From a bomb site to a beach destination

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Victor Block

A jet plane bearing the identifying emblem of the U.S. Navy streaked low over a broad stretch of beach, dropped a bomb onto the island below and banked sharply to return to its base. The U.S. Navy was attacking a tiny corner of its own country — sort of.

Today, a smattering of beach towels and colorful umbrellas dot the sand not far from where that bomb fell, and the only sounds are the surf and chatter of people enjoying a relaxing day in the sun.

Welcome to Vieques island, just off the coast of Puerto Rico. If the name sounds familiar, that’s probably because you have read or heard about use of the destination by our country’s Navy as a place to conduct training exercises, including ship-to-shore artillery fire and bombing runs.

Beginning in 1941, large tracts of land at both ends of the 21-mile-long island were acquired for use by the U.S. military. One area was set aside as a storage depot, while the other was the site of a live impact zone.

Since the Navy departed in 2003, after a series of protests over its use of the island, a trickle of vacationers has been making its way to Vieques to discover and enjoy its attractions. The beaches, some still called by the color-based code names given by the military, are a major draw.

Uncrowded world-class beaches


A food truck provides Vieques’ version of fast food: tortillas, empanadas, and grilled chicken and shrimp on skewers.
Photo courtesy of Victor Block

For many people, the greatest appeal is what Vieques does not have. That includes streets lined by souvenir shops, a movie theater or even a traffic light.

Instead of the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King, fast food means tortillas, empanadas, and grilled chicken and shrimp on skewers available from vendors like Sol Food. That rather ramshackle truck is permanently parked at the front gate of Camp Garcia, a former Navy compound.

What the beaches lack are the crowds encountered on many better known Caribbean islands. That prompts the local tourist board to boast that “crowded” on Vieques can mean more than one group of people every 50 yards. It’s often possible to find a sandy seaside refuge to call your own for the day. (Another lack, which may partly explain the first, is that only one beach has restroom facilities.)

The beaches range from broad, gently curving seashores overlooking sweeping bays, to tiny slivers of sand hidden at the end of narrow dirt roads punctuated by some of the most forbidding potholes I’ve encountered anywhere.

The island has been ranked by TripAdvisor among the top 25 destinations in the world for outstanding beaches, and it doesn’t take long to understand why. Each beach has unique attractions, and together they offer something-for-everyone variety.

Silver Beach (Playa Plata) is tucked away at the end of a motion-sickness-inducing road, which discourages many people from seeking it out. Those who do, however, find inviting shade in which to spread out a towel, and good offshore snorkeling.

Navio Beach (Playa Navio) is framed by palm and sea grape trees, and nestled among rock cliffs interspersed by waves perfect for diving into or riding.

The beach at Sun Bay is the only one on the island with restrooms and a small restaurant. It is also the only one that charges a fee to enter — but just $2 a car. It’s more than a mile wide, and, because it is the favorite among the Viequenses (as the locals are called), it can be somewhat crowded on weekends by local standards.

Sun Bay has won the coveted Blue Flag designation, which is awarded to beaches around the world that meet strict criteria for water quality, environmental management and other standards.

Aquatic light show


Boats line a harbor on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico. The U.S. Navy used the island’s beaches for artillery fire and bombing exercises from 1941 until 2003. Today, wild horses and calm tourists roam the beaches.
Photo courtesy of Victor Block

While the inviting, uncrowded beaches tempt sun-worshippers, swimmers and snorkelers, a more unusual and intriguing attraction appeals to those in search of a more dramatic experience.

Picture this: You’re gliding over a shallow bay at night, with the sky lighted by a blanket of stars. Each time a canoe or kayak paddle dips into the water, an explosion of blue-green sparkles dances across the surface as if vying for attention with the light show overhead.

This is the extravaganza of nature found at the unfortunately, but accurately, named Mosquito Bay. The show is put on by microscopic single-celled organisms (dinoflagellates), for which the bay environment provides a perfect home. When agitated, they emit a bright burst of light as a defense mechanism that makes them seem larger to would-be predators.

When conditions are at their best, the result resembles a mini-fireworks display in the sea. Even on nights that are less than perfect, you’re likely to have at least a hint of why this body of water has been declared by Guinness World Records to be the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world.

Back on land, other forms of life show up, at times in unexpected places. That can present a challenge to anyone driving on the narrow streets, when a chicken or rooster suddenly decides to seek an answer to the eternal proverbial question by darting to the other side of the road, or an iguana finds a perfect spot to enjoy the sun at the edge of the pavement.

 Wild horses, Spanish history

Much more frequent are encounters with horses that roam free on the island, grazing wherever they please, and pleasing visitors with frequent sightings. They are genuine celebrities of Vieques island, and their ancestry is said to be traceable back to 16th century Spanish Conquistadores.

