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Caribbean Travel + Life – April 2011
We scoured the globe to find 10 islands that belong on your must list. Each of these places offers something that you can’t find anywhere else, from the largest man-made archipelago to hot springs so therapeutic they’ve been popular since Roman times.
9 Coastal Wonders To See Now
COASTAL LIVING April 2010
Authors Heather Hansen and Kimberly Lisagor have traveled the world investigating coastal sites that are as stunning as they are endangered. Here, they share advice for planning an eco-sensitive trip―and how you can help.
Mosquito Bay, Puerto Rico
Why go? On a small, sheltered cove on Vieques, a 22-mile-long, 4-mile-wide island east of Puerto Rico, Mosquito Bay is one of the world’s few remaining bioluminescent bays worth seeing. At night, dinoflagellates glow blue-green when agitated, like fireflies in the ocean. Neon ribbons trail kayaks and swimmers.
Why care? After U.S. Navy occupation of Vieques ended in 2003, word spread about the island’s unspoiled scenery. “The main threat now is the big push to develop Vieques for tourism,” says Mark Martin Bras of the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust. This has led to a boom in unregulated tour operators and too many swimmers bringing sunscreen and bug repellent that kill the delicate dinoflagellates. Construction and
deforestation unleash light and sediment that are also dimming the waters.
Plan your trip: The biobay is accessible year-round and is best viewed during a new moon. A regular 90-minute ferry runs from Fajardo, on Puerto Rico’s east coast, to Isabel Segunda on Vieques. (Cost: $4 round-trip.) Stay at Hix Island House (hixislandhouse.com); lofts start at $185 in summer.
How to help: The Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust (vcht.com) advocates for the protection of the biobay and lists licensed guides.
Condé Nast Traveler:
2010 Readers’ Choice Awards
The world’s top 50 islands hide a big secret: There are actually more than 3,300 of them, stretching from the South Pacific to the North Atlantic. Consider Bermuda, the top-rated islands in the Western Hemisphere—yes, islands. Comprised of 138 isles, it is, like many winners, an archipelago. There are 3 Caymans, 41 Tuamotus, 115 Seychelles, and a whopping 1,185 Dalmatians. The No. 1 winner (for the 14th time), Maui is the only island to score above 90 this year. Closer to home, several North American islands make their top 10 debut: Victoria, Florida’s Longboat Key, and St. Simons.
Back in 2001, the Navy was still using Puerto Rico’s Vieques for war games on the beaches. There was just a handful of restaurants and hotels on the 21-mile-long, four-mile-wide Caribbean island, and it was the kind of place where guests didn’t wear shoes. Today, the Navy is gone and the old bombing ranges have been designated a national wildlife refuge. Now, Vieques is exploding in a different way: New roads are being built; old ones are getting paved. One of the military’s old bunkers is now a sports bar by day and a disco by night. Swanky hotels, like the W Retreat and Spa, which opened in March (doubles from $379), and restaurants, like El Quenepo (787-741-1215), are popping up.
But don’t worry. While it’s now possible to have the resort experience, Vieques is still funkier and more laid-back than most Caribbean islands. Book a cabañita—one-room cottage—at La Finca (doubles from $125), a clean but rustic joint with outdoor showers and mismatched towels. Then head for the sand. There are more than 50 beaches—perfect for everything from kayaking (Green Beach) to snorkeling (the islet of Blue Beach) to paddling at night in one of the biggest bioluminescent bays in the world (Puerto Mosquito, a.k.a. “Bio Bay”). The best way to see the latter is in a clear canoe from the Vieques Adventure Company (two-hour rentals, $45), which, should you start getting antsy for more action, can also set you up with decent mountain bikes to explore all the old military roads ($25 per day) or take you kayak fly-fishing for tarpon ($150).
Islas Bonitas: Vieques and Culebra
CARIBBEAN TRAVEL & LIFE
Vieques + Culebra Essentials: Where to Stay + What to Do…
The leading ladies of Puerto Rico’s unspoiled Spanish Virgin Islands, beguiling Vieques and Culebra are getting ready for their close-ups.
by Christopher P. Baker
Photo by: Zach Stovall
Not often do I share a swimming pool with a horse. Well, three horses in fact. They’re not actually in the pool, although as I watch them drinking just five feet from where I’m soaking, I harbor a crazy desire to see the little foal take the plunge.
