The puddle jumper teeters to the ground about 20 minutes off the coast of Puerto Rico. Deplaning, we’re confronted with two buildings similar in size but vastly different: On the right sits the ramshackle Antonio Rivera Rodriguez Airport, the sole airport on the island of Vieques; on the left is the W Retreat & Spa’s Welcome Lounge, where guests of the hotel are greeted with air conditioning, rum punch, and fresh papaya as they wait for the hotel’s shuttle to retrieve them.
For some, these two buildings may symbolize another example of tragic commercialization, an attempt to strip the island of its homegrown charm and luster. Until 2003, Vieques was a U.S. naval base; its remote location considered ideal for officers to conduct bombing drills. Since opening to tourists over 10 years ago, vacationers have gradually descended onto the island, not in throngs but in clusters. A light scattering of boutique hotels and restaurants followed, but the island’s primary inhabitants, the coqui frogs, seem unfazed.
The island’s dichotomy—half uncharted territory, half Tulum-on-the-brink—and the fact that it hasn’t been smoothed over yet, is perhaps the best thing about Vieques. For now, there are still only a few decent places to stay, but there are a handful of excellent places to eat, including some that rival the cuisine in most cosmopolitan cities. It’s a land of limited choices, but luckily, it’s hard to make a wrong one.
Only a few hours U.S. cities on the eastern seaboard, here’s what to do when you get there:
WHERE TO STAY
The W Retreat & Spa (from $295; State Rd., 200 KM 3.2; 787-741-4100) (pictured left) opened their doors on Vieques about five years ago, and for much of that time, it was the only option for modern, boutique-style lodging. The waterfront property is the perfect respite to come home to, with its own private beaches, an infinity pool, fire pit, and expansive indoor/outdoor lobby that marries the chain’s signature vibrant sleekness with the island’s earthy hues (and often, animal inhabitants). Now there’s also the buzzy El Blok (from $180; 158 Calle Flamboyan; 787-741-6020) (pictured right), which just opened last year and has more of a minimalist, cool-kid vibe. Closet space is lacking, but the owner spent considerable time ensuring the beds are extra comfortable, and the food might be the best on the island.
WHERE TO EAT
Chef José Enrique, who emerged as the culinary star of Puerto Rican cuisine with his eponymous restaurant in San Juan, helms the kitchen at El Blok, where he serves local dishes, grilled to perfection, in the island’s trendiest dining room. Stop by Coqui Fire (Calle Carlos Lebrum; 787-741-0401) for Mexican food that even Californians will rave about, making sure to pick up a few of their homemade hot sauces. Bananas (142 Calle Flamboyan; 787-741-8700), located on Esperanza’s rambling Malecón, is the perfect place for a barefoot breakfast or an afternoon rum punch, Vieques’ cocktail of choice. For more refined romance, or simply the island’s best ceviche, book a table on the patio at the electric Next Course (Route 201 btw. Isabel and Esperanza; 787-741-1028), or sit oceanfront at El Quenepo (Calle Flamboyan; 787-741-1215) and order the mofongo, a traditional fried plantain dish. There’s plenty to see on the island, so if you're after a quick bite, pick up lunch at one of the many food trucks: Sol Food’s spicy jerk chicken sandwich will keep you full until dinner.
WHERE TO DRINK
The Malecón in Esperanza is littered with unpretentious bars, the most popular of which is Lazy Jack’s (787-741-1447). Follow a winding, overgrown path to the charming Chez Shack (787-741-2175), which has a live reggae band on Monday nights, along with excellent BBQ and strong drinks. If you’re having dinner at El Blok, arrive early, order drinks at the bar and sneak up to the hotel roof for a quiet view of the sunset.
WHAT TO DO
Vieques is home to dozens of white sand beaches, including the popular Sun Bay and Pata Prieta, but one of the best ways to find your solitary paradise is to simply rent a Jeep and drive through the National Wildlife Refuge, stopping along the way at one of the many beaches. Park directly on the sand, leave your doors unlocked, and look for a glimpse of a small, uninhabited island. It’s a short swim, but once you’re there, even the lazy gait of Vieques feels distant. At night, reserve a kayak and guide for a tour around the Bioluminescent Bay, where the water and even your hands take on an intergalactic glow.
Image credit: Courtesy W Hotel; Courtesy El Blok