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April 2006

Vieques, Puerto Rico

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

We landed in San Juan, PR with threatening skies. A ticket agent pointed the way to Cape Air, which would take us to Vieques. This was our connecting flight, so our luggage would be checked through for us. We were greeted at the counter (the only one for the airline) and found out the plane we were flying on was very small and we would have to check our carry-ons. No problem. Then – gulp! – we had to tell the ticket agent our weight so they could distribute people properly on the plane. We had time to spare, so we found a bar and got in vacation mode with Corona and chips and salsa.

We boarded our plane about a half-hour later than was originally scheduled. The pilot simply led us out to the plane – a propeller plane that appeared to seat about 9 people (plus the pilot). Those passengers whose carry-ons were small enough to stay with them had their carry-ons put into either wing. Lori wanted to know where the luggage was: it was loaded in the nose up front! This was the smallest plane either of us had ever been on. One passenger got to sit up front next to the pilot, who told us if we had any questions, we could ask this person – the “co-pilot.” The pilot propped open his window for air as we waited to be cleared for take-off. He got the go-ahead, the window slammed shut, and up and away we went. As soon as we cleared the mountains in the center of Puerto Rico, the sky on the other side cleared, and in only 20 minutes, we were landing in the tiny runway on Vieques. This is by far the smallest airport we had ever been to, even smaller than Key West.

There was one single baggage carousel, and our luggage came out about 5 minutes after we disembarked. A taxi van (“publico”) stood ready in front of the airport and nearly everyone who was on the flight got into the taxi. We watched with amusement as the driver did his best to balance the large bags on top of the small ones in the back of the van.

We were taken to Marcos car rental, a few minutes east of the airport. The place consisted of a field with a chain-link fence and a motley assortment of four-wheel-drive vehicles. None of them looked like they were in particularly good working order. We ended up with a hard-top Geo Tracker. A rental car is really a must on this island, as taxis are not prevalent and can’t get you to the beaches. Four-wheel-drive is a must because of the many unpaved roads that lead to the beautiful beaches.

After getting a look at some of the sorry cars in the lot, Keith wisely chose to take the waiver (something we generally never do), and the rental car cost us $360 for the week. Note that this was one of the cheaper options. Next time we will definitely upgrade. The car was bare-bones – no radio, no air, and a gaping hole that we swore looked right into the engine. We asked for a map. They dug around and found a map someone had marked various things on. Keith asked for directions to Bravo Beach Hotel and instead of giving us directions, they told us to follow them. It seemed we took a confusing route, but the next day we realized it was actually very simple.

In only a few minutes, we arrived at our first destination – Bravo Beach Hotel. After checking in, we spent some relaxing time by the back pool and had a few drinks. We had a wonderful meal at their onsite restaurant, bbh, see our writeup on Bravo Beach Hotel. Then we went to their Palms Bar by the back pool for some after-dinner drinks. The bartender gave us some good tips on our upcoming week and we finished the evening on our private balcony, listening to some music, sipping a cold drink, and gazing out upon the water.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

After a very restful night, we had breakfast at bbh restaurant (breakfast was included in our stay). The setting is beautiful – sitting outside, yet under a balcony, looking out over one of the pools, and beyond to the ocean. We could see Puerto Rico to our left, and to the right, Culebra and St. Thomas in the distance. Breakfast was excellent. We picked up our lunch cooler and picked our beach destination for the day. The bartender the previous evening told us she liked Green Beach, so we mapped out our route there. Well, “mapping out” is perhaps not an accurate description. There aren’t a lot of roads on the island so there was only one way to get there. We grabbed the hotel-provided beach towels and beach chairs and headed to our rent-a-wreck, which we had named Bubba. Lori navigated while Keith drove. As we neared the end of the paved road, we marveled at the horses grazing by the side of the road (Vieques is a “free range” island). A long part of the trip was on unpaved roads (which we knew, as the unpaved roads on the map were indicated as such). It was a REALLY long ride in a car with no air conditioning, no apparent shock absorbers, and a passenger seat that wouldn’t go back all the way (Lori ended up with bruised knees due to that). Along the way, we had to traverse two rickety bridges that looked like they had been hastily assembled in the 1950s with scrap metal. There were even some holes. Keith drove VERY QUICKLY over those bridges.

