Concertina wires still top some of the
chain link fences, now hidden by overgrown foliage, in the formerly
restricted areas on Vieques.
peeling paint and warped benches, former sentry posts on this
21-square-mile island seven miles off Puerto Ricos east coast look
more like abandoned bus shelters. Today, the roadways they flank
are no longer restricted to the military.
magazine storage bunkers built into hillsides and camouflaged with
grass and earth bear silent witness to the munitions facilities
that dominated half of this island for more than 60
The number 418 is
painted on one of the faded grey bunkers. The story goes that an
artist did it to commemorate April 18, 2003, the date when the U.S.
Navy announced it was leaving Vieques.
announcement, and the Navys pullout the next month, ended a stormy
occupation during which this largely unspoiled island was used as
target practice for bombs, rockets and artillery from ships
positioned in the azure waters off the islands west
In recent years,
the Navys occupation drew protests, sit-ins and the jailings of
such public figures as Rev. Al Sharpton, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and
Rev. Jesse Jackson. (He was so tall that he was carried off the
motorboat by two guys so he wouldnt get wet, one local
Kennedy, in fact,
was in jail in Puerto Rico during the birth of one of his
daughters. He named her Vieques to mark the event, or so the story
goes. If true, her name is a Taino Indian word for small
Even before the
Navy ships and its 30,000 military types steamed away from the
mile-long Mosquito Pier, rumors began circulating of eager tourists
hopping on the ferry at Fajardo, Puerto Rico, to come see and
departure of the military signal the arrival of tourism and waves
of spectators and developers flooding Vieques in the post-Navy
become a hot Caribbean destination, now that much of the island was
accessible to all?
The Navy had
occupied more than 26,000 acres, two-thirds of the privately held
lands on the east and west ends of Vieques since 1941. Residents
had been jammed into resettlement camps in a north-south corridor
in the center of the island, rousted from their farms and sugar
plantations years earlier.
military scars remain
When the Navy
left Vieques, much of the land it had controlled was formally
turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which
immediately designated 8,000 acres as a nature refuge, now the
largest in the Caribbean.
But the scars
were there, and still are. More than 60 years of bombing,
bulldozing and shelling had damaged delicate coral reefs, and
once-vast coconut groves along the beaches had been removed to
facilitate war games. Contamination left by the Navy in the form of
heavy metals, residue from explosives, unexploded bombs, artillery
shells and the dumping of toxic waste will require years of
Xavier, one of
many ordinance detonators contracted by the Department of Defense
to clean up Camp Garcia (a former test site on the islands west
end) said he is one of hundreds working here. Well be here a long
time, he said.
Even now, the
Navy still maintains a radar installation on Mount Pirata, the
islands highest point, and a couple of observation posts elsewhere,
but bit by bit, the 9,000 residents of Vieques are reclaiming their
potential as a premier Caribbean destination is more clouded,
mysteries that long shrouded this little island for so many years
spur the tourism boom long rumored to be in the offing? Recent
interviews with locals suggested that the answers are yes and
burgeoning real estate market
Bananas Bar in
Esperanza is the heartbeat and pulse of the south coast. On a rainy
October afternoon, when gusty winds blew heavy ocean spray along
the Malecon on the waterfront, the bar was rocking. Old men slammed
down games of dominos, a noisy group dealt poker hands, the
bartender bantered with patrons and animated conversations from the
kitchen dominated the hangout whose faux wooden sign above the
bottles lining the bar proclaimed the place to be a Gin-U-Wine
Sleazy Waterfront Dive.
No-Last-Name (When asked where he was from, Harry replied, Hell,
does it matter?) sat at the bar cradling a bottle of local Medalla
beer, which all the locals pronounce as if it was spelled
Medell-ia. Have you seen a lot of tourists in the last two years?
he was asked. Hell, yes. They come, they look and they leave. Never
see em again.
bartender, a Wisconsin native, disagreed.
