I grew up in Puerto Rico and visited most of the island during those years and trips since, and yet I had never ventured to Vieques, one of two smaller isles (with Culebra) just northeast of the main island. Known for its white-sand beaches and clear turquoise water, Vieques boasts a total area of just 52 square miles and a year-round population of only around 9,300. You can reach the island by ferry from the port of Ceiba or, much more reliably, by air from San Juan.

Vieques has an interesting history that makes for an interesting present. In 1941, the US Navy used half of the island for military exercises including live bombings and ammunition. The military finally departed in 2003, leaving a large part of the island as a nature reserve. As a result, and perhaps because of the extra effort one has to take to reach it, the island—unlike so many Caribbean destinations—still feels a bit wild and underpopulated. Wild horses lazily roam narrow roads where you are just as likely to see a golf cart as a car (and will never encounter a stop light). Beaches are blissfully serene and not overcrowded. That said, the rusticity extends to the surroundings; many beaches do not have bathrooms and none had any sort of food or drink stands that I saw.

While the luxury W Hotel, the only large-scale hotel, was devasted by Hurricane Maria and, for various reasons, it appears will not be rebuilt, Esperanza, the largest town on the Southern side of the island, has several small hotels and inns or Airbnb possibilities. We stayed at El Bloq https://www.elblok.com, the newest, largest (at just 22 rooms), and most modern hotel on the island. The rooms are very large though feature small bathrooms, with showers only, no bathtubs. While the Aesop bath products are a bonus, other amenities such as robes and slippers are absent. A room may have shelves on the wall to place belongings or perhaps a single short closet rod. The sliding doors that lead to individual patios do not lock, though we did not fear for our safety or belongings (an in-room safe accommodates a laptop and other valuables). The continental breakfast, included with the room, featured coconut rice pudding, a pastry of some sort, fresh fruit, coffee, and juice. El Blok is perhaps best known for its large and appealing rooftop bar, which affords views of the beach across the street. It was open only on Sunday when we visited—which may have been just as well; the open design of the hotel, which is shaped like a big doughnut, means that sound carries from the roof down the center hole to every floor. The rooftop “pool” is more a like a large soaking tub; it can accommodate a handful of people, although no actual swimming (except for small blow-up flamingoes). This is a hotel for adults—and, in fact, the minimum age of guests is eighteen.

We rented a compact car (Jeeps and golf carts are also popular; though it does rain daily and the latter can make for a wet ride) and were (eventually) picked up at the airport after waiting for Maritza’s car rental https://maritzascarrental.com. We parked the car right across the street from the hotel, loaded it every morning with complimentary beach chairs and towels, and drove off to one beach or the other. We went to four different ones along the southern coast during our stay, but our favorite was Playa Caracas. 

We had a personal recommendation for dinner at Bili on calle Flamboyan, the main street that runs along the beach in Esperanza. The chef/owner Eva Bolivar prepares the best Puerto Rican food I have had in a long time in a restaurant. All seafood is fresh from that day, from lobster (reasonably priced) and red snapper to shrimp and conch salad, served with rice or tostones (fried green plantains)—I could have eaten there every day. Reservations are a must, so plan ahead. We also tried El Quenepo http://elquenepovieques.com, down the block from Bili. They, too, had wonderful fresh seafood at reasonable prices, as well as goat stew and other options for meat eaters. The entrance is marked with a beautiful bougainvillea.

Our favorite lunch spot was Gracias, De Nada, a food truck serving all sorts of burgers, hot dogs, and delicious sandwiches and fries. Everything is made to order by the husband while the wife takes orders, serves food, and, once you’ve finished eating, settles the bill. There is mostly covered patio seating, though takeout is also an option. While they do not sell beer, there is a liquor store next door with a large selection of beers including many craft ones from the islands.

The night before we left, we went on a tour of the Bioluminescent Bay with Taíno Tours. For $60 per person, they picked us up at the hotel, drove us to the bay, and paired us up in two-person clear-bottomed kayaks—those see-through kayaks are what separate them from the competition and make it worth signing up with them. I also recommend wearing clothes you don’t mind getting wet (you will get wet), having a long-sleeve option if possible (it can be chilly), and not bringing valuables with you; there is no place to stash them in the boat. We followed our tour guide, or better say his red light, towards the center of the lagoon. Every stroke of the paddle leaves a trail of what looks like sparks in the water. While our guide said that the bay had suffered a bit because of the hurricane, recently it and the mangroves that protect it had shown strong signs of coming back—especially as swimming is now no longer allowed in the protected water.

We took Cape Air back to San Juan airport to connect with our Delta flight home. The small plane seats about 10 passengers and the pilot. The return flight was less eventful than the flight going to Vieques, when we flew over the water and into a rain cloud with no view. The return route heads over El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s famous verdant rainforest.