Last updated: 05:00 AM ET, Fri March 25 2016

Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Vieques

Destination & Tourism | Mat Probasco | March 25, 2016

Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Vieques

Photo by Mat Probasco

Ever since the U.S. Navy stopped blowing up parts of this Puerto Rican isle, Vieques tourism has been steadily growing. The transition from bombing runs to bridal bouquets is complete, with destination weddings filling rooms and restaurants across the island. Here are some great places to stay, and things to see and eat here.

The Navy's presence bolstered infrastructure on the island, but there's nothing tense or militaristic about the happy-go-lucky, operating-on-Caribbean-time population here. It feels like all the 9,000-some people wear a smile and are quick with a joke. Tourists are pretty obvious to spot in their brand-new rental jeeps and mopeds, but it's easy to blend in with the overall laid-back attitude.

READ MORE: Getting the Most Out of 3 Days in Puerto Rico

Traffic is haphazard on the narrow, well-paved, roads. Horses — some bearing riders, some wandering feral — meander in the street or along the bushy shoulder. It's an interesting obstacle that keeps top driving speeds pretty low. That said, there are only a few roads and it's a very short drive from the beachfront Esperanza in the south to the northern town of Isabel Segunda.

One of the treats along the route between the two little towns are several little food trucks where traditional Puerto Rican food, barbeque and Caribbean-Indian fare is cheap and yummy. Check out the soda waters infused with local fruit.

Vieques is also home to excellent non-mobile restaurants. The island-time barbeque Tin Box has a great reputation and its broad parking lot fills up as soon as it opens. Its neighbor, Next Course, has a stunning beef-stuffed pepper appetizer, thick pork chops, and a decadent crab and lobster plate. Also nearby, Noche receives rave reviews.

In Esperanza, El Quenepo Vieques might have the best mofongo around and has an interesting twist on the traditional Bermudan Dark n' Stormy cocktail that includes chunks of fruit.

In Isabella Segunda, the unassuming Biekes Bistro has a devoted following after its traditional Puerto Rican food. Try the house-made picante sauce. It is very light on spice and heavy on roasted vegetable flavor.

Clearly, the locals take pride in their food and drink.

Vieques is covered in national parks, which limits development around some lovely stretches of beach. Playa Caracas, inside the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, is a true locals' hangout with no beach bar or T-shirt stand to detract from the soft waves and chirping birds. It's a wide beach, perfect for Frisbee if the wind isn't too strong. Points further east have been closed since the military pulled out in 2003. Some unexploded ordinance may yet be lurking out there and could really ruin a beach day.

The two most celebrated hotels here are couldn't be more different. The W Retreat and Spa on the island's north side has the relaxed, no-shoes-required vibe of a backpacker hostel coupled with top-notch service in a stunning location. With two beaches and three pools on property, the manicured grounds and thoughtful staff make this a decadently cool getaway where bow ties and swim trunks can mingle in endless comfort.

The hotel El Blok has gained fame among the magazine chic for its unexpected starkness. The twisting cement, Gaudi-meets-Brutalist structure is unlike anything else around. With its non-traditional check-in area and hip playlist, it's easy to see why trendsetters tired of the ordinary would love this place.

The rooms have twice the charm of the outdoor areas with neat amenities. But good luck snuggling down with a good book on the cement benches, or lying out in the aboveground pool. El Blok also has a habit of not answering the telephone or returning emails promptly.

There are also countless villas for rent, some on large plots of land overlooking the peaceful Caribbean Sea — and several boutique hotels.

Vieques is very multilingual, which is good news for those of us with rusty Spanish skills. Many people here were once ex-pats and now returned home, back to the island from New York or California. It’s just another manifestation of island pride.

Most Saturday nights, horse-riding locals gather for a display of horsemanship and cowboy hats, and to mingle with their friends and neighbors. It's a joy to see.

How to get there: Vieques is one of two islands between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, the other being the much smaller Culebra, about 10 miles north. In most cases, your starting point will be San Juan. From here there are really two options. Several small “puddle jumpers” fly between the islands with surprising regularity.

Some people get nervy about these little planes, but the flights are remarkably smooth and the low altitude offers an amazing view of Puerto Rico — both the coastline and the inland El Yunque National Forest.

READ MORE: Another View of Paradise: Touring the Caribbean by Helicopter

Cape Air, Vieques Air Link, and several even-smaller airlines shuttle people between the islands, as do some enterprising helicopter services.

The other option is a ferry from Fajardo, a town on Puerto Rico's east coast. The only problem with that plan is that Fajardo is an hour drive from San Juan, minimum, and longer if traffic is bad.

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