Returning to Vieques

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A report by Jan Benzel for The New York Times.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated islands in the Caribbean last September. Six months later, how are they recovering? To find out, writers for Travel spent time in Vieques (below), St. MartinSt. JohnDominicaand San Juan, P.R..

The ceiling fan spun lazily overhead. I’d fallen asleep to the tiny tree frogs’ lullaby and awakened to distant cock-a-doodle-doos. Dishes rattled invitingly in the open-air dining space outside my door, promising hot coffee and an omelet.

The fan, the eggs, the hot shower, the full tank of gas, the working A.T.M. on Main Street in Isabel Segunda, the twinkling string of lights along the Malecón in the tiny town of Esperanza, even the coquís, those little tree frogs: After the storms, no one on Vieques takes those things for granted.

Slammed in September by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, this lush, wild bit of Puerto Rico, eight miles east of the main island, is still recovering. Winds that howled at well over 100 miles an hour hurled roofs, cars and boats, denuded trees and smashed windows. Pounding rains poured through ceilings. For weeks there was no water. For much longer, no electricity.

Nearly six months later, Vieques, population about 9,000, is welcoming visitors again. Power is still spotty, largely dependent on generators. Beaches and roads have been cleared. Internet and cell service are back, intermittently. Some restaurants and hotels remain shuttered; others are housing and feeding, along with vacationers, workers who’ve come to repair the power grid. Residents compare notes on insurance claims (agonizingly slow to be paid) and the recovery, sharing cautious hope that although the high season for tourism — the prime driver of Vieques’s economy — may be lost this year, the island will rebuild and be stronger for it.

Signs are positive. The trickle of vacationers is increasing, led by loyal visitors who fell in love with Vieques the moment they stepped off the slow ferry or quick tiny plane you take to get here. I’m in that camp.

This is not your fancy, umbrella-drink-served-poolside Caribbean island. Getting dressed up means putting on a clean T-shirt and brushing the sand off your flip-flops. Isabel Segunda, the bigger of the island’s two towns, is a patchwork of gaily painted Spanish Colonial stucco buildings in various stages of dilapidation. Wild horses roam so freely that drivers have to wait for them to amble off the roads. And then there are the island’s jewels: palm-fringed, soft-sand beaches, stretches of which you may well have all to yourself.

I first went in 2015 and returned the next year. In early February, my seatmate on the puddle-jumper from San Juan was a doctor from Florida taking part in a medical mission. In 25 minutes we touched down on the small runway, and glided past the wreckage of a couple of small planes, crumpled in the storms. The airport buzzed with FEMA workers, greeted warmly by Viequenses, many of whom are still angry at and skeptical of the United States government after its slow response, but who have embraced the responders.

I picked up a Jeep at Maritza’s Car Rental and checked in at the Hacienda Tamarindo, a quirky inn up the hill from Esperanza where I’d stayed twice before. The proprietors, Burr and Linda Vail, chose Vieques for a second act 22 years ago after selling their Vermont restaurant business.

Their hotel is a New England-Caribbean hybrid of earth-toned Mexican tiles, tropical colors and folk art, with a lovely swimming pool and a grand sea view. The hotel and grounds, a bit battered, were as welcoming as ever. A huge tamarind tree grows up through the inn’s center and an English sheepdog lounges in the shade.

In Esperanza — where, pre-hurricanes, visitors, transplants and Viequenses strolled seaside, joking, drinking, eating and listening to music at open-air restaurants — only a few establishments have opened. The pretty white-and-coral cement railing along the walkway had been smashed. But the mood remained lively.

Now the drumbeat is the hammering of repair work. Locals in frayed T-shirts and dreadlocks rubbed shoulders with people who’d arrived on dinghies from sailboats bobbing in deeper water, and a few other visitors from colder climates. The first one I met, Stephen, from Atlanta, had been a regular visitor since 2000.