At the end of the road, we had to make a decision which way to turn and we chose to go right. From the point, more unpaved access roads led to different beaches. The first beach we hit was small and steep and already occupied by another couple, so we turned around, got back in the car, and found another access road. We didn’t come all this way to find a beach that was already occupied! We found an unoccupied beach that had a nice, sandy crescent, and even had a covered picnic table. We plopped our things down and took turns going into the water, which was surprisingly warm. Alas, after about an hour of beautiful solitude, a local couple arrived and the man donned a snorkeling mask and went spear-fishing. He swam out very far and did not return while we were there so we guessed he wasn’t able to catch dinner. We were fascinated with the woman who opened a bottle of beer with her flip-flop. A little later, a van drove up and spilled its contents – a local family on a Sunday picnic. There were a lot of people in that van – about 6 adults and twice as many children, it seemed. We ate our lunch, stayed a while longer, then took off. As we were leaving, a man at the picnic table asked if they were too loud and we said no.

We drove back over the spine-jarring roads and scary bridges and spent several hours relaxing by the pool, chatting with fellow guests. We met a couple of women who had traveled together from – surprisingly – the county next to ours at home. They had found out about Bravo Beach Hotel on luxurylink.com. We had never heard of it. We met a couple from New York who had also purchased their vacation on luxurylink.com. We met a couple guys from Boston who had been to Vieques about a dozen times and were now there to purchase a vacation home because they loved the island so much. We met two sisters and their husbands who were from New Hampshire and were occupying the villa. It was a friendly crowd, albeit helped along by the honor bar, no doubt.

We had asked Thomas, the manager of the hotel, for a dinner recommendation close by. He recommended Café Media Luna, and we went there for dinner. The restaurant is located in the town of Isabel Segunda, on the main drag (Route 200). Thomas recommended we park at the Post Office and walk around the corner, which is what we did. It is a cute two-story yellow building with nice, somewhat Spanish décor inside. The restaurant is upstairs. Since our reservation was early (6 p.m.), we were able to choose where we wanted to sit, and we chose to sit on one of the tiny balconies. Although Vieques is warm by day, the breezes at night are refreshing, and it was quite comfortable on the balcony. We ordered a bottle of crisp white wine, each had appetizers, and shared a very tasty gourmet pizza. The service was friendly and the food was good. Just nextdoor is Uvas, which looked like a nice place as well (some of our fellow guests ate there and reported a positive experience). After dinner, we went back to the hotel and hung out around the pool.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Another beautiful day in paradise! We awoke after a sound night’s sleep, went to the restaurant at the hotel for another delicious and scenic breakfast, and picked up our lunch cooler. Today we were headed to Playa Grande, a beach on the other side of the island. Vieques has hills in the middle, and Bubba took us up and over to the other side. We say several horses on the way. In fact, at one point there were several horses in the middle of the road and we stopped and waited. One very large horse walked up to Lori’s side of the car and she hurriedly shut her window. She wanted to know if horses bite. It didn’t, and soon we were back on our way again. Playa Grande proved to be very easy to get to and we didn’t have to drive on any unpaved roads. We were pleasantly surprised to find the beach was deserted. Playa Grande is a very large (duh – grande) beach on the south side of the island, the side that is on the Caribbean. The water was a beautiful turquoise color and the beach stretched along the water as far as we could see in both directions. We found a nice spot near some coconut trees. We went into the water and were again pleasantly surprised by how warm it was. The water over here seemed warmer than our previous day on Green Beach (which is on the west side of the island). The view was breathtaking and we settled into our chairs with our books. At one point, a couple strolled by us and the man commented how breathtaking it was. We ate our lunch there and headed out in early afternoon. We drove back a different way, going through the small village of Esperanza on the other side of the island. We were checking things out because we knew we’d be moving to this side of the island the following day. Esperanza has a small plaza across the street from “restaurant row” – about 4 restaurants. The view was amazing – topaz blue water and a calm harbor, with a small, lush island.

