The island of Vieques, off the eastern tip of Puerto Rico, has made headlines these past several months, as islanders and their supporters have protested the continued use of territory there as a Navy bombing range.
I hope that military activity disappears, but even before it does, Vieques is a traveler's dream. Although it's only seven miles off Puerto Rico's coast, the little island's downy-soft beaches, lush hills and colorful coral reefs have been kept a close secret by adventurous and savvy budget travelers.
Unlike so many other Caribbean islands, Vieques is packed with budget lodgings where you can easily find a room for $85 or less a night, and eat a filling dinner of fresh fish for less than $12.
Besides the delight of so many bargains, the other joys of Vieques include its off-the-beaten-path authenticity. Part of its charm is what you won't find: traffic lights, fast-food restaurants, T-shirt shops, discos or cruise ships anchored at port. Although it's the same size as St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Vieques probably has less than one-tenth the development.
What you will find are beautiful beaches so empty you might have them to yourself, dollar beers at outdoor bars, farm animals sleeping in the streets and wild ponies running along the shore. If you're looking to relax with a good book on a deserted beach and spend quiet evenings strolling along the shore, Vieques is for you.
How has the island remained so affordable and undeveloped? Obviously because of the Navy's presence. The island's 10,000 inhabitants have spent the past six decades sandwiched between a bombing range and a munitions storage depot.
If the Navy moves out--and Washington has promised it will in two years--the tourism picture could change dramatically, which is why it's probably best to run, not walk, to Vieques if you're looking for a rock-bottom-priced vacation. It is possible the Navy's land could be developed with luxury hotels. Certainly there will be a lot of interest in commercializing the pristine beaches.
For now there's no hotel on Vieques with more than 16 rooms. But there are plans for a five-star luxury resort to open later this year, and American Eagle expects to start servicing the island with daily flights. For better or worse, Vieques is poised to pop out of its time warp and onto the big-time travel scene.
The populated middle section of the island can be split into two areas: the main town of Isabel Segunda, on the north coast where the ferry docks, and the fishing village of Esperanza on the southern coast. Bargain hotel rooms for as little as $50 can be found all over the island. But don't expect room service or even amenities like cable television. You're more likely to wake up to a rooster than a clock radio. What you can expect are simple, clean rooms from which to launch your day.
You'll probably want to rent a car to get around; rentals are about $45 a day. Check out http://www.vieques-island.com. Go to the bottom of the home page and click on "Transportation"; page down to section D for car rentals.
Most visitors gravitate to the strand of mini-hotels and restaurants along the palm-lined water's edge in Esperanza. With its breezy outdoor bars, picturesque fishing boats bobbing in the bay and killer sunsets, it's not hard to understand why. There's no shortage of bargains there either. The popular restaurant Bananas has lodging in the back. Attractive wood-paneled doubles go for as little as $45 a night. There's no air-conditioning, but ceiling fans help the sea breeze cool you off. For $60 to $70 you get air-conditioning, a bigger room and a screened-in porch. Telephone (787) 741-8700. You'll also find small but clean rooms around that price at the Trade Winds Guest House, tel. (787) 741-8666, and at Amapola Inn, tel. (787) 741-1382.
For a quieter, more intimate stay, you might want to try one of the guest houses a few blocks in from the water's edge. Ted's Guest House, tel. (787) 741-2225, is definitely a value king. Ted rents out apartments with full kitchens, large balconies and air-conditioning for just $65 a night. A two-bedroom apartment costs $100.
One of my favorite restaurants in Esperanza, the Posada Vistamar, is also one of the cheapest. It's run by elderly local legend Olga Benitez, who will personally seat you in her screened-in porch of a restaurant and tell you what's on the menu--basically, whatever the fishermen caught that day. A whole fried grouper with plantains, rice and beans will set you back $9. So will an octopus or conch salad. And for less than $6, you can munch on pork chops and crispy fried chicken.
Most of the island's outdoor adventures are run out of Esperanza. Not to be missed is a tour of Vieques' Bioluminescent Bay, easily the most spectacular in the Caribbean. The water is packed with a large concentration of single-celled organisms that glow in the dark when agitated. The water fills with bright green streaks of light (nearly bright enough to read by) whenever a fish or stingray races past. You can even jump in and watch as your limbs light up the surrounding water. Tours, either by electric boat or kayak, cost $23 and are run by Island Adventures, tel. (787) 741-0720, and Blue Caribe Dive Center, tel. (787) 741-2522. And for $20 a day you can explore the interior of the island on a mountain bike from La Dulce Vida, tel. (787) 617-2453.