Sunday, April 19, 2015

Viva Vieques!

Just about 8 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico, part of what was formerly known as the Spanish Virgin Islands, lies the tiny Isla de Vieques, some 21 miles long and about 4 miles wide.

Part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico today, its history has included occupation by the Spanish in the 16th century, the Scottish (!) in the very late 17th century, the Spanish again in the 19th century, and then the island and all the lands of Puerto Rico were ceded to the United States, at the end of the Spanish American War in 1898.

With the decline of the sugar industry in the 1920s and 1930s, and the onset of WWII, the US Navy bought about two-thirds of the land on Vieques. One of the goals at that time was to provide a safe haven for the British Fleet, should the United Kingdom fall to Nazi Germany.

Thankfully, that did not happen, but the Navy continued its presence, using Vieques for testing bombs, missiles and other weapons.

These actions came to a head with the death of a civilian in 1999. After many protests from both locals and political leaders from the mainland and abroad, the Navy finally withdrew from Vieques in 2003. At this time, the US Government stepped in, began a massive clean-up, and designated much of the island as a National Wildlife Refuge.

All of this preamble helps to explain why today, Isla de Vieques is one of the most unspoilt paradises on earth, with few roads, no traffic lights, endless protected areas, and why the Robbins family chose it as a perfect spot for a family vacation!

We came from the north, east and west, flying into San Juan, then squeezing into little Cessna puddle hoppers for the 20 minute flight to Vieques. Seating is allocated according to your weight. I got lucky and ended up in the co-pilot's seat with great views of the coastline and waters.

Coming in to land, everything seemed perfect, until we kept going and going and going down the runway, barely slowing...

...until we finally stopped inches from the grassy end of the airfield! Somewhat chagrined, the pilot told us we had landed with only the left brake working!

We were soon installed in our rental house, with stunning views over to Puerto Rico...

...lovely gardens full of bright flowers like this epiphyte...
...a beautiful pool, and plenty of room both inside and out for the family to spread out and relax.

 With three adorable little rugrats like these, it didn't take long to get into the swing of things!

The pool being almost the first stop!

But the real beauty of Vieques is the number of spectacular beaches, almost all of them practically empty! White sand, gentle shade from Palm and Mangrove trees, and water that was usually bath tub warm and shallow enough for little ones to splash about safely.

One or two on the north side had a few "waves" that prompted the surfers in our group to rent boards...

...patiently sitting and waiting for that perfect wave...

...catching one or two by the end of the day!

At almost every beach, there were reminders of the former military presence -- a new take on the "3 Rs"!
"Recognize, Retreat, Report"! We got used to these signs and, luckily, found nothing alarming.

The other constant presence on the island were the feral horses (descended, it is said from the Spanish colonizers), this one was near our house, passing by a tsunami warning sign!

Others would be casually strolling down the street as you were driving along!

Still others took their siesta against the wall of an industrial building!

There was never any question as to who had right of way!

There are only two "towns" on the island -- Isabel Segunda on our side (north), a series of one-way streets, restaurants, gift shops, where we shopped for groceries, and Esperanza on the south side. There are no grocery shops in Esperanza, just a few souvenir stands and several restaurants. And a beautiful esplanade -- el malecón -- which took on a magic look as the sun went down.

We spent a lovely evening over here, trying to decide which restaurant we should go to.

We ended up at the new kid on the block: El Blok! With its open air setting, this latest arrival totally lived up to its fame. Chef José Enrique has created a fabulous menu of local and fresh produce and fish. The ceviche was so good we ordered two more servings!

Speaking of delicious food, there are also several food truck/stalls around the island. "Sol Food" stands by the entrance to the biological preserve, from where many of the best beaches are accessed. A quick stop, and we ordered carnitos and other Puerto Rican goodies, cooked fresh, and enjoyed on whichever heavenly beach we were spending the day.

Other choices included "pinchos", kebab chicken sticks with a magic sauce from these friendly folk...

...and, almost our favorite, the lovely "chicken lady" who had dozens of chickens roasting on a spit, chopped them up with a serious machete and sold them to us for $10.70 each!

In the larger "town"  of Isabel II, an imposing City Hall looks onto a central square...

 ... whilst other "official" buildings are painted in bright, tropical colors.

This private home certainly caught our eye, and we wondered if it got a "do over" for every season!

One thing that never changed was the sight -- no matter what time of the day we drove by -- of these three gents, sitting back in their chairs, watching the world go by!

Down at the southern end of the island, this magnificent, 300 year-old Ceiba tree stands regally on a large green expanse. Imagine all it has witnessed over such a long period of time, what secrets it holds!

For us, it was all about the beaches. Pata Prieta  was a favorite and, again, we had it almost to ourselves.

Here, a little mermaid seemed to have washed ashore and was very pleased with herself!

Her baby sister and cousin found it all pretty funny!

At Media Luna beach (Half Moon Bay!), there was no stopping most of us from wading in...

...except for Matthew, who took many of these photos, and made nice watercolors from the shade of a palm tree.

I guess, in a way, we should thank the US Navy for staying so long, because in today's eco friendly mindset, there is a strong desire to keep Vieques unspoilt and undeveloped. Tourism is flourishing, but there seem to be no big chain hotels on the horizon, and there is a strong sense of the importance of restoring and protecting the landscape, both on the island itself and in the waters surrounding it. Certainly the Robbins family hopes they succeed. We would love to come back one day and find it just the way it was this year. "Heaven on Earth"!

À bientôt!