We spent more time lazing by the pool chatting with the other guests and imbibing at the honor bar. There aren’t a lot of restaurants open on Monday, and we had already decided we would pick up a pizza at Scoops in Isabel Segundo and bring it back to our room. The two women who were staying at the hotel had not rented a car and we offered to pick up something for them (the hotel’s restaurant was closed that evening). They gratefully accepted, and we took off to get our dinner. Scoops is known for their ice cream, but they also do a good job with pizza. We put in our order and sat at a table in the courtyard while we waited. Interestingly, the music that was being played on outdoor speakers changed from Latin to classic rock. We laughingly wondered if the cook was trying to accommodate the middle-aged white tourists. It was a nice evening and we didn’t mind sitting outside and waiting. We saw a number of people come and go and figured the pizza must be good. When ours was ready, we paid and took the pizzas back to our hotel, dropping off one to our grateful fellow guests. We retired to our room, ate pizza, and watched our favorite Fox shows, enjoying one night of “down time.”

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Another restful night, and another excellent breakfast in a beautiful setting. Afterwards, we packed up our bags, checked out, and piled into Bubba, our rent-a-wreck, for our journey to the other side of the island. Using the one map of Vieques that we saw everywhere, we navigated up over the hills to the southern side of the island, passed through Esperanza, and headed out of town to our next destination: Inn on the Blue Horizon. It was only 10:30 in the morning, but our room was ready and we were able to check in, which was excellent. It was a hot day (as they all were during our trip), and we changed into our swimsuits and took some books out to the pool. We had the place to ourselves and it was wonderfully peaceful. We marveled at the view out over the water – similar to Esperanza but at a slightly higher altitude. We had lunch at the Inn’s outdoor bar, then went back to the pool to laze around. We met and spoke to some fellow guests, who were as friendly as the people we had met at Bravo Beach.

Later in the afternoon, we got two glasses of wine and took them back to our room, where we sat on the porch of our casita and listened to music on our iPod and its speakers. After showering, we headed into Esperanza for dinner. We didn’t have a reservation, but we figured we’d be OK because it was a Tuesday and we were on the early side. We noted that most fine-dining establishments in Vieques did not open until 6 p.m. We chose the Tradewinds (which is also a guest house), which is on the main drag in Esperanza. We got there shortly before they were serving dinner, but the hostess smilingly led us to the bar and asked if we’d like a rum punch. We did, and she made us two rum punches that were very strong (but good). A few minutes later, we were seated and were permitted to choose the table we wanted. The restaurant is sort of on a big, breezy covered veranda, and we chose a table right on the edge so we could look at the magnificent view. We had some very creative (and tasty) appetizers. Lori had a Caribbean shrimp pasta dish with a Thai-influenced sauce and Keith had a chicken special. A family sitting at the table next to ours was nice enough to take a picture of us (and we reciprocated for them). Hey – we’re tourists, what can we say? The drinks were so strong that we each ordered a single glass of wine as a chaser. The food and service was good, and the meal was a good value. Afterwards, we went to their gift shop and bought a couple t-shirts. We got in Bubba and drove the short distance to our inn, where we stopped in the bar for a drink.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

In the morning we headed up to the restaurant (in the main building of the inn) for breakfast. Breakfast was not included at this inn. The restaurant – like the place we had eaten the night before – is on a covered veranda with that jaw-dropping view. The breakfast was OK, but nothing special, especially compared to bbh, and was extra.

We very much wanted to go to the bioluminescent bay, so we called from our room to attempt to book a tour. They told us they had a large group coming and may be booked for that evening, but they were awaiting confirmation and would call back. We grabbed our beach chairs and towels and stopped by the office to tell them about our desire for a bio bay tour, and they said they would take care of it. We got into Bubba and headed for the beach. On this day, we had chosen to go to Sun Bay, off of the main road just on the other side of Esperanza. Sun Bay is a large public beach, with easy access (no bruising your knees on the dashboard on an unpaved road). We paid the bargain price of $2 to get in. The beach is a mile long, and although its easy access doesn’t exactly make it a deserted beach, the sheer size of the thing guaranteed an uncrowded beach. We drove until we found a spot that looked good. Since this is a regulated public beach, there are ample trash containers, good parking right next to the beach, and there is even a café. This beach sloped gently towards the water, and its mile in length fanned out into a crescent. The waves were gentle and the water was like bathwater. We found it amazing that an easily accessible public beach seemed so unspoiled. There are floats out in the water to keep swimmers within a certain distance from land. We spent several serene hours at the beach then packed up in search of lunch.