They do come, and
a lot come back with checks to buy houses. They come in here to
tell me about it. Then they ask me if I know any local carpenters
his domino game. This is the slow season now. You should see this
place in the winter. Tourists are all over, and theyre asking about
the price of houses.
The Trade Winds gift shop,
a few blocks down the waterfront from Bananas, also serves as a
real estate office and as the front desk of a guesthouse. Janet
Washburn, owner and hostess, easily moved from hawking island-made
wooden bracelets to arranging closing dates on property
A lot of our
guests first come here out of curiosity. Theyve heard a little
about Vieques, so they visit, they snoop around and many of them
actually do buy an apartment or home while theyre here. Ive seen it
happen many times, she said.
David Kerr, a
retired university professor from Massachusetts, is one of them.
But he predates the current crop of home buyers from the mainland.
He and his wife, Leslie, bought in 1994, years before the surge in
I dont think we
could afford to buy now, Kerr said. I happened to hit a lottery,
and thats how we spent the winnings, on our house in
Emily Hood, who
owns and runs Second Time Around Thrift Shop in Isabel Segunda, the
islands only city and unofficial capital, said a lot of her sales
come from new home owners or renters who are looking to furnish on
Prices of homes
now are out of sight, she said. I couldnt afford to buy now, and
the prices are forcing a lot of former Viequenses out of the
market. Many people left here when the Navy came, resettled in
Puerto Rico, St. Croix or the mainland. Now their adult kids want
to come here, and they cant afford it.
If real estate
prices are a barometer of the economy, Vieques is a boomtown.
Sheila Levin and Eli Belendez, who run Crows Nest Realty, have
dozens of home listings over $200,000. Very few are under six
figures, although some deals can be had on rentals and houses
without a view.
Our business is
good, Levin said, but its all from the states, and theres a lot of
flipping going on.
She said that
real estate prices started to rise within weeks of the Navys
departure. It was like a land rush of sorts. People could get a
small piece of land for $30,000 and turn around and sell it for
$80,000 a few months later. Fixer-uppers were priced at $190,000.
It was crazy.
The value days
are over, both agreed. Everythings expensive now, the new homes
especially. Most are hurricane-proof, built of concrete to
withstand high winds.
substantiate the curiosity index for Vieques. Although the method
of measuring visitors is primitive, raw data indicate somewhat
hearty increases since 2003.
administrative officer in the tourism office in Isabel Segunda,
said she only counts the people who wander into her office and sign
the guest book. They want brochures and ask me which beaches are
safe to visit.
arrive by ferry from Puerto Rico arent tallied, and those who
arrive by air are not broken out by visitor, returning local or day
laborer. Its hard to be accurate, she said. I know my business is
up by the number of entries in the sign-in book here in the office.
And theyre from all over the U.S. and lots of foreigners, too, from
Europe and South America.
are all over the map, such as where to eat, what to visit, how to
contact a lawyer for land or house purchases, which banks grant
mortgages and the documents needed to bring in a pet.
Numbers from the
Puerto Rico Tourism Co. indicate Vieques had 12,260 visitors in
fiscal year 2003-2004, up from 8,408 a year earlier.
mostly unspoiled and untouched by modern global style development,
but signs of neglect are visible. The Department of Natural
Resources is in charge of roads on Vieques west end, and the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife group is in charge on the east end, but a budget
shortfall has prevented even the most rudimentary
During the Navys
occupation, the roads were maintained by the military, but now many
of them are pockmarked, rutty and and best suited for
While the U.S.
Navy was using two-thirds of the island as an ammunition dump and
bombing range, there was very little happening on Vieques in the
free-for-all development days of the late 20th century that
affected so much of the rest of the Caribbean.
