It's easy to think sometimes that paradise has to be far away in order to be special or magical. Certainly, part of the allure of places like Fiji and Tahiti lies in their remoteness; somehow, the Caribbean feels a bit more hum-drum considering that from the East Coast you can get just about everywhere in less than five hours, and many places by direct flight. Still, there are still off-the-beaten-track gems waiting to be discovered that hold the same sense of wonder. For me, Vieques is one of those gems.
Vieques Island, along with Culebra Island, belongs to Puerto Rico and lies about 8 miles off the eastern shore of the main island. It is either a 90-minute ferry ride from the eastern town of Fajardo, or a 30-minute flight from San Juan. Either way, it feels worlds apart from Puerto Rico; though the main island definitely has its own charms, it has gotten quite built up over the years. Not so in Vieques, where there are only two towns: Isabel Segunda and Esperanza. Neither one has a traffic light. There is only one real "resort" on the entire island- the spectacular W on the north shore, west of Isabel Segunda. As such, time almost seems to stand still in Vieques.
Instead of spending the day sliding down the slides in the resort water park or gambling in the resort casino, you will spend your days discovering the natural beauty of the island, including its many beaches, each more gorgeous than the last. Pictured is Sun Bay Beach on the south coast, which stretches in a perfect semi-circle for nearly a mile. In the evening, bioluminescent organisms (more on this below) wash up in the tide and glow; it almost feels as if the sky couldn't hold any more stars, so the extra ones fell down into the ocean to wash up around your feet. You can also rent kayaks or snorkel gear for your explorations around the island. The U.S. Virgin Islands are visible from the eastern tip of Vieques on a clear day, which should give you an idea of the kind of water and snorkeling you can expect here. You can also mountain bike down Mount Pirata or explore the Vieques Wildlife Refuge (great for birdwatchers!). Other than these pursuits, Vieques is an island where the pace of life kicks into extremely low gear. Bring lots of books, and look forward to enjoying incredible views and leisurely strolls down the Malecon (promenade) in Esperanza. If you're looking for a place to utterly relax and get away from it all, look no further.
The one absolute must-do on Vieques is a visit to the Bioluminescent Bay, the best one in the world. The unique ecosystem created by the bay's mangroves and the exact salinity of the water make the perfect home for microscopic dinoflagellates, which glow upon contact as a defense mechanism. As you go out onto the bay in a kayak or pontoon boat, the tiny organisms will dazzle you with an other-worldly spectacle that's very difficult to describe.
Vieques is especially close to my heart, because i visited it during my very first trip outside of the continental United States, on a school community service trip in 8th grade. After nearly a week of building houses on the main island, we took the ferry over to Vieques and camped for two nights at the campground on Sun Bay. I had simply never, ever seen anything so beautiful in my life, and that experience changed me. I am convinced now that those days on Vieques set me on the path that would ultimately lead me to working in travel today. When I came home, I simply could not stop talking about it, and I vowed one day to go back and take my father with me. I never really thought that would be a possibility. But now, ten years later, I got an opportunity, and I took my dad as a 65th birthday present. I was nervous to go back to Vieques, worried that it might have changed or my memory had somehow altered it; but the island was exactly the same, and every bit as beautiful as I had remembered. Best of all was sharing it with my dad. After all, isn't that what traveling is about? Discovering the beauty and wonder of the world and sharing it with the people you love, that's what it's all about.
Here is the September copy of Latitudes. You can download a PDF copy