Image: Medina Luna
AP
Medina Luna beach in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Vieques is increasingly becoming a haven for vacation homes and bed-and-breakfast lodgings.
By
updated 11/2/2010 1:29:41 PM ET 2010-11-02T17:29:41

Not long ago, while working for star chef Alain Ducasse in New York, chef Dagan Lynn heard the restaurateur's group planned to open a Caribbean outpost of his Mix restaurant.

"I remember thinking: 'Where is this — Vieques?'" he recalled.

Lynn has since updated his knowledge of geography. He is now the executive chef at Mix on the Beach in this island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. He and his staff turn out plates of tomato-watermelon gazpacho and peekytoe crab salad not far from where the U.S. Navy used to practice amphibian landings.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

The restaurant, in the new W Retreat and Spa that opened in April, is part of Vieques' evolution as a destination on its own. Vieques has always been a day trip and weekend destination for Puerto Ricans and intrepid tourists willing to rough it. But the departure in 2003 of the U.S. Navy — which closed down a training base that took up two-thirds of the island's acreage — led to a land rush as visitors bought vacation homes and set up bed-and-breakfast lodgings.

"You saw people mobbing the building supply stores," said Andy Plesser, a New York public relations executive and video blogger. He has owned a home in Vieques since 2004 and recently launched a Vieques video blog.

The land rush settled down due to tight local building codes — it took Plesser three tries to buy a house — and the onset of recession. But the opening of the 150-room W resort, in what had been a Wyndham hotel, doubled the number of rooms available in the island and is expected to attract a more upscale crowd.

There is now air service by a half-dozen airlines making the 20-minute flight from both the international airport in San Juan and the regional airport in Isla Grande. The latest carrier to land on Vieques is St. Croix-based Seaborne Airlines, which began flights from Isla Grande in March.

With improved air links, more tourists are treating Vieques as a stand-alone destination, not just an extension to a Puerto Rico vacation.

Image: W Retreat and Spa
AP
A living room at the W Retreat and Spa in Vieques, Puerto Rico

"The people who come here want to be here," says Jonathan Heath, general manager of the W hotel. "They don't just stroll by and say: 'Oh, look, there's Vieques.'" When the hotel opened during the Easter holidays, it reached 90 percent occupancy, said Heath; at the start of the low season in May, occupancy was around 53 percent.

Air passenger traffic to Vieques rose 40 percent in 2008, then dropped 3.5 percent to 20,759 in 2009 during the recession, according to the most recent data from the Federal Aviation Administration. But that's still a 75 percent increase over the 11,884 passenger boardings in 2004, the first year after the Navy's departure — and doesn't count the travelers who arrived on the ferry from Puerto Rico or on private boats. The ferry remains the main link between Vieques and Fajardo, on Puerto Rico's northeast coast, with several roundtrips daily for the hour-and-20-minute ride, and a one-way $2 fare.

Once on the island, tourists find Vieques still retains some of its frontier vibe. Wild horses roam and signs warn visitors away from beaches still being cleared of unexploded Navy ordnance. Some beaches still carry the code names assigned by the Navy during exercises, such as Punta Arenas (Green Beach), Playa Caracas (Red Beach) and Playa la Chiva (Blue Beach).

While the roads to Blue and Red Beach have been paved recently, many fine secluded beaches are accessible via dirt roads that require all-terrain vehicles. The W arranges rentals equipped with "escape kits" of beach gear and a picnic lunch for its guests, but there are also local rental agencies. Beyond the beaches, the island has low-key culture and nature attractions including a Spanish colonial fort in the capital of Isabel Segunda and the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay — considered one of the brightest in the world.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

The influx of visitors has led to an increased interest in conservation, especially efforts to protect the bay. The Vieques Conservation Trust organized a symposium in 2009 that brought together scientists and politicians; another will be held at the W this fall.

If you go ...

"We need to keep moving that rock uphill," said Douglas Reese, a Trust board member. The bay is a big visitor draw, but that has to be balanced with conservation, he said.

The trust maintains a small museum in Esperanza with indigenous artifacts and exhibits on marine life and conservation. The group also organizes hikes to archaeological sites, bird watching trips and is trying to set up tours to observe endangered leatherback turtles as they come ashore to nest, said Mark Martin Bras, a director of the trust.

"Vieques is just up and coming," said Martin Bras. "The people who come — pretty few leave disappointed."

The profile of visitors is changing, said Reese, who runs a local bed-and breakfast. Tourists are staying longer and making repeat visits. He estimated 45 percent of regular repeat visitors in the winter now stay two weeks or more. According to the locals, the majority of guests come from the Eastern U.S. and Puerto Rico. Vieques had been drawing European visitors, especially Spaniards, but the euro debt crisis has put a dent on those crowds, said Plesser. Reese says he counsels callers making reservations to moderate their expectations. Nightlife is limited to a few local bars and restaurants; Heath says there's no casino in the plans for the W. Current options for drinking and dining include Next Course for dinner and Duffy's for lunch along El Malecon in Esperanza, and El Puente, a great bar hangout in Isabel Segunda.