So the island was
able to maintain much of its original character and escape the
results of unconstrained development -- traffic, congestion,
fast-food chains, condos and massive beachfront
There is now a
hospital on Vieques where the first birth took place two years ago;
an X-ray machine arrived last year. Vieques has no traffic lights,
no movie theater, no malls, no Starbucks or Dominos Pizza, and no
DSL -- just erratic computer connections powered by dial-up
There are three
gas stations (all on the north coast), three ATMs and few places
that accept credit cards. The one gym on the island is housed in
what was the movie theater in the 1950s. Id hardly call it a
fitness center, said Becker, a buff bartender at mar Azul bar in
Isabel Segunda who fled Washington and his six-figure lobbyist
salary after the last election.
Until a couple of
years ago, Vieques had a more-or-less weekly newspaper, published
by an eccentric bearded Irishman named Connolly who wandered around
Isabel Segunda in flowing robes and published his paper on his own
retired, Mayor Damos Serrano began a bimonthly community
newsletter, but for daily or near-daily news, residents and
tourists rely on a not-so-reliable flight from San Juan each
morning bringing copies of the San Juan Star.
It doesnt always
come on that day. Sometimes we get the papers a couple of days late
or not at all, said Al, the owner of Mar Azul.
Theres a monthly
magazine called Vieques Events, but the most reliable source of
news seems to be the pickup trucks that roll through neighborhoods
or barrios with loudspeakers mounted in their cargo areas calling
out announcements of births, deaths, weddings and town
And the tourists
who come to Vieques find it charming.
from Minnesota, at first glance seemed an unlikely pair to venture
beyond the Mall of America. Perched on bar stools at Island
Steakhouse during the Tuesday evening half-price happy hour, they
recalled their days adventures. We just drove and drove, the wife
said. We were told you cant get lost on Vieques, but we did -- many
Despite the rain,
their goal was to at least step foot on the beaches for which
Vieques is famous -- several of which had been out of bounds for
visitors while the Navy was here.
are very few bad beaches in the Caribbean, two of the very best are
on Vieques -- Red Beach and Blue Beach, both
part of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge.
In a surprise
move, both beaches opened to the public in 1999, four years before
the Navy left, and have remained unspoiled. Why were the beaches
named after colors? Adam Bernard had researched that and had the
answer. The U.S. Navy chose the names from a box of crayons, he
Theres also Green
Beach (too many sand flies, said Bernard), Purple Beach, Gringo
Beach, Sun Bay and dozens of others with no names -- and no crowds,
no vendors, no hassles.
Thats a big lure
for tourists, and one reason that Starwoods W Hotels, the chic
lifestyle hotel brand, is planting its designer flip-flops in
Vieques as its entry into the Caribbean.
Vieques-Martineau Bay (the former Wyndham Martineau Bay) is getting
a full facelift and signature amenities before its fall 2006
Vieques until now
has managed to fly below the radar of the more fashionable crowds,
but its slowly becoming a destination for the same kind of global
trendsetters that discovered St. Barts 20 years ago, said Ross
Klein, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for W
Hotels. This hotel will play a key role in the islands
seeking a low-key place to stay, Vieques offers more than 200 rooms
in guesthouses, inns, small resorts and the contemporary Hix Island
as Vieques is to celebrity status, the island is moving ahead,
given limited funds, high unemployment and few promotion dollars.
There are plans for a new passenger ferry terminal at Mosquito Pier
to replace the overcrowded dock in Isabel Segunda. Theres a
movement afoot to entice small cruise ships to call
surrounding the historic square in Isabel Segunda are being ripped
out and replaced, shops and buildings around the square are getting
a facelift and some of the restaurants are rethinking their menus
to reflect trendier dishes.
After years of
on-again, off-again schedules, American Eagle will launch daily
service from San Juan to Riviera Rodriguez Airport in Vieques on
Dec. 16, using 64-passenger turboprops.
Once the service
starts, passengers will be able to check baggage all the way
through and relax in a new lounge at the Vieques airport. Funding
for the project came from the developers of the W Hotel.
Still, as Vieques
moves ahead on some fronts, it remains a backwater island in many
ways, and many Viequenses hope it remains so.
reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].
details on this article, see "History of Vieques a wide-ranging