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The Columbus Dispatch
Vieques Unspoiled; Tourists Discover Pristine World Of Island The Navy Once Bombed
By Steve Stephens
10 October 2004
Stay away from Vieques!
The tiny Puerto Rican island has an infamous past that might have saved it -- so far -- from the worst ravages of crass tourism.
Journalistic integrity forces me to report that the island served, until recently, as a U.S. Navy bombing range.
Some of the bays, honest and truly, glow in the dark.
And the Rev. Al Sharpton used to visit to bellow into a bullhorn.
Have you stopped reading yet? Have you scheduled that Caribbean vacation to some other place?
Because, unfortunately, I also must report that the island is a true paradise, at least for those seeking solitude, world-class food and accommodations, and sugary-white-sand beaches that make Maui's look like overbooked gravel quarries.
And the more people who discover the island's charm, hospitality and -- oh -- those beaches, the less likely I am to have acres of sand and surf to myself when I return.
And I will return.
My new favorite place in the world is a Vieques beach so beautiful, so secluded, that I vowed to the locals who let me in on the secret to keep its exact coordinates to myself.
I recently spent a glorious day on that beach, frolicking with my best girl in the surf before lounging contentedly in the deep shade of a short, wide coconut palm. Our only company -- besides a flotilla of dive-bombing pelicans -- was one other couple, with their own spot well down the half-mile arc of white sand that sloped ever so gently into the Caribbean.
Truth be told, there are many other beaches just as beautiful as my secret beach (which should not be confused with Secret Beach, which isn't any more.)
Lovely beaches dot the island's southern shore like freckles on a beautiful woman. And many more have yet to be opened to the public.
Which brings us back to the Navy.
In the 1940s, the United States bought 25,000 acres of Vieques -- about two thirds of the island -- to use as a Navy bombing range. In 1947, military exercises began there.
The Navy left the island in early 2003 after massive demonstrations that became a cause celebre for media-savvy protesters. The situation had reached a boiling point in 1999 after a local man, working as a guard at the Navy site, was killed by an errant bomb.
''When the situation became bad, a lot of people wanted the Navy out. And the Navy never attempted to become partners with people on the island,'' said Burr Vail, who owns the Hacienda Tamarindo hotel near the village of Esperanza.
''For first time in the history of the world, all three Puerto Rican (political) parties agreed on something. They wouldn't agree on whether the sun will come up tomorrow, but they agreed on this.''
Based on the footage I had seen on the nightly news, I had pictured Vieques as a cratered moonscape littered with unexploded ordnance that blew careless beachcombers sky high.
Vieques was never like that, Vail said. The bombing had actually been confined to about 900 inland acres of the land owned by the Navy, he said. And many of the beaches on Navy land had long been open to the public.
But the protesters ''were brilliant,'' Vail said.
''Their protest camps were perfect symbols made for television. They even built a beautiful wooden chapel that you'd never see on this island, like something from New England.''
Although Vail, like most Vieques residents, is happy the Navy is gone, its presence had a beneficial side effect, he said.
''The bad news is the U.S. Navy dominated two-thirds of the island for two-thirds of a century,'' Vail said.
''The good news is the same thing.''
Because of the military presence, most of the island was protected from development. And the former Navy land now has been designated a national wildlife refuge.
''The Navy land is mostly pristine, except for those 900 acres,'' he said. ''We've got nesting turtles and a wonderful variety of fish and birds.''
Vail, with his wife, Linda, has operated the Hasienda Tamarindo for nine years. The Vails were longtime New Englanders and had owned a chain of restaurants.
The small, comfortable hotel, with a panoramic view of the Caribbean and an ancient tamarind tree growing through the center courtyard, was ''my fifth midlife crisis, and the only one my wife would go along with,'' Mr. Vail said.
When the couple decided to sell the restaurants and buy a Caribbean hotel, they researched the region intensively.
''I have the world's biggest library on Costa Rica. It's a wonderful country, but the beaches are lousy.''
Other locations were ruled out because of high prices, unfriendly business conditions, overcrowding or the lack of the pristine beaches the Vails love.
