VIEQUES: A BEAUTIFUL DISCOVERY
ELEVEN MONTHS AFTER HURRICANE MARIA RAKED THE LAND AND RUINED THE HOMES AND BUSINESS OF MANY VIEQUENSES, ISLANDERS ARE READY TO WELCOME YOU BACK WITH OPEN ARMS.
By Josh Wolfe
Vieques is 21 miles long and four miles wide. For such a small place, life is happening all over the island. There’s the town of Esperanza, home of El Blok, a fabulous hotel, and the Malecón, the town’s main thoroughfare. Just up the road is the busier Isabel Segunda (also called Isabel II). This is where you will find the thickest cluster of hotels, bars and restaurants.
Everywhere you drive or walk will reveal an assortment of places to sleep and/or eat; like hideouts from the rest of the world. The island itself is virtually a hidden oasis, always offering a sensation like you’re much further from home, the edge of the earth perhaps. It’s not just the landscape or the people or the culture, but all three, that drive the feel of the island into the very bedrock of your soul.
A Great Place to Stay
El Blok is a rotund, cement structure. Its outside built solid as the beast, the comfortable interior is refined as the beauty. Laine (lay-n-ee) Gorman, the hotel’s general manager, will greet you with a smile. Before depositing your bags into your room, you might even enjoy a round of Sahumerios - a rum drink where the glass is first turned upside down and filled with smoke from a burning sprig of rosemary. A cube of iced coconut water with a cinnamon stick is dropped in the glass and covered with Ron Barrilito rum. It’s an elixir guaranteed to perk up the weariest traveler even if your day consisted of an early Uber, three airplanes, one publico and a rental Jeep ride to get there. Worth it.
While it may sound like an orchestra of planes, trains and automobiles to get to Vieques, it was really quite easy. Airfare is cheap to San Juan then you can easily get another flight from SJU to Vieques, which takes about 30 minutes. You can also charter a van to the town of Ceiba to take in the landscape and fly over to Vieques from there. From Ceiba, it’s a seven-minute plane ride and you’re “on island.”
Discovering the Island
The island’s geography arrives in tiers: from above, in the plane, the blue water of the Bahamas; a hilltop curve, driving in our rented Jeep, on Highway 997 spilling its view toward the Atlantic; arriving on the rooftop of El Blok and the full scope of our surroundings, up there the sunset illuminating Vieques’ allure and destruction in a light so soft that beauty prevailed from both. A sign nailed to a tree across the street from El Blok states, “We are stronger than Maria.” Without a doubt.
Esperanza & the Malecón
Just outside El Blok sits a row of shops and restaurants on a string-light-lit street called the Malecón. It’s the place to find good food (both from street vendors and popular establishments), cold drinks in no-frills bars, people watch or just take a quiet stroll. Waves crash against the rocks and a seawall once broken by the storm. The holes in the sidewalk where surges uprooted the concrete are under repair, thanks to enthusiastic local volunteers. But under the lights of the Malecón, these cosmetic details are so minor compared to young men and women zipping by on horses, Mambo dancers undulating to the beat of drums and bongos, the smell of Puerto Rican food or the heft of a cold bottle of beer in your hand. Toothy grins and nods from locals make you feel as if you’re part of Vieques even if it’s your first visit.
You mustn’t miss the opportunity to eat at Bili, the restaurant of legendary chef Eva Bolivar. She was part of a group of chefs and volunteers that prepared and delivered 3.7 million meals after the hurricane. The whole fried red snapper with beans and rice is incredible. Just go easy on the housemade hot sauce.
Drink cold Medallas (the local beer), rum or whatever your flavor at the neighboring bars Duffy’s and Bananas. By the time you get to the island, friendly reader, people have said “it’s my favorite restaurant in the world” when speaking of Kate and Scott Cole’s restaurant El Quenepo. They will reopen in November.
Without a doubt, one of the best meals on the island is dinner at El Blok. Appetizers include Grilled Pulpo, a Peruvian style octopus over causa potatoes with a tumeric, fava bean and chorizo puree; Ceviche, made with an assortment of fish caught that morning; Tostones Sliders, ground beef sliders, Puerto Rican aioli and salad between tostones; and whatever other specials Chef Carlos conjures up. For a main course, The Skirt (steak), angus churrasco, pesto Yuca fries, sauteed vegetables and chimichurri, is something you’ll think about for weeks after. The chef uses a type of mesquite to fuel the wood-fired grill and the flavor it produces exceeds the mellow aroma you smell every time you walk into El Blok.
Folks will talk about the island, the storm, the recovery, when you ask. In their words you’ll hear the power of a communal voice that said “down is not out; we’re in this together.”
You just have to go to find out for yourself; discover the things that don’t exist in words. Once you’ve booked a flight and hotel, let the Internet help pick a few eateries, but use the locals’ knowledge to figure out what is Vieques. Short of leading you by the hand, they’re always willing to answer questions. Because Vieques is ready when you are.