“Oh, they come every afternoon,” says another guest as we lean against the edge of the pool, cocktails in hand, at the Inn on the Blue Horizon. Two more of the animals emerge through a gap in the hedge and lope across a lawn that slopes toward the beryl-blue sea.
Paso finos – the local criollo horses – are part of the Vieques landscape. They’re everywhere, roaming free. Driving around this small island, I find myself easing past skittish foals and beeping my horn at stubborn stallions and mares that won’t budge from the road. “If a horse damages your car, it doesn’t belong to anyone. But if you hit a horse, it sure does!” So says Garry Lowe, owner of Vieques Adventure Co., the next morning as we cycle along dusty trails that cut through dense stands of tropical foliage. Horses peer out from the veld as Garry and I stop to explore huge bunkers cut into the hillside; part of the former U.S. Naval Ammunition Facility, the empty structures now provide dank roosts for bats. Emerging beside Playa Grande, I see hoof marks in the sand. Turtle tracks too, where a female leatherback had hauled out of the sea to lay her eggs above the high-water mark.
Vieques + Culebra Essentials: Where to Stay + What to Do…
Garry chops open two coconuts with his machete, and together we slake our thirsts. I admire the champagne-colored sand unspooling for several miles against a backdrop of cactus-studded wilderness that extends virtually unbroken from one end of the isle to the other. “Wait till you see the beaches beyond the Camp Garcia gate,” says Garry. “They’ll blow you away.”
Camp Garcia is the name of the former U.S. Navy base that until recently was considered a curse on Vieques, the largest of two dozen mostly uninhabited islands and cays comprising a mini-archipelago east of the Puerto Rican mainland. During World War II, the U.S. Navy expropriated a portion of Vieques and neighboring Culebra, and the islands took a pounding during subsequent decades as gunnery and bombing targets. The Navy left Culebra in 1975 and finally pulled out of Vieques in 2003, ending an increasingly vocal battle with islanders, who were demanding to be left in peace.Ironically, the Navy was the unwitting steward of a natural treasure: Camp Garcia is now managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as the 17,673-acre Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, a mélange of coastal lagoons, mangrove wetlands, subtropical dry forest and pristine beaches that encompasses more than half of the island. During the Navy’s tenure, much of Vieques and Culebra was off-limits, and tourism entrepreneurs gave the isles a wide berth. But since the Navy stopped shaking the bedrock, the Puerto Rican government has marketed the largely undeveloped archipelago as the Spanish Virgin Islands. The focus of the campaign is on eco-tourism and active adventures that take advantage of the islands’ unspoiled charms.
And that’s just what I’m here to do: take full advantage. The military is long gone, and though there are signs that the rest of the world is becoming aware of these islands’ breathtaking allure, the tourism industry hasn’t really commenced a full-scale invasion yet. Vieques and Culebra are islands in transition, places with more horses than cars, more dirt roads than paved, more beaches than beach resorts. And for me, that’s just about heaven.
Rest assured, there’s more to the Spanish Virgin Islands than just miles of unspoiled natural beauty. Vieques in particular has seen the arrival of dozens of expats from North America, whose entrepreneurial spirit is bringing a cachet to the isle. Artists too have started to flock here, giving the island a decidedly bohemian vibe. And Vieques’ newfound cosmopolitanism is poised to reach a new high when the über-hip W Retreat & Spa, scheduled to open in March, welcomes its first guests.
Formerly the Wyndham Martineau Bay Resort & Spa, the 157-room W promises to turn Vieques into a trendy hot spot for urbane fashionistas. A $150-million metamorphosis replaced the Wyndham’s dowdy colonial features with W’s trademark sexy sophistication in a surfeit of white, taupe and chocolate-tone wenge wood. The resort, which hovers over twin beaches on the north side of the island, five minutes from the airport and 30 minutes by air from San Juan, hopes to lure a well-heeled clientele with its 6,000-square-foot spa and artful Mix restaurant, serving French-Caribbean-Latino cuisine courtesy of Michelin-star chef Alain Ducasse, fresh from his engagement at the Jules Verne restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower. It’s a light-year leap for Vieques, a place where things happen poco a poco, on the Viequenses’ own time.