The United States Navy's firing range is a hot topic
on this otherwise low-key island off Puerto Rico.
WHEN our New York friends heard that my pal Andrew and
I would be vacationing in Vieques, Puerto Rico, the consensus
was: we'd lost our minds. Vieques (pronounced bee-AY-kase) is
a 21-mile string bean of an island off Puerto Rico, two-thirds
of which is used by the United States Navy for weapons storage
and live-bomb training. "No doubt you'll be going to Bikini
next," one friend suggested, referring to the Pacific atoll
used for hydrogen bomb tests in the 1950's.
Len Kaufman for The New York Times
|On the beach at Sun Bay on Vieques.
But we'd heard great things about Vieques -- which enjoys
an underground reputation as one of the last untouched paradises
in all the Caribbean. Beyond the obvious minus that part of the
island was a bombing range, we'd heard that wild horses grazed
near some 40 white sand beaches, that there were miles of nature
trails for bird-watching and a clean coral reef for snorkeling.
The island was unpretentious and affordable -- Puerto Rican families
often spent the weekend there.
By logging onto the Web site www.vieques-island.com, I was
able to find listings for most of the island's approximately
150 rental rooms. There was plenty of simple, affordable lodging
-- for example, in the fishing village of Esperanza, a double
at the Acacia apartments cost as little as $65.
We ended up picking a high-end choice, the 16-room Hacienda
Tamarindo in Esperanza. For $160 a night -- plus 10 percent service
charge and 9 percent tax -- we booked a luxury double with a
private bath and two American breakfasts. An additional $7.50
each bought a picnic lunch packed for the beach. According to
the Web site, the Hacienda's owners, Linda and Burr Vail, former
Vermonters, decorated all the rooms with their own "collection
of art, antiques and personal collectibles."
Getting to Vieques was easy: a nonstop flight from Newark
to San Juan International Airport, where we changed for a Vieques
Air Link puddle-jumper. At the Vieques Airport, we picked up
a jitney cab for $5 apiece, and the driver gave us a mini-tour
of the island while he delivered his other fares to local inns.
At first glance, Vieques seemed something out of a Henri Rousseau
painting. There were animals everywhere -- goats, roosters, donkeys,
iguanas and pale Brahman cattle who roamed free. The greenery
was wild and overgrown and the sea a supernatural neon turquoise.
The only jarring note were the banners hanging, seemingly on
every other house and tree, with slogans like "NAVY, OUT,"
"NO MORE BOMBS" and "PEACE FOR VIEQUES!!!"
Andrew, a political scientist, looked at the signs and said,
"You can't have paradise without a paradox, can you?"
The "paradox" here was Camp Garcia, the United States
Navy training base that dominates the island; for part of every
year since 1941, it had been the scene of ship-to-shore bombardments,
amphibious landings and live bombing runs. Camp Garcia had retarded
the island's development, kept it poor, natural and charming.
It had also, some critics claimed, polluted the environment with
heavy metals from the weapons testing.
But the future of Vieques and Camp Garcia -- as the graffiti
attested -- was up for grabs. In April 1999, a Marine Corps jet
fighter accidentally bombed an observation tower and killed a
civilian security guard, David Sanos Rodriguez. Mr. Sanos's death
rekindled long-simmering resentments against the Navy and sparked
an illegal camp-in by Puerto Rican religious and political figures
on the actual firing range. The demonstrators accused the Navy
of decades of callousness -- with hindering economic development,
polluting the land and water and driving the Viequense crazy
with noise of the bomb concussions. In response, President Clinton
ordered a temporary halt to live weapons testing and, as our
driver cheerfully explained, "there are demonstrations here
every weekend till the Navy goes."
But the Navy doesn't want to quit Vieques, which Adm. Jay
L. Johnson, chief of naval operations, has characterized as the
"crown jewel training experience for us." There are
plans to restart the bombing with "inert weapons, "
which do not explode. A deal to settle as much as $90 million
on the island for environmental cleanup and infrastructure development
has been endorsed by both President Clinton and Puerto Rico's
governor, Pedro J. Rossello. There is also a plebiscite planned
for next year when the Viequense will vote on the Navy's future.
As a first step, President Clinton recently transferred 110 acres
of Navy land to Puerto Rico, to enlarge the airport.
The Hacienda Tamarindo, perched on a hill high above the Caribbean,
was mercifully several miles from the noise -- military and political
-- of Camp Garcia. (And in any case, the target practice had
been suspended.) And the inn seemed, from the very start, every
bit as wonderful as its Web page had promised it would be. A
sweet Amazon parrot named Shaboo greeted us by the door, with
squawks of "Hullo, hullo . . . tickle, tickle."
The Vails, who had a long history in the restaurant business
in New England, have anticipated the details that can make a
visit memorable: a library filled with good books, an honor-bar
stocked with Medalla beer, a gorgeous swimming pool with vistas
of the Caribbean, folding chairs for the beach, umbrellas for
the soft tropical rain. Olga Garcia, the Hacienda's personable
manager, had even arranged for our rental car, a $40-a-day dented
Jeep from Maritza Car Rentals, to be ready after our check-in.
As for our room, it was a large one on the second floor overlooking
the Caribbean, with a small terrace and a good king-size bed,
decorated in a pleasant blend of Spanish tile and North American
Aside from hunting for a decent dinner (more on that later),
there wasn't all that much to do on the island -- though, as
Andrew remarked, "doing nothing is why we're here."
Most days, we loaded the Jeep and headed for Sun Bay, a state
park that never seemed to have more than 12 people in it. There
we'd pick a sheltering coconut palm, settle in with a book and
sunscreen, and watch the nature show.
