A good six miles and an almost equal number of decades separate Old San Juan's tiny Isla Grande Airport from Puerto Rico's mammoth international terminal. As I scarf down a ham sandwich at the bar, I realize that the man on the next stool is my pilot. Other passengers wait in a small lounge beyond the bar. It's all very quiet—no bustle, no boarding passes. After the pilot finishes his 7UP we are escorted to the nine-passenger prop plane. This is the way flying used to be, especially in the Caribbean. My destination is Vieques, an island in just as much of a time warp.
Southeast of Puerto Rico, this three-mile-wide, 21-mile-long American island claims some of the Caribbean's most beautiful and unpopulated beaches, a handful of good places to stay, and an increasing number of devotees, the kind of trendsetters who discovered the charms of St. Bart's two decades ago-and wouldn't be caught dead there now. But the island's first large hotel is under construction and things are changing. It's fast becoming one of the hottest tropical destinations.
From the air, Vieques looks like a lumpy green turtle ringed by white beaches and turquoise seas. From my rental 4 x 4, I am struck by the excellent condition of the roads (no question that this is U.S. territory) and by the lack of traffic, unless you count stray cows, wild horses, and free-ranging guinea fowl. Before long I turn onto a steep, rough track that heads up a green hillside planted with lemon, mango, and mesquite trees. At the top is Hix Island Houses, a series of bizarre-looking concrete structures.
I am met by owner Neeva Gayle Hix, a lovely, energetic Canadian. She and her architect husband, John, discovered Vieques in the early 1980's and wound up building a three-room, triangular-shaped guesthouse a decade later. "We loved the simplicity of the island and, of course, the beaches," Neeva Gayle says as she leads me up concrete stairs to my top-floor room. "Above all, we loved the people. They're warm, genuine, and-if you speak a little Spanish-your friends for life."
The room, actually a studio apartment, is a beautifully designed, minimalist space with a platform bed, built-in concrete desk, and delightful details: a curved turquoise wall, an oddly angled terrace, an oblong window with no glass, and a bold stack of gigantic steps that lead to the roof deck. In almost every direction are captivating views of green hills sloping to the sea. The couple originally wanted to build three wooden pavilions with tin roofs but changed their minds after Hurricane Hugo. "I said, 'Neeva Gayle, we've got to build a bunker,' " says John, who went back to the drafting table and came up with a one-of-a-kind concrete fortress. Although local builders balked at the design, they had no problem executing his vision: poured concrete is a traditional construction material for island houses. John recently completed a round villa and has several more in the works; he calls the complex his architectural sculpture garden.
If you read any article written about Vieques in the 1970's or 80's, you'll find only one hotel mentioned, Casa del Francés, a love-it-or-hate-it plantation house that still prides itself on in-your-face funkiness (bare lightbulbs, mismatched sheets-you got a problem with that?). Two years after the debut of Hix Island Houses, the bleak hotel scene got another shot in the arm with the opening of the Inn on the Blue Horizon. James Weis and Billy Knight, refugees from the New York fashion world, had hated the island when they first arrived in 1993 for a week's vacation. "I couldn't wait to get to St. Bart's," says Weis. "No phones, no televisions; there was nothing to do." The next morning, Weis and Knight expressed their distaste to a couple they'd just met at Casa del Francés's pool. "They asked if we'd been to the beach yet, and invited us to Navío," says Weis. "After a few minutes on this beautiful deserted beach, we fell in love with the island. We wound up trying to buy Casa del Francés."
It didn't work out, but back in New York, a real estate agent sent Weis and Knight a video of a property on the west end of Vieques. The price was right, so they bought it sight unseen. Ultimately, much good taste was required for the partners to turn a dilapidated villa into the Inn on the Blue Horizon—a handsome three-bedroom guesthouse with sweeping verandas and a stunning pool overlooking the sea. They also built an attractive open-air bar and restaurant, Café Blu, where chef Michael Glatz serves the best food on the island. The Blue Horizon quickly caught on with a number of St. Bart's defectors (Sandra Bernhard was there during my visit). To address its increasing popularity, Weis and Knight added six guest rooms last season and are planning more. But Weis insists that the hotel will stay small. "This is one of the last unspoiled places in the world," Weis says. "We can't afford to lose that."
The island's newest guesthouse, a nine-room hideaway high in the hills, has also captured the attention of the fabulous set. Fashion designer Narciso Rodríguez was one of the first guests at the simple, open-air Casa Cielo, which opened this winter.
Anyone you ask about Vieques will just swoon over the beaches. I agree: they are simply amazing. Some (huge, palm-backed Sun Bay, for example) are easy to reach and offer civilized amenities such as picnic tables. Others—Media Luna, Navío, Secret Beach—are exquisitely remote. Finding them involves much perseverance and the tackling of bumpy roads. Many have beautiful coves with fabulous snorkeling; few ever see more than a dozen visitors at a time. I spend every morning on a different beach.
For lunch, I drive into the fishing village of Esperanza and have a sandwich at one of its casual beachfront cafés: Bananas, Amapola, or La Central. These same places are popular for cocktails at sundown, when the little town looks like the set for a Hollywood movie that takes place in the South Seas. I also enjoy poking around the capital, Isabel Segunda, with its pretty plaza, lively waterfront, and restored 1840's fort, which houses a museum of island history. Here I discover the studio and gallery of ceramist Siddhia Hutchinson, whose bold tableware—often featuring tropical fish and flower motifs—is sold through the L. L. Bean and Horchow catalogues as well as in specialty stores like Gump's.