There is little danger of the island turning into a spring-break destination. Development will be limited, since most of the land remains in government hands, noted Plesser. The Navy land has been transferred in part to the U.S. Department of the Interior, and partly to local and federal authorities until the Navy finishes cleaning up.

Visitors come for the beaches, nature and the laid-back vibe, said Plesser, who rents out his house during down times. They are "people who like nature, who like the beach who like a low-key kind of vacation," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Caribbean way of life

loading photos...
  1. Barbados

    This undated photo courtesy of the Barbados Tourism Authority shows Harrismith Beach, Barbados. Sun, surf and sand are the main draws on this tropical Caribbean island. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Barbados

    This undated photo courtesy of Barbados Tourism Authority shows The Watering Hole rum shop in Barbados. The rum shops on the island are good places to sample local food and drink, watch a game of dominos, or just get to know the friendly and hospitable Bajans. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. St. Lucia

    Developed, beautiful and situated in the Eastern Caribbean, St. Lucia is accessible from Europe and Canada, and reachable -- albeit not as easily -- from the United States. St. Lucia is known as a romantic destination. The island gets plenty of visitors, including wedding parties. (Holger Leue  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. St. Lucia

    Cocoa pods lie on the ground ready to be processed at Fondoux Plantation in Soufriere, St. Lucia. Cocoa is one St. Lucia's main produce alongside the more obvious banana crop. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. St. George's

    The capital of Grenada, St. George's is considered one of the prettiest harbor towns in the Caribbean. Grenada's unique layout includes many finger-like coves, making the island a popular sailing destination. (Richard Cummins  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Cayman Islands

    The Cayman Islands very popular attractions, Stingray City and the nearby shallows known as the Sandbar, provide the only natural oportunity to swim with Atlantic Southern Stingrays. (David Rogers / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Stingray City

    The Cayman Islands very popular attractions, Stingray City and the nearby shallows known as the Sandbar, provide the only natural oportunity to swim with Atlantic Southern Stingrays. (David Rogers / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. St John's

    In high season, up to five cruise ships visit St John's, Antigua, each day. The boats unload mostly American and European passengers who fan out across the island visiting the casinos and beaches. Antigua is easily accessible, and can offer good values for tourists. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Antigua

    Antigua, located in the Northeastern Caribbean, is a popular tourist spot. While there are high-end, stylish hotels, the island also features a large number of mid-priced options. Visitors will find beach bars, restaurants, casinos and shopping. (Richard I'Anson  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Antigua

    People walk along an area known as Devils Bridge in Indian Town Point, Antigua. Antigua is a wintertime destination for many visitors from the north. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dominica

    Not as well known as other Caribbean islands, Dominica is green, fertile and mountainous. Visitors will find some opportunites to scuba dive, but watersports are not its main draw. The island does, however, offer a slew of rainforest trails -- great for hiking and sightseeing. (Greg Johnston  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Dominican Republic

    An old church building is seen in La Romana, the third-largest city in the Dominican Republic. (Wayne Walton / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Belize

    Belize gets more than 850,000 visitors each year. The hot spot allows watersports such as kayaking and snorkeling, as well as inland activities like hiking and birding. The Mayan ruins of Altan Ha, pictured, are easily accessible from Caye Caulker. (Andrew Marshall / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. La Tortuga

    A fisherman repairs his nets on Cayo Herradura, off the island of La Tortuga in Venezuela. The country offers visitors a variety of activities to choose from, but remains undervisited -- especially compared to its South American neighbors. (Lynne Sladky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Cuba

    Cuba blends the fantastic attractions associated with other Caribbean destinations with an amazing history. Tourists can stroll white sand beaches, take in the incredible architecture and party into the early-morning hours. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. St. Barthelemy

    St. Barthelemy is a vacation spot of stars and millionaires. Trendy, chic and sexy, St. Baarths is safe for tourists, but expensive to visit. About 8,700 people reside on the island. (Mark Mainz / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Puerto Rico

    A man climbs to a 40-foot waterfall at the south side of the Caribbean National Rain Forest, commonly called El Yunque, near Naguabo, Puerto Rico. Most visitors hike the well-marked paths in the northern half of the park's rain forest but the trails in the south allow hikers and nature lovers to explore the only tropical forest in the U.S. national forest system. (Herminio Rodriguez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Puerto Rico

    The cupola of San Juan Cemetary as well as colorful homes sit next to the ocean in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The old city is a historic district of seven square blocks made up of ancient buildings and colonial homes, massive stone walls and vast fortifications, sunny parks and cobblestoned streets. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Puerto Rico

    Men play dominos in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Old San Juan is a well-preserved colonial city that allows tourists a peek into the past. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Guadeloupe

    Guadeloupe isn't as developed as some other Caribbean islands, but it offers a variety of beaches -- some active with watersports, some secluded. The island also offers beach bars, restaurants, mid-range hotels and other tourist amenities. (Marcel Mochet / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments