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Destination: Caribbean

Puerto Rico's Little Sister

Only thing missing from tiny Vieques are tourists--\o7 and\f7 it has 42 beaches

September 29, 1996|JOHN HENDERSON | Henderson is a sports writer for the Denver Post

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico — Where I'm sitting, I can't see four people. I'm in the open-air bar of Trade Winds, my $40-a-night guest house, looking across the street at an empty beach on the Caribbean Sea--an hour's boat ride from 4 million people. The sun in a cloudless sky is splashing an ocean so blue and clear I can see coral reefs 10 feet below the surface. As I sip punch made from a superb rum I can't even find in the United States, I see two cars pass in an hour. Only three other rooms are occupied.

Less than 40 miles away to the west, people jam casinos in San Juan. Twenty miles to the east, package tourists are stuck in traffic in St. Thomas. In between, the little island of Vieques stretches 21 miles long and six miles wide. It has 42 beaches--one for every day of the month, plus a few spares, should you encounter another person on a beach and wish for one that is totally deserted. Commercialization in Vieques is a snorkel rental shop where the owner lets you return fins on his sun deck after hours.

"You can't suffer cardiac arrest here," said one local bartender. "There's no such thing as stress."

Vieques (pronounced vee-A-kess) was discovered by Columbus on his second voyage and settled by Taino Indians, who called it Bieques or "small island" in the Arawak language. Today, it's governed by Puerto Rico. But of the 9,000 people on Vieques, about 1,000 are transplanted Americans, "mainlanders," as they call themselves. They're a collection of corporate dropouts, sailing junkies and free spirits.

Ian Hughes is a Brit, who ditched his job as a Chicago steel company executive in 1994 to sail the Caribbean. He charters sailing trips from Bermuda to Trinidad and Tobago, and he anchored his boat off Esperanza, a small village on the southern coast. I met Hughes in Esperanza at Trapper John's, one of the local watering holes. He was with Jan Buelow, his lady friend and first mate, and I asked him, of all the islands in the Caribbean, how Vieques rates.

"It's our favorite place," he said. "It's the only island where I can guarantee an Italian honeymoon couple that we'll be the only boat on four separate bays."

Why? Depends on who you ask. Locals trying to make a buck off the tourist trade blame the Navy. In 1940, the Navy bought two-thirds of the island (about 21,000 acres) for an ammunition storage center and bombing facility. Some feel it's hard to attract hotel entrepreneurs when an F18 is dropping a 2,000-pound bomb. However, with the bombing area extremely restricted, even the locals agree you'd have as good a chance of spotting a tyrannosaurus as you would a live bomb.

The Navy feels that an archaic transportation system is what's holding Vieques back. You can reach the island only two ways: a 75-minute ferry ride or a puddle-jumper plane from San Juan. Whatever the reason, the byproduct is a laid-back, peaceful and inexpensive alternative to the dash, flash and cash that is so often the Caribbean. Charlie Caroline, a local cook, came to Vieques from St. Petersburg, Fla., six years ago and hasn't cut his hair since. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and holding a beer in a coaster reading "We be beaching," Caroline summarized Vieques' appeal.

"There's nowhere to go and nothin' to do," he said, smiling through a thick beard.

Wrong. There's everywhere to go. Try some of the most flawless beaches in the Caribbean.

The Navy is right. Transportation to Vieques and on it isn't much. Publicos, the buses of Puerto Rico's haphazard system, are infrequent on Vieques. But renting a car is cheap, and for $25 a day I had a Jeep to take me all over the island.

You can circle Vieques in an hour, but one of the world's great beaches is a 10-minute walk from Trapper John's. Sun Beach is half a mile long and curved to form a perfect bay. The fine, white sand had no rocks and the palm trees behind me formed a private cove. In 2 1/2 hours, the only people I saw were a Puerto Rican couple who were on my ferry that morning and a strolling teenager. As I waded into the gentle surf, I could see little fish curling around my calves.

"As for snorkeling, nowhere compares to Vieques," said Buelow, who says she has dipped her mask in nearly every bay, cove and channel in the Caribbean. "It's not pretty good. It's fantastic."

And this beach wasn't even the best on Vieques. The next day I drove east along Vieques' magnificent southern coast. I passed gentle green hills with horses and cattle grazing just a Frisbee toss from the ocean. Many of the good beaches are on Navy property, which covers the eastern and western thirds of the island. But getting in didn't require complex espionage. At a crude checkpoint, a Naval officer asked to see my driver's license and waved me on, giving me directions as I hit the gas.

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