36 Hours in Vieques

Originally published in The New York Times on 2/21/10. Read the full text here.

THE mascot of Vieques seems to be the coquí, a tiny frog whose image adorns everything from T-shirts to hot sauce bottles. Yet, given the island’s rapid metamorphosis from Navy testing ground to upscale beach resort, perhaps a tropical butterfly would be better suited. Since the United States Navy ceased military operations in 2003, this small island just off the east coast of mainland Puerto Rico has seen a boom in restaurants, galleries and hotels, including a new W resort expected next month. It’s a testament to the island’s natural beauty, with its white-sand beaches, coral reefs and bioluminescent bay.


4 p.m.

Vieques has spent the last year improving many of its beaches; access to some were in shambles when the Navy left. Red Beach, along a wide-mouthed cove on the island’s warmer Caribbean side, reopened last December, though it has since temporarily closed for road work, and features open-walled wooden cabanas and ample parking. The beach gets a little crowded in the afternoons but in the evenings the crowds are gone, and it has some of the clearest azure blue water on the island — and terrific snorkeling along the eastern end.

7 p.m.

Dinner in the Caribbean should be about three things: local seafood, fresh air and good drinks. The recently opened Cantina La Reina (351 Calle Antonio G. Mellado; 787-741-2700; cantina-lareina.com) in Isabel Segunda has all three. Decorated with Catholic iconography, posters of Mexican revolutionaries and old photos of banditos, La Reina may make you forget what country you’re in — until you take a bite of the fresh catch with mango salsa (market price) or the Baja-style shrimp tacos ($18). The rooftop patio also offers fantastic views. Dinner can be a little slow, like the general pace of life on the island. As the bumper stickers say, “What’s the hurry? You are in Vieques.”

10 p.m.

Another sign of how fast things have changed? A decade ago, the old naval base near Green Beach was home to military bunkers. One of those bunkers was recently transformed into the 10,000-square-foot Club Tumby (Antigua Base Naval, Barrio Mosquito; 787-399-7142; clubtumby.com). The mega-disco, which plays bachata, salsa, bomba, merengue and reggaetón, draws local 20-somethings and visitors almost literally to the middle of nowhere.