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The Boston Globe


Ready, Aim, Relax Vieques Defuses Travelers - And Controversy - With Its Unspoiled Charms

By Amy Graves

DECEMBER 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001
The Boston Globe. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES , Puerto Rico - Locals fishing on a pier at sunset. Wild horses roaming nearly empty beaches. Family-run restaurants serving tapas and paella.

If there's one island in the Caribbean that I hope never loses its authentic charms, it's Vieques .

Yes, that Vieques - the same Puerto Rican island that the US Navy has used to test live ammunition since World War II, when it took over 70 percent of the island, including most of the farmland, and forced the relocation of thousands of inhabitants.

Concern has been building in recent years over what the Navy bombing was doing to the island's ecology and the residents' health. After intense lobbying and protests, the Navy agreed to switch to dummy bombs last year, and is on course for gradual withdrawal by 2003.

Last March, months before Al Sharpton and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. made summer headlines by trespassing in protest on the Navy's bombing range, my love and I went to Vieques for a five-day vacation. Some of our friends - knowing only of the Navy occupation and the protests - had no idea at all that people vacationed there. Well, they do, in growing numbers, more than 4,000 a year.

They come because it's easy to reach: just three hours to San Juan direct from any major city in the Northeast, and a short hop by plane or ferry to the island, less than 10 miles off Puerto Rico 's eastern coast.

Beauty and the beaches

And they come because so much of it is wildly, beautifully unspoiled. The forests and beaches at each end of the island were never developed because the Navy occupies them - an ironic twist to the controversy. Despite fears that the Navy's withdrawal could lead to overdevelopment, locals say the land will remain firmly under government control, meaning even more beaches and forests to enjoy.

You can hit a different beach for every day of the week, for every mood. The beaches under Navy control have pedestrian-sounding names - Red, Blue, Green, Silver - that conceal their beauty. All but one, Green Beach, have been closed to the public for the last few years. Red and Blue beaches are on the eastern end, where the Navy practices bombing on 90 days, scattered over the year.

"No one has been out there for years, but those are everybody's favorite beaches," says Scott Bowie, co-owner of the Crow's Nest inn and a Vieques resident since the early 1990s.

On the western end of the island (where the Navy stores ammunition), Green Beach is worth several trips. Wild horses roam the access roads and beach, and you can spend all day snorkeling or lounging under a palm tree and see no one.

Late in the afternoon, local people gather to fish from the pier just off the government road to Green Beach. It's also an ideal sunset vantage point.

When the Navy pulls out in 18 months, those lands are supposed to be divided between the municipality of Vieques and the Department of the Interior and remain undeveloped. The Navy turned over Green Beach in January, and the local government is "operating it basically as apark, an area for people to enjoy," says Jane Sabin, an island real estate agent. "People use the access roads for jogging, bike riding, and there's boating."

Officially the Vieques Wildlife Refuge, it is under the quasi- control of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "We emphasize wildlife related recreation," says Fernando Nunez-Garcia, who managed the refuge when it opened and now works for the wildlife service on the main island of Puerto Rico . "We also allow access to the beaches, and hiking and fishing are allowed too."

Beaches on the southern coast, under municipal control, are often as unpopulated as any of the Navy beaches. We loved the waves and pretty cliffs and caves at Navio. At the next beach over, Media Luna, the water's surface is like glass. Sun Bay in Esperanza is the best for walking - it's about a mile long and the sand is like cake flour. It also has showers and picnic tables.

Turn off, tune out

We flew directly to San Juan, took a cab to the ferry in Fajardo, which took us to Isabel Segunda, the port town of Vieques . As the ferry made its way to the dock and the hilly, sleepy town came into view, I began to relax almost instinctively. Even amid the hubbub of our arrival, it looked serene.

A publico van took us to Inn on the Blue Horizon, perched on spacious oceanfront land that was once a sugar plantation. It was like staying at the home of a rich aunt: Tastefully done up in earth tones and full of beautiful antiques, every room has its own character. Most rooms are cabanas separate from the main house, with their own porches facing the ocean.

We fell asleep in our cabana each night listening to the song of tree frogs and woke each morning to roosters yodeling from the farm next door. There are no phones or TVs in the rooms.

If you just want to be pampered, there's no need to leave the inn at all: Its lovely, open-air restaurant serves breakfast and dinner, lunch is catered, and everyone hangs out at the big swimming pool or ducks into the circular, open-air bar attached to the main house when the sun is too intense. There's even a small gym with weights and a treadmill.

Of course, all this luxury doesn't come cheap: Cabanas at Blue Horizon run $270-300 per night, though there is one smaller room in the main house for $150.

The island is full of inexpensive, nice restaurants in Isabel Segunda and Esperanza or tucked away in the hills between them. We found tapas at Taverna Espanola for a few dollars. At Cafe Mar Azul, an open-air bar and restaurant overlooking the harbor, we found cheap mahi-mahi sandwiches and listened to bad '80s music. Both are in Isabel Segunda. Island Cafe boasts two chefs formerly of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge: Seth Morrison and Owen Tilley.