Nights on Vieques revolve around some of the Caribbean's most unpretentious and whimsical restaurants. At La Campesina, diners sit at restored sewing machine tables in tiny corrugated-roof pavilions that circle a huge boulder well out in the countryside. The sound of the tree frogs is deafening as you dine on pineapple gazpacho and baked snapper. Chez Shack is—literally—a series of shacks along the side of a dusty road. Purple palm-tree murals, hand-painted flowerpot lamps, and an occasional steel band are as much a part of the experience of dining here as is the food (fish, crab, lobster, and mofongo, the gooey Puerto Rican side dish of garlic-spiced mashed plantains). After dinner, people linger at the bar and chat with owner Hugh Duffy. It was Duffy who helped the Mamas and the Papas get their act together back in the early 1960's when they were working at his restaurant Duffy's Love Shack on the island of St. Thomas. "Mama Cass," he jokes, "was the worst waitress I ever had."
And that's about it. Night owls (almost everyone on the island is in bed by midnight) drive into Isabel Segunda to hit Al's Mar Azul, a waterfront dive where locals, tourists, and off-duty sailors from the U.S. Navy base on Vieques dance, shoot pool, and hang out. If you want discos, go to Cancún.
As lovely as the island is, many residents look at the massive construction site just east of the airport and worry that Vieques is about to lose its innocence. There, the 156-room Martineau Bay Resort, set to open by the end of this year, is rising on a 40-acre tract. At first many feared the worst: a cookie-cutter resort with a casino and convention facilities that would be the first step in turning Vieques into just another overdeveloped Caribbean island. Everyone was relieved when it was announced that, not only would the new resort have no casino, but it would be managed by Rosewood, an organization known for glamorous properties like the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, the Lanesborough in London, and both Little Dix Bay and Caneel Bay in the Caribbean.
Change is inevitable, but the debate over Martineau Bay pales when compared to a controversy that has raged on Vieques since the 1940's. This concerns the status of the U.S. Navy, which controls two-thirds of the island, including some of the best beaches. They're open to the public except when being used for maneuvers, which have been scaled back considerably over the last two decades. Still, travelers will occasionally be denied access to a beach-and that thunder you hear may actually be the sound of shelling. (The three times I have visited Vieques, it's never happened to me.)
The local anti-navy faction feels that the military's ongoing presence is keeping Vieques from realizing its economic potential. Preservationists, however, credit the navy with maintaining the island's pristine condition. Many are far more concerned about the future of the third of the island not under U.S. government control. "You can't stop a certain amount of progress," says Haydee Pinero Buck, a Puerto Rican who, with her former husband, founded the chain of Subway sandwich shops. Buck—an active member of the Vieques Conservation & Historical Trust—lives in a big villa with an enormous garden. Vieques, she says, reminds her of "the Puerto Rico of fifty years ago, when I was a child."
Vieques has one of the most impressive bioluminescent (as in glows-in-the-dark) bays on earth. Visiting the bay, especially on a moonless night, is otherworldly. At dusk one evening, I head to the bar of Casa del Francés and meet up with Sharon Grasso, who runs tours in a non-polluting electric boat. We board an ancient school bus that takes us on a muddy road through thick mangrove forests to the vast body of water. The boat is eerily quiet—as is our group when we behold the spectacle of our craft's golden wake. We stop in the middle of the lagoon and Captain Sharon stomps her foot, causing fish to shoot through the water like laser beams. Eventually, some of us take a dip in these weird waters: I feel like some sort of human firefly. According to Grasso, the photoelectric phenomenon is caused by zillions of single-cell microorganisms that feed on fallen mangrove leaves and light up when agitated. With 400,000 to 1 million of these dinoflagellates per gallon of water, the bioluminescent bay is a natural wonder. Captain Sharon, also a member of the Vieques Conservation & Historical Trust, is fighting to keep it that way.
Another islander dedicated to preserving Vieques's still-pristine charms is Richard Barone, who leads three-hour snorkel tours of the waters just off Esperanza. A self-taught marine biologist, Barone is on intimate terms with the various lobsters, crabs, sea cucumbers, and anemones that he points out and plays with as his groups make their way from the town beach to a little offshore island. Barone is worried that a proposed marina could damage the reef off Vieques, since, he says, environmental laws are not adequately enforced. "Ecotourism is the only way for this island to be different," he says. "Big marinas and resorts won't satisfy the people who live here. We will destroy what we have-and a small group of people will make a lot of money at the expense of the rest of us."
For many islanders, however, it's a good time to be on Vieques. "The island was dead," says photographer-turned-restaurateur Ricardo Betancourt. "Now things are happening." Born in Puerto Rico, Betancourt spent 15 years in New York City photographing jazz musicians, often for record album covers, before returning home a few years ago with his Bombay-born wife, Monica. Together, they turned a dumpy corner building in Isabel Segunda into the charming little restaurant Café Media Luna. Since then, Betancourt has drawn on his contacts in the music world to stage a number of jazz evenings at his restaurant. These are remarkably successful, often pulling in night-trippers from the main island of Puerto Rico who cruise over on their boats. But like most of the island's current crop of entrepreneurs, Betancourt and his wife aren't out to make a killing. "We're here because it's still a little primitive," he says. "We can take off sea-kayaking whenever we want; we hear horses riding by in the middle of the night. We're hoping that good things will happen here. But if it changes too radically . . . well, there's always Cuba."