Concertina wires still top some of the chain link fences, now hidden by overgrown foliage, in the formerly restricted areas on Vieques.

With their 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. 

Ghostlike 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 years.

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.

That 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 coast.

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 recalled.)

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 island.

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 spend.

Would the departure of the military signal the arrival of tourism and waves of spectators and developers flooding Vieques in the post-Navy era?

Would Vieques 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.

The 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 cleanup.

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 island.

The islands potential as a premier Caribbean destination is more clouded, however.

Will the 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 maybe.

A 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.

Harry 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.

Maria the 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 or plumbers.

Jose interrupted 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 transactions.

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 real estate.

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 Vieques.

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 the cheap.

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.

Tourism figures substantiate the curiosity index for Vieques. Although the method of measuring visitors is primitive, raw data indicate somewhat hearty increases since 2003.

Maria Gonzalez, 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.

Visitors who 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.

Their inquiries 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.

No strip malls

Vieques appears 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 repairs.

During the Navys occupation, the roads were maintained by the military, but now many of them are pockmarked, rutty and and best suited for four-wheel-drive vehicles.

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 development.

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 services.

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 time schedule.

When Connolly 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 meetings.

And the tourists who come to Vieques find it charming.

The Bernards, 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 times.

Picturesque beaches

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.

Although there are very few bad beaches in the Caribbean, two of the very best are on Vieques -- An empty beach in Vieques. TW photo by Gay Nagle MyersRed 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 said.

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.  

The W Vieques-Martineau Bay (the former Wyndham Martineau Bay) is getting a full facelift and signature amenities before its fall 2006 opening.

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 renaissance.

For visitors seeking a low-key place to stay, Vieques offers more than 200 rooms in guesthouses, inns, small resorts and the contemporary Hix Island House.

As unaccustomed 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 regularly.

Streets 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.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see "History of Vieques a wide-ranging book."

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