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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Visit Vieques Before It's Developed
by ARTHUR FROMMER
July 1, 2001
The island of Vieques, off the eastern tip of Puerto Rico, has made headlines these past several months, as islanders and their supporters have protested the continued use of a portion of its territory as a Navy bombing range. Hopefully, that military activity is about to disappear.
Even before it does, Vieques is a traveler's dream. Although it's just seven miles from Puerto Rico's coast, the island's downy-soft beaches, lush hills and colorful coral reefs have been kept a close secret by adventurous and savvy budget travelers. Unlike so many other Caribbean islands, Vieques is packed with budget lodgings where you can easily find a room for $85 or less a night, and eat a filling dinner of freshly caught fish for less than $12 a person.
In addition to the delight in finding so many bargains, the other joys of Vieques include its off-the-beaten-path authenticity. Part of its charm is what you won't find: traffic lights, fast-food restaurants, T-shirt shops, discos, or cruise ships anchored at port. Although it's the same size as St. Croix, Vieques probably has less than one-tenth of the development.
Beautiful, empty beaches
What you will find are beautiful beaches so empty you might have them to yourself, dollar beers at outdoor bars, farm animals sleeping in the streets, and wild ponies running along the shore. If you're looking to cool out with a good book on a deserted beach and spend quiet evenings strolling along the shore -- then Vieques is for you.
How has Vieques remained so affordable and undeveloped? Obviously because of the Navy's controversial presence. The island's roughly 15,000 inhabitants have spent the past six decades sandwiched between a bombing range and a munitions-storage depot.
If the Navy now moves out -- and the administration has promised it will, in two years -- the tourism picture could change dramatically, which is why it's probably best to run, not walk, to Vieques if you're looking for a rock-bottom-priced vacation. Although no one knows for sure, it is possible the Navy's land could be developed with luxury hotels. Certainly there will be a lot of interest in commercializing the Navy's pristine beaches, which have been closed to development for six decades.
Poised to pop
For now, there's no hotel on Vieques with more than 16 rooms. But that is already beginning to change. There are plans for a five-star luxury resort to open sometime later this year, and American Eagle expects to start servicing the island with daily flights -- that means more marketing and more visitors. For better or worse, Vieques is poised to pop out of its time warp and onto the big-time travel scene.
The populated middle section of the island can be split into two areas: the main town of Isabella Segunda, on the north coast where the ferry docks, and the sleepy fishing village of Esperanza on the southern coast. Bargain hotel rooms for as little as $50 can be found all over the island. But don't expect room service or even amenities like cable television -- Vieques is more funky than fancy. You're more likely to wake up to a rooster outside your window than a clock radio.
What you can expect are simple, clean rooms from which to launch your daily activities around the island. You'll probably want to rent a car to get around. Rentals are about $45 a day, and there are plenty to choose from. Check out www. vieques-island.com for a full listing.
Most travelers gravitate to the strand of mini-hotels and restaurants along the palm-lined water's edge in Esperanza. With its breezy outdoor bars, picturesque fishing boats bobbing in the bay and killer sunsets, it's not hard to understand why. There's no shortage of bargain lodgings, either. The popular hangout Bananas has attractive wood-paneled doubles for as little as $45 a night. There's no air conditioning, but ceiling fans ensure the sea breeze cools you off. For $60 to $70 you get a big screened-in porch and cozy sitting room. You'll also find small but clean rooms at the Trade Winds Guest House and Amapola Inn for about $65. For a quieter, more intimate stay, you might want to try out one of the guest houses a few blocks in from the water's edge.
Ted's Guesthouse is definitely a value king. Ted rents out apartments with full kitchens, large balconies and air conditioning for just $65 a night. A two-bedroom apartment costs $100.
One of my favorite restaurants in Esperanza, the Posada Vistamar, is also one of the cheapest. It's run by elderly local legend Olga Bentez, who will personally seat you in her screened-in porch of a restaurant and tell you what's on the menu -- basically, whatever the fishermen caught that day. A whole fried grouper with plantains, rice and beans will set you back just $9. So will an octopus or conch salad. And for less than $6, you can munch on pork chops and crispy fried chicken. You can get similarly priced meals nearby at the whimsical beachfront restaurant El Jbaro (The Hillbilly).
Most of the island's outdoor adventures are run out of Esperanza. Not to be missed at any cost is a tour of Vieques' Bioluminescent Bay -- easily the most spectacular in the Caribbean. The water is packed with a large concentration of single-cell organisms that glow in the dark when agitated. The water fills with bright green streaks of light (nearly bright enough to read by) whenever a fish or stingray races past. You can even jump in the water yourself and watch as your limbs light up the surrounding water. Tours, either by electric boat or kayak, cost $23 and are run by Island Adventures (787-741-0720) and Blue Caribe Dive Center (787-741-2522).
And for just $20 a day, you can explore the interior of the island on a mountain bike (La Dulce Vida, 787-617-2453).