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March 27, 2013


Vieques, a subtropical island in Puerto Rico about the size of Manhattan, is just a 20-minute plane ride away from San Juan. I am an island girl, having grown up in Taiwan, Hawaii and Japan, and now living in Manhattan. But compared to the urban islands where I’ve lived, Vieques is quite a change of pace. With only 10,000 residents on the island, it’s quiet, under-the-radar and distinctly charming.

We opted to stay at the W Retreat and Spa, a mere five-minute drive from the airport. The W has its own beaches, one for adults only and the other open to all. Because the property is on the north side of the island, its Atlantic waters are slightly colder than the Caribbean waters in the south. The hotel’s main pool also has a pristine view overlooking the beach that instantly helps you decompress. It’s perfectly feasible to swim, snorkel, kayak, lounge by the pool and be pampered without ever leaving the property. But that would be a shame, because the numerous beaches on the island, especially the ones that are harder to get to, are true oases that should not be missed.

The weather varies little throughout the year, with temperatures in the high 70s to 80s. Wild horses roam about, leisurely, all over the island, even on the well-manicured property of the W. The pace, including service, is slow and the people are nice. It’s hard to believe that up until 2003, the U.S. Navy used the island as a bombing range and testing ground.

Unless you really don’t plan to leave your hotel, car rental is a must. Island Car, one of the more expensive rental services, is conveniently located on the premises at the W. All rentals are Jeeps or similar four-wheel drives, and that’s not just because they’re cool; once you start heading towards the beaches, you’ll understand why it’s necessary to have an off-road vehicle.

The main roads are paved but narrow, and there are no traffic lights on the island. Heading to the more accessible beaches like Sun Bay and Red Beach doesn’t really require the four-wheel drive, but if you want to explore the lovely Media Luna, the strong-surf of Navio, or the exquisite Blue Beach and La Plata, the dirt trails are rough with frequent ditches, but manageable and definitely worth the bumpy ride. The beaches and bays are all beautiful and each unmistakably different in character. If your trip consists of nothing other than exploring different beaches each day (there are many more), it will be truly fulfilling.

Vieques is home to a bioluminescent bay, Mosquito Bay, where microorganisms illuminate any disturbance in the water, similar to the phenomenon that makes fireflies light up. It’s best to go to the bay on nights where there is no moon to see the glow more effectively. There are lots of different “Bio Bay” tours, including kayaks and paddleboats. We went on a night that was pouring rain. I’ve never felt so lucky to have “bad” weather: the falling raindrops beautifully illuminated the water.

The northern town of Isabel Segunda is the island municipality. You’ll find the post office and grocery stores and some restaurants there, as well as the Conde de Mirasol Fortress (a Spanish fortress built in the 1800s which now houses the Vieques Museum of Art and History and the Vieques Historic Archives). In the south, the town of Esperanza is the main tourist hub. The main esplanade with a nice view of the Caribbean waters, known as the Malecón, is lively with restaurants, local craft street vendors and hotels. I enjoyed eating there, but I am glad that we did not stay in the touristy and noisy area.

As an alternative to the W, the Hix Island House is also close to the airport on the north side of the island, just not beachfront. The architecture and interiors of the Hix buildings have a contemporary Scandinavian feel, though the owner/architect is Canadian. It’s a getaway with a focus on sustainability and appreciation of nature — there are no televisions or internet connection, and one of the guesthouses, the Solarium, is 100-percent solar powered. The windows in all buildings are unglazed, so unless the steel rolling doors or heavy wood shutters are closed, the windows are completely open-air, allowing for a direct connection to nature and climate. At night, you hear coquis, the miniature frogs that are the Puerto Rican national symbol, singing throughout the island. Friends who stayed at Hix were happy to find the occasional coqui in their bathroom. There is no restaurant on the premises, but each room has its own kitchen and ingredients are provided for self-made breakfast each morning.

The largest concentration of restaurants is located in Esperanza, but in recent years, like anywhere else in the United States, food trucks have become popular. While Sol Food received many recommendations on Trip Advisor, none of the locals I spoke with mentioned it. I did hear a lot about El Kiosko de Dindo, a local favorite food truck run by Carlos Rivera. Most people know the truck as the “tripletas truck” for its famous tripleta sandwich: layers of chopped ham, barbeque pork, steak, papas fritas and the usual sandwich accompaniments per your preference. Rivera, whose nickname is Dindo, says that his secret sauce is what makes the tripletas taste so good. I tried the tripleta burger: all of the above plus a burger patty, with lettuce, tomato, pickle, ketchup, mustard and mayo. There are hints of a Cuban sandwich flavor, but the combination of different meats gives it more complexity.

On the road from the W to the beaches in the south, a little past Isabel Segunda, you’ll come across the restaurant El Resuelve. You can’t miss it, for the number of cars parked along the streets nearby. It’s more of a shack than a restaurant, but don’t be fooled by its bare trimmings. Try any of the empanadas (or pastelillos) from shrimp to crab and octopus, or the fish filet, or churrasco, and you’ll be coming back for more. It’s conveniently located en route to the beaches, so it’s a great choice for lunch. If you’re on the go, just pick up some empanadas — but who’s really in a rush here?

El Quenepo, the Malecón’s fine dining restaurant (as “fine dining” as it gets on the island), was unanimously recommended to me by a number of people. And indeed, after my first meal there, I could not wait to go back. Everything was spectacular, from the sweet corn crepe to the artichoke Caesar salad — the top on my Caesar salad list — to the signature mofongo with seafood and creole sauce.

So this brings us to the topic of mofongo, which I feel deserves special recognition. Mofongo, traditionally made with plantains, is mashed so it has the texture of mashed potatoes. It can be fried or served as is, in the shape of a mound mixed with ingredients like garlic, olive oil or pork cracklings. At El Quenepo, they use mashed breadfruit and calabaza squash instead of plantain, mix it with pork cracklings, deep-fry and present it in the shape of a cup holding local lobster and shrimp in a creole sauce. The combination is craving-worthy — I had to go back for more.

Next door to El Quenepo is Bili Restaurant, a more down-to-earth eatery, which unlike El Quenepo, is also open for lunch. The mofongo cassava fritters appetizer at Bili is another showcase of how amazing mofongo can be. Cassava, also known as yucca, is another delicious plantain substitute. In fact, by the time I finally tasted a plantain mofongo, I realized that I much prefer cassava or breadfruit mofongo because they are lighter in texture. Anyone who likes croquettes or hash browns will love the fried versions of mofongo.

We heard many good things about Orquideas, a former steakhouse that has reopened with a more varied menu using local and seasonal ingredients, also in Esperanza. But we waited till our last night to go, and unfortunately that was a day they are closed. This brings up another good point: most places do not operate daily. El Quenepo is closed on Monday and El Kiosko de Dindo only operates on Friday and Saturday. Another Mexican food truck we wanted to try, Ijole, was closed Monday through Wednesday. El Resuelve seemed to have an irregular closing schedule. Long story short, plan accordingly so you get to try a bit of everything.

Vieques may not have the cachet that St. Bart’s has, but this little Caribbean island is a true gem. Though I’m an island girl who is not easily impressed by beaches, I can’t wait to return to the beaches of Vieques.