We drove back into Esperanza and went to Bananas. Bananas is an open-air (yet covered) unassuming place with a view of the harbor and of the lush island a few hundred yards offshore. Bananas is one of the few restaurants on the island that is open most days (including Mondays). It serves mostly pub fare. We sat side-by-side at a simple long wooden bar that overlooked the view and each ordered a wonderful beef hot dog and ice cold beer. The hot dogs were served with a heaping portion of hand-cut freshly made French fries which couldn’t have been better. We lingered there awhile, then headed back to the inn. We stopped at the office and they told us we were booked on a 7:30 bio bay tour that evening.

We spent some time by the pool, then cleaned up and went to the inn’s bar for tapas (which they were serving on Tuesday and Wednesday nights when we visited). Keith had chicken sate and Lori had scallops with a spicy bacon sauce. We agree that the tapas was the best food we had at the inn. Around 7, we left and drove to the place where we would leave for the tour. Although the building was only a couple doors down, we first had to get all the way out of the compound to the road. In addition, it was nearly dark and most Vieques roads are narrow and curvy, so we weren’t comfortable with walking there. We had opted for an electric pontoon boat tour with Island Adventures. We had been told to wear swimsuits and bring towels, and we also wore our water shoes. When we went, the tour cost $30 per person. Note that the tour isn’t available every night of the month. On and around the full moon, there are no tours because the night sky is too bright. Island Adventures’ website has a calendar to let you know when tours are available. They were running two tours a night, and we were on the later tour.

We got into an old school bus, which took us in to the entrance at Sun Bay, to the east end of the bay, and on an unpaved road some distance in the dark to the bio bay. We were anxious, as we were very much anticipating this. Vieques’ bio bay is one of the few in the world still left.

When the bus stopped at the water’s edge, we awaited the pontoon boat, which returned from the earlier trip and left off those guests. We got onto the boat. The family who had eaten dinner next to us the night before was coincidentally on the tour. We noted that the one of the Island Adventures employees asked the age of the kids, and the youngest one was required to wear a life jacket – a sensible thing to do on a boat in the dark. The electric pontoon boat is very quiet. The tours are limited to a certain number of people so we weren’t crowded onto the boat. Benches surrounded the outside and we chose a spot mid-boat. When the captain pulled away from shore we started to see things glowing in the water. You probably want to know why the water glows. Here is why: This unique bay contains up to 720,000 single-celled bioluminescent dinoflagellates per gallon of water. These half-plant, half-animal organisms emit a flash of bluish light when agitated at night. The high concentration of these creatures (Pyrodimium bahamense) can create enough light to read a book from. OK, we’re not scientists – we borrowed that from Island Adventures’ website. The captain stomped his foot on the deck of the boat and suddenly we saw flashes of light everywhere in the water around us. We also saw the glow around kayaks in the bay. (Kayak tours are also available, but since neither one of us has ever kayaked before, we decided it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to try it for the first time in the dark.) The small wake of the boat glowed. It was an amazing sight, and one that was only possible because this water remains unpolluted and because the area surrounding the bay is not built up with buildings that emit light. If any of that changes, the bio bay will cease to exist.

