Vieques: A Caribbean island with beaches and eco-hotels galore

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A travel report by Starre Vartan. Check out the original report for a gallery of photos.

Right off the bat, Vieques surprised me in the best possible way. Just minutes after exiting the ferry from Puerto Rico, I saw my first wild horse. I admit with only some embarrassment to squealing and yelling “horse!” as if my cab driver were blind; luckily, he just laughed at me.

I devolved into my obsessed-with-horses young-girl self as I outright gawked at playful, lazy ponies in shades from dark brown to dusky white. They appeared trotting down the middle of the winding roads, nibbling grass in front of colonial-era ruins, and rolling delightedly in mud puddles next to the beach. The hundreds of frisky equines were just the first of many unexpected pleasures on this petite island eight miles from Puerto Rico.

Each Caribbean island holds its own local charms. Besides the wildlife, Vieques has dozens of beaches, most of which are picture-perfect, easily accessible, very private — and almost totally undeveloped. That’s primarily because up until recently, most of the island was used as a bombing range for the U.S. Navy.

I have to admit that imagining these beautiful beaches — and all the bird, insect and sea life that obviously thrives there — being bombed repeatedly made me cry several times. From World War II until 2003, that’s what most of this Caribbean island was used for.

In 1999 a Vieques native, David Sanes, who worked for the U.S. Navy as a civilian, was accidentally killed by a bomb that misfired. While there had been several opposition movements to U.S. military presence on the island before, mass protests were sparked anew by Sanes’ death, and this time, they were effective. In a real David-and-Goliath moment of civil disobedience, locals in fishing boats went up against much larger ships and successfully stopped the U.S. Navy’s military exercises.

When celebrities and activists like Al Sharpton, RFK Jr., Jimmy Smits, Carlos Delgado and Jesse Jackson (to name just a few) joined the protest, they gained national media attention, and by May 2003, the Navy withdrew from the island, transferring its land to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). Since then, the FWS has cleared much of the former Navy areas of bombs and other material, though some areas are still closed and being made safe for visitors. (I met several off-duty bomb-removal experts hanging out at Vieques’ many friendly bars.)

Like Puerto Rico (which feels like the “mainland,” even though it’s an island, too), Vieques was originally settled by Indigenous people for thousands of years before the Spanish showed up and used it for its strategic position. As a result, it has many nicknames. My favorite was “Isla Nena,” which means “Little Girl Island” in Spanish. This seems apt as it lives in Puerto Rico’s shadow — like the island of Culebra to the north, Vieques is a satellite of sorts to its larger, more well-known “parent” island.

Vieques is small, but it packs a lot in — and most of the fun stuff is free. From exploring the abandoned ruins of a sugar plantation, now overgrown by thick tropical forest (below); to ancient Indigenous ruins that are well-known in archaeology circles; to horseback riding (some of the wild horses have been domesticated); to snorkeling the clear waters or visiting the world’s largest Ceiba tree, which is over 300 years old.

And of course, the beaches, with sands of many colors, off dirt roads and main drags, some long and flat, others crescent-moon shaped and lagoon-facing. And then there are the beaches in the Fish & Wildlife Refuge area, many of which still retain their Navy names: Blue Beach, Green Beach, etc. I can’t forget Vieques’ world-famous bioluminescent bay, which is well-protected by local regulations, and you will need a guide to see and explore.

Where to Stay on Vieques

There are three (very) different ethical accommodations on Vieques, ensuring that whatever you’re into, you can stay in a place that’s your style as well as conscious of the precious resources on this fragile wild island—and those of the larger planet.

I was not expecting to find such a design-focused accommodation like Hix Island House when I was looking into visiting Vieques, and I’ve not come across a similar hotel on any other Caribbean island. Built by architect John Hix, the Brutalist-style hotel fits in perfectly to the tropical forest ecosystem in the center of the island — which admittedly sounds odd. But it makes perfect sense once you have spent time on Vieques — the island is peppered with giant grey rocks which complement the greenery. Hix Island House juxtaposes itself with the local flora in the same way while inserting a real edge of modern style (not to mention luxury) into the equation.