Few places are off limits to them. I spotted a pony eyeing the swimming pool at the posh W Retreat & Spa, as if it were considering taking a cooling dip. Small groups of the animals often graze on the W’s perfectly manicured lawns, at times giving proof to signs posted for guests that warn, “Caution – Wild Horses Poop.”

When the Conquistadors claimed Vieques after Columbus landed in Puerto Rico in 1493, they found it inhabited by the Taino people, one of the Arawak Indian tribes. A subsequent rebellion by the Taino resulted in most of them being killed, imprisoned or enslaved. Traces of the Taino culture remain in some place names, food and the use of medicinal plants.

While not a treasure trove of historic sites, visitors to Vieques may discover several places that depict chapters of its past. Among artifacts recovered at the Puerto Ferro (iron fort) archeological site is a human skeleton buried with shells dated back to about 1900 B.C.

A good place for a short course in island history is the El Fortin Conde de Mirasol (Count of Mirasol Fort), built 1845-1855 on a steep hill overlooking the town of Isabel II. It houses the Vieques Museum of Anthropology, History and Art. Exhibits range from archeological items to crossbows, swords and other early instruments of warfare.

Isabel II (Isabel Segunda) is the larger of the two main towns on Vieques and is its administrative center, with a cluster of government offices. It was named for Queen Isabel II, who ruled Spain from 1843 to 1868.

Esperanza, the only other town of any note, is little more than a gathering of casual restaurants, bars and modest guest houses that line the Malecon — a paved esplanade squeezed between the main (and virtually only) street and the harbor.

The town has a distinct dual personality. During the day, there’s so little activity a person could almost take a nap on the street through town.

But that changes dramatically in the evening, especially on weekends. That’s when strings of colored lights brighten the setting, music blares from several establishments, and people crowd the streets and sidewalks chatting, laughing and sipping from paper cups.

The relative hustle and bustle in Isabel II and Esperanza contrasts sharply with the tranquil, laid-back atmosphere that pervades most of Vieques. Men who gather to sip rum and exchange banter each day at the tiny bar in the El Encanto convenience store ignore the horses that sometimes graze near their cars parked outside.

For the visitor to Vieques, these are among attractions that give the island diversity and appeal well beyond its small size.

If you go

The least expensive flight to San Juan, P.R. is $328 roundtrip on American Airlines from all three area airports. After flying to San Juan, the quickest way to reach Vieques is the 25-minute flight on Cape Air ($218 round-trip) or Vieques Air Line ($242 round-trip).

The passenger ferry is much less expensive (round trip $4, patrons 60 to 74 $2, 75 and older free). But it can take close to two hours from San Juan to reach the departure dock in traffic, the crossing itself takes 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the weather, and it can be rough.

In keeping with the island’s noncommercial persona, most accommodations on Vieques are in tiny inns, guest houses and rental properties. The major exception is the super-luxurious W Retreat & Spa, part of an upscale chain that boasts it caters to “jetsetters and local tastemakers.”

The property’s 156 spacious rooms are scatted throughout a sprawling compound that offers the amenities one would expect in such an elegant setting.

The resort’s two cozy beaches are as pleasant as most others on the island. Not surprisingly, all of this panache does not come inexpensively. Rates for a double room begin at $379. For more information, call (877) 946-8357 or log onto www.whotels.com.

Typical of less grand, less costly housing that abounds on the island is the Ababor Suites, a four-unit guest house perched on a small beach just outside Isabel II. Its rooms are modestly furnished but clean, and include a fully equipped kitchen.

Rates are $130 (up to four guests) and $150 (up to six people), and genial hostess Wanda Bermudez is a font of knowledge about the island. For more information, call (787) 435-2841 or log onto www.ababorsuites.com.

While the Sorcé restaurant at the W is outstanding, with food and service in keeping with the luxurious setting, my wife Fyllis and I preferred to rub shoulders with locals at dinner time.

Bili is typical of restaurants in Esperanza, a casual open-air spot that serves good food in ample portions. Popular dishes with regulars include turnovers filled with pork and cheese ($8) and chicken breast over a cassava pancake ($8). For more information, call (787) 741-1382 or log onto bilirestaurant.com.

Overlooking the water in Isabel II, Al’s Mar Azul achieves its goal of capturing the fun and funky atmosphere of the island. Those who aren’t put off by the ambience, or rather lack of it, will feel welcomed by the friendly staff and other diners.

The light fare includes a grilled chicken wrap ($6.50) and individual pizza ($5). For those who like their food spicy, the menu lists a dozen hot sauces rated by intensity, with names like the Ultimate Dragon and Passionate Frog. For more information, call (787) 741-3400.

For information about visiting Vieques, call 1-800-866-7827 or log onto www.seepuertorico.com/en/destinations/culebra-and-vieques.