Suffice to say we were enthralled. This is one of the most amazing things we have ever experienced. The captain was also very knowledgeable about the night sky and pointed out constellations throughout the entire trip, which in itself would have been worthwhile. We were able to see the Southern Cross for the first time in our lives, and on that clear night, it seemed to be surrounded by an outline that made it look like a kite. The captain had a laser beam he would use to point things out to us. It was so peaceful and beautiful. Then it was time to go in the water. Understand we are in the middle of a bay that goes into the ocean and there are darting glow-in-the-dark thingies in the water all around us, and there is practically no sound. Not everyone went in. Keith decided to stay onboard. Lori hesitated for only a moment because she didn’t want to be the first one overboard, but she reasoned that if there were any sharks, they would glow in the dark and she’d see it before it got to her. So she strapped on a floatation belt and jumped in. The belts are the type that simply go around your waist and they keep you nice and buoyant. The water was very warm and had a very soft quality to it. She – and others – swam around, moving their arms through the water to see the glowing effect. If she reached her arm out of the water, glowing rivulets ran down it. At one point, one of the employees did a cannon ball off of the deck and the light effects were tremendous. Lori got back up on the boat before “last call” because she wanted to see what it looked like from above. For those that didn’t go in, a bucket of the water was on the deck, and when it was hit, light flashed throughout it like sparks. Lori’s suit would emit light when she snapped the material…incredibly, that went on for about a half-hour after she got out of the water.

The trip was over too soon, and we rode the bus back to our starting point. We were so glad we did this – it’s incredible and we hope it is there a long time for a lot of people to experience. We deem this a must-see if you go to Vieques. It’s great for all ages but especially if you have children (we’d recommend it for kids probably 8 and up; it might be a little frightening for younger children because of the complete darkness). It might also be unnerving for parents of very young children to keep track of their kids in that environment.

Lori changed out of her damp suit, and we went back to the bar for a drink and dessert before turning in for the night.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Another beautiful, hot day…we were running out of time! After breakfast at the inn’s restaurant, we packed up the car and headed to Garcia Beach, a recommendation from a friend who had just returned from Vieques. We went past Sun Bay and continued on, finally turning off to the right and going down a very long (but very straight) unpaved road. We turned right – according to our trusty map – and found ourselves on an old deserted naval air strip. Here things seemed to vary a bit from the map. (Later we noted the map said it was not to be used to navigation – hello, it’s a map!) We finally popped out on a beach but Lori was convinced this was not Garcia Beach, so we got back in the car and took a couple more unpaved roads until we emerged – at last! – on a breathtaking beach. We quickly decided this was the most beautiful beach we had seen on the island. The water was blue-green, the beach was free of sea grass, and sloped very gently down to the water. The crescent-shaped beach was framed by outcroppings of rock, and there were some sailboats anchored further out. We saw a few people, but they were a good 50 yards away.

On this day, we had decided not to bring our camera so that we could both go in the water at the same time without fear of petty theft. I have to say that although we were warned about this, we never felt like we were being watched…but we also didn’t do anything stupid. Keith used his “water wallet” for the keys, money, and a credit card…which we discovered wasn’t totally waterproof but served the purpose. We had our water shoes on, but the bottom here was much smoother. The waves were a bit stronger, but not exactly surfing quality. The water felt wonderful and we marveled at the beauty and serenity that surrounded us…and wished we had brought a camera! Oh well, we said, we could come back to that beach the next day.

We spent several hours there, and left when we got hungry. We ate lunch at the inn’s bar again, then spent time at the pool, chatting with a couple from New Hampshire. We had a few drinks that afternoon, albeit over an extended period of time. Later we showered, dressed, and headed into Esperanza for dinner. We ended up at Bili. This place had Puerto Rican food. It is on the main strip, open air but covered, and is colorful, with lots of tile. Although our server was a bit wifty, the food was good and different. Be forewarned: the appetizers are huge. Afterwards, we drove back to our hotel, got a bottle of champagne at the bar, and took it back to our room in an ice bucket. OK, we probably didn’t need the champagne, but the thought of sitting on the porch of our casita, drinking champagne, listening to music, and soaking up the island atmosphere was very appealing. While we were out there, it suddenly started pouring. We were covered, but we unplugged the iPod speakers and watched the downpour. Vieques is constantly in a state of drought (although it’s hard to tell because it’s so lush) so the storm was welcome, especially since it conveniently waited until after dark!

