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The Star-Ledger

Beyond The Bombs, Vieques Is A Pretty, Laid-Back Island


June 24, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Star-Ledger. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico - U.S. Navy practice bombings, Puerto Rican politics and environmental lawsuits have brought Vieques an agitated sort of fame. But look beyond all that, and you may find a laid-back little island trying to carve out a calmer niche as a tranquil tourist destination.

"Not a lot happens here - but then that's why we like it," says visitor Mark Perez, a 29-year-old native of Florida who lives on Puerto Rico 's nearby main island.

The pretty, undeveloped beaches and solid - if basic - services are an antidote to the stressful highways, casinos, malls and built-up seafronts of mainland Puerto Rico , he says.

Still, with President Bush's "ceasefire" promise, some locals hope that U.S. Navy - which now controls two-thirds of the 21-mile-by-4-mile island -will be replaced by a big-time tourist industry.

"We need big hotels and big piers so the big ships will come here and tourism will start for real," says Viequense Pedro Herrera, sweeping a sidewalk and staring out to sea as if willing the cruise ships to appear. "We need progress."

About 9,400 civilians live on the island, in the middle third. The eastern third is a bombing range and a munitions warehouse occupies the western end.

For now, ferries and the occasional yacht traverse the eight miles of water from Fajardo, a Puerto Rican port whose El Conquistador resort alone has several times the 140 hotel rooms available in all of Vieques .

There is also a 25-minute shuttle flight from San Juan, the capital of this U.S. Caribbean territory of 4 million Spanish speakers.

About 10 minutes' drive from Vieques ' tiny airport lies the sleepy and dilapidated town of Isabel Segunda. Despite some decent lodging and restaurants, tourists seem inclined to head straight for the village of Esperanza, on the southern shore where the prettier beaches are located.

The most accessible are Sun Bay and Media Luna, both boasting curved stretches of yellow sand enclosing clear, turquoise, glasslike water. Farther along a coastal dirt road you reach the straighter Navio beach, with rougher surf and younger, hipper bathers.

There are few amenities beyond the occasional trash can hidden behind a palm tree.

Esperanza's seafront promenade - ambitiously called "the strip" - offers a few restaurants and inns where English is spoken and the atmosphere is relaxed.

"Somewhere else I could go to a big hotel and I could sit on their beach full of other tourists, and I could click my fingers and a waiter would bring me the same drink I'm drinking now - except that I would have paid I don't know how much for it," observes Waldo Bird, a Puerto Rican savoring a self-served rum and coke.

It's a fine place to catch a parade of the paso fino horses whose clip-clopping steps are, as the Spanish name suggests, exactingly dainty.

Those not content with watching can take kayaking, diving and snorkeling tours as well as a night excursion to the island's prized bioluminescent bay.

There, you can savor the magic of swimming in what look like liquid stars while darting fish create an underwater fireworks display.

Back on land, some visitors seem only too aware of the controversy over the Navy's presence - which bubbled over into mass protests after stray bombs killed a civilian guard in April 1999.

The Navy must leave, says Iliana Bird of San Juan, "just like the Berlin Wall had to fall." She fumes at the thought of finer beaches in inaccessible Navy territory. "Media Luna may look beautiful," she says, "but it is ugly compared to them."

New York City resident Robert Bramvilla - commonly known in Vieques as "The Italian" - has sparked interest by buying up land around Sun Bay. He also recently bought the Casa del Frances hotel, an airy wooden mansion from a former sugar plantation.

A $50 million luxury resort and golf course called Martineau Bay is currently in final stages of construction. With 156 rooms, it would more than double Vieques ' capacity.

Some wonder whether the Navy hasn't inadvertently saved Vieques from succumbing to an excessive development that might overwhelm its charms - a fate not unknown in the Caribbean.

"I just hope these are all just plans, and that nothing will happen for a while," says Briton Anne Harrington, who visits every year. "It is so tranquil like it is - we love it."

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