.

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