By Peter Frank
October 07, 2014
El Blok
Credit: Annie Schlechter

In Vieques, the names and phone numbers of all the island’s taxi drivers are posted on a sign outside the airport, which is an indication both of its size and its degree of formality. No need for Uber here. Vieques, just off the eastern tip of Puerto Rico—and accessible by a puddle jumper from San Juan—has a sleepy, eccentric, instantly likable charm: Tulum without the yoga, Harbour Island without the WASP’s. “Vieques is like a really good indie rock band,” says Simon Baeyertz, a former music industry exec who moved here four years ago and, with co-owner Rob Feldmann, opened the hotel El Blok in August. “Maybe it’ll get discovered, maybe it won’t. But it will never be a big pop star. It’s the White Stripes, not Taylor Swift.”

The New Zealand–born Baeyertz, like so many expat dreamers before him, escaped to the Caribbean only to find himself importing a piece of civilization. El Blok is like a tropical Brutalist alien that crash-landed, quite happily, amid the brightly painted houses of Esperanza, a ramshackle beach village on the island’s southern shore. All curving concrete and perforated façades, the hotel is designed to encourage relaxed socializing. The entire second floor is a single open-air space that flows from reception to bar to restaurant. The four-story building, with 22 rooms in all, surrounds an oval atrium; the roof has a small infinity pool and views of the sea and Vieques’s mountainous interior. Floors are colorful concrete tile in a tessellated pattern; walls are hand-plastered, with patches deliberately left rough. The result is a tactile, wabi-sabi effect that invites you to go barefoot. Little about the place relates to the design vernacular of the islands, and your first reaction might be a double-take, but the hotel’s charm and cool factor—reflections of Baeyertz’s laid-back attitude (what can possibly faze a guy who used to work with Marilyn Manson?)—will win you over. El Blok is easily the most stylish new hotel in the Caribbean.

And that’s not even counting the food. Chef José Enrique, whose namesake restaurant in San Juan has become that city’s swirling hub of food and nightlife, is in charge of El Blok’s open kitchen. Here he makes sun-kissed versions of his innovative Puerto Rican dishes: seafood soup with coconut, scotch bonnet chiles, and lime; pompano steamed in giant plantain leaves. His signature cocktail is made with Puerto Rican rum, freshly squeezed star-fruit juice, and ginger. It’s as pristine as one of Vieques’s white-sand beaches, and no more sophisticated than it has to be.

Peter J. Frank is T+L’s director of editorial product development.