The last time I vacationed in the Carribbean, I spent most of the week with my burning cheeks pressed to the cool tile floor of the bathroom in our overpriced hotel. Never found out for sure what I ingested to make me so sick, but here’s what I know. It was wrong. That was 5 years ago and I haven’t been back. Besides, I’m too much of a type A for a beach vacation. I run out of things to do. All that changed when I tore my ACL over Christmas. All of a sudden, sitting on a stretch of white sand, gazing at azure waters and falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves, sounded very, very good. So we headed to The W Retreat and Spa on Vieques, a teeny isle off Puerto Rico. Try as I might to find fault with The W (Why only two drawers? Where were the light switches? How do you drain the bath? And WHERE was the bathroom door?), I couldn’t find a thing really worth kvetching about. The rooms are enormous. The beds are delicious. The views are crazy. Puerto Rican food is yummy. The hotel was full but never felt crowded. The beaches on Vieques are picture perfect: white sand, turquoise water and barely a soul on them. Wild horses wander around like deer in Lyme. It’s a direct flight from Hartford to San Juan and a 20 minute puddle jump to the island. There is nothing to do. And I loved it.
Where to stay:
We stayed at The W because it offered a plentitude of stuff to keep my family happy: bike rental for my husband (he headed out for two hours a day, bringing back a bag of fresh sugar donuts from Panaderia & Reposteria Lydia every morning), a gym for me (to work off said donuts), tennis courts for my daughter, and a handy car rental/sports outfitter on site. It sits on a beach that’s great for sunning but too rough for swimming. The property is lovely, complete with a gorgeous spa and yoga deck, three pools (including a small hidden one, perfect for kiddies), pool bar, two restaurants and a handy cafe for cappucinos, snacks and take out. All this, of course, comes with a price. It’s the only “resort” on the island, and the most expensive. While internet prices are usually lowest, I got a better rate by calling Starwood Hotels directly.
Several friends have stayed in the minimal yet expansive lofts at Hix Island House and have recommended them highly. This is the island’s “green” hotel, offering daily yoga, outdoor showers and a kitchen stocked with breakfast goodies. Perfect for a romantic getaway.
We heard good things about Hacienda Tamarindo, which offers pool-side rooms, suites and a villa overlooking the Carribbean at great prices (singles starting at $125).
For more lodging options and house rentals click here: www.viequestravelguide.com
Where to eat:
We ate lunch mainly at simple local spots known for their Comida Criolla, classic Puerto Rican cuisine. Stop at El Resuelve for skinny grilled chicken filet, tostones and rice and beans. It’s a great place to grab a variety of hot pastelillos (empanadas filled with everything from conch, shrimp and crab to chicken and meat) on the way to the beach. We feasted on Mofongo with Carne Frita for lunch at La Gran Parada. You won’t have room for dinner after this classic Puerto Rican dish of mashed plaintains filled with your choice of meats or fish.
The American style restaurants on the boardwalk in Esperanza are average at best (Duffy’s, Bananas), but we liked the fresh Carribean salads at Bili. The donut bakery, Panaderia & Reposteria Lydia in Isabel II, also offers yummy grilled sandwiches, perfect for a beach picnic. Try the food trucks at the entrance to the beaches on the Wildlife Refuge. Head to the brand new (and hip) Tin Box for great barbecue, wonderful watermelon margaritas and fresh salads from the gardens on property. There are some higher end options for dinner that were recommended to us, but after a day on the beach we were bushed. Most nights we ate at The W, either in the fine dining room, Sorce, or the more casual (sandwiches/salads) Living Room, both overlooking the ocean. El Quenepo and Orchideas (both in Esperanza) came highly recommended.
What to do:
We didn’t do much but….
…the one don’t-miss thing to do on the island is the night-time kayak tour of the bioluminiscent bay, which can be organized through a number of outfitters. We went with Black Beard Sports. They provide kayaks and RT transportation and, if you’re lucky, a clever tour guide.
The beaches! We loved the playas in the Wildlife Refuge and spent all our beach time there at Caracas, La Chiva and Playuela. There are no facilities. Click here for a guide to Vieques beaches.
Rent snorkeling, diving or camping equipment, kayaks, mountain bikes, beach chairs and umbrellas through Black Beard Sports, two locations at The W and in Isabel II.
Hix Island House offers daily yoga classes, open to the public.
Vieques Paddleboarding for SUP tours, rentals and yoga.
The teeny town of Esperanza has a number of bars on the bay and a few have salsa dancing at night.
How to get there: Jet Blue, direct from Hartford to San Juan, connecting 20 minute flight via Cape Air to Vieques Airport.
Good to know: To get to the beaches in the Wildlife Preserve, you need a rental jeep, available onsite at The W and at several car rentals on the island. Good idea to reserve before you go.
A Great Beach Read: The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
The history of Vieques is fascinating. It’s well known that for sixty years the U.S. Navy used the island as a bombing range. After years of protest, the Navy finally pulled out in 2003 and Vieques is still recovering, both ecologically and economically. To find out more, read “Islands of Resistance: Puerto Rico, Vieques and U.S. Policy.”
2015 Update: Just read about El Blok, a new hotel with a restaurant helmed by award-winning chef Jose Enrique, who won Food and Wine’s Best New Chef in 2013 for his San Juan restaurant. I’ll give it a try this trip and report back!
2016 Update: Yes, we keep going back! Restaurants open and close frequently here, so an update is in order:
Sorce, the W’s on site restaurant, was much better than last year, with a new Puerto Rican chef installed and a focus on native dishes.
We always go to Coqui Fire at least once per trip for fresh Mexican and margaritas! It’s teeny and popular, so be sure to reserve ahead. Say YES to the homemade cheesecake.
We love the ambiance at Noche but were somewhat disappointed that sushi is no longer offered. Now, head to their barbecue joint next door, Tin Box, for interesting interpretations (sushi lasagna?).
Tin Box, still a winner for fresh-from-the-backyard arugula and well-priced barbecue. Busy and buzzy.
Pick up hot pastellilos and arepas at El Resuelve on the way to the beach.
Bieke’s Bistro for mofongo.
Strong cafe con leche, homemade donuts, ridiculous chocolate cupcakes and Cuban (and Puerto Rican) grilled sandwiches on fresh bread at Panaderia Lydia. My husband goes for coffee and doughnuts on his bike every. single. day.
Gray’s Magic Coffee, a new cute and hip cafe for cappuccino and croissant (among other breakfasty items!).
El Blok was fantastic last year and absolutely meh this time around.
We hear El Quenepo is still one of the best fine dining spots on the island but have yet to go! Also, Horta’s BBQ is drawing a big crowd. Next year….
tags: puerto rico, caribbean, vacations, getaway, beach, vieques, w hotel