We went on adventures every day in a Jeep we rented for $40 a day on Vieques , whose name comes from "bieque," the Indian word for "small island." At 21 miles long and 4 miles wide, it's easy to navigate. But you can't get to the beaches by walking, and the Jeep's offroad capability came in handy on bumpy dirt roads. Drive carefully: The main highways are so dark and quiet at night that cows, horses, and chickens are prone to wandering onto them - sometimes during the day too.


From mountain biking tours on the cow paths through the hills to kayaking, birdwatching, scuba diving, and snorkeling, Vieques is an ecotourist's delight. The island's most famous natural feature is the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay. Surrounded by mangroves and accessible by a dirt road, the bay glows at night from millions of tiny organisms that feed on fallen leaves and give off light energy when they are disturbed. When you swim, stirring up the water, you set off a chemical chain reaction that causes a greenish light to glow around you.

We took a nighttime kayaking tour to swim in the glow, which changes in intensity in different parts of the bay and is most visible when there is no moon. The water was murkier than we expected, but we basked in the glow and learned to kayak, all in one outing.

The tours, run by Blue Caribe Dive Center, begin and end in Esperanza, with its little row of open-air restaurants facing Sun Bay, perfect for the famished post-kayaking crowd.

Daytime kayaking is also big here, especially for glimpses of rare birds and a chance to snorkel. Blue Lagoon Kayaks gives tours of the western end of Vieques from the Navy pier all the way to the shore at Puntas Arenas for $55.

The protests

It may have been an accident of timing, but while we were there, four or five protesters stood quietly at the gates of Camp Garcia, the Navy's barracks outside of Isabel Segunda. Coincidentally, the Navy wasn't bombing. The inns and beaches are on the other end of the island, and from there the bombing sounds like distant thunder, some residents say; others say it's more like small earthquakes.

Meanwhile, islanders say the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft battle group will arrive next month to train in what remains of Navy land for the antiterrorism effort in the Middle East. If the Navy resumes bombing in the eastern part of the island, its usual routine, protests could intensify.

The protests, though often small, have had their impact on tourism, innkeepers say.

"It did scare away some of the people," says Bowie. "It's in such an isolated area, even when the press comes I have to draw them a map so they can find them. Most of the time there's absolutely nobody there."

"If people have heard much about the protests before their arrival, they are always surprised at how small it is here," says James Weis, co-owner of Inn on the Blue Horizon. "It makes a dramatic point that there are only a handful of locals who care about this at all."

. IF YOU GO....

Before you go

Vieques and its smaller sister island, Culebra, are part of Puerto Rico, a commonwealth associated with the United States, so the currency is the same and you need no passport.

Daytime temperatures are in the 80s and cool at night this time of year.

How to get there

US Airways, American Airlines, and Continental are offering $380 round-trip fares from Boston to San Juan. American flies nonstop.

From San Juan International Airport, a cab to Fajardo costs around $50 and takes less than an hour. Many inns and reservation services can help you arrange for a cab. From Fajardo, take the high-speed ferry to Vieques . The trip takes 45 minutes, costs $2, and runs three times a day.

Call 787-863-0705.

Many travelers fly to Vieques from San Juan on Vieques Air Link (888-901-9247 or 787-741-8331) or Isla Nena Air Service (787-741- 1577) from San Juan. Round-trip fare runs $125.

Publico vans at the dock in Isabel Segunda can take you to your inn or apartment for $5 or less; you can get help arranging one of these too.

Getting around

Island Car Rentals


Compact cars.

Vieques Car Rental

Rents only Jeep Wranglers and Cherokees, at $40 to $50 per day.

Where to stay

In addition to inns, apartments for rent cost around $65 per night and come with full kitchens. For a list of lodgings, go to vieques -

For grander houses and villas, ranging from $700 to $6,000 a week, call Jane Sabin toll-free at 866-741-0366. She can also help with car rentals and travel arrangements from San Juan airport to Vieques .

Crow's Nest Guesthouse Route 201, Barrios Florida

787-741-0033 Rooms $85-$89.

Middle of the island on the side of a hill overlooking the north coast.

Inn on the Blue Horizon PO Box 1556, Esperanza (between La Hueca and Esperanza)


Where to eat

Chef Michael's Inn
On the Blue Horizon, Esperanza

787-741-3318 Entrees $20-32. Pasta, ribs, seafood.

Taverna Espanola
Near City Hall in Isabel Segunda


Entrees $9-15. Arepas, local seafood.

Island Cafe
At the Crow's Nest, Route 201, Barrios Florida.

787-741-0011 Entrees $12-20. Caribbean-Latin cuisine.

Cafe Mar Azul
Next to Ocean View Hotel, in Isabel Segunda.


Entrees $8. Seafood sandwiches.

Cafe Media Luna
Downtown Isabel Segunda.


Entrees $15-$26. French and local fare.

What to see and do

Blue Caribe Dive Center Esperanza


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