Affectionately referred to as Puerto Rico’s little sister, the island of Vieques is what locals liken to the days of "pre-industrial Puerto Rico." At 55 square miles, the island is twice as large as Manhattan in area, but with only 9500 inhabitants. That leaves a lot of land—verdant, rolling hills edged with miles of sandy beaches—without the crowds. The Spanish annexed the island, just six miles off the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico, in 1854, only for the US to claim it as part of the spoils of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The US Navy moved in during World War II, as they found the spot a strategic and inconspicuous base for target and landing practice. Weary of explosions eroding the island’s eco-system, protests by the locals sent the Navy packing in 2003. Today, Vieques remains one of the world’s few well-preserved tropical hideaways. Here are five reasons why it’s a worthy travel destination.
It’s for Lovers
Just off-the-radar enough to run away with a paramour, and filled with enough romantic island beauty for a honeymoon, the W Retreat & Spa has all of the best love-nest amenities. Think chic, high-design rooms with luxurious soaking tubs and balconies; crystalline infinity pools; two gorgeous beaches, including one for adults only; a restaurant with an outdoor terrace overlooking the ocean; and a terrific, 6,000-foot spa. The "Private Couples Experience" at Away Spa includes a 60-minute couples massage by candlelight, a 30-minute candlelight Jacuzzi soak, and a private five-course dinner with champagne and wine pairings. If couples weren’t starry-eyed upon check-in, they are sure to be when they check out.
There’s no shortage of sand in Vieques, and the variety allows for something for every type of beach bum. Navio on the south side is where the bodysurfers go to ride; Green Beach is known for its unobstructed viewpoints of the main island of Puerto Rico; and Blue Beach (Chiva) is famous for its terrific snorkeling—swimmers can spot everything from giant sea turtles to lionfish. Sun Bay is the popular public beach for its picnicking facilities, while divers prefer Mosquito Pier for its abundant reef life. Playa Negrita is the island’s distinctive black sand beach.
It’s a Theme Park for Eco-Enthusiasts
As night blankets Mosquito Bay, hundreds of thousands of microorganisms known as dinoflagellates illuminate the water. Kayaking at night is the best way to experience the bioluminescent phenomenon, as each stroke of the paddle leaves a glow-in-the-dark wake, and fish stream by like aquatic shooting stars. Bieque Eco Trips (787-922-2701) takes only small groups, and their guides expertly explain the mysteries and biology of the famous bay. The Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust offers lectures, exhibits, and seminars about the island’s unique environment, along with various volunteer opportunities. And the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge is a must-visit for environmentalist travelers, with 3,000 pristine acres abundant in tropical flora and fauna. A nesting ground for manatees and endangered leatherback, green, and hawksbill sea turtles, the refuge holds the island’s subtropical dry forest and grasslands and acts as home to 170 bird species.
Foodies Won’t Go Hungry
The island’s most refined restaurant, El Quenepo creatively uses native bounty. Local "lemon shark" may fill an Asian bun, for example, and the mofongo, a mash made with pumpkin and breadfruit instead of traditional plantain, is laced with sweet Caribbean lobster. The lovely ambiance—including arched wooden horse-stable doors, left open to face the oceanside esplanade—encourages lingering well into the night. Just a few doors down the road, Duffy’s serves up flaky, juicy chillo (red snapper) served with terrific tostones (twice-fried plantains) and rice and beans. Don’t forget to use the formidable house-made pique (hot sauce), and wash off the after-burn with one of the house’s many imported beers.
Outdoor Adventurers Never Get Bored
Wild horses run rampant across Vieques, and are one of the most captivating sights. Travelers can experience the mesmerizing rhythm of the their trot via Taxi Horses, whose guides take riders along the beach and through the lush green trails. Hiking is also a worthwhile pursuit, with various pathways—some nicely manicured and others challenging—that lead to hilltop vistas, secluded beaches, or architectural points of importance, like the Spanish colonial Puerto Ferro lighthouse. Finally, there are watersports galore. For divers, Black Beard Sports is the island’s 5-star PADI center, while stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is the specialty at Vieques Paddleboarding. Looking to fish? Anglers endorse Captain Franco Gonzalez of Caribbean Fly Fishing Company for chartered trips.
How to get there:
Vieques is about a 20 minute plane ride or 1 hour ferry ride from mainland Puerto Rico. Airlines serving the area include:
Photo credits: W Vieques courtesy of Starwood Hotels and Resorts; Unspoiled beaches via Shutterstock;