Vieques, a plantain-shaped island seven miles off the coast of mainland Puerto Rico, was the site of a U.S. Navy training ground used for bombing and gunning exercises for six decades. But since the Navy left in 2003, the small island has experienced a different type of explosion: a tourism boom that has seen globetrotters arrive in droves and a wave of stylish hotels and resorts open, most recently the posh W Retreat and Spa.
Even so, the island is often overlooked by most visitors to this U.S. territory in favor of more popular digs. But Vieques has been gaining momentum with its picture-perfect beaches, laid-back rural charm and breathtaking bio-luminescent bay (some say it’s the world’s brightest).
What else makes Vieques so special? Dirt roads lead to hidden swathes of almost untrampled turquoise-lapped sand, wild horses roam freely on the island, and the easygoing locals are described by many as some of the nicest and most unpretentious in the Caribbean. Island time is honored here and the pace is respected by visitors, many of whom never leave (the growing expat population is helping push property prices ever higher).
While Vieques’s increasing popularity has brought a measure of hope to the economically depressed island, it has also stoked fears that tourist development will forever change the bucolic character. Thankfully, most of the 26,000 acres previously owned by the Navy—making up about 75 percent of the island’s area—is now managed by the Department of the Interior and slated to become protected land.
For now, nature-rich Vieques offers everything paradise could: opportunities to visit the National Wildlife Refuge and get in touch with the tropics, to kayak the bio-bay for an awe-inspiring treat, or to saunter around town, where you can meet and mingle with friendly locals and learn some salsa or practice your Spanish. The “isla nena” (baby island) is definitely growing up and everyone seems to be watching.
[All Images Copyright Melissa Alvarado Sierra.]