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2000s Archive

An Island in Bloom

Originally Published February 2005
With the U.S. Navy finally gone, the Caribbean’s tiny Vieques is beginning to come into its own. The best part about it? You get the perfect beaches, wild horses, and funky cafés practically all to yourself

We climbed up into our soft-top Jeep one morning, leaving the blooming hibiscus and cold poolside drinks of our resort behind, and headed into the wilds of Vieques. It’s a tiny island—21 miles long and 4 miles wide—just 6 miles off the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico and largely untouched by the long arm of development that has transformed most other Caribbean islands, since trampled by fashionable crowds and left as yesterday’s playgrounds. Vieques is different, rough-and-tumble, with only two small towns and a few very approximate maps with which to find your way around on the skinny, unmarked roads. This, of course, is in large part due to the United States Navy. The Navy took over 22,000 of the island’s 33,000 acres in 1942 to set up training ranges on the western and eastern ends, squeezing the natives into the middle, if they stayed on the island at all. Camp Garcia, to the east, is where live munitions were dropped in routine peacetime drills for many years, until, finally, on May 1, 2003, the Navy officially left the premises. I took the wheel; my boyfriend, Willy, took the map; and we set off to find Camp Garcia.

On the first road, Route 200, we passed little barrios of tiny stucco houses, which gave way to open, rolling fields and then a small commercial strip with a couple of gas stations, a makeshift bar, and the Papy Kike’s Car Wash and Tire Center. At the middle school, where young girls were gathered out front in white polo shirts, red plaid kilts, and enormous red hoop earrings, we turned south onto Route 997. This narrow road twisted through thick green forest and past cows grazing on hillsides, U.S. Postal Service mailboxes leaning at funny angles, a hospital in a clearing, and then a big stadium that had fallen into disrepair. Just beyond the stadium appeared a dirt road, on the left. We turned in, and there, very clearly, we could see the outline of the Navy guardhouse that once stood on the concrete foundation that remains. Camp Garcia.

We bumped slowly down the long dirt road, flanked by bush and swirling with dust, until, in the distance, we saw chain-link fence surrounding some Quonset huts and military vehicles. The gate was locked—“Authorized Personnel Only”—but there was no sign of life except the Stars and Stripes flapping lazily against the clear blue sky. We took a guess and turned right, then pushed on until we came to an expanse of asphalt that stretched far into the distance. I stopped the car. “It’s an airstrip,” said Willy, leaning forward. Abandoned now, with tufts of green poking up through the cracks, it sits there like an ancient ruin. A handmade detour sign, “Desvío Red Beach,” posted in the middle, was the only clue to what lay beyond.

As we drove onto the airstrip, following it east, we came to another abrupt stop. Four wild horses lifted their heads to inspect us. A snowy egret stood on the back of one chestnut mare. As we accelerated, they turned away and trotted off in the opposite direction, the egret flying on ahead. Another dirt road appeared on the right, narrower than the one before, and we followed it hopefully while overhanging branches scratched the sides of the Jeep. Then, suddenly, we could smell the sea, and after one more sharp left bend in the road, there it was. A great long crescent of white sand framed a smooth, crystalline bay leading out to the rougher Caribbean. Red Beach. I’ve been many places in the world and so has Willy, and we both agreed that it was one of the most pristine beaches we’d ever seen. You would never know that amphibious landings with air support were carried out on these shores, that howitzers were pulled up over the sand, that Marines in full camouflage with gear on their backs ran to gun positions that had been bulldozed in the surrounding thicket. Willy and I parked our car by one of the sheltered picnic tables, in the shade of a palm tree, and went down for a swim. At the height of tourist season, there were only five other people on the sand.