“I’ve always thought of Vieques as ‘my’ island,” said Stephen, who was making his second visit since the storms. He’d discovered it when he was living in Boston and spotted a cheap flight to San Juan. “My copy of ‘Let’s Go’ suggested Vieques as a pretty good day trip. So I left my rental car on the ferry dock in Fajardo, figuring I’d be back that night. I ended up staying the whole week.”

Others lured by Vieques’s beauty, lack of pretension and low cost of living, have lived here for decades: In my short stay I ran into a museum director, an academic, artists, a retired nurse and a couple from Colorado, Norm and Deb, who had retired early and moved to the island sight unseen to live, as they put it, “on purpose.” Stephen was staying at El Blok, a Brutalist-style cement hotel at one end of the Malecón. When it opened in 2014 it was hailed as hip, chic and a little fancy, with a menu created by a famous chef — something of an anomaly on Vieques. Now the building has a plywood facade painted with the slogan “Vieques Se Levanta” — Vieques Will Rise. Workers head to the bar after sunset, and the vibe is friendly and a little raucous.

A local chef turns out delicious dishes from a mesquite grill. Prices, like those at many places, have been lowered. Burr and I ate there one night, sharing the dining room with electrical workers, visiting doctors and Mark Martin-Bras, who works with the Vieques Conservation and Historic Trustand ViequesLove, a GoFundMe organization that has been a galvanizing force for the recovery. There were also some vacationers, including a couple with a baby, first-timers on the island. Diners flowed from table to table as if they were at a party.

“If you take the long view, Vieques will end up better off,” said Mr. Martin-Bras, a biologist who came to work at the Bioluminescent Bay, the ecological marvel that draws visitors from all over the world. “The infrastructure will be stronger. We were on the cusp of a tourism boom; there was the W Hotel, there was talk of cruise ships. Would that be good for the island, or the appeal of the island? Probably not. So now that we have the essentials covered — there’s food in the supermarkets, beer in the bars, music in the streets — we have a chance to create tourism that’s more community-oriented, more nature-oriented, that can preserve and conserve the island, that’s more sustainable.”

The trust’s base, a tidy museum in Esperanza that houses nature and history exhibits has reopened. The W Hotel, with 156 rooms the island’s biggest hotel, has not. Its formerly manicured grounds remain gated; a spokeswoman for Starwood, which owns the W, said the reopening date was “up in the air,” and depended on when the power grid was restored so that repair work could be undertaken. Its closing represents a significant loss of jobs and revenue. Tourism accounts for 65 percent or more of the economy, according to Bob Gevinski, a board member of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association and manager of the Hix Island House on Vieques.

The Bio Bay has suffered, too. On an earlier trip I had paddled it at night, plankton glowing magically as I let my hands drift through the water or a fish waggled by. I’d planned this trip to coincide with a moonless sky — the best time to see the glow — and had corresponded with BlackBeard Sportsto line up a Bio Bay excursion, or perhaps snorkel or bicycle to the sugar industry ruins in the island’s interior.

But conditions were uncharacteristically windy for those activities, and the Bio Bay, the outfitters said, was glowing only at about “2 on a scale of 10.” The mangroves that surround it and nurture the sea life have not yet recovered.

So a guide, Regalado Miró, and I roamed the island in a van. He pointed out relics of Vieques’s richest days, when Europe couldn’t get enough of the sugar the island produced: a decrepit pier near Esperanza and a rusted 19th-century railway engine that had hauled the sugar cane.

Next we passed an old military truck, a reminder of the decades beginning with World War II when the United States Navy had used the island for bombing practice. After a Viequense was killed by an errant bomb, Rega took part in protests beginning in 2000 against the Navy’s presence. The environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr., the activists Al Sharpton and Dennis Rivera and the actor Edward James Olmos, among others, joined the cause.

Rega took Mr. Kennedy scuba diving to see the effects of bombing practice on the reefs. “Three feet underwater was a junkyard,” Mr. Kennedy recalled during a phone conversation. “There were dozens of sunken ships and hundreds of bombs filled with toxic material.” Mr. Kennedy represented Vieques in a suit against the naval presence and later took part in a protest that landed him in a Puerto Rican prison. The efforts led to the Navy’s departure in 2003. The areas used for bombing practice were designated a Superfund site, and a National Wildlife Refuge. Now beachgoers can poke along dirt roads until they find a spot that suits — gentle waters in coves, waves breaking on rocky cliffs and caves, palm-shaded sand or prime sunset-watching.

