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The Globe

Ready, Aim, Relax On Unspoiled Vieques Despite Its Use As A Bomb-Testing Site By The U.S. Navy, This Puerto Rican Island Offers A Feast Of Outdoor Pursuits


February 20, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES , PUERTO RICO -- Locals fishing on a pier at sunset. Wild horses roaming nearly empty beaches. Family-run restaurants serving tapas and paella.

If there's one island in the Caribbean that still has authentic charms, it's Vieques . That's the same Vieques that the U.S. Navy has used to test live ammunition since the Second World War.

Concern has been building in recent years over what the bombing has been doing to the island's ecology and the residents' health. After intense lobbying and protests, the navy agreed to switch to dummy bombs last year, and is on course for gradual withdrawal by 2003.

Growing numbers of vacationers -- more than 4,000 a year -- are now discovering Vieques as a beautifully unspoiled destination.

The forests and beaches at each end of the island are undeveloped and under government control. Of these only one, Green Beach, is open to the public. Wild horses roam the access roads and beach, where you can spend all day snorkelling or lounging under a palm tree and see no one.

Late in the afternoon, local people gather to fish from the pier just off the road to Green Beach. It's also an ideal vantage point to watch the sunset.

When the navy pulls out in 18 months, those lands are supposed to be divided between the municipality of Vieques and the Department of the Interior and remain undeveloped. The navy turned over Green Beach in January, and the local government is "operating it basically as a park, an area for people to enjoy," says Jane Sabin, an island real-estate agent. "People use the access roads for jogging, bike riding, and there's boating."

Beaches on the southern coast, under municipal control, are often as unpopulated as any of the navy beaches. At Navio, there are big waves and beautiful cliffs, while at the next beach over, Media Luna, the water's surface is like glass. Sun Bay in Esperanza is the best for walking -- it's about two kilometres long and the sand is like cake flour. It also has showers and picnic tables.

A cab ride from San Juan is Fajardo, where you can catch a ferry to Isabel Segunda, the port town of Vieques . As the ferry made its way to the dock and the hilly, sleepy town came into view, I began to relax almost instinctively.

A publico van took us to the Inn on the Blue Horizon, perched on spacious oceanfront land that was once a sugar plantation. It was like staying at the home of a rich aunt: Tastefully done up in earth tones and full of beautiful antiques, every room has its own character. Most rooms are cabanas separate from the main house, with their own porches facing the ocean.

We fell asleep in our cabana each night listening to the song of tree frogs and awoke each morning to roosters yodelling from the farm next door. There are no phones or TVs in the rooms.

If you just want to be pampered, there's no need to leave the inn at all: Its lovely, open-air restaurant serves breakfast and dinner, lunch is catered, and everyone hangs out at the big swimming pool or ducks into the circular, open-air bar attached to the main house when the sun becomes too intense. There's even a small gym with weights and a treadmill.

Of course, all this luxury doesn't come cheap: Cabanas at Blue Horizon run $270 to $300 (all amounts in U.S. dollars) a night, though there is one smaller room in the main house for $150.

The island is full of nice, inexpensive restaurants in Isabel Segunda and Esperanza, or tucked away in the hills between them. We found tapas at Taverna Espanola for a few dollars. At Cafe Mar Azul, an open-air bar and restaurant overlooking the harbour, we found cheap mahi-mahi sandwiches and listened to bad eighties music. Island Cafe boasts two chefs formerly of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass.: Seth Morrison and Owen Tilley.

We went on adventures every day in a Jeep we rented for $40 a day. At 38 kilometres long and six kilometres wide, Vieques is easy to navigate. You can't get to the beaches by walking, and the Jeep's off-road capability came in handy on bumpy dirt roads.

From mountain biking tours on the cow paths through the hills to kayaking, birdwatching, scuba diving and snorkelling, Vieques is an ecotourist's delight. The island's most famous natural feature is the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay. Surrounded by mangroves and accessible by a dirt road, the bay glows at night from millions of tiny organisms that feed on fallen leaves and give off light energy when they are disturbed. When you swim, stirring up the water, you set off a chemical chain reaction that causes a greenish light to glow around you.

We took a nighttime kayaking tour to swim in the glow, which changes in intensity in different parts of the bay and is most visible when there is no moon. The water was murkier than we expected, but we basked in the glow and learned to kayak, all in one outing.

The tours, run by Blue Caribe Dive Center, begin and end in Esperanza, with its little row of open-air restaurants facing Sun Bay, perfect for the post-kayaking crowd.

Daytime kayaking is also big here, especially for glimpses of rare birds and a chance to snorkel. Blue Lagoon Kayaks gives tours of the western end of Vieques from the navy pier all the way to the shore at Puntas Arenas for $55.

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