The Best of Vieques, Puerto Rico
Best All-Around Beach: Sun Bay Beach
Follow the crowd to Sun Bay, one of 3 public beaches on Vieques. The palm-tree-fringed and crescent-shaped stretch of sand has all the facilities you need for a family fun day at the beach, with parking, bathrooms, showers and the Arenemar Café serving up tasty fish tacos and delivering frosty drinks to your beach towel. The less populated left side is the perfect place to hoist your hammock. Sun Bay is also the gateway to shallow Media Luna Beach and surfer-friendly Navio Beach, local favorites.
Best Beach for Solitude: Blue Beach
The US Navy gave the beaches in Vieques designated colors, but the Spanish name for this one is La Chiva. Drive down a gravel road deep into the national wildlife refuge, and turn into one of the 21 numbered pull-offs to find a little piece of beach all to yourself. The most ballyhooed spot is No. 10, a small cove with shallow, crystalline water overlooking a lush green cay. But really, any spot on Blue Beach is breathtaking. The higher-numbered spots offer tree-shaded alcoves and huts for grilling.
Best Snorkeling: Mosquito Pier
Starfish, stingrays, sea turtles and the occasional manatee hang out at the end of the mile-long abandoned pier in Vieques, a former port for ferries off Route 200, past a 300-year-old ceiba tree. Black Beard Sports leads snorkeling and diving trips here, while casual snorkelers swim off nearby rocky shores to see the schools of tropical fish that linger, too. If you are more of a casual fisherman, join the locals who leave fishing lines dangling off the pier while they chat over cold beers.
Best Water Adventure: Bioluminescent Bay
No trip to Vieques is complete without a stop at magical Mosquito Bay, also known as the Bioluminescent Bay. What makes the bay bioluminescent? Microscopic organisms called Pyrodinium bahamense, which generate a phosphorus blue glow when agitated. Practically invisible to the naked eye without their brilliance, they dominate the bay, making it the brightest in the world. Island Adventures arranges informative tours aboard an electric pontoon boat, with guides who tell the full story of the mangroves, from a truly stellar show of constellations in the sky to the sparkly light show in the water below. Note the lunar calendar and go when the skies are darkest.
Best Budget Hotel: Bravo Beach Hotel
Nestled in a neighborhood in Isabel Segunda, the largest town on Vieques, Bravo Beach Hotel offers unreal views of the northern Atlantic coast, where blue skies seem to blend with equally blue sea. Modern rooms in a Spanish hacienda setting have private balconies from which to take in the scene. Start your day with a small continental breakfast by the pool as you enjoy the best vantage point and the sound of crashing waves. There’s a well-manicured courtyard with another pool for lounging, and the hotel provides chairs and coolers for your beach adventures, gratis. Walk into town for several tasty dining options, waterfront bars and shops.
Best Green Luxury Hotel: Hix Island House
The drive to Hix Island House, under a dense canopy of trees and hanging vines, sets the scene for the concrete structures that rise organically from the verdant landscape. You almost stumble upon the inn on this tree-covered hillside, and celebrated architect John Hix meant it to be that way. The rooms invite you to commune with the romantic environment, thanks to broad open windows and outdoor showers. Solar panels provide electricity, heat the water and even power the pump that cleans the spectacular pool, which has a panoramic view of the trees and Caribbean beyond. Pack your yoga pants for daily morning classes overlooking a rolling green lawn. Namaste.
Best Hip Hotel: El Blok
All the cool kids are going to El Blok on Esperanza’s main drag. Who wouldn’t want to be seen seated along its sleek, sustainable bar sipping a peppery Gin Gin — a ginger and gin concoction created by a talented staff? You see, El Blok is the brainchild of José Enrique, a Puerto Rican chef who was nominated for a James Beard Award, and Simon Baeyertz, a former music executive from New Zealand. Together, they’ve created a place where you want to sample an inventive and changing menu of locally sourced and urban-foraged foods and sleep in an artful, LEED-certified space that recycles rain to serve as a natural water feature inside the restaurant and bar. To top it all off, the rooftop has 360-degree views of Vieques, showing off the best of Sun Bay and Esperanza.
