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The Boston Globe

A Puerto Rican Paradise

by Michael Blanding, Correspondent

April 28, 2004
Copyright © 2003 The Boston Globe. All rights reserved.

VIEQUES, PR -- Standing on the white sands of Red Beach, it's hard to believe that US Navy bombers ever droned over the surf on their way to drop explosives nearby. The beach, a semicircle of stark cliffs and swaying palms surrounding a sparkling azure sea, is as perfect a picture of paradise as the wallpaper in a 1970s rumpus room. Silence is broken only by the murmurs of a dozen or so families lolling on the sand, an unbelievably low population for a beach touted as one of the best in the Caribbean.

A year ago, the scene would have been even more deserted. Before the Navy left the island of Vieques last year, two-thirds of this tiny spit off the coast of Puerto Rico was all but closed to the public, used solely for target practice and munitions storage. Protests in the late 1990s, during which one man was killed, forced the military to negotiate, and they finally pulled out last May after 60 years of occupation. Ironically, the occupation was as much Vieques's salvation as its destroyer, saving it from the out-of-control development of nearby islands such as St. Thomas. Only a small portion of the eastern tip of the island was bombed in military exercises. The rest of the Navy lands have remained a dense jungle of mangroves and lagoons, secluded beaches, and scrub forest where wild horses roam. For tourists, this means a virtually unspoiled island paradise in the middle of the Caribbean, only a jump across the puddle from San Juan. For locals it means a question mark: No sooner was their fight against the Navy over than they had to contend with a new invasion of tourists. "The season just didn't end this year," says Jim Starke, webmaster for the local website "Restaurants that usually close in August stayed open until October."

Fueling the surge was Wyndham Martineau Bay Resort and Spa, the island's first resort, which opened last year. So far, it has brought a mix of benefits to residents, who, though wary of the megadevelopment, have been reaping a bonanza of tourist dollars. (In an effort to be a good neighbor, the Wyndham restaurant offers discounts for residents.)

Elsewhere on the island, the atmosphere is decidedly more downbeat. Gangly boys ride bareback on horses through the town center of Isabel Segunda (another name for Vieques, as is La Isla Nena; the Taino Indian word for small island is "bieques") and residents set up lawn chairs and grills along the roadside for impromptu parties at sunset. At the sandwich shacks along the boardwalk of the funky expat community of Esperanza, owners chat with tourists and make special orders for regulars. For residents hoping to preserve Vieques's low-impact lifestyle, the buzz word is ecotourism.

"There is real hope that the former Navy lands will be cleaned up and put in the hands of our community," says Bob Rabin of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques. He envisions a tourist trade based on smaller hotels and bed-and-breakfasts that would complement, not overshadow, the environment. Several examples exist: The Hix Island House is a cool and minimalist open-air guesthouse in a secluded grove outside the main population center. The friendly Hacienda Tamarindo on the southern side of the island is literally built around its namesake tamarind tree, which grows through the lobby and spreads its fruit above the third floor.

Several island restaurants strike a similar balance between quality and informality. The recently opened Bayaonda is the enterprise of Gustavo Marn and Wanda Rivera, a couple whose ancestors are from Vieques. The decor might be described charitably as "rustic minimalism," with a tin roof over card tables and concrete rooms open to the surrounding jungle of peeping tree frogs. The nouveau Caribbean food, however, is attraction enough: tender suckling pig marinated in pine nut vinaigrette, pan-seared dorado under a sweet-tart criollo sauce, and mocha profiteroles with Valrhona chocolate sauce.

Another island favorite, the brightly colored Chez Shack (see story on Page E5), clearly has been reaping the benefits of the tourist trade with a high-energy vibe. Here, a starter of ribs with Coca-Cola barbecue sauce is followed by entrees steaming with island soul: mahimahi with coriander sauce, served with aromatic ginger rice, fried plantains, and a succulent grilled avocado with mango salsa.

Even given these culinary gems, the real draw of Vieques isn't its night life, but its wildlife. "We have something so unique here," says Oscar Diaz, head of the US Fish and Wildlife Refuge that took over most of the former Navy lands. Much of the island, he says, is subtropical dry forest, among the most endangered ecosystems in the world, and serves as a buffer to an untrammeled coastline. Just past Red Beach is a dusty turnoff to Playa Escondida (Secret Beach), almost as beautiful and even more devoid of human life.

Thousands of acres of wilderness are spider-webbed with roads amid abandoned military bunkers that have been open to the public for two years. On the western tip of the island, guided walkways offer an example of Vieques's other endangered habitat: The mangrove forests that are a nutrient-rich nursery for 90 percent of the surrounding ocean's species. The mangroves provide the basis for Vieques's - and indeed Puerto Rico's - star natural attraction, called the Bioluminescent Bays. Because of a profusion of microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates, the water in these two natural inlets glows at night when disturbed. Kayak trips, offered by several tourism companies, lead to early-evening swims in which bathers seem covered with tiny stars.

Diaz hopes the island can use these natural wonders to create a niche as an eco-friendly paradise.

"Hey, if you do not protect the material basis of whatever development is going to be in the future . . . forget it," he warns. "The refuge can bring a lot of economic benefits to the people."

That may not be good enough for some locals, however, for whom reclaiming their former lands may be the quickest route out of poverty.

"The people of Vieques are very clear that all those fragile ecosystems need to be protected and preserved," says Rabin. "The land belongs by rights to the people."

So far, the Puerto Rican government has promised that the Wyndham will be the only resort allowed on the island, with the rest of the land to be developed "sustainably"; how or by whom has not been specified. In the short term, at least, little is likely to change while the fate of the island is being determined - except for more tourists discovering this oasis of natural beauty and calling it paradise.


How to Get There

Lowest round-trip direct air fare between Boston and San Juan available at press time was $382 on multiple carriers. Flights from San Juan to Vieques take 30-45 minutes and are available on Vieques Air Link ($75/$150) and other carriers. Alternatively, you can take a taxi from San Juan to Fajardo (1 hour, $50-$75) and a ferry to Vieques (1 1/2 hours, $2). On the island, Acevedo's Rental Car (Route 201, 787-741-4380) offers four-wheel-drive vehicles for $50/day.

What to Do

US Fish and Wildlife Refuge

The western side of the island includes Laguna Kiani, with a self-guided tour through a mangrove swamp, and Green Beach, popular with day-sailers. The eastern side has some of the best beaches in the Caribbean, including Red, Blue, and Secret.

Bioluminescent Bays

Various companies offer nighttime kayak tours of a unique natural phenomenon. One is:

A small company that offers intimate expeditions. $40 per person.

Where to Eat

Highway 200, Near the Esso station Isabel Segunda
Artisanal Caribbean cuisine infuses Puerto Rican flavor with nouveau flair.
Entrees: $20-$24.

Chez Shack
Highway 995, North of Esperanza
A convivial spot with tropical entrees and barbecue. Reggae night (Monday) is popular.
Entrees: $16-$20.

Trade Winds Guesthouse and Restaurant
On the Malecon Esperanza
The best of many sandwich stops on the boardwalk; also serves dinner.
Entrees: $10-$14.

Where to Stay

Hacienda Tamarindo
Route 996, East of Esperanza
A friendly inn full of antiques from the owner's 15-year career as an interior decorator.
Doubles: $125-$275.

Hix Island House
Route 995
Chill out in island seclusion with minimalist rooms open to the sounds of the jungle.
Doubles: $150-$260.

Wyndham Martineau Bay Resort & Spa
Route 200 (kilometer 3.4)
What it lacks in character, the resort makes up in proximity to Isabel Segunda and its own private beach.
Doubles: $140-$650.

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