There was plenty to see: brown pelicans flying sentry up and
down the bay, a herd of wild horses bathing in the shallows,
seabirds fishing. Behind Sun Bay were miles of trails that lead
to a succession of the purest white sand beaches. On days when
Andrew was lost in a tome, I'd head for these back trails and
pretend I was Rima the bird girl, tracking hummingbirds, egrets
and something that sounded like a parakeet.
Of course, not all of this island's natural treasures are
on land. On two different afternoons, we signed up for a snorkeling
tour. For $30 a person, we were outfitted with mask, snorkel
and flippers, taken on a boat to the Blue Tang reef not far from
Camp Garcia and let loose to gawk at God's own tropical fish
tank -- a psychedelic universe of parrotfish, sergeant majors
and truly blue, blue tangs.
Vieques may still be a natural paradise, but it's definitely
not yet a destination for gourmets. In fact, for most of the
10 days we were there, food was a problem. The Hacienda Tamarindo
served an elegant breakfast. On some days, we'd order the Hacienda's
picnic lunch -- a sandwich, fruit, chips and brownie -- and that
was fine. But finding a decent dinner was a test of my skills
as an investigative reporter.
OUR first try, La Campesina, rumored to be the best on the
island, defied its reputation and all commonsense by serving
undercooked chicken and near-raw scallops. The food at the Amapola
was virtually inedible. At the Trade Winds the food was fine,
but our waitress so hostile, so slow, that she soured the evening.
For some reason, few restaurants employ Puerto Rican waiters
or waitresses. The sullen snowbirds they tend to hire don't hesitate
to let you know they'd rather be at the beach.
If a Puerto Rican waiter is hard to find, so is a Puerto Rican
meal -- though, to its credit, the Trade Winds offers some local
dishes. On weekends, however, a visitor can find the real thing
when local women offer homemade specialties along the road: rice
and beans, fried plantains, spiced meat pies. We had several
tasty lunches this way, for under $5.
The major exception to the disappointing restaurants is the
luxurious Inn on the Blue Horizon, within walking distance of
our hotel, where entrees run from $24 through $28. Four of us
from the Hacienda hiked over there one night for a light supper
of appetizers and desserts. Each dish, from the black-pepper-seared
sea scallops ($12) to the goat cheese tart with tomato polenta
crust ($9) was excellent.
Off-putting, however, was our being made to wait for seating
even though the restaurant was nearly empty. When we asked for
a waterfront table, we were archly informed it was "reserved."
In the two hours we were there, no one arrived to claim it.
Despite the snootery, the Inn at the Blue Horizon is lovely.
In addition to the restaurant, the inn rents nine rooms, seven
of them waterfront and all decorated with fine antiques and exquisite
taste. The hotel's co-owner, James Weis, says he is host to a
glamorous clientele: "We don't mention names, but we get
quite a few midcelebrities," he asserts.
Like so many of the North Americans we met, Mr. Weis has a
great interest in real estate. The future of Camp Garcia and
the price of acreage, two linked topics, were the top conversational
subjects on the island. Mr. Weis and his partner, William Knight,
hope to move forward with an expansion, even if the Navy does
not leave Vieques. He said his guests can't hear the bombing,
and added, "The fact that Rosewood thinks Vieques is a destination
helps with the lenders."
The "Rosewood" Mr. Weis refers to is Rosewood Hotels
and Resorts of Dallas. After spending somewhere in the neighborhood
of $50 million, Rosewood and partners plan to transform Vieques
by opening the 25-acre Martineau Bay Resort on the Atlantic Ocean
side of the island. (A large hunk of that development money came
from a Puerto Rican bond issue, according to James Brown, Rosewood's
president and chief operating officer.)
This 156-room walled-in complex, a mile and a half from that
to-be-expanded airport, will initiate Vieques into the world
of commercial tourism. When the hotel opens in December, it will
instantly double the island's room capacity. Winter rates are
expected to range from $475 for a double room to $3,000 a night
for a three-bedroom villa. At those prices, a new brand of tourist
is likely to come to Vieques. Goodbye, Birkenstock-bohos. Hello,
Rosewood, whose other properties include Little Dix Bay on
Virgin Gorda and the Mansion at Turtle Creek in Dallas, is known
for tasteful resorts with personal service and first-rate cuisine.
The company's plans for Martineau Bay are very much within that
tradition. To satisfy our curiousity, one morning we headed over
to the bustling construction site at Martineau Bay and took a
tour with Pierre Zreik, the hotel's managing director.
Mr. Zreik was full of excitement as he showed us the lavish
kitchens for the two restaurants, one bar and 24-hour room service,
the ditch that would be a free-form swimming pool, the tiled
palace that was the health spa, and the hotel's first completed
guest rooms. The designers had made a point of using the natural
seascape as the focus of the décor. Every room had an
The sample interiors were a cheerful mix of rattan, blue tile
and wrought iron, and as a Web-site brochure (www.rosewood-hotels.com)
promised: "All rooms will have air-conditioning, cable TV,
three phones, fax line, data port connection, separate soaking
tub and shower. One-bedroom suites will feature Jacuzzi tubs."
The Rosewood people have not, as the singer Joni Mitchell once
wrote, "paved paradise and put up a parking lot," but
they have certainly tamed it.
Still, what Rosewood is creating is a gamble. After all, how
many upscale travelers will want to stay on an island that might
soon again be a bombing range and that is the heart of a fierce
political conflict? In early February, 85,000 Puerto Rican citizens
clogged the main highway of San Juan, protesting resumption of
James Brown, Rosewood's president, doesn't think he has a
problem. "The testing range is 20 miles away," he said
in a telephone interview from his office in Dallas.
As for all the demonstrations, he said: "I think it will
bring continued focus on the island.
More people will know where Vieques is." Noting that
there are two more hotels in the the planning stages, he added,
"The island will soon become a destination, in and of itself."