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Vieques, Mostly Mellow

by Claudia Dreifus

April 9, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

The United States Navy's firing range is a hot topic on this otherwise low-key island off Puerto Rico.

Len Kaufman for The New York Times
On the beach at Sun Bay on Vieques.
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.

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, 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 antiques.

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, Prada-people.

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 ocean view.

The sample interiors were a cheerful mix of rattan, blue tile and wrought iron, and as a Web-site brochure ( 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 Naval testing.

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."

A hot spot off Puerto Rico...

Getting There

Continental, American and T.W.A. are among the airlines that fly nonstop from New York to San Juan International Airport. At San Juan, we caught one of the flights to the island (at least three a day in each direction) run by Vieques Air Link, (888) 901-9247; $123 round trip. Isla Nena Air Service, (787) 741-6362, also has flights; $105 round trip.

A public ferry, (787) 741-4761, runs between the Puerto Rican town of Fajardo to Isabela Segunda on Vieques ($2 a person, $15 to $19 per car).

Where to Stay

Hacienda Tamarindo, (787) 741-8525, fax (787) 741-3215, is an informal, stylish 16-room guest house with gorgeous rooms, a gleaming swimming pool, first-rate service and spectacular views of the Caribbean. Doubles run from $135 to $160 and a suite with a Jacuzzi is $190, plus 10 percent service charge and 9 percent tax. A full sit-down breakfast is included in the tariff. Next door, the waterfront Inn on the Blue Horizon, (787) 741-3318, fax (787) 741-0522, is more elegant but far more stiffly formal. The nine rooms run from $175 to $250 nightly.

There is a high-quality restaurant (entrees $24 to $28) and a romantic open-air bar on the premises.

Information about Martineau Bay, the Rosewood Hotels and Resorts property, can be found by calling (888) 767-3966, or on the Web at

Acacia Apartments, telephone and fax (787) 741-1856, is an immaculate four-unit apartment complex within walking distance of Sun Bay Beach and the restaurants of Esperanza. Nightly rates range from $65 to $185, plus tax.

Where to Eat

The best meal in Vieques is at the Inn on the Blue Horizon's Cafe Blu, but visitors should be prepared to suffer unnecessary snobberies as part of their dining experience.

A less fancy, but tasty supper is served at the Trade Winds, a restaurant, bar and guest house in Esperanza, (787) 741-8666; entrees $11.50 and up. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Unfortunately, it was our experience that the service was unrelentingly awful.

Cafe Media Luna, (787) 741-2594, in the town of Isabel Segunda, served well-prepared Asian-Spanish fusion cuisine (entrees, $22 to $25). Dinner only, Wednesday through Sunday.

Chez Shack, in the mountain town of Pilon, (787) 741-2175, has a Reggae Grill Night on Monday, which draws most of the island's expatriate community for an all-you-can-eat buffet and great local music; $16 to $24 a person without drinks or tip.

Reservations are strongly suggested.

The Green Store, in Esperanza, sells yogurt, cheese, fruit and the English-language daily, The San Juan Star.


Admission to the beach at Sun Bay is $2 a day on weekends; free weekdays.

La Dulce Vida in Pilon, (787) 617-2453, rents mountain bikes for $20 per day.

Blue Caribe Dive Center in Esperanza, (787) 741-2522, offers a full range of snorkeling and scuba diving programs. A three-hour snorkeling trip to Blue Tang Reef costs $30, including equipment.

Island Adventures, just outside Esperanza, (787) 741-0720, runs 90-minute tours of Bioluminescent Bay in an electrically powered pontoon boat; $20.For an original souvenir, the artist Helen Davis, who has a studio on the road to the fort in Isabel Segunda, (787) 741-4451, sells her folk-art lithographs of island scenes "by chance or appointment" for $30 and up; she is often there in the mornings.

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