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The Globe and Mail
Hix Island House, Puerto Rico
May 14, 2003
VIEQUES, PUERTO RICO -- People in the know have called Hix Island House, on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, one of the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean. It may not be for much longer.
The name of this design-led, service-light guesthouse -- the work of Toronto-based architect John Hix, who runs it with his wife -- is starting to circulate, as is that of tiny, low-speed Vieques itself.
Hix Island House consists of three poured-concrete, bunker-like buildings on five lush hectares atop a hill overlooking the Caribbean. The hotel started out as a winter getaway for Hix and his wife. Guest rooms for friends and family were added on. The three sleek structures (one more is in the works) eventually became a hotel, or rather an upscale guesthouse.
The concrete casas -- Triangular, Redonda and Rectangular, named after their shapes -- offer both an architectural counterpart to the giant granite boulders studding the hill, and a dramatic contrast with the untamed landscape.
Vieques Island became a target-practice zone for the U.S. Navy in 1947, and islanders and the forces have been living side by side in varying degrees of antagonism ever since. The navy has co-opted two-thirds of the island, including what islanders say are the best beaches, for its naval base, Camp Garcia. Amid large protests following the accidental death of an islander during target practice, the navy agreed to pull out, and closed its base on May 1 of this year. Islanders are now counting the days until the beaches behind Camp Garcia's gates are transferred back to public use. And despite their names, Blue Beach, Purple Beach and Red Beach all have miles of white, powdery sand.
Hix Island House is a lesson in inside/outside living. All 12 rooms -- or lofts, as owners prefer to call them -- have outdoor showers. The windows are glassless, though they can be shuttered. Everything is concrete: walls, floors, counters, bed platforms. The lofts are Flintstones-like in their simplicity.
Amid this grey-slabbed minimalism, rooms are furnished with Marimekko bed covers, a few Phillipe Starck pieces and Gerrit Reitveld-inspired chairs, designed by Hix. All lofts have private terraces with sweeping views down to the sea. Most guests leave their doors open all day and night.
Some rooms have metal doors with giant grids, so if you are afraid to go the distance on the open-door sleeping experience, you can sleep on your mosquito-netted bed with the main door open but the grid door closed.
The most desirable rooms are Unit One in Casa Redonda, which features a private sea-view terrace and a swinging double day bed; and Matisse loft, the top-floor unit in Triangular, where guests can climb to the roof to watch the sun rise and set.
Most of the guests are either weekending Eastern-seaboard professionals or design aficionados on the hunt for the new St. Bart's. Cellphone calls back to the office to see how the market is doing usually cease after the first day on the island.
A growing number of Americans and Canadians come to the island to visit friends who have bought inexpensive property on Vieques and have opened restaurants or other small businesses here.
The hotel is not a good fit for people who want all the trappings of luxury, or who mind washing their own breakfast dishes. There are no housekeeping or turn-down services, no poolside drink orders. Luxury on Hix Island House doesn't mean a chocolate on your pillow, but genuine peace and quiet. It's not about having 120 channels on your TV, it's about having no TV.
Food and drink
There is no restaurant at the guesthouse. Upon arrival, your kitchen, outfitted with Williams-Sonoma cookware, will be stocked with eggs, juice, Puerto Rican coffee, fresh island fruit and co-manager Mark Edmond's delicious homemade bread. Otherwise, you're on your own for meals.
The food-savvy managers and owners will tell you about the growing number of sophisticated restaurants on the island. Try Cafe Media Luna or Bayaonda in Vieques's main town, and Isabella Segunda, on the north side of the island, for casual but interesting Nuevo Caribbean cuisine. Down the hill from Hix House is Chez Shack, a roadside hut serving simple yet delicious Latino fare.
In the nearby fishing village of Esperanza, a seaside strip of casual restaurants and delis is a good source for lunch or picnics on the beach.
The structures, all hurricane-proof tropical modern design, prove that eco-friendliness can marry with high style.
Hix Island House was built using the principles of wabi-sabi construction, which mixes block and reinforced concrete. Architect Hix has made climate design his specialty and has put his theories to work with the island property, taking the sun, breeze, rain and topography as cues. Rooms on the hilltop property are angled to capture the trade wind, so the almost constant breeze provides natural cooling without the need of air conditioning.
Electricity and hot water are solar-powered. Rain water is trapped and "grey" water from showers and kitchens drains onto the landscaping, nourishing the property's guava, papaya and lemon trees.
A tourist-office brochure proclaims the Hix Island house pool "the best pool in Vieques," but the exceedingly stylish swimming hole could easily claim citations beyond the parameters of the tiny island: The quarter-moon-shaped concrete pool edges the side of the hill, and the deck offers panoramic views of the sea and jungle landscape. The eco-sensitive pool is cleaned with silver and copper anode, alleviating the need for chlorine. These measures haven't gone unnoticed: Hix won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2002 Environmental Quality Award for the property.
You could call it sophisticated Zen. Or hip but not hippy. Either way, it's peaceful, almost a retreat experience, although because of the glassless windows, a very loud neighbour could be problematic.
Things to do
Yoga classes are offered three times a week at the hotel in an outdoor studio surrounded by swaying palm trees. Nearby are beautiful beaches to explore: Cozy, deserted Sun Bay is good for early morning swims or beach walks. Wild horses roam in the hills above. Medialuna's shallow waters make it a favourite beach of families; Navio has bigger waves and is popular for water-sport enthusiasts and for exploring sea caves. Reef-filled Green Beach is snorkeller territory.
After the navy's pull-out on May 1, even better beaches ("the most beautiful," according to islanders) will be open to the public.
A nighttime boat tour of Vieques's natural wonder, Bioluminescent Bay (biobay.com), is a must. The bay is home to a concentrated population of micro-organisms that glow in the dark when disturbed. A swimmer in the bay's warm waters becomes a neon green shimmer in the dark.
Hix Island House: Pilon, Vieques, Puerto Rico; phone: (787) 741 2302; fax: (787) 741 2797; or visit the Web site at www.hixislandhouse.com. Rooms start at about $225.