 

While the design is both locally inspired and international, the eco bona fides are serious: Hix writes, “My houses are designed to conserve commercial energy, reduce repair and maintenance, minimize the use of chemicals, thus treading lightly on the Earth. The houses collect rain water and heat it with the sun. Then, after use, they give the water to the surrounding flora. The houses convert the sun’s rays into electricity.”

I stayed in the Casa Solaris, one of several “houses” that make up the hotel and the only solar-powered guest accommodation in the Caribbean: It was beautifully positioned not only to maximize the incredible views across the island’s interior mountains and out to the sea, but the constant cooling breezes meant air conditioning was unnecessary. And since mosquitoes like quiet, standing air, there were few bugs to bother with. Quiet, incredibly relaxed, and with every detail seen to, my time at Hix Island House almost feels more like a dream than a memory.

Located just down the road from Hix Island House, and also set in the rugged hilly interior of the island, La Finca is the perfect, boho-Caribbean escape. Used as a backdrop for more than one fashion shoot, its colorful, friendly main building houses a full kitchen, huge, relaxing reading room and an unforgettable deck that looks out over the mountains. (You know how in meditation, they tell you to envision a place of peace? La Finca’s front deck is what I picture now.) With a porch swing, hammocks, a big table and snug little twosomes of Adirondack chairs, I spent much of my La Finca time simply lolling about on the deck; it’s just perfect.

This self-proclaimed “rustic” retreat feels like its in perfect harmony with the local environment: fruit trees bearing snacks of all flavors abound, and each of the various guest houses (from single-roomed studio to a whole family-friendly house) have tons of unique character and plenty of color. But the eco-friendliness is much more than skin deep: solar panels provide hot water, linens are hung in the Caribbean breezes to dry (rather than in an energy-sucking dryer), rainwater is harvested, greywater is reused for plants, lights are low-power LEDs, and the pool is salt — not chlorine.

But best of all, the brilliant and crafty folks at La Finca have taken “reduce, reuse, recycle” as instruction, utilizing glass (which is not recycled on the island) in all kinds of gorgeous, creative ways. My shower was built with bottles, and I’ve rarely seen something as pretty as when the sun shined through it. In addition to being incredibly knowledgeable and friendly people, the hosts at La Finca are also happy to lend things you might need while on-island, so you don’t need to buy extras of something you don’t need — another simple but often-forgotten way to conserve resources (not to mention cash).

El Blok is a chic, urban hotel with a LEED-gold-certified heart of green — not what you’d expect to find in the one-street long, two-streets wide town. But that’s exactly what it is. With top-notch service and rooms that reminded me of The Standard or a W (but way cooler than either of those), I went to sleep on a weekend night with the sound of DJ music in my ears — a fun change from the very quiet stays at previous accommodations.

Besides the incredible food in El Blok’s restaurant (people come from all over the island to eat Chef Carlos Perez’s take on modern Puerto Rican food), both their bars serve up excellent cocktails. At sunset time, head upstairs to the incomparably beautiful roof deck (above), complete with live music and a cool dipping pool. I spent hours one evening soaking in the tub, watching the sun set (then enjoying a full moon rise), and drinking a fresh mojito — there’s not much better.

From using sustainably harvested local mesquite wood on the grill in the hotel’s restaurant, to sourcing most materials for the hotel from within 1,500 miles (a true feat in the Caribbean, helped by the fact that the architect who designed the building was local), reusing water for plantings and a super-efficient A/C that reuses its own heat for additional free energy, El Blok has really done its homework when it came to being sustainable — though you’d never know by looking at it. People who aren’t interested in or conscious of green design might not even realize it’s an “eco hotel” at all.

Traveling to Vieques is easy — if you are a U.S. citizen, you don’t even need a passport because it’s part of the United States — and there are a plethora of inexpensive flights to Puerto Rico, so it need not be a pricey proposition. Then simply hop a very short flight over to Vieques or take the ferry (as I did, it was only a couple of dollars). I know I’ll be back — it’s a perfectly affordable, totally friendly, easy-to-enjoy locale in which to get a lot of writing done — which is what I plan for my return there next year.

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