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Vieques Villa

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Vintage Vieques

By Jayne Clark, USA TODAY
VIEQUES, Puerto Rico — Travelers smitten with this 21-mile-long island off the coast of Puerto Rico love it as much for what it lacks as for what it has. Absent are malls, stoplights, casinos and golf courses. Only one lodging has full resort amenities, and it hasn't been a raging success.

Newcomers, on the other hand, are wowed by what Vieques does have. Pristine beaches stretch for miles, the sweep of white sand interrupted only by swaying palms and tangles of mangrove. A bioluminescent bay lit by billions of microscopic organisms (and considered one of the finest in the world) delights kayakers on moonless nights. Rural guesthouses offer laid-back hospitality.

Travel writers are fond of proclaiming Vieques "the Caribbean as it used to be," usually with the caveat: Get there fast before it changes.

On the horizon: Faster ferry service to the mainland; a proposal to build a tourist-oriented town; and a W hotel, part of a chain more often associated with hip, urban spots than island idyll, opening in 2008.

The island's locked-in-another-era quality is the result of a twist of fate that is either tragic or fortuitous, depending on your view. The U.S. Navy occupied much of Vieques for 60 years, using the unpopulated eastern end for target practice. After years of protest, the military departed in May 2003, and outsiders flooded in to claim a piece of paradise. Land prices skyrocketed. Now, Viequenses grapple with what the future will bring on an island where protest is second nature and where opposing opinions can collide with hurricane force.

Signs of chic already are creeping into a place once regarded for its laid-back funkiness. The 2-year-old Bravo Beach Hotel, whose minimalist lines were reshaped from a former hacienda house turned motel, sports Frette sheets and iPod docking stations in its nine guest rooms and villa. At Thanksgiving, actor Benicio Del Toro dined on the VIP terrace (certainly the first VIP anything on the island), and its wine-tasting room and sushi bar host a New York clientele that pops over for long weekends. New restaurants serving nouvelle Caribbean cuisine have joined spots dishing out typical rice-and-beans criolla fare.

"There's too much pressure for change not to happen," says Eli Belendez, owner of the Crow's Nest, an inn whose restaurant is a popular local hangout. "But not many communities have the opportunity of planning their growth the way this island does. It's a very vocal process. Community groups are strong because they felt empowered after getting the Navy out."

The island has only two towns — Isabel Segunda on the north coast, home to many of its 12,000 residents — and Esperanza on the south coast, a single strip of tourist-oriented establishments fronting a short seaside promenade. In between, a handful of narrow blacktopped roads are dotted with simple homes and more elaborate guesthouses and villas. The former Navy land — about two-thirds of the island — is now under U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service jurisdiction and is the Caribbean's largest wildlife refuge. On the island's far west side and along its south coast, rutted dirt roads burrow through the brush, ending at some of the Caribbean's most gorgeous — and deserted — beaches.

A new, as yet unapproved, plan calls for building a third town by the old Navy pier, where a new ferry route will shave 45 minutes off the current 1½-hour trip to the Puerto Rican mainland. The island's sole resort, the 156-room Martineau Bay, which already has undergone several ownership and management changes since opening several years ago, will close in April for a $24 million transformation into a W hotel.

But local activists are pushing for small-scale ecologically sustainable development, such as home stays, that involve Viequenses, who view their identity as culturally distinct from Puerto Ricans.

"We just defeated the most powerful military force, the U.S. Navy. Now we're up against the most powerful economic force, U.S. capital," says Robert Rabin, a '60s-style activist who arrived on the island 26 years ago.

He is sitting in his office at Fort Conde de Mirasol, an 1840s fortress on a hill overlooking Isabel Segunda. A wall poster declares, "Don't Sell Vieques." It's a sentiment echoed on handwritten signs posted throughout the rural island.

However, despite those ubiquitous sentiments, the real estate business is booming. Belendez figures prices doubled or tripled after the Navy's departure, though recently they've stabilized.

In Isabel Segunda, a somewhat gritty town that erupts in chaos when the three daily passenger ferries and two cargo ferries disgorge their contents at the town dock, sleek, new restaurants have joined decades-old watering holes. At Roy's Coffee Lounge, an aggressively pink former villa, patrons snack on tamales in an art-filled salon or hunker over their laptops on the palm-fringed wireless-enabled patio.

Owner David West had vacationed here for 12 years before buying a house six years ago and opening the lounge a year ago. "Vieques has grown, but it hasn't changed," he says. "There are more places to eat, but you still see horses and dogs in the streets. In five or six years, you could come back here and we'd be talking about the same things. That's the beauty of the place."

Indeed, horses do still roam free — drivers beware. And Belendez mentions projects — a sports complex, American Eagle jet service — that never came to fruition.

"You see a lot more people coming here, but it's still sleepy. Sometimes I think the island is destined not to change," he says.

There are few so-called tourist attractions on the island. The historic fort has a small museum and art gallery. Navy bunkers dug into hillsides and once used to store munitions rate a drive-by. An evening pilgrimage to Mosquito Bay, the bioluminescent bay filled with phosphorescent dinoflagellates that glow when disturbed, is not to be missed. Fish swimming just under the surface of the bay's dark waters on a moonless night create light trails. The stroke of a kayak paddle produces its own light show and swimmers emerge with water droplets rolling off their skin like fluorescent BBs. Daytime sailing charters deliver cruisers to what Bill Barton, owner of one such business, declares "the prettiest reef anchorage in the entire eastern Caribbean."

He is sitting on the patio of Al's Mar Azul, a bar in Isabel Segunda that draws expats to watch the sunset and maybe indulge in some karaoke. But generally, once the sun sets, the greatest racket comes from roosters, not revelers.

"By 6 p.m. the last flight has gone. The ferry has left. You can't leave," says Rabin Ortiz, general manager of the Martineau Bay Resort. "This is the beauty of a small island. Vieques is about changing pace. If you're coming here with a schedule, stay in New York."

Still, some complain that the island's rural quality is waning. The days of leaving doors unlocked are over, says one resident. Car renters are warned to leave nothing in their vehicles when visiting the beaches. And some are concerned about becoming a tourist playground that profits outsiders more than locals.

"We're worried about the kind of development that doesn't integrate local people," says Ismael Guadalupe, a retired teacher and Vieques native. "We want to show tourists something different from where they came."

Municipal leaders say that's their vision, too. But even residents who believe the Navy's presence wasn't all bad because it prevented a good chunk of the island from being developed, have trepidations.

"When the Navy left, we didn't have the experience to deal with these changes," says Claritza Navarro, a local contractor. "People came. Tourism developed. We're being squeezed out. Vieques is out of our hands."

In reality, most visitors aren't concerned with these issues. Many, like Mitch and Ann Poole of San Diego, are here to relax. Indeed, they found what they were seeking and at the end of a five-day stay declare they'd visit again.

Their 11-year-old daughter, Courtney, is less enamored of the solitude, however.

"She wants a mall," says Ann Poole.

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