Friday, April 28, 2006

Our last day already! We slept in, completely missing breakfast (it wasn’t our intent). We were moving too slowly to get back into Bubba and head out on the bumpy roads back to the beach, so we chowed down on some pretzels and soda. We lazed about the pool, eventually having lunch at the bar. Late in the afternoon, we got two glasses of wine and took them upstairs on the open-air balcony above the restaurant. There are tables, chairs, and umbrellas, but they don’t actually serve food and drinks up there (guests are welcome to take their own). We suspect they may also use the terrace for special functions. The views were breathtaking and we took quite a few pictures.

We had a reservation for dinner at the inn’s restaurant that night. (We had made the reservation the day before at the office.) They couldn’t seem to locate our reservation (which was a little frustrating) but the restaurant wasn’t full, so we were accommodated at an outside table of our choosing. For a write-up of our dinner, see our writeup of The Inn on the Blue Horizon. After dinner, we went to the bar and had a piece of the restaurant’s delectable flan for dessert.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Oh no! Our week in paradise is over already! We packed up our things, checked out, and loaded up Bubba for the ride over to the other side of the island. We stopped to fill up the gas tank and observed what is probably one of the stupidest things we have ever seen a tourist do. It was Saturday morning and there were lots of people at the self-service gas station. We pulled up behind an American tourist who was filling his tank. He stared at the pump in the side of the car, and then went and sat in the front seat. We figured he was getting out of the hot sun. Suddenly his taillights came on, and we were concerned he was going to back into us. Just the opposite – he started to take off with the gas hose attached to his car! Other customers started yelling at him and he stopped the car, got out, shook his head, and put the hose back where it belonged. We couldn’t believe it.

We filled up the car and took it back to Marcos. I guess we should have called first. There was no one there but a teenager who was cleaning out one of the cars, and he did not speak English. Incredibly, the small shack that served as an office was wide open with all the keys to the cars hanging there in plain view. That tells you what sort of rental vehicles they had – no one even wanted to steal them! We were getting nervous, unsure of what to do. We had read that is was illegal to leave rental cars at the airport. We were considering leaving a note and doing exactly that, but we were afraid we’d get charged on our card for it. Lori saw a posting in the office for a taxi service, so we decided to call the taxi for a ride to the airport and leave the car there. Everything we had read had told us that when we returned the car, the rental agent would either take us to the airport or call a taxi for us. She called the taxi service, but they didn’t speak English either. We had decided to say the heck with it and drive to the airport and leave the car there, when a man pulled in. Lori said, “Do you work here?” He nodded his head and we explained we were returning our car. No smile, no acknowledgment. He got out his records and took his time checking out the car. There were so many dents on it to begin with we had no idea how he would be able to tell if there was anything additional.

He seemed satisfied and said “What are you going to do now?” We couldn’t believe it. “We need a ride to the airport please,” we told him. He told us to drive the car to the airport, park in the parking lot, and leave the keys in it. But we thought that was illegal? No matter – we need to get moving. We drove the 5 minutes to the airport and of course the lot was complete full, so we parked it right under a sign that said no parking – tow-away zone. Glad to have that miserable rental car experience behind us, we went into the tiny airport, which is actually a very nice, clean facility. Don’t expect to get a sandwich and drink while you wait for your plane. We checked in at Cape Air, and went downstairs to the one gate to wait for our plane. It was pleasantly air-conditioned. Our flight left a little late, but we had plenty of time for our connection in San Juan. The skies were clearer than on our flight over, and we spent the 20-minute ride gaping at the scenery beneath us. If I haven’t already, I need to stress that these are very small planes – in this one, there were only 5 passengers and the pilot (there were a few additional empty seats). It didn’t bother us in the least, but the small plane might bother some people. We found the Cape Air workers to be very polite and we would definitely fly with them again!

We touched down in San Juan and landed back in reality: our flight home was delayed by 4 hours! Here is a tip for you: if you are headed to Vieques, try not to do head home on a Saturday. It is “cruise ship exchange day” and it was absolutely nuts. A shock back to reality for us! But we loved Vieques, and we can’t wait to return.