Above: Vieques (All photos by CJ)
By Alexander Britell
VIEQUES — I’m in a taxi with a couple from Boston that just arrived here from the neighbouring island of Culebra.
“I hear they’ve got great beaches there,” I say.
Quickly, our driver interrupts, pointing his finger to correct me: “Only one beach.”
It’s immediately clear that there is a rivalry between the two islands off the coast of Puerto Rico: but when it comes to beaches, it’s no contest – while Culebra has just one, Vieques has, by unofficial count, two dozen. And they’re all mostly empty.
Vieques has led many lives — first as the sugarcane cradle of Puerto Rico, then as a longtime US navy testing ground, and finally, today a largely untouched Caribbean paradise.
The island of less than 10,000 people has a very much inchoate tourism sector. Navy testing only ceased in 2003 after decades of protests finally turned successful, with the former target grounds converted into a park and wildlife preserve, with exceptional beaches of its own.
Today, the island is dotted mostly by small bed and breakfasts and guest houses, with one major exception — the flagship W Retreat & Spa, which opened in 2010 on the island’s Atlantic coast.
The W, a 30-acre beachfront property set on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, is an interesting mix: on the one hand, it’s a hip Miami-style resort; on the other hand, it’s a rustic, island beach club.
It’s a dichotomy that makes the W experience unique — and a return to the jet-setting, island-hopping Caribbean of yore: short jaunts on a small planes (including your own branded arrival terminal at the airport), uninhabited beaches, tony pools and masterful mojitos.
That’s exemplified on the grounds of the hotel, where you’ll bump into notable guests just as often as you do wild horses. The latter are the true celebrities of Vieques — whether in the national parks or just off your balcony, they’re the constant reminders that, here, you’re rediscovering the old Caribbean.
Indeed, the long-contentious presence of the Navy has proved to yield at least one silver lining — Vieques is the raw, unadulterated Caribbean — from the larger town of Isabel II to the beachfront Esperanza, visitors always seem far outnumbered by locals.
And, of course, there are the beaches: powdery, golden sand, lush palm trees and, did I mention no people? With the exception of the larger beaches within the national park, it’s hard to visit the island and not be able to find a beach to call your own for an afternoon.
Isn’t that what a Caribbean vacation is supposed to be?