Though you wouldn’t guess it from the empty beaches, these are heady times for Vieques. In the year and a half since the Navy’s departure, the island has seen a boom in tourism, but it’s brought with it a lot of questions. Will Vieques become another St. Bart’s? Gossip in the few little cafés and bars is all about the quadrupled price of real estate, the mayor’s recently imposed moratorium on construction, the 46-acre parcel on the Caribbean side that may have sold to someone named Trump, and the tension between the local people and those who come looking for the simple life.

By and large, the shared objective among most Viequenses and the large population of North Americans—some of whom have lived here for 30 years—is to achieve a balance between development, which would provide much-needed employment, and preservation of the sleepy island charm. Meanwhile, there is no evidence of rapid change.

One night during our stay, we went to a restaurant in the little port town of Isabel Segunda that had been recommended by a couple of North Americans who live on the island at least part of the year. Café Media Luna is a small, sultry restaurant in a converted house on the corner of the dingy main street and a dark residential lane. While sitting up on the balcony of the second floor, eating remarkably good small plates of food, we watched a young family in their finery walk back from church in the square with a bust of Simón Bolívar in its middle. A pair of young men cruised by in their very out-of-date Impala with the bass booming. And then the street fell quiet for a while until the unmistakable sound of cantering hooves pierced the air. Right through town, a reedy teenage boy rode bareback on his Paso Fino, the small breed of horse we’d seen on the airstrip.

The tiny fishing village of Esperanza has a whiff of Hemingway’s Key West about it, or maybe Provincetown before the revolution. A narrow two-lane road separates the boardwalk, or malecón, from the three-block stretch of guest­houses and cafés. Sailboats bob in the bay while a goat grazes in the front yard of a pale blue two-room house and wizened men drink rum in the shade. “This would be a great place to come if you wanted to be a dissipated drunk,” said Willy. “Let’s move here.”

One day we wandered into Tropical Baby, a bright blue hole-in-the-wall with a sign made of driftwood. Inside, in an 8- by 12-foot kitchen, was Baby Llenza, a blue-eyed, blonde Puerto Rican who studied at La Varenne in Paris, worked in New York, Miami, and Bali for years, and finally settled here to practice her “global” cuisine. We quickly fell into the habit of getting lunch from Tropical Baby—red snapper escabeche with tamarind sauce, say, or chicken breast and feta with Kalamata vinaigrette in a whole-wheat wrap—and taking it to the beach to eat with a nice chilled bottle of wine.

A few doors down, Dotti, who relocated here from Provincetown 29 years ago, waits tables at Bananas. She’s a classic weather-beaten old gal in a floral-print sleeveless dress and Birkenstocks, her reading glasses dangling on a chain around her neck. When she first came here, she told us as we ate our fish sandwiches one day, stray dogs would roam around in packs. She adopted a few, and since then, the local humane society has taught the Viequenses a lot about spaying and neutering. Days later, we found Dotti tending bar at the Inn on the Blue Horizon, and the next afternoon, on our way back from the beach, she whizzed by in her car, singing to herself, with all the windows open and two mutts in the back.

For a few days, we set ourselves up at the Hix Island House, a stunning modernist concrete compound built by the Toronto-based architect John Hix. It hides high up in the heavy vegetation of the interior of the island, and from the widow’s walk above our loft, the view was nearly 360 degrees. From that perch, we really had a sense of the wild nature of the island, and it put us in an adventurous mood.

We piled into the Jeep to explore some of the map’s tiny, unidentified squiggles on the western end of the island. We drove for miles on scraggly dirt roads with ospreys flying overhead, until we turned off onto a smaller path in what used to be the Navy’s stomping ground. There are hundreds and hundreds of old concrete munitions bunkers, some built into the hillside, some set back, some with big loading docks, all of them “Certified Empty” with their giant steel doors fixed open and numbers stenciled above. As we drove past them, there was something eerie and mysterious, even romantic, about the evidence of a bygone era out in the middle of nowhere. It was like happening upon dinosaur bones.

