In all our planning for this trip, we have been pronouncing Vieques as if it were French, but now we have heard the Spanish say it, we know it to be pronounced "Vee-eck-ess", the syllables very close together but distinct. Vieques is 20km east of the "big island" of Puerto Rico - there's not much water between them, and each island is easily seen from the other.
We didn't have a rental car planned or booked on Vieques, but we then decided to explore the pretty small island, so we rented a brand new fire-engine red Jeep for two days. In that time, we covered just about every road on the island, and swam at every beach. The hardest thing with this particular rental was topping up the gas at the end of it. It took three times queued up at the only service station before getting lucky. The first time the gas station closed after we had queued for 30 minutes, to allow a tanker in. The second time, we joined the queue only to discover the station was actually closed. The arrival of the tanker was in fact a cause for jubilation in Vieques - shortages and runouts are apparently common. It looks like the tanker comes over by ferry from the big island. Just to confuse the tourists, it's not purely USA here. Speeds are in km/hr and petrol is $/litre.
Our rented Jeep Wranger parked at a southern beach on Vieques. How much are these cars in Australia?
Vieques' roads were twisty and narrow like those on all other Caribbean islands, but they were in much better condition, and well painted with kerb strips. The main roads were identified with route numbers which appeared on the the map, and main road intersections were clearly signposted - what a change from St. Lucia and Antigua!
Horses roam free on Vieques. (So do cows, apparently, although we didn't see any.) They eat the grass on the side of the road, so you have to be careful of them when driving. The horses pay absolutely no attention to cars. We had to stop in one location while a couple of cowboys (gauchos?) attempted to muster a herd of horses who weren't being very cooperative.
Our hotel was the luxurious W Retreat and Spa, about 5 minutes from the airport. This is a stunning (but expensive) hotel. The design and interior decor of the "great house" is just stunning. Our room was much the same, being described as a "neo-bohemian retreat" whatever that means. Regardless, it was a fantastic hotel room, complete with a galvanised steel bath tub. Like many resorts, most of the rooms form a horseshoe around a central pool and beach area. Throughout the day and evening, this area vibrates with lively music emanating from speakers hidden in the gardens, and a busy trade in bar sales, pool-side snacks as well as an activities tent managing kayaks and snorkelling equipment. No hobie cats though. We were intrigued with the wet cabanas which, for $200, entitles you to a day in a shaded cabana equipped with poolside mattresses, cushions, a flat screen TV, lots of alcohol and a little fruit. Some groups indulged in this decadent luxury, and spent all day there.
The lounge area of the Great House at the W Retreat and Spa, Isla de Vieques. The mural is actually painted onto a wall of expanded metal.
Sunbaking appears to be the main objective of many residents at W. Some never leave the hotel "compound" during their stay. The couple on the right reserved their lounges early in the morning, and spent the entire day there, every day.
The main beach at W Hotel on Vieques. Another beach was reserved for adults - it was called "Whisper Beach" so we think the restriction was for peace and quiet, rather than any mature entertainment.
Vieques has two small towns, Isabel Segunda and Esperanza. The former is the business centre (and the ferry runs to here) and the latter seems there to cater for tourists. We had several meals in Esperanza to escape the high cost of eating at W. All the cafes and bars at Esperanza face the Caribbean Sea and have fabulous views. In Isabel II, we found a laundromat, the first such in the whole Caribbean sector of this trip, so we invested an hour and a few dollars there to give our clothing a well deserved freshening up.
We were intrigued to observe that almost all the businesses on Vieques that we interacted with were being run by American ladies "of a certain age" rather than "real" Peurto Ricand of any age or gender. Their staff were in the same demographic. This applied to cafes, dress shops, a delicatessen, craft stores etc (notably, not the laundry, nor the service station). We pondered what this meant, but in case we have it wrong, we don't include our conclusions in this blog.
Vieques is famous for its bioluminescent bays where world class displays of phosphorescent dinoflaggelates are available, except at the full moon. Sadly, the dinoflaggelates have headed for the bottom after heavy rain and cooler weather. It seems the polar vortex has gotten this far south! So, we didn't take the evening kayak tour we planned.
The beach at W looks great, but it's a bit rocky underfoot. Some of the beaches we found in our Jeep are much better, in fact, maybe the best we've seen in the Caribbean. There's a whole string of them on the south side, but our favourite was Caracas, a beach similar in size and shape to Cane Garden in Tortola, but totally without the commercialisation. If you want a chair, bring it yourself. If you want a drink, put it in your Esky. Nevertheless, these southern beaches are pretty popular with tourists and locals alike. Apart from the fine white sand and clear blue water, Caracas Beach also offers a swell and a tiny surf, making it a very nice place to have a swim. We took to visiting Caracas before breakfast at Belly Buttons in Esperanza.
Caracas was our favourite beach on Vieques. The beach was well equipped with shade and facilities, but was devoid of commercial vendors common on other Caribbean islands.
Having dinner at Tradewinds, a popular restaurant and boutique hotel in Esperanza. The view is of Cayo Afuera and the Caribbean Sea.
The whole western quarter of Vieques is a restricted area and a national wildlife refuge. We think the main reason for this is not conservation but because of the danger from lots of unexploded ordinance left over after the US Navy controversially used the island for target practice in the past. Signs on the beaches warn you not to stray too far!
Our flight out of Vieques back to San Juan was in another puddle-jumping Cape Air Cessna, but was interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the only security at the tiny airport was a lady guarding the door to the airstrip. We also noted that waiting passengers had live chickens clucking away in cloth bags as hand luggage, another had a dog. Luckily, this cargo was not intended for our flight. What did accompany us was a blonde bombshell, deeply tanned, wearing nothing but green thongs and a string bikini with a transparent mesh coverall which covered nothing. Such a passenger was apparently unusual enough for staff at both airports to be distracted, and she was personally selected to sit with the pilot, so Mike missed out this time!
Our Cape Air Cessna just before we boarded it at Vieques Airport. For some reason, the bikini clad passenger got offered the seat beside the pilot.