Elsewhere on the island, Rega and I checked on a huge, gnarled, 300-year-old ceiba tree, sacred to Viequenses. We visited a honeybee farm, La Finca Consciencia, crucial to pollination, and the Tin Box, a funky barbecue joint whose architecture lives up to its name. It hadn’t yet reopened, but rows of arugula, banana trees, avocado trees, cherry tomatoes, cilantro and lemongrass were growing in the garden.

Back in Isabel, the lights were out at BlackBeard Sports, but the door was open, and there were even a few customers. Many of the businesses whose buildings were sound enough to open have done so. Owners want employees to have paychecks, even if limited, and open doors boost morale, they say.

At the Siddhia Hutchinson Glen Wielgus Gallery, Ms. Hutchinson was leading a workshop in collage-making, while Mr. Wielgus straightened paintings, prints, sculpture and jewelry. Around the corner at El Sombrero Viejo, a lively, weathered bar, locals stopped in to charge up cellphones and maybe drink a cold Modelo.

In Esperanza Eva Bolivar had not yet reopened her restaurant, Bili, but she has delivered some 64,000 meals to people in need. Other Esperanza mainstays are also still closed, including Tradewinds, an inn and restaurant; Lazy Jack’s, a hostel frequented by backpackers and college students; and El Quenepo, a restaurant with dishes you’d count yourself fortunate to find in New York.

Stephen and I took a taxi to Isabel one night for tacos and margaritas at Coqui Fire. We joined Douglas, a lawyer from Boston, and his client, a developer whose vacation house had been damaged in the storm. When the generator hiccupped and the lights went out, there was barely a shrug; when it came back on there was applause.

Another night the four of us — and, in a Fellini-esque moment, just about everyone else I’d met walking Sun Bay Beach or strolling in Isabel — ended up at Bananas, a casual place serving tropical drinks and catch-of-the day dinners. A group of Viequenses played dominoes at a tiled table.

El Blok had no power that day. Nor did Hacienda Tamarindo. “We’re definitely glamping now,” Douglas said, “minus the coffee and the hot shower.”

The permanent power supply won’t be back for at least two years, a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers staying at the Tamarindo told me, explaining that the antiquated underwater cable from the main island was broken irreparably and that a new one would be installed. Until then the island would run on government-supplied generators.

But in a place where sun is plentiful, solar energy is taking hold fast. Tesla installed solar panels and storage on Vieques and Culebra soon after the storms, fueling waste treatment plants and other key sites, including the hospital.

Hix Island House, a sleek concrete complex designed by the Canadian architect John Hix, has opened its one solar-powered building. Neeva Gayle Hix, the architect’s wife, gave me a tour, showing off units equipped with kitchens, the swimming pool and an open-air yoga space.

“There was one gift this hurricane gave us,” she said. “So many plants and trees were destroyed, but you can see they’re all coming back,” she added, pointing out the new growth on a stand of whispering pines. “And look at what we have now.” The sweep of her arm took in a vast, glorious, unimpeded 180-degree view of green island and sparkling turquoise sea.

A few weeks after I returned home, I checked in to see how things were going. Work on the power lines was continuing, Bob Gevinski said. Tourism had picked up noticeably. Bili and the Tin Box had reopened, and were serving full houses. Good news travels fast on an island that depends on it.

One thought on “Returning to Vieques

  1. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    VIEQUES, PUERTO RICO!!
    ‘The fan, the eggs, the hot shower, the full tank of gas, the working A.T.M. on Main Street in Isabel Segunda, the twinkling string of lights along the Malecón in the tiny town of Esperanza, even the coquís, those little tree frogs: After the storms, no one on Vieques takes those things for granted.’

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