For our last day, we’d arranged a sail with Captain Bill, whom we’d met one evening when we stopped in at Al’s Mar Azul, a real drinker’s bar overlooking the water in Isabel Segunda. Captain Bill seems to use it as his office and struck up a conversation with me as I snapped a sunset photo. “Why take a picture of the boats when you can take a sail on one?” he asked. He wasn’t chatting me up; he was making his sales pitch. Captain Bill quit the high-tech business outside Boston after 29 years, has now sailed the whole Caribbean three times, and settled down here three years ago. “I’m fully legal,” he said. “I pay my taxes.”

He met us at eight o’clock on Sunday morning by the fishing docks. Tanned and gray haired, he wore black jeans, Top-Siders with holes in the toes, and an old black T-shirt with a crude map of another Caribbean island, so faded you couldn’t quite tell which. We climbed down into a rickety old dinghy and he rowed us out to Willo, his 34-foot Pearson, built in 1977.

Once we were aboard, Captain Bill went down below to check the weather forecast and stow our gear. It was a real mess down there, with charts everywhere and what looked like all his possessions strewn about. A Navy captain would have been appalled. As we left the harbor, the wind was strong, but trepidation gave way to confidence as we watched Captain Bill work the sheets and winches as if they were a part of him. We sailed east, parallel to the coast, where we could see a cluster of grand houses at the water’s edge that you’d otherwise have no idea were there.

We anchored by a reef, Captain Bill fetched us flippers, masks, and snorkels, and we followed him into the sea. It was sublime to be floating around in the middle of the ocean, one of those nice reminders of your tiny place in the world and, of course, the entire universe that lives underneath it. We’d been to the bioluminescent bay in Mosquito Lagoon a couple of days before for a real special-effects kind of evening. There you can swim among the dinoflagellates, the single-celled organisms that create a neon glow when agitated. We literally shone underwater and watched alien-green pellets roll down our bodies as we popped up through the surface. Neomythologists could get a few ideas in that bay.

We climbed back aboard Willo, pulled up anchor, and set sail again. Willy manned the helm while Captain Bill went below to get us libations. He gave Willy a beer and me a 7-Up but said it was too early for him, so instead he mixed himself up something he called “the captain’s cocktail.” The whole episode reminded me of growing up in the 1970s in Connecticut, where men in blue blazers worked hard and drank harder. Every once in a while, a character in jeans would happen onto the scene, someone who came out of the blue and didn’t have the same pressures of profession and family that the rest of the grown-ups did. They seemed to just kind of get by with a little house painting or carpentry. My father called these characters “dropouts from the leisure class,” and, indeed, we would learn later that they’d grown up in privilege in places like Princeton and Montclair but had ditched it all for a bohemian existence. And here was Captain Bill, divorced at least once and estranged from his adult children, living in Vieques with all his possessions below deck. This is exactly the allure of the island: It’s remote, it’s sleepy, a place to escape to, live a simpler life, work if you feel like it, start a business, or just become a dissipated drunk.

We went back to Café Media Luna for dinner on our last night. When we walked into the dark bar downstairs, the Puerto Rican proprietor greeted us like regulars. And there was his wife, the chef, a willowy Indian woman who left a career at J. P. Morgan to tend an open kitchen in Vieques, having a drink with Baby Llenza. It was the perfect small-town scene. Willy said, “Let’s move here.”

