My dad and stepmom started going visit Vieques, a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico, in 2005. When they first told me about it, I was pretty lukewarm about the place. I have never really had any desire to visit the Caribbean. The Turkey-Iraq border, yes. The turquoise and white sandy beaches of the Caribbean, no thanks. I guess I have just always associated the islands with all-inclusive resorts and cruise ports, which are my idea of hell. Plus, I am really just not that much of a beach person. But when my dad invited my sister and I to join him and his wife a few years back, I was open to the idea, mostly because he had been singing its praises for so long and he promised there was no Club Med.
Last month, we made what has become the regular family trip down to Vieques, an island which was once used by the US Navy for target practice and is now largely protected as a National Wildlife Refuge. Vieques is a really special place and, in many ways, it is still unspoiled in spite of the growing tourism industry and pointless W resort that opened a couple of years ago.
To get to Vieques you can either take a puddle jumper (25 min/around $100 each way) from San Juan or a ferry (3 hours, $2 each way) from Fajardo on the mainland. If you arrive at the airport, you can pick up your jeep rental at Maritza’s (reservations essential). Alternatively, you can bring a car on the ferry ($15) but make sure it can handle rough terrain, as many roads in Vieques are unpaved.
There are lots of options for accommodations in Vieques, in a variety of price ranges. Let me just get this out of the way: there is a W on the island. It is the most popular but also the most soulless place to stay. There is nothing about the place that is unique to Vieques, the owner and much of the staff is foreign, and the pancakes are awful. Skip it in favor of a house rental. We use HomeAway and this trip stayed at Quinta Jacaranda, a villa with 3 bedrooms, a pool, sweeping views, fluffy towels, snorkel gear, and more at a third of the cost of what we would have paid for 2 standard rooms at the W. Other recommended accommodations are the Hix Island House, an eco-friendly place offering yoga classes for non-guests, and the Bravo Beach Hotel in Isabel II near the ferry port.
There are two small towns on Vieques, Isabel II in the north and Esperanza in the south. El Malecon, the main drag in Esperanza, is where all restaurants, shops, and nightlife (ie beach bars) are located. It is about a 15-minute drive from Isabel II to Esperanza over paved roads in good condition. The roads to many of the beaches and throughout the western part of the island are unpaved and have potholes. An all-terrain vehicle is essential.
What to do:
The beaches on Vieques are stunning and often sparsely populated. I am a big fan of Red Beach, which can have anywhere from 0 to 100 other people on it, depending on the time of year and the day of the week. Green Beach is remote and serene, while Blue Beach offers swimming in calm waters.
Aside from exploring the and gorgeous beaches, there are plenty of other activities to keep you busy for a week. In the evenings, there are visits to the bioluminescent bay. It is best to time your visit to coincide with the new moon so you get the most out of the glowing bay experience. And, of course, there is plenty of hiking around the nature reserve. This is best done with an experienced guide to avoid undetonated bombs left by our fine Navy. On our recent trip we joined Marauder Sailing Charters for a half-day excursion ($100 per person for a 4-hour excursion, including lunch and drinks). The captain and owner, the affable Nate Marr, dropped anchor in Sun Bay and cooked while we swam.
Where to eat and drink:
There are restaurants and bars in Isabel II and scattered across the island, but most of the action is congregated in El Malecon. For a splurge, El Quenepo is where it’s at. Duffy’s nearby serves a great range of craft beers with awful awful food and even worse service. But the view is nice. For even better views and really cheap beers, my favorite is La Nasa, which is frequented almost exclusively by locals. For cheap drinks and good junkfood Lazy Jacks down the street will do the trick. For fancy caribbean food and drinks, Bili is pretty great.
All these places with tables and chairs are well and good, but don’t miss out on the food trucks. The fast food cart between the water and El Quenepo serves refreshing homemade fruit popsicles. And the roasted chickens sold roadside and in people’s yards for $7 will blow your mind. And they are the perfect meal to bring to the beach for a picnic, along with a few ice cold Medallas, of course.