And Vieques was ''the only place we could find more laid back than Vermont.''
''There are so many beautiful beaches here you always have plenty of room,'' he said. ''And they're opening more of the sea coast as they clean up'' the former Navy land.
And now the rest of the world is discovering that the island is much more than a former bombing range. Other refugees from the U.S. mainland have opened more fine hotels, inns and restaurants.
Our meals at the Blue Macaw, Bili's, and Pasa Fino at the Wyndham -- the island's only resort -- were world-class. But the island still retains a quiet, rural charm. And the sandwiches we bought at a tiny panadaria in the picturesque town of Esperanza proved as satisfying as any restaurant spread, especially when eaten under the coconut tree at our top-secret beach.
But everywhere we dined we had glorious ocean views.
Esparanza's narrow main street and its lovely seaside promenade, the Malecon, were all that separated us from the Caribbean as we ate alfresco at Bili's, located in the heart of the tiny town.
We watched as an eclectic representation of the old and new Vieques passed by: couples, both locals and tourists, walking hand in hand; old pickup trucks with drivers who winked at pretty girls; horses, with riders and without; bicycles of all sizes and conditions; and many rental sport-utility vehicles.
A four-wheel-drive is the rental vehicle of choice on Vieques because the best beaches are well off the paved roads. But the gravel lanes that crisscross the island, though potholed, are passable. Just don't expect to travel much over 10 mph.
The other town on the island, Isabella Segunda, is home to most of the island's inhabitants as well as several fine restaurants and inns and the 150-year-old Fort Conde de Mirasol, the last Spanish fort built in the Western Hemisphere and now a museum.
Vieques is also home to the world's finest bioluminecent bay. A fortuitous combination of ingredients -- clean water, the unusual topography of the bay and a lack of light pollution -- have contributed to the growth of a tremendous colony of microscopic, luminous sea plankton.
A kayak trip in the bay on a dark night is nothing short of magical. Any motion causes millions of the creatures to briefly glow. Every fish leaves a comet-like trail as it streaks by. Every stroke of the kayak paddle brings a pulse of bluish, living light.
And diving into the bay on a moonless night is, for want of a better description, like swimming in the Milky Way.
With its ''Bio Bay,'' incredible beaches, and quiet first-class accommodations, it's only a matter of time before the sleepy island of Vieques becomes much less sleepy.
In fact, while I was there, Kill Bill actress Uma Thurman was also visiting the island, although she managed to stay one step ahead of me.
If Uma has discovered Vieques, can the rest of the world be far behind?
There is still hope. Although there is no proof for the allegations, some of the more radical activists claim that the military left behind dangerous pollution on Vieques.
''They've claimed cancer, heavy metals, made-up diseases -- they claim everything,'' Vail said.
''I had guests from Vermont who had made reservations but who wouldn't come down because one was pregnant and she was afraid of what she was hearing in the media.''
Whatever you do, keep away from Vieques.
If you go
VIEQUES, PUERTO RICO
Vieques, 7 miles off the east coast of the main island of Puerto Rico, is a quiet paradise -- now that the bombing has stopped.
Flights from Columbus to San Juan are available, usually with stops in Chicago, Orlando or Miami.
From San Juan, flights are scheduled daily to Vieques on the small commuter prop planes of Vieques Air Link and Sunshine Air. Flying the tiny low-flying planes is perfectly safe but seems like an adventure to travelers more used to 737s.
Call Vieques Air Link toll-free at 1-888-901-9247.
Call Sunshine Air toll-free at 1-800-327-8900.
Air-taxi services and charter flights are also available from San Juan International or the Vieques airport.
Flights are also available from Fajardo, a town on the east coast of the main island of Puerto Rico. A ferry also travels between Fajardo and Vieques daily.
A four-wheel-drive vehicle is highly recommended for Vieques travelers, especially for those hoping to explore isolated beaches.
Several local rental-car companies have the vehicles available. Many hotels and inns also will arrange rental cars for guests.
Information on Vieques travel and tourism -- with links to hotels, rental car agencies, airlines and tourism sites -- is available at www.vieques-island.com.
Source: Dispatch research