The Details

Staying There

Accommodations on Vieques are as varied as the fish that feed on the reefs just offshore—from super fancy to cheap and cheerful. If you want all the modern conveniences, stay at the Wyndham Martineau Bay Resort & Spa (787-741-4100; wyndham.com; from $335), which is perched on the Atlantic coast with Spanish stucco architecture, three secluded beaches, two tennis courts, a full-service spa, and the requisite swim-up bar. Sitting high in the interior of Vieques, Hix Island House (787-741-2302; hixislandhouse.com; from $210) is a completely different kind of compound. There is no maid or room service, but …there is a gorgeous pool, and the concrete lofts have full kitchens and staggering views. ¡Bravo! hotel (787-741-1128; bravobeachhotel.com; from $160) is the island’s answer to the W chain—sleek, modern, and spare—though it’s only got nine rooms and one villa. At the Inn on the Blue Horizon (787-741-3318; innonthebluehorizon.com; from $160), shades of sugar plantation grandeur live on in private casitas and regal landscaping. Just up the hill, Hacienda Tamarindo (787-741-8525; enchanted-isle.com/tamarindo; from $165) really does have the air of an old, lived-in farmstead—tiny balconies, individually designed rooms, a green parrot that whistles at the ladies, and breakfast served under the tamarind tree—that has thrown its doors open to wayfaring guests. Nestled in a grove of rubber trees, La Finca Caribe (787-741-0495; lafinca.com; $5,000 a week to rent for up to 27 people) is an extremely casual shared-bathroom commune that feels like a friend’s funny old beach house. There’s a big open common room with sandals in the corners and random paperbacks on the shelves, hammocks on slanted porches, ladders leading to bedrooms, and a very cool Venezuelan guy running the place. The Trade Winds Guesthouse & Restaurant (787-741-8666; enchanted-isle.com/tradewinds; from $75) is one of the oldest guesthouses on the island. The rooms are modest and comfortable, and the restaurant at breakfast time is a great place to debate local politics while drinking orange juice from a Ball jar. Hector’s by the Sea (787-741-1178; hmbtc@hotmail.com; from $130), owned by a native Puerto Rican who worked for years in New York City, is a gorgeous work in progress, with three small peach-colored stucco suites and a roof deck for outdoor massage—on rolling property that ends in the Caribbean. Rainbow Realty (787-741-4312; enchanted-isle.com/rainbow) is a good source for villa rentals, like a waterfront three-bedroom with a deck and a pool for $2,200 a week.

Eating There

No one goes to the Caribbean for the food, but there are some renegades on Vieques that just might raise expectations. Café Media Luna (351 Antonio G. Mallado, Isabel Segunda; 787-741-2594) highlights an inventive mix of flavors and textures in dishes like red curry duck wonton napoleons. Out of a new kitchen at the recently relocated Tropical Baby (340 Antonio G. Mallado, Isabel Segunda; 787-608-4261) come thick multigrain pancakes with caramelized bananas for breakfast and fresh salads and wraps for lunch. Chef Michael’s FoodSpace (1 North Shore Road, Bravos de Boston; 787-741-0490) is an airy café and shop with meats, cheeses, produce, prepared foods, and an outstanding inventory of wine. For dinner, M Bar (Route 200 across from the Martineau Bay resort; 787-741-4000) serves crowd-pleasers like garlic shrimp and steak with chimichurri sauce on an open terrace. Go to Chez Shack (Route 995, km. 1.8; 787-741-2175) for the congenial scene of beat-up 4x4s lined up along the road and back-slapping North Americans who’ve been on the island for more than 30 years.

Being There

It’s possible to get a taxi, but to truly see the island, it’s essential to have a car. Martineau Car Rental (787-741-0087; mcrci@coqui.net; from $60 per day) has a range of Jeeps. The Bioluminescent Bays (Island Adventures; 787-741-0720; biobay.com; nighttime tour $25 per person) contain a concentration of dinoflagellates, which create light underwater. Vieques Sailing (787-508-7245), with Captain Bill, offers three trips, including a half-day sail with snorkeling for $50 and a two-hour sunset sail for $30. Blue Caribe Kayaks (787-741-2522; enchanted-isle.com/bluecaribe; tours from $25) leads day and evening kayaking tours and fishing trips and rents equipment. Construction on Fuerte Conde de Mirasol (787-741-1717; $2) began in 1845 on a hill overlooking Isabel Segunda. The Spanish fort was never used in battle but has served as a prison, and has now been restored as a museum, art gallery, and historic archive. (Most of the display is in Spanish.) —C.L.W.