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The Sunday Telegraph
It's Booming On The Beach: The US Navy Has Helped Keep The Developers Away From Vieques
By James Henderson
March 11, 2001
Vieques . A Caribbean island. If you've never heard of it, you aren't alone. Barely anyone in Britain has ever heard of it. Which is ironic, considering that 60 years ago Vieques (pronounced Bee-yekkess) was of vital strategic importance, and due to become home to the British Navy had the Germans successfully invaded Britain.
I expect nobody had heard of Vieques then either, as its role was presumably a closely guarded military secret. The evidence is there, though. As you fly in to the island, peering down on coral heads set in jade, sandy-bottomed shallows and superb, scallop-shaped beaches, you see a causeway sticking out, like an exclamation mark, a mile and a half into the sea.
Vieques lies to the east of Puerto Rico , to which it is politically attached, the first in the string of reefs, sandbars and cays that culminate in the Virgin Islands. It is just 25 miles by five and has about 7,000 inhabitants. It also has the best beaches in Puerto Rico , so it is a surprise to find them undeveloped, with none of the high-rises that clamour on the shoreline of San Juan, or any other American city beach.
Instead, Vieques has slow, small-island life, Latin American-style. In place of chain hotels there are small, idiosyncratic guest houses, with book exchanges, home-made bread and typically charming, if slightly haphazard, Caribbean service. This I experienced in full measure the moment I arrived. My hostess, Penny Miller from the Sea Gate Guest House, offered to collect me from the airport. I waited. And waited. And then she swung into view, in a rickety old Suzuki Jeep, with two of her many dogs craning out of the window.
The ride to the guest house turned into an impromptu tour. Isabel Segunda, the main town, is dozy and a bit tatty, but there is some style in the old raised houses with small verandas and French doors. An occasional cannon stands buried, muzzle down, at the corners of a house - an old West Indian trick to protect the plasterwork from carriage wheels.
Vieques is currently experiencing a small boom. Art galleries and chi-chi restaurants are opening and bars are beginning to offer jazz evenings. In some ways this is the best that an American/Latin American island could offer: all the services and supplies available from the big island just a few miles away, but none of the crowds or the "fast and lite" approach to life.
Somehow our tour extended to the rest of the island. After a turn through Bravos de Boston, a small suburb presumably peopled by baseball supporters, we drove to Esperanza, the only other town, on the south coast. Peggy indicated beaches as we drove: Red Beach, Blue Beach and Green Beach - curious names, I thought.
Esperanza is the main tourist "strip", if the 300 yards of bars and restaurants jostling for streetfront space can be so described. Then, passing a lagoon, Peggy said: "Ah, there's the bio-luminescent bay. You should definitely visit that." I told her that I had, 10 years ago, and that it had been one of my most extraordinary Caribbean experiences, but a second visit would have to come later.
The reason for the lack of typical stateside development on Vieques is that the military still has a presence (which also explains the names of the beaches). The US navy owns large chunks of the island, which, from time to time, it bombs - the eastern tip is used as a naval gunnery range. No American hotel company is going to build with the possibility of a stray thousand-pounder flying through the bathroom window. Which is why Vieques is ideal for independent travellers who care more about avoiding crowds than the occasional bang.
The bombing is on hold at the moment. Since April 1999, when a local man working on the gunnery range was killed, the island has become a political punchball. There have been sit-ins in the impact area (forcibly broken up in May 2000), the camp gates have been blockaded and the Puerto Ricans , who traditionally looked down on the Viequenses as small-islanders, have come to demonstrate at the weekends. Petitions have flown north. Even President Clinton became involved.
On balance, it looks as though the bombing range and its surrounding land will remain in navy hands, but the western part of the island, where ordinance is stored, will probably be returned to the islanders.
In a bold move, Rosewood (which owns two of the smartest hotels in the Caribbean, Little Dix Bay and Caneel Bay in the Virgin Islands) is opening a hotel on the island later this year. This has created great interest among Caribbean tour operators. Martineau Bay, the owners say, will be in keeping with island atmosphere because there are no high-rises and it is not large, at least by stateside standards - there will still be about 150 rooms and suites. The service and standards, and, they hope, the clientele, will be the same as in their other resorts.
Islanders remain curious about this new development, some more politely than others. There is no doubt that Martineau Bay will bring the island "up" - the hotel has already negotiated an extension to the runway - but the developers have erected a perimeter wall around the beach, which is unheard of on the island. The Viequenses expect access to all their beaches.
It is a classic Caribbean debate, which I heard replayed in at least three of Esperanza's bars that evening. When the western part of the island was returned, would it be for the better? Would the big developers move in? Would they come if the bombing continues? Who would own the navy land anyway? Would you like another beer?.
I could resist the phosphorescent lake no longer. Penny, going in that direction, offered me a lift. The lake is best seen on a cloudless, moonless night, preferably by canoe. After a short lecture - "protozoa that emit light when agitated . . . enzymes that react with oxygen to release light . . . 500,000 parts per gallon instead of a typical 25-50, making it the brightest phosphorescent lake in the world . . ." - we headed down to the lagoon.
We started by paddling along the mangrove-fringed coastline, but as we turned into the middle of the lagoon, the paddles began to leave white-green whorls in the water and ghostly trails burned in the blackness behind the canoes. Suddenly a white line, a fish, darted beneath me. It faded and in two seconds it was gone. I stopped and scooped water in my hands, letting it drip down my forearms. Tiny pinpricks of light shone for a moment, like the stars in the night sky above. A swimmer, a seemingly celestial body, glided by, dragging a fuzzy, glowing aura, a kick churning the water into cauliflower clouds. A flick of the paddle put up a waterfall of light.
That night I was lucky enough to see a ray, an arrow-head two feet wide drawing a shimmering, ephemeral trail. Then, in the most magical moment, a school of small fish exploded in all directions. In a split second there was a cat's cradle of lines beneath the canoe, each showing the tiny saw-toothed movements of their flicking tails.
The island of Vieques will inevitably change as it becomes better known, but I hope that the bio-luminescent bay at least remains unaffected. For the second time, it was the weirdest and most spell-binding natural sight I have seen in the Caribbean.
Vieques is best reached via San Juan in Puerto Rico . There are no direct flights to San Juan from the UK, but American Airlines (0845 778 9789; www. aa.com) has daily flights via Miami from pounds 412. Iberia (0845 601 2854; www. iberia. com) has daily connections via Madrid from pounds 468.
Martineau Bay is expected to open this summer; reservations through Rosewood Hotels (020 7333 7013; www. rosewood-hotels.com); doubles from pounds 232. The Inn on the Blue Horizon (001 787 741 3318; www. innonthebluehorizon. com) is a secluded villa outside Esperanza with nine rooms and an excellent restaurant; doubles from pounds 125. The delightful Sea Gate Guest House (001 787 741 4661) is on the outskirts of Isabel Segunda; from pounds 35 b & b.
For further information, visit www.enchanted-isle.com.