Best Guesthouse: Hector’s by the Sea
It may be tough to get a bed at Hector’s by the Sea in Vieques — the guesthouse has only 3 cottages that sleep up to 10 people total — but it’s worth the effort. Its prime location on a lovely grassy expanse overlooking the sand-trimmed Caribbean is, in a word, stunning. It’s also cozy, mostly because of hosts Hector and Mary Matos, not to mention the small stable of horses on the property. Finally, it’s 1 mile from Esperanza’s strip of restaurants and bars on the Malecon. If you aren’t lucky enough to stay here, look for Aguacate’s catered dinners on the property, offered a couple of days a week.
Best Casual Fine Dining: El Quenepo
Mofongo is uniquely Puerto Rican. The dish, made of mashed green plantain, yucca and garlic, is a starchy staple of island cuisine, often topped with pork, beef or seafood. El Quenepo’s version turns it on its head, substituting a crispy, golden vessel of breadfruit and calabash filled with a seafood creole of lobster and poached shrimp in a zesty red sauce. It’s beautifully prepared and presented, and it tastes divine. The Esperanza restaurant with a facade open to the sea also delivers a deliciously fresh ceviche. A reservation here is a must.
Best Rooftop Dining: Cafe Mamasonga
Colorfully Caribbean, Cafe Mamasonga in Isabel Segunda serves simple, tasty food, such as a flavorful blackened fish with garlicky mashed potatoes, coconut shrimp and crab cakes. Gravitate to the bar or a table close to the street, and order a fresh mango daiquiri to match the sunset you are about to see. Instead of toasting with a local barfly, you might find yourself in the company of an iguana or 2, as they take up residence in a nearby tree. Bring cash to this casual establishment.
Best Sushi: Noche
Restaurants are pushing the culinary boundaries of this pretty little island, and Noche is no different. The intimate restaurant and sushi bar serves inspired dishes, such as sushi lasagna, which may raise eyebrows but pleases the taste buds with layers of scallops, crab, lobster and cream cheese rolled together, topped with more cheese and baked. Genius. The drinks are equally innovative, including the watermelon Manhattan and the cucumber basil ’rita. Despite its out-of-the-way location, this place gets packed, so make that reservation.
Best Art Shop: Siddhia Hutchinson Fine Art Gallery
Vieques provides a never-ending source of inspiration for artists on the island. You can see their work on display at the Siddhia Hutchinson Fine Art Gallery in Isabel Segunda, including the work of the owner herself. Paintings of palm trees and island living share space with clay masks and the whimsical folk art dolls of an 80-year-old Old San Juan artist named Lilly Valez. You are sure to find something unique, from scarves and bags to wall-spanning statement pieces, at this gallery, which sells the work of a collective of artists and specializes in Third World fair-trade items.
Best Boutique: Funky Beehive
Feel free to pack light and pick up an easy, breezy maxi dress and sun hat for your Vieques getaway at the Funky Beehive in Isabel Segunda. Or take home an original trinket, such as the translucent blue and green sea glass jewelry of local Myrna Renkert. There’s art here, too, including little driftwood boats of found materials by Sandra Mudd. The eclectic storefront has a vintage feel, displaying wares on antique furniture, old typewriters and albums.
Best Place With a View: Fort Count Mirasol Museum
Just beyond Isabel Segunda’s large plaza, wind your way up Calle El Fuerte and past tail-flicking wild horses to the old Fort Count Mirasol, which dates back to 1845 and was restored in 1991. Originally a Spanish military fort turned jail for rebellious slaves and Puerto Ricans seeking independence from Spain, the site is now a gallery space, showcasing modern Puerto Rican art and ancient island artifacts, along with amazing views of Vieques. Every spot from the top of this hillside is camera-ready, but the stone doorway, lined with coral roses and opening to the Caribbean Sea beyond, is particularly photo-worthy.